Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Into The Wild: Lawrence Rocks and Point Danger

Sometimes when I slip into my sea kayak, the whole experience feels like coming home at the end of a long day, kicking off my tight shoes, and sliding my aching feet into a pair of comfortable slippers - everything just feels right. The boat rocks under me, but my hips are loose and automatically I lean this way or that, the boat steadies, and all is well. Other times, the boat feels foreign, it rocks and cants, yawing from side to side, and I catch myself leaning crazily from side to side, hoping that I won't be spilled unceremoniously into the water, and cursing the poor primary stability of my kayak. 

The day we paddled from Pivot Beach out to Lawrence Rocks near Portland, was one of the latter. Lawrence Rocks are a cluster of wave battered rocks in the Southern Ocean lying about two kilometres southeast of Point Danger and home to a large colony of Gannets. Isolated rocks such as these will always garner the attention of sea kayakers, much as splitter cracks in a granite wall attract rock climbers. There is just something overwhelmingly alluring about paddling across the ocean to a small cluster of rocks, just as hand-jamming your way up a granite wall is incredibly satisfying.

 Lawrence Rocks from Danger Point

As soon as I saw the rocks on the nautical chart I wanted to paddle out. Doug and I don't get much time paddling in big ocean swells, and, although a two kilometre crossing is short, particularly after some of our long (18 km) Queensland crossings, paddling in the cold Southern Ocean is way more serious than paddling in the warm, reef protected waters of Northern Queensland. But, we were lucky, the weather forecast was for only 15 knot winds (a light breeze here in Windtoria) with a two metre southwest swell. We would have some protection from the swell for the first four kilometres until we approached Point Danger. 

One of my best single day trips kayaking in Australia was a 22 km trip from the sheltered Dolans Bay in Port Hacking north along Cronulla's surf beaches to the tiny protected Boat Harbour. We had even milder conditions for that trip with five knot winds and a half metre swell. Paddling out on the open blue waters of Tasman Sea was simply superb. Paddling out to Lawrence Rocks was just as much fun, but a bit more difficult, and thus more satisfying. 

 Ready to launch from Pivot Beach

We launched from a little beach (Pivot Beach) about 4 km (one hour) north of Point Danger and ambled along towards Point Danger enjoying the wonderful sensation of floating over kelp beds in the clear aquamarine water. Point Danger was breaking well out so we turned off to Lawrence Rocks before and, in a gradually rising swell, paddled out towards the rocks keeping a careful eye on the breaking swells. We paddled, and we paddled, and we paddled. We did inch closer to Lawrence Rocks, but, for every stroke closer to Lawrence Rocks we seemed to move an equal number of strokes closer to the breaking swells. A current was dragging us west at a similar speed to that at which we were paddling. 

This is the rub of sea kayaking in general and particularly in Australia. Nautical charts in Australia seldom show current direction or strength yet a two to three knot opposing current will stop just about any kayaker dead. Kayaks also sit so low in the water that seeing exactly where swells are breaking and where the clear passage is can be very difficult. We did edge closer to Lawrence Rocks, and were probably 75% of the way there, but, the whole scenario was becoming strangely reminiscent of our circumnavigation of Hook Island that started with us being dragged south to the tidal rips off South Molle Island. Doug noted that there appeared to be a small passage between the breakers that stretched between Point Danger and Lawrence Rocks, but navigating through with the strong current running seemed beyond our skill level. 

 On the sheltered clear waters near Pivot Beach

Interestingly, I came across a report from an experienced sea kayaker on the paddling opportunities around Portland and he notes that "the SW swell wraps around Cape Grant and accelerates towards Black Nose, where it hits a series of shallow reefs and bommies which gives rise to some breaking waves." He further notes that "there is a channel through it all" although the current can run at up to four knots. 

We turned around, and, as the swells rose in front of us and our kayaks bounced in the current I got horribly sea-sick. The kind of sea sickness that is accompanied by vertigo and dizziness. I instantly began sweating prolifically as my head swirled about. Doug suggested rafting up, but I did not want to get dragged any further west, so I fixed my eyes on the relatively still horizon and paddled forward. In lots of ways, sea kayaking is not that different to trad climbing. When you are trad climbing you have to relax onto small holds in a position of balance, find the right piece of gear, slot it into position, clip your draw, clip your rope, and only then can you move again. Sea kayaking you need to relax into the boat, find your balance point and keep moving forward.
Gradually, we pulled out of the current and into the more sheltered waters closer to the coast. Rafting up, I took my paddle jacket off which was soaked with sweat, and we both breathed a little easier. 

Inside the sheltered waters north of 
Blacknose Point, Lawrence Rocks behind

Doug was probably ready to give up, but I was not. It seems to me that if there is something you really want to do in life, you'll most likely do it, no matter what. I really wanted to paddle out to those rocks, and the weather and sea state would never be better than it was. I had an idea that we should have paddled out from Blacknose Point keeping well to the east of the rocks. Ironically enough, the paddling notes I found later (referenced above) indicated that this was the best tactic to reach Lawrence Rocks. 

So back out we went, heading more of less southeast and keeping Lawrence Rocks well off to our starboard side. It's about four kilometres out to Lawrence Rocks from Blacknose Point, and we were now paddling into a 12 knot wind and the rising swell so it took us about an hour to get close. The closer we got, the more we had to aim off to the east as we were still getting dragged west, but, gradually we closed in on the rocks, and were thrilled to watch the gannets flying around the flat topped rocks. In the eastern lee of the rocks, I was even able to take my hands of the paddle to snap a few pictures. 

 Into the wild

Feeling happy and satisfied, we turned around, and began the paddle back. I immediately felt the old queasy sea-sickness as the swells rolled forward before me, but, I now knew how to deal with it. The kayaks, of course, suddenly felt quirkily unstable as we had both a following swell and sea, and our flat bottomed rockered kayaks seem to require constant weight adjustments to maintain stability and avoid broaching on a following sea.
We arrived back at Pivot Beach with almost perfect conditions for riding the now small swell straight into the beach. Looking south towards Point Danger, the sea was now white-capped extensively. We had paddled about 22 km, pushed ourselves just the right amount, learnt something about yourselves and the sea, and felt that small glow of satisfaction you feel when you have faced your fears. 

Sometimes we are tempted to practice the small skills endlessly in preparation for tackling the bigger objectives, but somehow the bigger objectives never come. We stick to short, safe climbs instead of heading out to climb longer routes in the mountains, we stay on the groomed ski runs instead of skiing the backcountry, we paddle only in protected waters instead of venturing out into the open ocean. We tell ourselves that we just need to ski, climb, or paddle a little better before we can realize our dreams. It's a myth. At some point, your skills are good enough, maybe not perfect - they will never be perfect - but they are good enough to move beyond the arbitrary boundaries you have embraced. It is time to move into the wild. 

 In the lee of Lawrence Rocks

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