By Richard Birdsey

“Not many people come on my trips”, The Leader observed dryly as our small group kitted up on the beach. I shuffled my feet in the Bundeena sand, a little nervous. ‘What exactly does that mean?’ a small, slightly shrill voice in my head said. Do others in the club know something I don’t? Or do people go out with The Leader and not return! Bob and Kevin laughed lightly at the comment as they adorned themselves with the gaudy accoutrements of the sea-kayaker. Partially assured by their mirth I continued to load my boat, contemplating what may lie ahead.
I arrived at Bundeena at 9.50 on Sunday morning. Not a bad sort of a day. A few clouds around, a bit of wind from the east. Peering through the trees I could see three kayaks laying on the sand like beached seals. Three multi-coloured figures moved about them, packing dry-bags, paddle jackets and other paraphernalia into the boats’ cavities. Pulling gear out of my car a cheerful hello greeted me from behind. Kevin Melville introduced himself and we lugged my Pittarak across the small concrete bridge connecting the beach with Bundeena Drive. I introduced my self to Bob Head and The Leader (aka Stuart Trueman) when the latter promptly asked if he could borrow my PFD for a photo he wanted for a web page he is constructing. Apparently a yellow PFD affords the wearer greater kudos in paddling circles and makes a better photo as opposed to inferior trendy coloured Type III jackets. Off Stuart went in his boat, yellow PFD shining in the sun and subjecting the cameraman (Kevin) to a barrage of instructions on camera angles, framing and cropping. Any supermodel in earshot would have glowed with pride.
Following the ‘shoot’ Stuart went through an excellent prepaddle spiel on the trip parameters, weather conditions, group spread and safety equipment. A quick inventory of our collective skills followed with an emphasis on telling him if we were in difficulty (no matter how embarrassing) which was very reassuring. Hopefully whales and albatrosses would abound. Someone falling over would provide excellent NSWSKC newsletter material. Bob looked particularly impressive with a pair of bananas poking out of each side of his PFD like a bandit’s pistols. Indemnity forms dutifully signed we paddled into the Port Hacking River at 10.30.
We soon paired off, myself with Stuart and Kevin in his Horizon 580 with Bob in his Puffin. Bob had his sail ready hoping to get a good run back in the steady 5 – 10 knot easterly we were paddling into. On the smooth waters of the river the group quickly settled down, exchanging the banter of people enjoying an outdoor pursuit together. Once the usual kayak talk died down other questions of importance were discussed with great reverence. How can babies exhaust two grown adults so easily? How do women steal doonas in the middle to the night so effectively – are they trained or is it genetic? What is the life expectancy of a motorcycle rider in Sydney? ‘Who knows’ was the resigned reply.
The bommie south of the river mouth was working hard, awash large waves washing across it courtesy of the low tide and waves. Not a good place to be caught I thought, my mind going back to the time I was nailed by a wave from the bommie off Wollongong’s North Beach a few months ago. A ‘hello’ from behind caused heads to turn as a Mirage paddled into our midst. The occupant said he was a member of the NSWSKC but had never been on a club paddle or attended club events. Interestingly, another person had the same story in the Bundeena car park. A shame such ‘phantom’ members are not reaping the benefits offered by the club. Still, it’s a free country. After a brief rest, slurp of water and gear check we headed out to sea.
Sea conditions were pretty much standard for coastal situations with a one metre swell and confused sea courtesy of clashing wind and waves. I had been itching to get out of protected waters and into the ‘real’ sea to improve my sea skills and this was exactly what I had hoped for. The curving red snout of my Pittarak pitched up and down and the broken roll of the waves was soon a familiar motion through the bottom of my boat. I thought back to similar conditions encountered at the Rock’n’Roll weekend last November before I had installed thigh braces in my boat. How intimidated I had been (read shit-scared) as I wobbled around in what appeared to be ‘monstrous’ (perhaps 1 – 1.5 metre) seas. Now it felt like a pleasant roller coaster.
As our group steadily pulled away from the coast magnificent sandstone cliffs fringed with vegetation stretched southwards towards Wollongong. Waves could be seen clawing up the cliff face, following clefts gouged by countless predecessors. Fishing boats dotted the horizon and small pieces of twigs, leaves and other terrestrial debris drifted in the currents. Our group soon started an aquatic ‘bushdance’ with different members splitting up and changing partners to chat and compare notes and boats. Mindful of Stuart’s warnings on group spread we stuck together and kept each other in sight. Glimpses of whirring paddles and tops of heads appeared and disappeared among the waves. Stuart demonstrated a very useful one-handed sculling type brace suitable when fiddling with gear, eating, ‘relief activities’ etc. This exercise was then followed by a comprehensive discussion of methods of going to the toilet at sea. Stuart theorised about the possibility of paddlers rafting up to assist a paddling companion ‘taken short’– a potentially rich vein of discussion at the next Rock’n’Roll weekend. Any photo’s of such an exercise would probably be given an ‘R’ rating and confined to fetish magazines.
After a steady two-and-a-half hours of paddling we hove-to for lunch about five kilometers off shore. Lunchboxes appeared and we rode the swells, munching contentedly and admiring the view. The petro-chemical haze across the CBD shimmered in the sun and began it’s daily trip out of the Sydney Basin up the coast. Albatrosses swooped between the troughs between waves, one making a low pass over our group. The occasional flying fish rocketed out of one wave into the next, panicked by something. Large flares from petrol refineries jutted from Kurnell’s bushland.
We then started the paddle back to now running with the sea. Bob poked his sail at the uncooperative wind and didn’t get the ride back he’d hoped for. Again the group fell into the rhythm of the waves and made rapid progress back to the green fringed cliffs of the national park. We stopped again near the bommie for some bracing practice and a few more tips from Stuart on leaning and turning in waves. I had a go with Kevin’s wizzo carbon-fibre marathon paddle and promptly came within an inch of falling in. I was not used to the ‘punch-yourself-in-the-face’ action required to stop the blade diving under the boat. An interesting implement to try but getting the best out of one obviously takes practice.
We finished up the day back in Bundeena. The most notable highlight in the post-paddle clean-up in the car park was Stuart, not realising his wetsuit’s lower zipper was open, prancing around the car park with his wedding tackle on full display. Fortunately, no comely Bundeena maidens were in eyeshot to take advantage of his predicament, but it would have made a hell of a photo for his website …….
A great day thanks to Stuart’s leadership. So, why don’t more people go on his trips?