Milnerton to Melkbos Extreme Downwind Paddle!!!!!

13 years 4 months ago #6242 by dhitchcock
So the message upfront was: Only Experienced Paddlers and all safety equipment compulsory.

So there we were huddled around the cars trying to stay out of the wind wondering what we should do. Looking out to sea the ocean resembled a maelstrom of sheeting water, white caps everywhere and the beach looked like we were in the middle of a massive desert sand storm. Need I say anymore (the wind was gusting to 80km/h).

So there we were, Adrian and I contemplating our future...

A bit of history required at this point:


Been paddling for a few years now, but mainly on rivers and never attempted a downwind paddle before. 8 weeks ago he smashed his collar bone while on his mountain bike and had to have surgery to pin and plate it all together. On top of this he has had a knee replacement along with several other serious injuries. Needless to say I think we should start calling him Iron Man as he is more metal than man.

Myself (Dave):

Been paddling for many years but mostly on the rivers (in my youth I used to waveski so am comfortable in the ocean). Only been paddling a surfski for 2 seasons now and only done a handful of downwinds, the most extreme being the Fish Hoek to Buffels Bay race last year where the wind was around 50km/h. No injuries to speak of.


Fenn XT Double. Adrian and I had done a handful of small races in flat conditions with Adrian in the front and me in the back barking the orders. We decided on Friday to switch us around, as between the 2 of us I was the more experienced and the most comfortable in the bigger conditions. So Friday night entailed us setting the boat up and doing the Seadog paddle which was quite windy but nothing compared to what we were about to throw ourselves into. We managed...

So this is what happened:

Standing knee deep in the water waiting for the start everyone was hanging onto their boats for dear life. Not a single soul was spared the fury of nature at that point and I'm sure most everyone was wondering what the hell they were doing. I know Adrian was thinking that as he calmly said to me: "If you feel like bailing I completely understand :-)". There was no way we were going to walk back up the the car at that point and I calmly quirped back "Remember fear is your friend...". Little did I know that it was fear that probably got us through to the end?

So the race started and within a few minutes we were into the runs and it all seemed quite relaxed, apart from the nervous fellow in the back that was twitching like a fish that has just been hauled out the water. Then it happened....

Our first big run, I saw the hole starting to grow in front of us and just put my head down and started sprinting for it, Adrian did the same. The next thing we were screaming down this massive swell for what seemed like an eternity. The ocean just seemed to open up in front of us and we just kept going down. I remember leaning as far back as I could with the nose of the ski almost fully submerged and my nostrils being given a good washing, I couldn't see a thing and faintly heard the screams of terror from the back seat above the howling wind as we descended into the abyss....

Things continued like this for another 10 minutes until I think poor Adrian had had about enough of this and started to put the brakes on as we were about to drop into the runs. This had the effect of stopping us in our tracks and then ultimately being gobbled up by the next wave, and the next, and the next before we were able to point in the right direction and get our speed up again. In all fairness I don't think either of us knew really why this was happening but needless to say we were smashed around more often than not.

The scenery once we were half way resembled something out of a Spielberg movie. We could see nothing other than what seemed like very angry mountains of water around us. No land, no horizon and not another boat in sight. We then saw the rescue boat for the first time. There was a short sigh of relief until we realised that the boat was headed to Melkbos with a bunch of skis on the back from guys that had been rescued. Our hearts sank and we knew at that point that we were alone with very little chance of being spotted if something went wrong.

The ultimate battle lasted for about 90 minutes until fatigue set in and I hooked a blade while trying to stop us broaching and before we could say "F%$@#$@k" we were inspecting the bottom of the boat. Now this was our first attempt at a re-entry after a swim.... not a good time to try this out. So on hopped Adrian while I stabilised the boat by lying on the nose. I remember screaming at him to put his legs over the side so I could jump in, and his response was this : "I can't, I don't bend like you guys". My first thought was 'I can't believe he thinks were all gay!!!" until I realised what he was talking about. His knee replacement prevented him from putting his legs over the side. So, I had no choice, I hopped right in and then went flying right over the other side sending us both into the drink again and rolling the boat around our leashes a few time. A minute or 2 was spent untangling the boat with incredible calmness. This is where the "fear is your friend" thing comes into it. Fear is something that we create and is an emotion, with that in mind it should then be something we can control. We were both scared to death, but managed to stay completely focused and on our second attempt got back in the boat, albeit side on to the wind and full of water. The next minute was spent paddling as hard as we could to get the nose around, which was being rather defiant I thought at the time.

I remember paddling round the kelp beds with not an ounce of energy left at the end, barely able to pick my blade up. We hit the beach and literally rolled of the ski and just lay there for a short while caressing the sand and being thankful that we were alive and that we made it.

We learnt a lot on Saturday, but especially the following:

1. Fear is actually your friend, recognise it and try and control it. It will save your life.

2. Speed is also your friend, lose it and you lose all control and put yourself in serious danger.

3. A few more gentle downwinds under the belts would have probably served us well.

Extreme surfski paddling is dangerous, you can't simply stop and get off if it gets too hectic for you, you simply have to get a grip on yourself and carry on otherwise you will probably die.

Don't venture out if you are not 100% confident in your ability to handle the conditions and associated fear. And please practice remounting at least once before attempting something like this.

All things considered I think we did remarkably well and will definitely be back for more :-).

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13 years 4 months ago #6246 by Rightarmbad
Glad it all ended OK.

But, if I was there as one of your group, I would have sat it out, based on your experience level.

Follow the path of the independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that are important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.--- Thomas J. Watson

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13 years 4 months ago #6247 by [email protected]
And here's Mark Torrington's experience...

It’s a fine line we tread between an awesome day out and a nightmarish epic.

About two km's offshore after Big Bay, in a belter of a South Easter, my paddle broke!

You only really appreciate the power and anger of a big following sea when your boat speed stops and you are forced to turn. With your power of control gone, you quickly realize that you are completely at mercy of a beast that will show no compassion and will carelessly consume you as it has thousands of other poor souls in the past.

As I saw the broken blade flap off just before I hit the water for the obligatory swim, my first thought was "It had to happen sometime! For 15 years I had gotten away with it - for 15 years I had placed myself in precarious situations at sea reliant on equipment, fellow paddlers, experience and luck to get myself back to shore safely. Was this the day my luck finally ran out?"

After trying unsuccessfully to get back in and stay upright, I resigned myself to lying on the boat in an attempt to keep most of my body out of the freezing water. I sorted floated like that for a time trying to come to terms with my situation and think what I should do next. I knew there was a support boat around but the sea was so big I knew too that the chance of them or any other fellow paddler happening upon me were quite remote. I had a rack of pencil flares and knew I would have to start using at some point however I figured I needed to keep these for when the race organizers realized I was missing and started the search in earnest. I DID NOT HAVE A CELLPHONE! (as per the race rules)

I was bracing myself for a 2 to 3 hour ordeal when my saviour showed up! Fellow paddler, Andre Jooste, paddled up behind me and casually asked if I was OK! Never have I been more relieved to see a human being. He quickly understood my situation and selflessly committed himself to assisting me with my rescue. We are able to get our two boats together and get me out of the water and into my boat. Andre kind of took over at that point firing off three of my pencil flares over a period of 10-15mins in the hope that the race rescue boat would see them, however in that wind, they were completely ineffectual with a hang time of no more than a few seconds. He then quite calmly informed me that he would now call the NSRI, hauled out his cell phone and within minutes was having a cosy chat with the coast guards. You must understand that this whole procedure happened in a 80+ km/hr South Easter with huge sea swells coming side-on on to us. We were informed by NSRI that they had launched a boat and were on their way.

It was a very long, cold and frustrating wait for the NSRI during which saviour Andre, leaving nothing to chance, decided to let off two of his rocket flares. These worked a lot better than the pencils and in fact we were told later that it was these two flares that were spotted by the NSRI boat crew and helped them pin point our location. You can imagine the relief when the NSRI boat arrived with their super efficient crew!

So, all’s well that ends well! What have I learned?
  • The cell phone is non negotiable in extreme conditions - never go to sea without one - its just plain stupid.
  • Never get over confident and always respect the sea.
  • Donate freely and support without question the NSRI.
  • Under no circumstances paddle past a fellow paddler who is swimming without asking if he/she is OK. Most times they will be OK but one day they might just say no ....

I would like to thank Andre Jooste for been there for me, for selflessly coming to my aid, for having the good judgement to have all the correct safety equipment and for remaining cool and calm in a very tense situation. I would like to thank the Melkbos and Big Bay NSRI teams for the part they played and the job they do week in and week out - you guys are awesome!

I went home and gave my wife and kids a big hug and now am looking forward to the Tuesday Surfski Dice in Hout Bay - ready to tread that fine line again – but this time just that little bit wiser.


Currently Fenn Swordfish S, Epic V10 Double.
Previously: Think Evo II, Carbonology Zest, Fenn Swordfish, Epic V10, Fenn Elite, Red7 Surf70 Pro, Epic V10 Sport, Genius Blu, Kayak Centre Zeplin, Fenn Mako6, Custom Kayaks ICON, Brian's Kayaks Molokai, Brian's Kayaks Wedge and several others...

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13 years 4 months ago #6249 by Rightarmbad
I find it interesting that race organisers specified a phone as mandatory, yet didn't check, especially as they seem to have admitted that conditions were extreme by suggesting that only experienced crews head out.

I can see a place for an electronic 'Spot' type of device to be developed and handed out at races.
This would communicate directly to race organisers as well as normal rescue services.
Rescue services would then be informed if the problem is under control or if the organisers need assistance.

Rescue crew at the race would then be the responsible rescuers unless they get swamped by freak conditions.

Even if a 'normal' spot device was used, it would not be very expensive to implement.

I think that organisers really should look into this sort of thing, before it gets rammed down our throats, in a form that we don't like, by powers that be.

Follow the path of the independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that are important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.--- Thomas J. Watson

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