Losing rudder in a big Sydney swell
Updated: Aug 13
The end of July east coast low was almost a repeat of the one from two weeks earlier. Gale force winds and 5 metre swells, including sizable easterly swells that battered the Sydney coastline. The South Coast experienced 10-metre swells during the same period. In mid-July, it was the coast of Wamberal, north of Sydney, making headlines as massive seas brought destruction that threatened houses along the beach. In late July, similar scenes unfolded at Narrabeen on the Sydney coast.
Tuesday, 28 July was the last day of strong conditions. The forecast for our evening paddle was 30-knot winds and 3 to 5 metre swells, mostly from the south. The forecast eased closer to launch, with coastal swell predicted at 2 to 3 metres. Five paddlers launched from Watsons Bay, aiming to head south into the solid wind and swell. Our plan, devised by Rob Mercer, was to punch upwind until we reached ‘The Gap’. Then we would turn for a down-winder and make the return longer by crossing the heads to North Harbour. By then, the forecast was for the wind to be dropping, so the final return to South Head and Watsons Bay would hopefully be less of a slog.
The waves breaking at South Head were large and long, extending well into the Harbour. We gave this a very wide berth before turning south. We fought into the large southerly swell and increasing wind strength. The cliffs along this stretch of coast provide some shelter from the southerly, but not for long. Exposure increases as you progress south. This was one of the bigger days I have encountered outside the Heads. There was also a moderate easterly swell running, so we had plenty of lively water. The swell occasionally presented big and steep sets. At one stage, with Rob directly in front, I watched him climb the face of a wave until he looked to be almost vertical. He went over, and as I followed it broke, blasting me with white spray. Then my boat fell over the back and landed with a slap as I used the back of my paddle blade to prevent a capsize. Rob captured these moments on his 360-degree camera.
Our progress was surprisingly good. It seemed we had a northerly current helping to push us into the southerly onslaught. We reached The Gap with plenty of petrol left in the tank, so decided to push on. The sea became much bouncier. We had two-direction swell, then solid rebound off the cliffs the further south we went. With water moving from various directions it was like paddling in a washing machine. This was not the time to relax and explore the scenery. We made it all the way to a location east of Diamond Bay, around 6km south. The current had really helped. That was where we turned to ride the southerly home.
We had plenty of wind and big swell to push us back toward the harbour. But catching long runs was harder than usual. The current was now working against us. It was a thrilling ride, nonetheless. The quickest runs were close to the cliffs, where the rebound created shorter-period waves. We regrouped at South Head and set our course toward North Harbour.
It was at about the three-quarter point of the crossing when a wave turned me sideways, and then over. That took me by surprise. It was sizable, but nothing like what we had left behind down the coast. I tried to roll up and didn’t quite make it. Hmmm. I tried again, and the next attempt was less successful. I pulled my skirt back and slid out for air. Paul Edwards was already heading back to help. It wouldn’t be the first time he has got me out of the drink. So I reckoned I owed him an easier job this time. I opted for a ‘re-entry and roll’, where you enter the kayak cockpit upside-down, then roll up. This went to plan on the first attempt, saving Paul half of his physical effort. He was still happy to raft up and make sure I didn’t capsize while draining the cockpit and re-fitting my spray-skirt. We soon pushed apart to resume our journey.
I immediately realised something wasn’t right. I had no directional control, and the kayak wanted to go left. I tried to edge and correct, but with little effect. With the wind and wave action behind, going straight wasn’t an option. I asked Paul to check my rudder, and he found the problem. The cable on the right side was no longer connected. It must have dislodged immediately before I turned over. The fault, in technical terms (with my SmartTrack rudder), was that the Clevis pin had dislodged from the cable housing (CRW) into the rudder tiller plate. An unusual fault. I locked my rudder into the up position and limped onward to the harbour, then into the shelter of Quarantine Bay.
A cable tie supplied by Paul had me quickly underway, and we re-crossed the heads into an easing headwind. The return to Watson’s was uneventful.