Robin Tivy, master raconteur, tells a comic tale about an extended canoe trip in poor weather, during which the party was stuck for multiple days, until finally, Ralph berated the guides (Robin was one) for not getting the group moving and, was known forever afterwards as "Ralph of The Alternate Plan" - the capitalization is deliberate, and the relevance should soon become obvious.
The day after we returned from our Gloucester Islands trip, while still feeling some post-trip fatigue, we began planning our next kayak trip (such is the nature of adventurers). The weather forecast, while typical for this time of year (southeast winds to 20 knots with scattered showers) together with three metre tides in the main Whitsunday group, and the confusion of eddies, overfalls, whirlpools, tidal rips and "unsafe passages" marked on the nautical chart has convinced us that this next trip will not be as benign as the last.
Doug in a wave trough on the east side of Gloucester Island
Heeding the message of "Ralph of The Alternate Plan" I spent hours studying the chart, the tides, and the beach access to come up with a circle route that minimises our exposure to all the many and varied hazards of the trip. Climbers would think of this as mitigating objective hazards. Even though our Hinchinbrook Island adventure was almost a year ago, the lessons learned are still freshly imprinted on us. We have another year of paddling experience which has included many long crossings, some rough water, and some small surf but, we still question our ability to handle big standing waves, eddies, overfalls, and all the rough water that accompanies strong tidal currents, complex geography, and 20 knot winds.
Sunrise on the water
In truth, I don't have an alternate plan. I have planned a route that takes us in a counter-clockwise loop around Hook Island. If things go according to schedule, we should cross the major channels when the wind and tide are running together (wind against tide creates larger standing waves), and we should pass the most exposed points at slack tide. There are so many nautical hazards in the Whitsunday Islands, however, that it is impossible to plan a trip that tackles every hazard at slack tide so there are many places where we will simply have to "get up against it" and see how it goes. The problem with sea kayaking is that retreat is not always an easy or even viable option. Travel in these small but elegant craft, can make you feel infinitesimally small and vulnerable. Imagine multi-pitch climbing with a bouldering pad instead of a rack and rope and you capture some of the spirit of sea kayaking.