Capsize in Kayak, Refuge Cove – Wilsons Prom

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Day 1: Setting off from Tidal River. Derek, me Peter and Steve (L to R).

During the Labour Day long weekend in March 2018 four of us paddled (and sailed) our sea kayaks around the southern tip of Wilsons Prom National Park, from Tidal River to Port Welshpool – a total distance of 90 kilometres over 3 days.

Shortly after this trip I posted a video  on Youtube (see address at bottom) and never got around to doing a blog until now. I thought it would be of value to further cover the adventurous aspect of this trip.

The Prom has a wonderful coastline with so much to offer. Paddling a kayak keeps you close to nature and the elements, and makes for a great adventure but can also be risky as I was to find out on this particular trip as I capsized with the sail up, out from the coast with a strong offshore wind.

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Day 1: Lunch stop at Fenwick Bight – between Tidal River and Lighthouse.
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Night 1: Waterloo Bay
Map showing route paddled from Tidal River to Horn Point. Night 1 at Waterloo.  Night 2 at Horn Point.  Day three Port Welshpool.

DAY TWO

On day 2 (Sunday) of our 3 day kayaking trip, we were planning to paddle from Waterloo Bay to Refuge Cove.  The forecast was for 15 knots from the West so we weren’t too worried about the conditions. We were on the protected side of the Promontory.    As we rounded Cape Wellington we pulled into a small sandy beach below Kersops Peak.  After a brief stop we then set off for Refuge Cove – or so we thought!

Peter was navigating, and up until this point had done an excellent job, so Steve, Derek and me didn’t personally pay much attention to the landmarks nor refer to our maps or GPS.  Unfortunately Peter somehow missed Brown Head, which is when we should have hugged the coast into Refuge Cove.  Instead we continued on across Refuge Cove towards Horn Point.  The distance between Brown Head and Horn Point is 1.75 km. It was halfway across the Cove when I got into trouble.

Map showing location of capsize at Refuge Cove – south east Prom.
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Willy Weather chart for Sunday 11 March 2018. Note that Wind Real-Time after midday was over 30 knots – well above forecast!

At the time there was a strong off shore wind which was trying to blow us out to sea.  I was a short distance behind Steve, Peter and Derek on the lee quarter and was attempting to get back close to them.  My sail was fully up-hauled but I was struggling to make any progress in closing the gap to the others.  I was contemplating dropping my sail and paddling upwind when without warning a strong gust tipped me over. I had to wet exit because the sail was up, which makes it very difficult to perform a roll. Upside down I pulled my spray skirt tab and was out of my boat.  By the time I packed my sail up, which took a few minutes, I noticed that Steve and the others were still heading off in the distance unaware of me out of my boat. The time was approx. 11:15 am.

I immediately tried a re-enter and roll but was unsuccessful.  The seas were getting choppy and I was drifting away from the coast.  Getting back into your boat is not easy in these conditions.  With a re-enter and roll it takes at least 15 seconds to place your feet in the cockpit whilst upside down (underwater) and set the paddle up for a hip flick and roll back upright. My first attempt failed partly due to my water container coming loose in the cockpit and restricting placement of my legs.  Holding your breath for a second attempt is a real challenge.  The next alternative action for emergency self- rescue is to use a paddle float.  Mine was stored away in my day hatch, not ideal but still accessible.  Before I went for my paddle float I had another look around and to my surprise noticed a large boat in the distance.  It was approaching my direction so I waited.

As luck would have it the wildlife tourist ferry Brianna Lee from Port Welshpool was doing its daily run to the Light House.  They had seen me and motored alongside. The skipper kindly took my kayak in tow with me on-board and dropped my off at Horn Point, which was where the others had by this time got to.  It must have been a good kilometre to land (upwind).

Towed back in by the wildlife tour ferry – Brianna Lee
They dropped me off at Horn Point

The rescue definitely saved me many more hours on the water.  I have often thought of how this would have played out if I wasn’t rescued by the Ferry.  I had sufficient water and food for two days along with a marine radio, GPS and PLB (Personal Locator Beacon).    Firstly I would have performed an emergency self -rescue using my paddle float.  I have trained in self rescue with a paddle float in similar conditions and am confident that I could have got back in my boat.  My technique is to do a re-enter and roll using the paddle float, and then use my electric bilge pump to pump the cockpit dry.  In this scenario I would have been over a kilometre from land.  I would have soon realised that paddling upwind in a 25 knot wind to get to Wilsons Prom would have been “touch and go”.

Late afternoon Day 2: : Looking south across Refuge Cove from Horn Point towards Brown Head.  We camped at this location – too windy to paddle to Sealers Cove! The sea appears calm in this photo but quite different in reality.

Would Steve, Peter and Derek have put themselves at risk and paddled out to sea to get to me?  This is a good question which would have depended on when they noticed I was missing, when they noticed the ferry on the scene and various other factors.    As it was they had a strenuous battle upwind to get themselves to safety which was a real effort in itself!

In the scenario of being by myself with an off shore wind, increasing to 30 plus knots by 2pm, I would have firstly faced the shore and monitored my paddling progress against the wind. If I was making 1 or 2 kilometres per hour headway I could have possibly been successful in making the distance over a few hours. I must experiment one day to establish my limits in this regard. The only other option (apart from activating my PLB) would be to strike out towards the Seal Islands (19 km to the NW), or Hogan Island (47 km to the SW).   I have paddled to, and camped at, both these locations before and had the way points programmed in my GPS.  If I would have taken the Seal Island option the wind would have been on my port quarter or what’s described as a broad reach – this would have taken approximately 3 hours to paddle.    To Hogan Island the wind would have been on my starboard quarter (broad reach) and taken approximately 7 hours of paddling.  Therefore I would have hopefully reached either landfall by dark.  I had camping equipment, food and water for a few days so this wouldn’t have been an issue.  It would have been important to contact friends and family as soon as possible.  If I couldn’t raise anyone using my VHF radio whilst on the water I would have had mobile phone coverage on both these islands (tested on previous occasions).

The event was quite embarrassing at the time, but was also an invaluable experience.   Lessons learnt:

  • Not to have the sail up when close hauling in strong wind conditions (20 knots off shore). Up hauling a sail in a kayak is risky.
  • Use your whistle immediately to alert others.
  • In remote areas every paddler should be independent and fully aware of their actual location. ie use map and GPS. Don’t solely rely on others.
  • Every paddler should have a marine radio (I think was the only one with a VHF radio).
  • Don’t rely on the BOM forecast. – wind speed was twice what was predicted.
  • Have the paddle float stored on the upper deck for quick and easy access. Consider getting a second paddle float in the event of spending a night on the water – making an outrigger/ sponson using your paddle strapped across the kayak deck.

Blue water Kayaking is for the adventurous person.  The conditions we experienced on that day were demanding, and I ended up in a very precarious situation.  This situation could have easily ended up with me getting blown miles offshore, as well as the other three.  Once away from the coast it would be hard to predict if I/we could have effectively paddled upwind back to the Prom against 25 knot winds in three metre seas.  With an off-shore wind the further away from the coast and protection of land the rougher it gets.   On the whole I was extremely lucky to get picked up by a passing boat.  Fortunately this incident hasn’t scared me from doing similar trips again.  I consider myself to be much more learned as a result.

You can also see a video of this trip (8 min) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74jV16C2McE&t=121s

5 thoughts on “Capsize in Kayak, Refuge Cove – Wilsons Prom”

  1. That was very interesting to read all about your adventures and glad you had a safe outcome that ocean has a mind of its own. The reason l stay in Lakes and Rivers 😊 We done some hiking in Wilson’s Prom a few weeks ago so it was great to see a few photos from the sea, the video was great but once again too tough for me. Than you for sharing Your adventure 😊

    Sent from my Sony Xperia™ smartphone on the Telstra™ Mobile network

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  2. A great read Greg .
    You are so good at describing your adventures .

    You really take us on a journey with you .
    Very proud of your adventurous spirit and your ability to see things through think things through in tough and tight
    spots …
    l wrote 2 big posts last night and they suddenly disappeared…
    So posting this before it vanishes .
    Thanks for sharing

    l’m sure there is a book in the making with all your extra ordinary journeys and ad ventures to your repertoire!!
    Kerry Schuurmans Melbourne

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  3. What a great trip Greg. Its all about the journey and every journey is different. Great timing in regards to getting a tow, I was talking to the Port Welshpool coast guard back in Nov 2016 and he was saying their is 3 weather patterns between Port Welshpool and the Wilson’s Prom Light house. This is handy to know for the next time I do a trip, I have a Hobie TI and done a few trips from Port Welshpool to LSI and 5 mile beach. Handy to know you can get mobile reception on Hogan and Seal Island. So much to see along that bit of coast. Look forward to your next adventure Greg, stay safe , Alan

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    1. Thanks Alan. Yep, this trip could have easily played out differently. It’s one of my favourite parts of the coast but as you know it can be tricky. You don’t get experience from staying at home! Enjoy your future trips.

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