High-adrenalin Paddling...

Monday, 30 January 2006 22:55 | Written by  Wayne Borchardt
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(by Wayne Borchardt)

After weeks of trying to coordinate a downwind paddle, Rob and I eventually manage to align our plans. Miller’s Point to Fishhoek for a classic downwind paddle is on the cards for 1pm.  


Timing is going to be key since I had a brunch in Camps Bay at 10am and I need to be back at the airport by 5pm for my regular return commute to Johannesburg. Brunch was fun, but the “perfect” weather in Camps Bay disturbed me. The South Easter generally does not go unnoticed in Camps Bay and today there’s not a breath of wind. I figure it will good to get on the sea even if there’s no wind. The Miller’s run is best when the South Easter is pumping though.

I’m driving out to Fishhoek to meet Rob and another mate of his, resigned to the fact that this will be a

 When the clouds are like this...
gentle tap-tap paddle, but as I begin to climb Ou Kaapseweg I notice a cloud bank on the mountain and its moving with definite ferocity. If there’s wind here, there’s gotta be wind in False Bay. I start to feel more excited with the materialising sense of a real downwind paddle.

When I get to Rob, and meet his mate Damian, plus Damian’s wife and mother-in-law, the wind is solid; not gale-force, that would have been fun, but a solid 30 knot South South East breeze. In fact there’s enough wind that Damian is indicating his anxiety, although this is surpassed by his wife and mother-in-law who are, plainly, incredulous. You’re surely not going to sea in these conditions? Do you see anyone else out there? So, the mood in the car (5 of us heading to Miller’s) is both light-hearted and fearful. We need to stop twice to tighten the straps that are tying my surfski to Rob’s and Damian’s – it’s a precarious balance and the wind is having its way. Of course, the whipping of the straps, the need for the stops, one which results in Damian’s cap being blown off his head, only adds to the anxiety (panic at this point?) of Damian’s support crew.

Now one of my weaknesses is being somewhat blasé when it comes to high risk sea adventures. I’m getting more psyched as I see the white caps being whipped up; the rest of the car is growing quieter. After a slow drive we arrive at Miller’s. There’s been some banter about “the rock” that we need to paddle around. This rock is about 1km out at sea and we need to round the rock counter-clockwise before turning our skis downwind for the real fun. But to get to the rock involves paddling with the wind on our sides. And there’s a fair bit of swell. So, each time we crest a wave and the nose of the boat becomes airborne the wind does its best to whip us to the left before the boat thuds down into the water again.

 "The Rock" - Bakoven Rock 1km off Millers Point

It’s actually reasonably easy going, in stark contrast to the war stories in the car about steering failure necessitating emergency exits. Oh, the car talk also included safety checks – like who’s carrying cellphones, who’s wearing a life jacket, who’s using a leash, who’s got flares, and, to my amazement, who’s got GPS. Well, I had a flare and I reluctantly gave in to using a leash. Rob and Damian had all that and everything else. I guess marriage affects one’s risk profile.

Miller's RunOk, we’re at the rock. Well, we’re about 200m upwind of the rock, taking a very conservative wide angle around it. We group together, as per the plan, turn downwind and off we go. Immediately we feel the force of the wind on our backs. This is a good sign, since it’s only in strong wind that one feels the wind from behind; paddling into the wind one feels the mildest of breezes, but running with the wind is deceptive on sensing the true strength of the wind. So, we’ve got the wind on our backs and, looking forward, a magnificent wind torn sea ahead of us. Oooh, this is going to be awesome! It takes barely a couple of hard pulls on the paddle and my boat is tearing down the face of a wave, a spray of salt water as the ski cuts an angle to the wave.

Rob, Damian and I have agreed to stay together, or at least in sight of each other, for safety reasons. Our first waves have already pulled Rob and Damian way further out to sea than me and so I focus on riding the runs in a diagonal fashion to make up ground (sea?) on them.

Downwind paddling is quite different to regular paddling in terms of the feel of the boat, the stop-start intensity of the paddling stroke, and most significantly, the sensation of the raw forces of nature. For me it is one of life’s most exhilarating experiences. One is out at sea (often several kilometres off shore), in high wind conditions, in an angry sea (wave generated swell mixing with persistent ground swell), and one is entirely dependent on the basic kit of a fibreglass surfski with 3 moving parts (2 pedals and a rudder) and a carbon / fibreglass paddle, the biting edge like a large spoon. That’s it – it’s you and nature in the extreme. There’ve been many instances of equipment failure and, perhaps more common, paddler incompetence. A paddler that falls out of their ski in conditions like these is suddenly in a very dangerous situation. The light fibreglass ski is likely to be caught by the wind and it is not uncommon for the ski to be “cigar-rolled”; i.e. the force of the wind causes it to literally roll and bounce away from the paddler. It is almost impossible for the paddler to catch their boat if this happens. So the paddler is now in tossing, wind-driven sea a few kilometres from land. And while one typically doesn’t get cold easily when paddling the surfski, it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes in the sea off Cape Town before early stage hypothermia adds to one’s troubles. And, if one’s the paranoid type, throw in the shark threat for good measure too.

Rob, Damian and I are making good ground. A well-timed, hard interval of paddling and then the pleasure of racing down a wave, barely needing to paddle, until the wave starts to fade … and then further hard strokes and generally a slight touch of the pedal to line the nose up with the most promising swell and once again the boat is charging into a watery pit. Depending on the timing and the size and steepness of the wave, one sometimes feels like the boat is dropping into a “mineshaft” and often the nose ploughs under the water slowing the ski dramatically until the air volume of the nose forces the boat clear again. Another few hard strokes and the boat is planing again.

Now I’m paddling hard. I can see a huge hole developing ahead. The nose is tipping down. A few more hard strokes and I’ll be on. The ski is starting to run. Another hard stroke and as the boat tips dramatically forward I stare down into a void … an open valley of sea caused by the displacement of water of a wave hungrily feeding itself. The wave is steep … very steep. And now my ski is plummeting down into the hole, the nose digging under slightly sending a refreshing shower of salty spray over me. I keep paddling hard and the nose self corrects and we (my surfski and I) are planing again, … charging ahead at 25 km/h. The hole is shifting to the right and I gently ease the right pedal, trying to maintain the speed while following the wave. Hitting the pedal too hard will cause the boat to spin out broadside to the wave, certainly losing the run, but sometimes also leading to capsize. Too little pedal pressure and I risk the wave escaping from me. Sometimes pedal pressure is futile because on steep waves the boat pitches so sharply that the rudder is brought clear of the water. Skilled paddlers are able to attack very steep waves diagonally to maintain rudder control. The skilled navigator is also able to link up runs with judicious use of paddling power, that is a strong set of strokes and gentle angling of the boat to connect with the next run as the paddler starts to lose momentum from the previous.

Now we’re approaching the lighthouse off Fishhoek. We’re about 2km out to sea and about 5km from our finish at Fishhoek. Rob and Damian take a cautious wide berth around the lighthouse as vicious seas are pounding the reef it grows from. I should learn from this sensible behaviour.

We’re in the final stretch now, approaching Fishhoek beach. My safety leash has been pissing me off for the entire trip. I figure that we’re close enough to home to shed the leash so that I may maximise my enjoyment of the last stretch. It’s barely two minutes from untying the leash when I misjudge a run, sweep broadside and gently topple into the water. I feel like a complete idiot but am quick to grab the boat before I become a hapless victim of the “cigar-roll”. I pull myself back into my ski, jitter precariously for a moment, and then take up a solid paddling stroke quickly sliding back into the groove.

We reach Fishhoek beach together. The usual post paddle banter ensues and Rob and Damian report back on data from their GPS. We’ve paddled 13km in just on an hour with a maximum speed of 25 km/h. We are unanimous in celebration of this wonderful sport and today’s awesome paddle.


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