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There's no such thing as a bad paddle?

Monday, 21 November 2005 12:35 | Written by 
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rob_icon_small.jpgBy Rob Mousley - 20 November 2005

I've always held that, "there's no such thing as a bad paddle".  well I'm re-evaluating whether I'm going to say that again!

This morning Damian, "Big Mac", Rob and I planned to do the course of next week's race as practise.  Next week's race is the qualifier for the Cape Point Challenge - you have to finish within a certain amount of time after the winner in order to be allowed to enter the Challenge.  The course is 35km long - from Fish Hoek to the Clan Stuart wreck in Simon's Bay, to the other side of Smitswinkel Bay and back to Fish Hoek.

I knew that we were in for some sort of "challenge" today; the wind had been howling yesterday and was forecast to die during the morning today.  In other words we'd have the wind in our faces going out, but it would probably die around about the time we turned around - so we wouldn't be helped home.

The forecast was spot on - when we arrived at the beach at 05h40 the wind was still quite brisk - probably 15kts and (because it had blown hard all
night) the bay was a mass (and mess) of waves.  We also found that Big Mac had invited a friend and top (Elite-grade) paddler - and he in turn had invited several chaps and we ended up with an extra 2 doubles and 2 singles.

The more the merrier - and we started on time - at exactly 06h00, the way it's going to be next week.

Going out was interesting - a whole series of waves tried to break on me and I breasted each one as it peaked with swoop and a crash as I flew over and landed on the other side.  Rather a breathtaking start.

The first 90 minutes from Fish Hoek to the wreck and then out to Miller's Point were fine; hard work, but that's what we expected and we were actually happy to have a bit of a challenge.  I was feeling fine, strong even.  We'd split into groups; the stronger paddlers (all clearly better paddlers than us), Damian and me and finally Rob and Big Mac.

It was after Miller's Point that conditions started to deteriorate.  The wind started to die down - so I knew we were in for a bit of a grind coming back.  And the sea started to become confused: big + confused = difficult, tiring conditions.

By this time Big Mac, unbeknownst to us, had turned back.  His wrist tendonitis had started to flare up and rather than risk making it worse, he'd made the correct decision to go back to Fish Hoek.

So it was Damian and me, followed by Rob, ploughing slowly on.  The last landmark before the turning point is an outcrop of rocks called "Partridge Point" - this marks the start of Smitswinkel Bay.  Damian and I elected to take an inshore line here and to paddle between the rocks, quite close to shore.  That was alright - but we emerged into a positive maelstrom of water on the other side.  I suppose that because the bay is round and steep sided, that the ocean swells rebound off all the cliffs to mix and merge in the bay.  Whatever, instead of the relatively orderly procession of waves that I was expecting, the conditions were terrifying.  Huge waves were heaving about in all directions - and breaking at random.  I went over one just as it broke with a kind of lazy malevolent crash.  Shortly after that I was hit by a side wave & went over.  I was back on again quickly, but our progress across the bay was little more than a crawl.  We'd snatch two or three strokes, then have to brace, snatch two or three more strokes, then brace.
It was agonising.

We finally got to the turning point (a triangular shaped rock off the southern tip of the bay) and set off for home.  Even then it was another half hour or so before the waves became orderly enough for us to relax a little.  Rob had caught up with us at that point and we realised that Neil Mac wasn't with him - aaargh!  My phone rang but there was no way that I could look at it.  We guessed though that it was Mac to tell us that he'd aborted.

There was no sign either of the chaps who'd been ahead of us.

We started back and sure enough, there was no wind at all to help catch the waves.  We each set off at our own pace, agreeing to meet up again when we got to Miller's Point.  Damian, with his superior strength, shot off down a couple of the waves and was lost to sight.  I was able to catch some of the waves, but found it extremely difficult and I spent a lot of time wallowing as the waves overtook me.

When we got to Miller's Point, I rafted with Damian and called my answering service.  Sure enough the call had been from Mac who'd returned safely to Fish Hoek.

With considerably lighter hearts, we set off on the home stretch.  I usually love the downwind run from Miller's Point to Fish Hoek, but today it was just a grinding effort to try to get onto the waves.  I was exhausted from working through the rough water on the outbound leg, my shoulders were on fire.  And getting onto the runs required major effort.  I caught some and it took the usual hour or so to cover the distance - but by golly the hour seemed to pass slowly!  The half way point is the lighthouse, and it just didn't seem to be getting any closer.  

And to top it all - as we got closer to Fish Hoek we could see a small ship anchored off the beach.  We'd heard about it and were highly nervous as we approached.  The ship is a research vessel and they were in Fish Hoek with the purpose of tagging one or more of the Great White sharks that daily come cruising through.  We had no idea whether they were just waiting for the sharks, whether they might not be luring them or what.  Happily however, there was no action happening and we all got in safely.

But we all agreed that it was one of the toughest, nastiest paddles any of us had ever done.  I think it rates as THE toughest for me.  Even the World Cup race last year, which was also held in very rough conditions, was easier for me - because I was then paddling my old, stable Molokai ski.  It turned out that the leading pack of expert paddlers had turned around well short of the turning point.  So I suppose it was some sort of achievement to have completed what we set out to do - certainly extremely good practise.  35km in 3:48

But I do hope that conditions are not as nasty for next week's qualifying race!  Of course as we drove home, the sea looked calm and lovely, in stark contrast to the wildness at daybreak this morning - anyone would say that the conditions for a paddle were perfect!

Rob Mousley


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