Have you ever paddled past one of those big breaking Bomboras and wondered what would happen if you got caught up in one? On a recent trip from Brooklyn to Maitland Bay three of us found out - the hard way.
Joanne & Mark, Paul, Kate and I left Parsley Bay at Brooklyn with the aim of going to Maitland Bay and back, a trip of about 40 KM. The day was overcast with a few showers and the wind, while predicted to be up to 25 Knots (Seal Rocks to Broken Bay) was between 10 and 20 and blowing from the South East. The Sea was white capped and there was a solid 3 metre swell. We paddled through bumpy conditions to Maitland Bay where there were some good rides to be had on the swell entering the bay. Logically we would have landed in the Southern corner but as we approached the beach it looked as if it was the Northern end that would offer the easiest landing, probably because there is a big reef just off shore that was a maelstrom of whitewater and seemed to be taking most of the power out of the waves which were hitting the beach in a nasty little shore dump.
We landed uneventfully in good spirits and a sunny break in the weather to have lunch.
Launching was not exactly elegant for most of us and Kate got broached just as she hit the water and ended up in the sand wash. A sore shoulder ensued. We paddled out into a rough ocean. I took a nice wake up drenching as a breaker hit me from the side. Being in unfamiliar waters I decided to follow Mark who was leading his first grade three ocean trip. There are quite a few bomboras scattered about this section of coast but as the swell was big they were obvious - huge crashing waves rising high above the surrounding ocean. We were taking a route through the middle of two of these, which Paul wasn't comfortable with. He had stated earlier that we should go right around the outside, well clear of the lot of them. Turns out he was right. We paddled along in a close group, Paul out front followed by Kate, with me on the inside and Mark less than two metres to my port side. Joanne, I think, was trailing behind Mark.
The wave appeared suddenly. It was coming broad side and I pointed out to Mark that we needed to turn into it - fast. At this stage I thought it was just a big swell wave, as we had been experiencing a few big ones since leaving Maitland Bay but this just kept steepening, so much so that Marks boat simply fell onto mine and we both tumbled down the face of this huge wave.
It broke and we got chundered. It was not possible to know if I was being hit by Marks boat or not as the breaking wave unleashed its force on top of us. It finally passed and I tried to roll but the water was turbulent and my paddle leash was now next to the blade. I was running out of air and tried one more roll but simply found myself under the next breaking wave. Although not as powerful as the first this was far more scary as I was now past my breath holding comfort zone. The wave passed and I popped out holding onto my boat for dear life. There was another Bommie further in and I wasn't sure if I was now heading for that. Joanne, having avoided the initial wave went to rescue her husband who was also in the water. Another big breaker came through and cleaned up Joanne too. Mark let go of his boat to help her and they ended up in the water together.
There was a lonely silence as I tried to work out where everyone was and what the damage was. I saw Mark & Joanne in front of me, on the sea side and then got hit by another wave. When I came up from that one Mark & Joanne were behind me, probably because I still had a death grip on my kayak and they were on their own. I didn't know if we were clear or if there was still more to come. Kate was now paddling towards me. I found myself yelling at her to "watch out behind" as there were the ever present breaking waves behind her. The last thing we wanted at this stage was for her to get knocked in too. I then saw Paul in the distance who unbeknown to me had paddled clear and let off a flare. Kate came over to me and attached her tow rope. Mark and Joanne were in the water behind us and the plan was to get me back in my boat so that together Kate and I could go and tow Mark and Joanne which is what we did. Kate had Joanne hold her Stern and I had Mark hold mine. Just then a surf rescue IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat) appeared and took Mark & Joanne on board. We were out of the danger zone. I saw the bow of Marks boat and went over to see if I could retrieve it but it was completly flooded and immovable.
We regrouped and talked to the Surf Rescue guys. It was decided that the IRB take Joanne and Mark in to Putty Beach and Kate, Paul and I paddle in. The three of us paddled in to the north side of the beach as suggested by Surf Rescue and witnessed a monstrous set come through. No discussion was needed as the three of us turned around and headed back out to sea.
Paul's hand held smoke flare had definitely worked . It turns out that calls were made to the Police, the Coastguard and Surf Rescue and now we had boats from all three agencies on the scene. The police launch stayed back a bit and coordinated the coastguard boat by radio, wary of coming in too close. It was decided to escort the three remaining kayakers back into Broken Bay so we headed back.
As we neared Broken Bay and conditions became calmer the Police and The Coastguard decided to take us aboard. The Police loaded Paul and his boat and the Coast Guard took Kate and her boat. They clipped a line on to my bow and towed me - as if I hadn't already had enough excitement for one day. Once I realised I could lean on to a low brace onto the back of my paddle for support they took off and we were at Little Patonga Beach in no time, Paul having already been dropped off was waiting for us on the beach.
The three of us wasted no time in paddling the last few kilometers back to Parsley Bay.
We loaded our kayaks and drove to Putty Beach to meet Joanne and Mark. Once there it was hand shakes and hugs all around. We had quite an ordeal but we did what we could for each other and all came out of it OK. Mine and Marks Boats were quite badly damaged, Marks severely.
It seems the force of the initial wave was so powerful that the kayaks couldn't take it. My boat has two vertical splits on the hull, one on either side almost in the centre of the boat which suggests it was almost folded. Marks has a split seam and snapped towards the stern. What actually broke the boats I'm not entirely sure. I could still paddle mine as although it was taking water it was only entering the cockpit and I could pump & sponge it out. Remarkably the bow and stern hatches of my boat were bone dry!
The worst thing about the whole incident is that I lost my favorite hat. Joanne & Mark may not entirely agree but then again they still make Mirages while the new version of my hat is nowhere near as good as the original. If anyone out there finds a ragged looking hat with a foam brim that has a bit of fluro cloth tied on please let me know!
P.S. There are a few points regarding the damaged boats that need to be made. I don't think any boat would have fared any better than our Mirage Sea Kayaks in this incident. My boat, a Fibreglass Mirage 530, collided with Marks 580 (Kevlar Hull) in the wave and I suspect this is what caused most of the initial damage to that boat. The fatal blow to Marks Mirage 580 was made by a dumping wave as it washed up on to the beach - full of water. This was also how the other boat was (slightly) damaged. My Mirage 530, having survived the initial two waves and a cartwheel maintained its integrity and its solid buoyancy was very reassuring. Its also worth remembering that I paddled back to Broken Bay with it.
It has been pointed out that we were very lucky. A quick search has revealed an astounding history of wrecks on West Reef with more than 100 lives lost. For any of our kayaks to have survived at all is testament to the quality of their construction. I am also grateful to Mirage Sea Kayaks for fixing my boat within a few days at very reasonable cost.
The good people at Gurney Gears sent me another hat the same as the original so all is good!
The dumbed down and sanitised version as it appeared in The NSWSKC Magazine can be seen HERE. Whilst the lessons learned bit is good I do wonder what happened to the good old adventure tale that made the club magazine such a good read in the past.