Swearing at the Wind . . . Again!


by Les Allen, Sea Kayak Club, Western Australia
© 2001, Les Allen
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Swearing at the wind .. Again!

I crawled out of my tent rubbing my eyes in the glare. It was hot, sweat trickled down the front of me soaking my tee shirt and it was 6.30 in the morning. The sun had just cleared the hills and the glaring rays already had a sting in them. There was a thick carpet of dew over everything and as it burned off the humidity was around 90%. I was hot, sticky and not very happy, the last two weeks had been hell. I was a way for one week with work, flying back home on the Friday, giving me one week to organise work, the family and get packed for our latest adventure. In fact I was wondering if the stress was worth it. We left on the Friday night after work and drove till 1.00am when we stopped for a few hours sleep before heading off at 6.00am the next morning to drive the last 1,000 km to Dampier. As we got to Dampier we had to stop at the local radio station to tape an interview and then on to the Dampier Transit caravan park. The park manager is a lovely lady and she had beers on ice and cooked a lovely BBQ for dinner that night. This meant staying up socialising which was very enjoyable but after only a few hours sleep the night before, very taxing.

The trip we had planned was to paddle out to the Monte Bello Islands 120km of the Dampier coast. They consist of more than 100 islands and rocks and gained international recognition in the 1950's when the British exploded 3 atomic weapons on the islands. The trip would take us 90 kms south of Dampier, island hopping off the coast. At Stewart Island we head straight out 60km to Parakeelia Island in the Lowendow group and finally across to the Monte Bello group. We pick up a water drop on Parakeelia spend 8 days on the Monte Bellos and retrace our steps back. No one had paddled to the Monte Bellos before and although we could get lots of information it was hard to get information we could rely on. Everybody I talked too had big boats and big motors so the tidal currents were not a problem for them. Most of the area we were going to paddle in was unsurveyed and we had heard horror stories of big sharks and tidal currents that would spit us out the sea ward side where we would be lost at sea.

When you are tired, stressed, and not sure you have all your gear these warnings play on your mind. The distraction came from a smiling Michelle, the park manager, carrying hot coffee and starting to cook up bacon, eggs, tomatoes and sausages for breakfast. Country hospitality both north and south of Perth, the capital of Western Australia, is truly amazing. After breakfast she drove us down to the boat ramp to see us off.

Madly setting up shots to film and trying to pack was not improving my temper. We had to carry over 60lt of water, three weeks food, camping and filming gear. John and Tel had two deck bags and I had one big one that covered the back of my kayak. The cockpit had 10lt of water in my drinking system, an under deck bag full of day food, sail and split pole either side of my seat and a further 2lt emergency drinking system strapped between my feet. In these hot climates water is life. When I got in it was a tight squeeze, as I moved my legs under the thigh braces the pressure on my drinking system squeezed some water out of my drinking straw. If I went over I had good incentive to roll, as I doubt I could get out easily. I put my knuckles on the sand and tried to push off. Nothing happened, I was too heavy. I had to wait for a big wave and move three inches, then wait again. Eventually I got off and the boat was so low in the water my spray deck was just clearing the water by 1 inch. The other boats were just as heavy as we headed out.

About 100mt offshore John informed us his rudder had just broken so we turned back. I was fuming under my breath but there was nothing I could do but wait for John to discover a pin had rattled loose on the drive up and only required putting back. I was glad it was something simple and felt a lot happier. After a few minutes of swearing, as John stood on his head and struggled to reach the front of his cockpit to screw the pin back in, we were ready to go again. As we rounded East Intercourse Island we picked up the wind wave in the deeper water. There was a 15kn Easterly blowing right behind us producing a one metre lovely wave to surf. I paddled hard to catch a wave but it passed under me. I did pick up some speed so on my next try picked up a wave and was off. At the end of my run I was more under water than on. The next wave washed right over my boat and I felt I was paddling a submarine. I looked behind and John was really struggling, his boat was nose diving and yawing on the waves. The Mirage boats Tel and I had were performing a lot better and it was frustrating to have to wait. It's also ironic that before the trip John was twice as fit as we were and could blow us out of the water with speed, but on the first day because his boat didn't have the same buoyancy, he was the slow one.

25km later we could see a strange pyramid on the horizon. It turned out to be the crane of the Mcormack, a huge barge or derrick that had been blown onto the island in a previous cyclone (hurricane). Later we picked up Eaglehawk Island itself, which is only about 12 metres above water. This is typical of the islands we would be visiting. They were formed about 8,000 years ago when the ocean rose to engulf the land. The islands are the tops of ancient hills protruding from the water. The whole area we will be paddling in is only 5 to 20 metres deep and forms the North West Shelf, an area rich in oil and gas. The Monte Bellos are on the edge of the shelf and the water drops off sharply on the seaward side of the island group.

At Eaglehawk we set up camp and I was able to relax and start to get into trip mode. That afternoon we walked around the island and checked out the Mcormack. It was huge and way up the rocks. Apparently it broke its mooring and was washed up high on the rocks. The power of cyclones is legendary. Towns built to withstand them are sometimes almost totally destroyed by their immense power. I was glad this was the end of cyclone season and that they statistically only form here about once every 15 years in April. Dead tired, the first day ended as the sun set.

The next morning I wanted to do some filming at the Mcormack before we left. The tides were running in excess of 4 metres (12ft) so the water was a long way off at low tide giving us plenty of time to film. I walked across the exposed reef looking at the myriad of marine life in the shallow pools. There were clams everywhere and I got some good footage of touching them and watching them try to squirt water at the intruder. The clams fascinated me as they were in a very exposed spot. Anyone could just come along and lever them off the reef. I believe they are good to eat but did not want to destroy these unusual animals just to see what they tasted like. Then it happened. Tel slipped on a rock put his hand out to balance himself and cut the palm of his hand on rock oysters. He had two cuts from the centre of his palm, to the heal. Not life threatening injuries but we all new they could get infected and certainly would not heal while paddling. This was a real blow at this early stage of the trip and it happened in a blink. How could Tel be so clumsy. I bit my tongue and did not say anything and actually felt bad about thinking it was his fault, as it could have happened to any of us. We walked back, dressed his hand and started packing.

Three days later we were on Stewart Island. It was typical of all the islands we had passed. Low limestone base with rocks on all the weathered sides. Usually there is a small sandy beach in the lee with low scrubby vegetation on a sandy top. Stewart was about 300 metres long and 200 metres wide with a huge eagle nest on the highest part. The nest was about 2 metres wide and 1metre high and made of sticks. This intrigued me as we were 30 km from the shore and there were no twigs on the island. They must have carried every twig at least 30 km and when I looked at the size of the nest, and the thousands of sticks, I couldn't believe it.

We were fortunate in that the beach was very steep and into deep water. This meant we would not have to carry our boats and gear very far for our early morning start on the long 60km crossing. I planned the trip so we would have spring tides on the way out and neap tides on the way in. I figured it would be bad if the tides stopped us getting out there but a tragedy if we could not get back. The tides were low at 6.30 am and high at 12.00. This meant most of the trip we would be pushing into an incoming tide but would have the benefit of an outgoing for the last few hours. Buoyed by a good weather forecast, giving us light tail winds we headed off at 6.45 am.

The sea was dead flat and the heat oppressive, as we had not acclimatised to the heat or the humidity yet. Each day was between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius with very high humidity in the morning. Even the evenings were hot, with the temperature dipping only to around 25 degrease. I had allowed 5 lt of water per day but we were using way over that, in fact, up to 8 litres per day. I was not concerned though, as we had far more water at our drop than we needed and had a good safety margin in the amount we carried. We were in high spirits as we headed out that morning and were making good time. We had no idea how much the tide was going to effect us as it was coming at 90 degrees on our right first off and turning a full 180 to be 90 degrees on our left later. We had two GPS navigators so we could find our tiny target so far away.

A few hours into our paddle we saw the first sea snake. It was the first one I had seen so close to and it frightened me. It was so big, a yellow body as thick as a man's arm and 1.5 mt long with a black head. He just seemed to be sunning himself on the surface. About an hour later Tel gave a startled shout. He had not noticed a snake till it was just 2 metres from his bow. He turned off at full ruder as the snake came awake. Its head came out of the water and went straight for Tel's body. His face drained and his eyes were like saucers. As it got right to him he slapped its head down twice with his paddle. The snake dived and came up the other side of his boat very angry. Three times Tel frantically pushed the head under water right next to his hull. Then the snake got fed up with getting hit on the head and dived, so Tel took the opportunity to paddle off at a surprising rate. As he pulled away and realised, the snake was not chasing him any more, he started talking excitedly. " Did you see that, did you see it, it came straight at me". "Unbelievable, it was going straight for me". "I had to hit it under, did you see it, then it came up the other side, what a rush, I though it was going to get me." "I'll just paddle on adrenalins for a while." " Man, I didn't expect that". I suddenly noticed I was also paddling flat out so I backed off and tried to look calm. As the day wore on we saw five more snakes but picked them up early enough to give them a wide berth.

By the end of the day we were 20 degrees off our original heading. We had plotted our course to take into account the tidal movement, but they were not playing the game right. We were discovering just how different the tides were compared to what the chart said. I was very glad we had GPS navigators with us, and even more glad when we could see the blip on the horizon that was our island. Tel was complaining about how tired he was and how hard the paddle had been. We had been pushing hard for 8 hours, admittedly, and still had an hour to go, but we certainly had done harder paddles in the past. Also, it was out of character for him to complain. At the end of a hard day he is usually the one out front encouraging everyone else on. It just goes to show, everyone has bad days. I put it down to the heat, paddling on a sore hand, the snake incident, which would have sapped some energy after the adrenalin high and the fact that we all have highs and lows on an extended trip. At the end of the day he was waked, and thought the paddle back was pushing the safety margin too far.

We were on the eastern side of the Lowendow islands and only had one 20km jump to get to the western side of the Monte Bellos. An easy day's paddle, just a doddle in the park. We started by filming some of the interesting formations at the Lowendows. It was getting hard to film as I was being moved by the tides too much to set up good shots so we headed off to the Monte Bellos. About 3 kms off I suddenly realised we were in trouble. We were being sucked out to sea at a rapid rate. There was a small rock or island about 2 km away and we set off at full pace for it. I was paddling at better than 8 km per hour but only making about 3 km per hour head way. It turned out to be a long 2 km. How could we be so careless. We were experienced paddlers and fell for a basic trap. Even though the chart was showing unsurveyed waters you would have to be blind Freddie not to anticipate strong currents and we had all the warning signs while filming. We would not make that mistake again. We sat in the eddy and waited a couple of hours for the tide to slacken and then dashed across on the turn of the tide. This was the first time we experienced strong tidal movement. We were now 120 km of the coast and had all that huge basin of shallow water to rush past the islands into the deep water on the sea ward side of the Monte Bellos.

We had landed on Archong Island, had lunch and were heading off to the southern end of the Monte Bellos to find a base camp. As we rounded the island we were confronted with a huge tidal steam. I had never seen anything like it before. We had all heard and read about tidal streams but never seen one. What a hoot, just like white water river paddling. There were eddies, boils, rapids and this was the ocean. We played, ferry glided, sat in the boils and had a great time. The warnings about the northern end came back to me. I had talked to a person who had done seismic surveys in the Monte Bellos and he told me the northern end had horrific tidal steams as the islands are shaped like a big funnel. He said there was 2 metre difference in the water height in spring tides and we would not be able to paddle against them. I now took his warring very seriously.

We set up camp in front of the Conservation And Land Management hut as this area had been heavily desecrated over the years and our camping there would not impact on the pristine areas. The Monte Bellos are low limestone islands that have undercut rocky shorelines with little sandy beachers spaced throughout the islands. They are covered by spinifex ( a low spiky grass type of plant ) and the occasional acacia thickets or mangrove. Baudin first discovered the islands in 1801 and was discouraged by the seeming barrenness of the country. He took 7.5 tons of turtle meat off Barrow Island and set fire to it as he left. This was the first act of environmental vandalism as unlike the main land, these islands are not fire resistant and fire is a catastrophic event. After Baudin's effort pearlers came next and raped the area of all its pearl shell. Worst of all they introduced cats and black rat to the area. These caused the extinction of the Golden Bandicoot and the Spectacled Hair-wallaby as well as having a major impact on all the other fauna that survived. This, of course, was outdone by the British who set off three atomic weapons over a ten year period. The millions of fish, insects and birds that died in the initial blast would pail into insignificance to the number who would die from radiation poisoning. After that we found oil and gas so we cleaned up the radiation so we could exploit the oil and gas. Now we discover it's a totally unique area of mega diversity because of its location and the fact there is an overlap of tropical and sub tropical species. Conservation and Land Management have eradicated the cats and are working on upgrading the area to a marine park. At least this is a step in the right direction as there are few places in the world that are like the Monte Bellos. Ironically, a lot of the money to do scientific surveys is being funded by the oil companies. It proves that only rich countries can afford good environmental policies.

As we explored the island we found many interesting spots. One of the best spots was this little island that was like a mini volcano. The centre was open and had a lovely little beach you could access via a cave entrance. We spent an hour playing in our very own secret "pirate cave". It was getting late in the afternoon and we had had a top day so we set off wandering back to our campsite. I was out front just doddling along when I got at strange feeling and out of he corner of my eye saw a big black shape heading for my boat. At about a 45 degree angle a huge hammer head shark passed under my boat. It was as round as a 44 gallon drum and 15ft long. I could have reached down and touched it. I was thinking "oh my god" then it turned in its body length and came strait back for my boat. At this point I stoped thinking and my heart was in my mouth. I had stoped paddling and the shark passed so close I thought the dorsal fin would hit the boat. It then turned again and passed at the back of the boat missing my rudder by centimetres only to turn back on my rudder again. After the second pass it disappeared as fast as it arrived. After a second or two I had control over my voice again and called the boys over. John thought it was attracted to the vibrations from my paddle. When it turned back I had stopped paddling, so then the only turbulence was at the back of my rudder. Once again on the second pass the boat was stopped and there was no turbulence so he lost interest. Well, that was a good theory but it didn't stop the shark re visiting me that night in my dreams. It was one of those experiences I am glad I've had but don't want again, I'm just not that brave.

We were at the point where we had to make some decisions. Tel's hand was not looking good as the cuts were not healing. The flesh either side of the cuts was white and at the end of each day the cuts were gaping. It was sore the whole time he was paddling. We were due to paddle back and I was not confident his hand could take five days of hard paddling. Prior to the trip I did a sailing plan, an emergency rescue plan and an evacuation plan and lodged it with the Water Police. The cas-evac plan was simple. Bristo helicopters service the rigs and are set up for cas-evac so they were happy to get us, for a fee, if someone needed urgent medical attention. The evacuation plan in case of cyclones was much harder. I wanted to get a lift back on the rig tenders. The oil companies don't like tourists, especially crazy ones in sea kayaks. With a lot of hassle they eventually relented and I had all the contacts and they were informed of the plan so it would be easy to organise from the water. I do these for all my trips just so people can't call us irresponsible. This time was wondering if it was worth the hassle. We carried satellite mobile phones which are magic. In range of mobile services they are normal mobile phones and when you are out of range, snap up the satellite ariel and hey presto communication. I called the manager of the tenders and he agreed it the risk factor was going to increase we should come back on the supply barge next Thursday. Great, we now had another 7 days on the Monte Bellos. We packed up and headed for the northern end to set up a base camp there. We were into neap tides so it would be ok.

That night we heard there was a cyclone off Darwin which was 2,000km away so we weren't overly worried just made a note to keep an eye on it. We camped in a lovely spot on the north western tip of the Monte Bellos. It is the most beautiful end of the islands and there was excellent surf on the seaward side of the islands. We made plans to go surfing the next day and then wander over to one of the bomb sites. That night the cyclone warning was down to Cape Leveque and heading our way. Now we were worried. I rang the duty forecaster who said it was going out to sea and they did not expect it to come down the coast. But we still had a cyclone north of us. At 3.am John got up for a pee and listened to the forecast. The warning was still for Cape Leveque and that was still 1000 km away so he went back to sleep. The next morning we had a top time surfing the west end. There was a 2 to 3 metre break along the "U" shaped reef. This meant you could get on the shoulder and provided you cut left you ended up in deep water. We arrived back at camp exhausted and elated. Chatting away we packed up and headed over to the bomb site on Trimouille Island. We arrived about 11.30 and John switched on the radio for a forecast. The cyclone warning was for us. We were now very worried.

I rang the duty forecaster again. He said it was heading down the coast very fast, averaging over 20km per hour. The forecast for the next day was 20 to 30 knot south easterlies in the morning with possible gales later on. We were now 130 km from the coast on low lying islands that offer no protection with a fast moving, strengthening cyclone bearing down on us. OH SHIT. Why does unseasonable weather and wind always follow me! I rang the Dampier Police to let then know where we were and what we were doing. They had our sailing plan and were happy we reported in as I said we would. I think they were a little pissed off, though. They just had two sea rescues last week where a crew man fell of a tanker and drowned before they got to him and a yacht had run aground on an island south of us and needed rescuing. Now they had a cyclone heading for an oil field and possibly their own town.

We were over 30 km from Veranus, the oil installation that was our evacuation point, and we had a 15kn head wind that would probably strengthen. We were looking down the barrel of a long hard paddle into the night. Fortunately as part of my plan I had the coordinates of Veranus in the GPS so we could find it at night without a problem. There was a small pearl farm at the Monte Bellos whose owner knew we were there so we headed there to tell them we were bugging out. As we approached a seaplane was just lifting off. The owner of the farm called us over, as he was very worried about us. They were evacuating immediately and the first plane load had already left. He didn't think we would make Veranus in our sea kayaks and offered to give us a lift as far as he could on his 40ft jet cat. We didn't need a lot of persuading. We lifted the boats up fully loaded onto the deck and were off at 20 knots. The miles were flying by and we were now very sure we would make Veranus that afternoon. He dumped us into the ocean almost there and headed straight back to the farm to set up cyclone moorings before the next evacuation. To say we were grateful is an understatement.

As we approached Veranus a helicopter buzzed us with the pilot gesturing for us to go straight to the loading dock as fast as we could. As we approached there was a rig tender tied up. The captain shouted that he was leaving in 5 minutes and we were to haul our boats over the stern right now. Once again we dragged fully loaded boats on the deck of the huge boat. I was amazed we had the strength to do that actually. The helicopter pilot popped his head over the rail and said he was glad we made it as he was scheduled in half an hour to go and winch us from the water. Loosing our boats was not a good thought. Then again nor was loosing our life. Five minutes later the boat left with the captain gunning it up to 14knots. I asked him why the urgency and he in formed me he once left it too late and had a horror trip back and would never do that again. Cyclones are just too unpredictable and he was not going to die at sea. I must admit, it was not that long ago three ships were lost with all hands in cyclone just south of here, when it intensified and caught people out.

Our adventure was over, the last 100km back to shore was spent in an air-conditioned cabin sipping coffee and eating. We arrived back on land late that night and I rang the Police to let them know we were safely back on shore. They were actually complimentary and said if everyone did some preparation like us their job would be easy. Next trip, I won't complain about doing sailing plans as they work, and people didn't think we were irresponsible. The next day there were 4 metre seas and high winds at the islands so we were glad to be packed up and driving home. This was different to all the other trips I have done, and it was a shame it was cut short, but in hindsight, just as exciting and enjoyable.

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