(This incident is a great example of clubs having skilled, well-equipped paddlers, and looking after less-aware members of the public who paddle, and we would like to acknowledge the role of RCC with this story.)
On Sunday 24 January 2021, six RCC members participated in a club paddle to loop Sydney Harbour from Rose Bay to Little Manly. The risk management plan highlighted the dangers of motor vessels on a January Sunday with good weather forecast and the rising wind in the afternoon. The trip commenced as we departed Rose Bay, avoided ferries and sea planes and followed the mansions along Rose Bay and Double Bay before heading out to Clark Island and then directly across to Bradleys Head. In crossing this high vessel zone, we formed a tight group to aid visibility and safety.
After crossing to the northern shore of the harbour, we paralleled the main Western boating channel passing Taylors Bay. As we approached Chowder Head, a half cabin cruiser heading south along the Western channel turned south-west towards Taylors Bay. The boat was travelling at speed with its bow elevated and directly on a collision course with our three lead paddlers. Two of the paddlers were wearing orange hi visibility hats and tops, and the third was wearing a RCC top. As the boat bore down on the kayaks, the paddlers made attempts to signal, without avail. The paddlers employed emergency stopping, then reverse strokes to avoid a collision. The boat passed within two metres of the bows of the kayaks. Four people were onboard the boat. The boat did not slow or stop or acknowledge they compromised safety of the kayaks. The cabin cruiser continued at speed into Taylors Bay – registration details were not obtained. In all my years of kayaking on Sydney Harbour, this was the closest I have been to a collision with a motor vessel.
After a quick debrief, we continued up into Obelix Bay. At this point another safety briefing occurred in anticipation of the complex waters of Middle Head and the Sound. North Easterly winds of 10 knots and a strong ocean swell would create significant challenges for passing Middle Head and crossing to Dobroyd Head. Specific mention was made of the bombora off Dobroyd Head. To add to the environmental conditions, Sydney Harbour was very busy with a large number of motor vessels. North bound ferries were heading out to sea, and significant wave action could be seen off their bows. Large number of vessels were making the north south route, along with a large number of vessels making the east west traverse out of Middle Harbour. Paddlers would face considerable challenges from wind, waves, rebounds, wash and tidal flows. We moved northwards in a tight group past Middle Head and across The Sound using voice communications to navigate through the passing vessels and in anticipation of the complex and unpredictable waves and wash.
Half way across The Sound, on a route approaching Dobroyd Head, between the twin threats of the Western Channel and the Gowlland bombora, we began to sight two kayakers stationary at the bombora maritime buoy. As this was a place of recognised danger, we continued to keep an eye on them. With no movement off their location, we changed our course to investigate their wellbeing. Upon arrival at the buoy, we found two paddlers on two sit-on-top kayaks, and a third paddler sitting on the maritime buoy. The third paddler was attempting to get back onto their sit-on-top kayak, but was half full of water and thus had no stability.
The location was dangerous with the bombora and Dobroyd cliffs very close by, with the paddlers fully exposed to the wind, wave and wash, all of which were pushing them further towards danger.
The three paddlers seemed to have limited appreciation of the danger they were in. The half sunken kayak had a cork where the proper bung should have been. They did not ask for help, but were struggling to balance their kayaks in the conditions. The third paddler was insisting she could swim to safety with an ill-fitting PFD, to Reef Beach, at least a kilometre away.
Firstly, we asserted our greater knowledge of rescue techniques and instructed them how to perform a T-Rescue. She got back onto her kayak, but then the kayak quickly rolled. Finally we got their consent to assist. Two club members attached their tow ropes to the stricken kayak and began to tow it towards Reef Beach. The paddler in the water was asked to lay onto the back of the larger sit-on top kayaks and kick with her feet. This kayak was taken under tow by three club kayakers. While Reef Beach was only a 1 km away, towing conditions were very difficult and progress was no more than 2kms/hr. The paddlers towing the kayak were making quicker progress. A Maritime Rescue vessel passed, but we were unable to communicate using our VHF maritime radio – the radio was not operating properly and the challenge of staying upright in difficult conditions made working through technical options difficult. With very little progress being made, we were able to attract the attention of a Zodiac with three young men on board, and we were able to transfer the kayaker into their boat, and off to safety.
By now the stricken kayak was taking in more water and was more difficult to tow, it was rolling and submerging in response to any forward motion. Even with three kayaking attempting the tow, progress looked bleak, even though Reef Beach was no more than 400 meters away. Again we were able to get assistance from a motor vessel to tow the increasingly submerged boat into the beach.
At Reef Beach we debriefed with the remaining two paddlers. The third paddler was safe and sound back at their car. They set about emptying the water from the kayak. They thanked us profusely and then asked THE question – ‘’Are you guys in some kind of club?”
Back on the water, we had a quick debrief and then paddled over to Little Manly beach, dodging the incoming and outgoing ferries with a well-timed run. Our main debrief points included the complexity of the rescue, the challenge of multiple ropes in difficult waters, the slow progress when towing boats other than sea kayaks, the failure of our marine radio, and the difficulty of waving down passing motor vessel for assistance.
The rescue had cost us well over an hour, delaying our southern run and exposing us to the higher winds we had hoped to avoid. But the rescue had other costs. Adrenaline can be a paddlers’ friend, but leaders are well advised to understand what happens when it leaves our body. One paddler in the let-down of the rescue became increasingly susceptible to sea sickness and a decrease in coordination. At Little Manly we had lunch and coffee, repacked our tow lines and monitored our friends’ heart rate. With a calming heart rate, and a half-digested panini, we set about our homeward journey, but then our friend capsized onto the beach. In an act of selfless and wise leadership, they withdrew from the trip and phoned a friend to make the long trip to Manly.
The return journey across Sydney Heads was pure adrenalin pumping action, with a 17 knot tailwind, strong 2 metre swells coming in from the ocean, colliding with rebound waves looking for the way out. A tall ship with full sail approaching the Heads, added to the perfect picture. All of which combined to create the complex 3-dimensional paddling which defines Sydney Heads on a good day.
By the time we reached Rose Bay, our 25 km loop around Sydney Harbour had turned into so much more. We had seen the worst of Sydney boaties, but had seen the best within ourselves, and the best within our club.
When paddling white water, safety is an internal group dynamic. But when paddling in places like Sydney Harbour, safety is public, and so doing, it is the public who benefits from our skills, our sense and our strength. In this way, we found a stranger siting on maritime buoy in the middle of a harbour, and had the skills, aptitude and appetite to help.
Back on the beach, when asked if we belonged to a club, I was very proud in my response.
River Canoe Club
- Russel Miller
- Roddy Kerr
- Dee Taylor
- Deb Cunneen
- Amit Hergass
- Andy Singh (Leader)