Driving to Cookies Beach in Beagle Bay I have the familiar knot in my stomach that I always get before climbing and kayaking trips. Inspirational instragrammers are always banging on about "moving beyond your comfort zone" but I always wonder if they realize that asking the barista to hold the soy on your Venti Soy Quadruple Shot Latte does not actually entail much in the way of consequences should things go wrong. Certainly nothing near the consequences of a sea kayak trip gone awry or zippering all your gear on some horrendously run-out sandbagged Aussie rock climb. But, when we arrive, although the horizon is a bit bumpy, there is no wind, and, it looks like our trip from Cookies Beach to Kioloa should be pretty benign.
Soon, our companions arrive. Paul and Mark, veterans of way too many audacious sea kayak trips, and John, whose wife thinks he is flat-water paddling not going out on the ocean. Kayaks are unloaded, gear is stuffed into hatches, and the car shuttle plans are firmed up. I head off with the boys to leave all but one car at the Kioloa while Doug amuses himself by test paddling all the different kayaks left at Cookies Beach.
On the way back, talk turns, as it always does, to other kayak trips. Paul began regaling us with stories of the Chaos paddlers. A splinter group of the NSWSKC who met every Friday night for a weekend of sea kayaking debauchery regardless of weather or conditions. Kayaks were routinely smashed upon the rocks in rugged isolated bays necessitating long walks to civilisation, boats and bodies were battered in five metre surf trying to leave beaches in the morning or land at night after 50 km long paddle days, many unsuspecting fellows had their first and last sea kayak experience, and, on one occasion, one poor fellow lost his thumb after a particularly trying battle of surf versus kayak in an remote and storm swept bay. In true understated Aussie style, all of these epics were barely worth mentioning and considered "an easy day out for a lady." I admit, the knot in my stomach grew a little.
Back at Cookies Beach, Doug had been fending off various fishermen in power boats returning from early morning fishing trips who declared the ocean "rough as guts" and questioned our intelligence in heading off in such small craft. Such warnings are common-place from power-boaters who seem to consider any sea condition other than as glassily flat as an indoor swimming pool cause to stay ashore and we have learnt to ignore them completely.
I was anxious to get going, not just to get away from more tales of kayaking terror, but also to get a head start as I knew I would be at the back all day fighting to keep pace with the group. It was easy paddling north to Point Upright where the sandstone cliffs are threatening to become horizontal and the sea became lumpy after the previous days southerly change.
Just north of Point Upright is Grasshopper Island, the first of several small islands along this section of coast. Half the fun of sea kayaking is weaving in and out of rocks, islets, and islands so Paul, Doug and I paddled through the narrow gap between the island and the shore, a passage which was not difficult if you avoided larger sets of waves. Inexplicably, Mark and Jon were last seen paddling out to sea around Grasshopper Island.
On the north side of Grasshopper Island, the sea was calm for a short distance until we paddled back out into the swell and sea. We expected to see Mark and Jon turning back in to shore but no kayaks were visible. "Should we wait?" I asked Paul, the most experienced paddler on the trip. In true Chaos fashion, he replied "F**k no." And, so we paddled on. Halfway to Pebbly Beach, however, he had a change of heart and actually seemed quite worried, and headed swiftly back to Grasshopper Island to look for the missing paddlers. Doug and I followed slowly behind. I had been quite chuffed that we had taken the shorter inside route by Grasshopper Island as I thought it would allow me to keep closer pace with the rest of the group, now my lead was rapidly disappearing.
We all bobbed about on the lumpy sea for a while scanning the horizon for the other paddlers, but, in these sea conditions it would be hard to spot two small kayaks. Paul raised his paddle vertically above his kayak in an impressive display of stability I would not have attempted which, apparently, means come to me, but no-one came. Doug and I rafted up and called Jon on his mobile phone, an exercise in futility as he is half deaf and cannot hear his phone ring when it is stowed away in his kayak. We left a rather odd message "We are north of Grasshopper Island, where are you?" Paul came back, and, with some difficulty we extracted his phone from his front hatch, buried beneath mounds of other gear, and telephone Mark leaving a similar message. I was feeling vertiginous from staring out to sea over the heaving horizon looking for kayaks.
Finally, there seemed nothing for it but to continue on hoping to rendezvous with the missing paddlers in the little cove we had previously discussed landing in for morning tea. We rounded Clear Point and paddled straight past the cove that Jon and Mark would later land in. Despite having a map on my deck, my sense of scale was way off and I thought we still had an hour or more to paddle before we reached the series of three small coves which we thought would provide landing spots. While Paul felt we were paddling achingly slowly, I thought we were going terrifically fast.
Paul actually knows this coastline very well as there used to be regular Easter kayaking trips from Batemans Bay north to camp in these secluded coves where, even over the busy holiday periods, kayakers could be certain of solitary camps as there is no infernal combustion access. We looked in the last of the three small coves on the way by and landing today would have been treacherous. No doubt the Chaos paddlers would have loved it, but, the swell smashing on rocks at the head of the bay looked perilous.
Further north, we looked at landing on the beach near the O'Hara Islands, but, after hanging off shore for a short time the large dumping swell turned both Doug and I off this plan. We were now less than five kilometres from Kioloa so there was not much pressure to land. At Snapper Point, layered sandstone cliffs caused rebound and clapotis and we bumped past several fishermen perched on the sloping rock shelf. I wondered what they thought of us as we paddled past, bouncing around in the waves with only centimetres of freeboard between us and the ocean. Even Merry Beach was not very sheltered from the swell and waves were washing far up onto the beach.
Rounding O'Hara Head, Paul called me further off-shore as he thought I had got dangerously close to a shelving reef which broke frequently. We paddled in past Belowla Island and pulled onto the beach at Kioloa dismayed to note that Jon and Mark had not arrived. Mobile phones were pulled out again to try to re-establish contact and we discovered that Paul had a message from Mark indicating they were having a rest in a small cove and would continue north. A couple of text messages went back and forth, the last "I hope you are enjoying this Chaos paddle."
Doug and I took Paul's Mirage 530 out for a spin, finding it much lighter and more stable than our boats although the reversed foot pegs for the rudder were a bit confusing. The talk turned, as it does, from desperate kayak trips to gear, and, while Doug and Paul debated paddle length and style, hull design, and various other intricacies of kayak design, I packed away the kayak gear. Gear talk always seems to interest men more than women.
Mark and Jon arrived shortly after. It turns out they had not paddled north of Grasshopper Island but, after heading out to sea to give the island a wide berth and realising we were not with them, they had gone back to look for us near Point Upright, eventually continuing north, landing for morning tea in the second cove, wondering where we were, getting our message, leaving us a message, continuing north, and finally arriving. It was not Chaos, merely confusion.
Looking out to Wasp Head from Cookies Beach