Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Adventure Is Not Free

It's inevitable that, if you climb, ski, paddle, adventure in the outdoors in any physical way, that you will get spanked, at least once, and, most likely, multiple times. The degree and frequency of spankings may diminish as you gain more experience, but, the unpredictable nature of the environment in which outdoor adventurers recreate means that it's not if you'll be spanked, but when. 

The night before we were to set off on our first multi-day (first in any sense) sea kayak trip in Tasmania (we were planning to circumnavigate Macquarie Harbour and detour up the iconic Gordon River, site of Australia's most famous environmental dispute - the planned Franklin below Gordon Dam), I dreamt I was trying to buy food in one store after another as we got hungrier and hungrier. The meaning of the dream is obvious, at least to me, as I was a bit nervous about our first multi-day sea kayak trip in Tasmania. How cold, wet, miserable, windy and rough would the trip be, and could I deal with such conditions for a full eight days? This is Tasmania, not Queensland, the water is cold, the weather more often bad than good, unpredictable, changeable, windy and wet. 

It was only about 7.15 am when we arrived in Strahan and immediately found a good sandy beach to launch from and a parking place for the caravan right near the police station (bonus). Even an hour after dawn, a headwind was blowing, and, over the next two hours the wind only increased in intensity. Unloading the car and boats, filling up water containers, walking two kilometres down to the store to buy two critical items (coffee and a lighter) which we had forgotten, stuffing the boats full to the brim with eight days of food and water, and, having a very quick breakfast, meant it was 10.30 am when we launched the boats off the beach and headed out into a freshening head wind.

We were launching from a site deep in Long Bay and, the first headland we would reach to the south, Bouy Point, is about 2.5 km from the beach. With heavily loaded boats, we are lucky to paddle at 4 to 5 km (no wind assist), so, into a 20 knot headwind, we would be lucky to paddle at 2 km per hour (1 knot). And that is about what we did, plowing heavily south. I was slower (I'm always slower) than Doug as I have narrower paddle blades and I was struggling not to lag too far behind. 

In the sheltered harbour at Strahan

Approaching Bouy Point, we could see a line of reefs breaking half a kilometre off shore and a navigation marker flagging safe passage around to the east. We turned to paddle around these breaks which necessitated paddling at about a 45 degree angle into the wind. I really struggled to do this with any degree of effectiveness. My rudder was on full to starboard, but, I was moving so slowly it did not seem to help, and my bow (I realise now I had packed the bow too light) was getting blown constantly to port (weather-cocking). It would take me about 10 paddle strokes on the left to get the bow pointed back windward, so my progress became infinitesimally slow as I was blown north at almost the same speed that I could paddle southeast. Pulling grimly into the wind, I started thinking of all that we had done to get to this place - searching the internet for trip reports, studying maps and charts, plotting campsites, buying and packing food, carrying loads of gear up and down the beach, and now, plugging into an impervious wind with gritted teeth - "adventure" I thought, "is definitely not free." 

It's always complicated (almost impossible) to have any kind of discussion about what you should do in these conditions as the wind whips sound away and, obviously, you can't stop paddling or you'll be blown backwards over hard won distance. Skiing, hiking, climbing (even technical climbing) is much easier to manage as you can pretty much always stop somewhere (relatively) safe and assess your options. Out in a sea kayak, in a strong wind, and no such options exist. 

Somehow we did manage to agree on our plan B which was to paddle the northerly shore of Macquarie Harbour instead of crossing immediately to the south shore, so we turned the boats to the east and started paddling towards the far eastern shore of Lettes Bay. This was not much less of a struggle than before. Paddling broadside, I could actually make some progress, but, broadside to the sea and wind, I was getting blown far to the north and was in danger of hitting Dead Horse Point. For a while, I tried ferry gliding, pointing the boat at about 70 degrees to windward and paddling straight ahead. I was moving, but, so, so slowly, and I was constantly fighting to keep the bow from pointing down-wind. 

As far as we knew, the first place we could hope to camp was about 13 km from Strahan, if it were possible to paddle a direct route. Allowing for being blown off course, we could only hope to reach Sophia Point (the campsite) after 16 km of paddling. At 2 km an hour, we might make it in 8 hours! Clearly, even plan B was not going to work. A bit more shouting at one another, and we decided to paddle back into Strahan.
I hated doing this. I hate turning around, it makes me feel as if I have either been beaten or failed, or perhaps both. Heading downwind, we started riding the waves back in, and, suddenly, we were moving fast and effortlessly. I stripped my sail down to two-thirds size, let it up, and sailed on the wave tops into the beach. In two hours, we had covered less than 6 km. 

And here is where we made our next mistake (my first mistake was putting too much light gear in the bow), we decided to pull out for the day, try to get an updated weather forecast and, hopefully, launch again the following day. In our defence, it is unusual for the wind to decrease much during the day; usually it will just keep on building. But, in hindsight, what we should have done is continued on to find a place to land in Lettes Bay and waited for an hour or so to see what would happen. 

As it turns out, the wind decreased, and we could have continued on. Pulling out, we lost another two hours as we paddled back to where we had launched, unpacked, went off for a weather forecast, and then discovered, to our chagrin, that the wind was actually abating. But, it was 3.00 pm before conditions became manageable, neither of us had eaten in the last 7 hours, and we had, were we to repack and continue, another 5 to 6 hours to paddle (if nothing else went wrong) and no hope of launching again before 4.00 pm. Not for the first time, we had been soundly spanked.

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