A Rob Mercer sea kayak down-winder* off the Sydney coast - with added shark encounter
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
This article is for anyone with an interest in kayaking/canoeing, and ocean paddling in particular. In the sea kayak world, Sydney-based Rob Mercer is renowned. His regular Tuesday-night trips take place in just about any conditions, often crossing from recreational to extreme sport. His 'down-winders' are also legendary. This story is an insight into one of these, through the eyes of a relative novice.
Packing up after a Tuesday paddle I remarked to Rob Mercer that I had the coming Friday off work, and to keep me in the loop if he was planning to get on the water. “Excellent” he replied. “Friday’s looking really big!” Oh!... Yeah?... Gulp! What was I thinking? I should have checked the forecast before opening my big mouth.
The day rolled around with forecast 20 knot winds and 1 to 2 metre seas, building to 25 to 30 knots and 2 to 3 metres. The scheduled meeting time was 10.30am at Malabar. I tried to have a sleep-in, and then got up ready for a leisurely breakfast and departure by 9.45. But weather updates, and to-and-fro emails had the agreed meeting time pushed back to 1.30pm. These guys want it to really build! That gave me over three hours to sit around and contemplate the choices we make in life.
Rob, Matt Bezzina, Dave Linco and I met at Malabar as planned. Then we did the car shuffle to Watson’s Bay. Two Audaxs and two Paces (kayak types). Three very experienced paddlers and…. Hmmm. What am I doing here again?
The wind was from the northeast. In the briefing, Rob gave us two options for our approach to the start of the pure downwind section. The option favoured by most, he said, would be to punch out into the wind in an east-north-east direction for five to six kilometres, and then have a direct line downwind to Malabar (link to Google maps). The other option, and that which he recommended, was to paddle diagonally across, with the wind to our port side and behind. Essentially, this would mean paddling a south-south-east direction, exposing us to some wave action on the port side, but also having wind and wave assistance from the time we cleared South Head. This would be technically challenging but would have us avoiding the hard slog into the wind.
As we paddled across Watson’s Bay, I tried to rationalise my level of apprehension. I’m telling my body to go, but it feels like I’m paddling in jelly. Include my dull head from a residual lurgy, and my brain wasn’t doing much of a job of energising my body. My thoughts were given a temporary distraction when Matt spotted a penguin just off Green Point. Heads down again, we made our way to the re-group point at South Head. Linko did his customary roll ('Eskimo roll') as we waited for the signal to proceed. Not a bad idea. That might get the nerves out and wake me up a bit. I gave it some thought. Um, Na! I’m sweet. So, we rounded South Head and paddled eastward. The swell wasn’t large but there was a lot of rebound and very bumpy water. Before I knew, it happened. Capsize!... Now you’ve got my attention! Reoriented, and somewhat enlivened, I followed the others more southward. The jelly around my paddle blade was thinning out, and the limbs seemed to be responding with a bit more vim.
Rob paddled past and gave me the tip that I should look for the waves that were going in the same direction as me and ignore everything else. Good in theory. There’s lots of tall water that wants to break over my head! However, when I concentrated, I found there was a pattern of smaller waves running in my direction. Concentration! That was the challenge. Tuning in, timing and motion started to flow together and follow the sea. But that state was short-lived. Real and imagined distractions were coming from everything around me. I was anticipating without the skill to do so. And the zen state was banished to speculation. To add to the fun, there was the occasional low brace into a foaming wave, and partial immersion in white water. Dig yourself out, go again, concentrate! All in all, going across the waves wasn’t as difficult as I had expected. I’m slowing the group, but this bunch never seem to mind. After we headed more east than south for around 30 minutes, we briefly regrouped, and Rob gave the signal. It’s time! …OK, turn gently… Steady. Enjoy the instant quiet as the roar of oncoming air and water is suddenly extinguished. Look at the white crests of the waves racing away. Psyche. Dig in, start to slide, go for it!
The propulsion was immediate. I was catching waves and having fun. I’m pretty clever. Even ‘at one with the sea’. Then, a holler from Matt had me wheeling around in alarm. Everyone stopped and looked, in time to spot a dolphin execute a perfect vertical leap up and over a steep wave. This was followed by a second leap & pirouette from its mate. Relatively thinking, I guess I wasn’t that clever after all. Just pretending really. But somehow that sighting lightened my mood for the afternoon.
All I saw after that was water. I didn’t stop to smell the roses. Bondi passed by. Bronte. Coogee. Wedding Cake. I gave them not so much as a glance. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. I was so busy concentrating on trying to concentrate, only looking ahead and willing my brain to stay focused. I was keeping up with the group somewhat, and in moments of clarity trying to recall past hints from Mr Mercer. “Look at the wave ahead. As your bow starts to climb, power up for the one that follows”. I get the idea but lack the acceleration. “It’s all in the timing”. It was, sometimes. “As you feel it start to lift the stern, ignore the instinct to brace. Put in some quick, powerful strokes”. Yeah, that works! But suddenly I’m turning sideways and starting to brace. Only momentarily though. I was getting better at making a quick recovery and going again. “As you’re picking up speed, keep leaning forward”. Yeah right! Like the snow ski instructor tells me as I stare down the sheer barrel of ‘Funnel Web’! There are laws of nature you know! Yet when I can overcome my protective instincts, this proves effective and I start to feel like a downwind paddler.
Then it’s over before you know it. Nearing Malabar, I could feel I had put in an effort. I didn’t ‘hit a wall’ like I did on my previous downwinder, but was glad I didn’t have to summon the energy for Fisherman’s Bay. (We had originally planned to paddle further, to Botany Bay, but the late launch had altered our plans). I was feeling somewhat physically drained as we came around Boora Point, and with the rebound that’s always there, it wasn’t time to let my guard down. Then there’s still Long Bay! - Another example where laws of nature get distorted. I swear this bay is always twice-as-long when you paddle in compared to going out. Matt & Rob as usual switched on their hidden propulsion and burned away. That’s ok, I’m in recovery mode. Steady-state. Concentrate on forward stroke technique. Stop looking at how far the beach is away!
The conditions weren’t quite as big as forecast, to which I was disappointed only in hindsight. But it was a noteworthy downwinder. Everyone within the group was satisfied with both the challenge and the outcome. Two hours fifteen from launch to landing was deemed quite respectable. I’m chuffed and happily sharing in the bravado. Particularly now that I’m tucked safely into the narrow end of the bay.
A few weeks later the usual suspects did a downwinder along the same route. This time we were joined by Dirk Schneider and Jordan Lawrence, for conditions bigger than previously. Again, we had a nor’easter blowing and were paddling in a south-easterly direction. Jordan was paddling well, so I was surprised to see him upside-down in a region around 3km east of Dover Heights. As I called out and turned toward him, I witnessed the most spectacular cowboy rescue** you’d ever see. He flipped his boat and launched himself vertically out of the water with such propulsion that he landed in the cockpit in a seated position. Literally! Unfortunately, he didn’t have his paddle, and the water was messy. He was quickly over again. Undeterred, he performed the same manoeuvre with the same result – a spectacular launch and landing. Then another capsize. By then Dirk had reached him and rafted up. Jordan didn’t muck around following protocol. For a third time, he leapt out of the water dolphin-like, & landed perfectly in his seat. This time, with Dirk providing stability, the rescue was a success. I remember thinking to myself, that’s not the way you’re supposed to self-rescue, but it seems to work for him.
It turned out there was plenty of added motivation for his gravity-defying leaps out of the water. And a good reason for the capsize. A sizable shark had slammed its jaws into the side of his boat, right next to where he was sitting. He saw its head as it struck, so didn’t waste any time once he was in the water. The result was a rapid response re-entry! Luckily the shark didn’t return for a second bite. It probably got as big a shock as Jordan, and darted off with a bit of a headache (and toothache). With Dirk and then Matt rafting up, it was soon discovered that Jordan’s kayak was taking on water. Subsequent inspection showed that one of the bite marks had pierced the hull. Another contained a broken section of tooth. The intended victim was very calm during the recovery and for the rest of the paddle. He was able to laugh about it when we reached Malabar. And what now for JORdan? He will hereafter and forever be known by his new name – ‘Jaws’.
*Rob's down-winders are a one-way paddle that take place when conditions are favourable. This means when the winds are strong enough, generally over 20 knots, and the seas and swell are pushing above 2 to 3 metres. A 'car shuffle' allows the participants to gather at the up-wind launching spot, and paddle in one direction with the wind behind most of the way. It's the ultimate in sea kayaking and unbelievable fun. It's the equivalent of skiing moguls and black runs for a snow skier.
**A cowboy rescue, in kayaking terms, is when you crawl onto your boat and flip back into your seat. In conditions like we faced on this day, it's like a cowboy leaping onto a moving horse.