Eight small kayaks & One Big Storm
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
The first day of summer 2020 brought 30 degrees to the Sydney coast and a building north-easterly wind. It was forecast to reach 25 to 30 knots by 5.00 pm. So, eight regular Tuesday paddlers did a car shuffle between Malabar and Vaucluse, as the conditions appeared perfect for a downwinder out of Sydney Harbour.
We launched from Vaucluse at 4.30 pm, anticipating a journey of up to three hours. After rounding South Head, we punched out into a solid headwind and a sizable sea, before turning southeast. We then had the sea and wind from the side, with the odd wave towering four-times above head height. One ‘wave of the day’ broke over me to let me know who was boss out there.
We maintained a southeasterly course until we were roughly east of The Gap, and then turned south. Because the wind and sea were from the northeast, we had a degree of crosswind for most of the journey down the coast. It was steady progress, with things going mostly to plan. After nearly two-and-half hours we were passing Maroubra, and within ‘touching distance’ of Boora Point, at the opening to Malabar. That’s when it hit.
The sky and sea turned black, and suddenly the water around us seemed to boil. It rose in vertical dancing turrets, sharp and angry. Whitecaps started rolling in ahead, and seconds later they were whipping off the surface and spraying us with mini daggers. It was a southerly storm front that hit out of nowhere. Forward momentum became near impossible. A shrill whistle sounded, and leader Rob ordered us to turn around. Our only hope was to run with it.
First, we had to turn. Big seas were still charging from the north, and clashing with building waves from the south. With winds between 30 to 40 knots, it required an extreme effort to remain upright. Tim capsized as he turned, but rolled up expertly. I turned extra-cautiously while bracing against the fierce crosswind and chaotic sea, aiming to follow the group north and toward land. We were directed to head toward the lights of Coogee, which were clearly visible in the dark that had descended around us. We needed shelter, not only from the menacing wind, but from lightning that was striking in our foreground, and the storm that was still moving towards us.
As a kayaker, you never want to be caught in a storm. The effect of the wind can be ferocious. It can slam into you like a body check, or swirl and spin you off your axis. Not to mention the risk of a lightning strike. I thought about this momentarily as it hit. Then I put it out of my mind. There was nothing to be done other than to dig in hard and slog it to safety. The group became more spread, but everyone was upright and making progress towards our exit. We were now working diagonally across residual big swell from the northeast, and wind and building seas from the south. It was something to behold. Fortunately, as is often the case with a southerly, the intense wind-front backed-off, and became strong rather than gale force. The battle to stay upright was no longer the challenge. It was the three-kilometre race to safety from whatever the storm still had in store for us.
Rob directed us to aim for the north of Wedding Cake Island, and then turn left in towards Coogee Beach. As we approached and the seabed rose, the swell rolled in at four to five metres. It was looking like being a harrowing beach landing. Waves were breaking violently over the island and in front of us at Dolphin’s Point. This, combined with multiple lightning streaks like fluoroscopic veins, and ominous growling thunder, made for a dramatic scene in our final run to safety.
Four from the group of eight rounded the island. Rob peeled off and went back to check on the remainder who were still behind. Nick led John and me in and warned that we should be prepared for a swim. With big waves still rolling under us, we skirted left around the point, then turned right towards the northern end of the beach. Suddenly the water was calmer, and we could see clearly through to where we could land. Dolphin’s Point was protecting us from the main force of the waves. We timed our run and landed safely, with the remainder of the group coming in soon after.
David had bravely provided a tow for one member of the party who was in an unfamiliar boat and struggled when the conditions went to hell. But amazingly no one had ended up in the water, and eight healthy paddlers with intact boats gathered for a celebratory photo in the dull light and flashing sky. With Rob and Nick having guided us out of danger, we had done remarkably well in an intense and challenging situation. But we were extremely lucky. A storm that created winds severe enough to rip trees apart in the north had spared us its full force. It had let us off with a warning.
Footnote: At the 4.30 pm time of launch for this trip, the BOM had wind conditions easing between 6.00 pm and 7.00 pm, and no storm was forecast. A southerly change was predicted but was not due to come through until 3.00 a.m. the following day. There was no way for the group to have predicted the freak weather event that we encountered. The ocean is a dangerous environment, and sea kayakers undertake the sport understanding that there is always an element of risk. For this group, the risk was minimised by having excellent leadership, and by all paddlers on the day being experienced with the conditions that we faced.
Sometime earlier that afternoon, and unbeknown to us, Rob and Nick had been discussing their concerns about the cloud pattern emerging in the southwestern sky. They first noticed this when we were somewhere between Bondi and Bronte. They wondered if it might develop into something problematic and talked about possible exit points should we need to take evasive action. But the speed with which the storm hit took even these vastly experienced paddlers by surprise. The reality is that our climate is changing and increasingly prone to volatility, both on land and at sea. Despite the best preparation and planning, it will not be the last time that paddlers are ambushed by aberrant weather events.