First of all I became involved because of a comment last year from a friend who said he had to organise a Search & Rescue exercise for his boat club. I suggested he make it realistic by having me sit out in Bass Strait one night to give them something to look for. A couple of weeks later this kind offer was accepted.
The accompanying chart shows the area involved, I was supposedly last seen at the spot marked, heading from west to east on the planned route. The initial search area was marked out by the organisers, who had no idea of where I would actually place myself. To be quite honest I didn't even decide that myself till I was on the water paddling, so as to feel out the conditions. The object was not for me to make myself impossible to find, but to give the club basic practice in formation searching, so although I did entertain ideas of sitting right on the extremities of the search area, or landing on the rocks on the shore, I ended up sitting in the spot marked with a dot inside a circle.
I had no idea of how quickly they could search an area but did know that their technique was to steam in line abreast approx 100m apart, shining spot lights towards each other. Apparently this does not blind the occupants as I would have thought, but illuminates the area between their boats fairly well.
Weather conditions on the day were no wind and heavy fog early morning, with a predicted cold NW to W change late afternoon. This duly arrived.
I left the Inglis River a little after 1630, equipped with 3 parachute flares and 2 hand held flares, and a weather-proof CB radio. I also carried my normal night paddling gear - a torch round my neck for looking at charts or brightening up the luminous spots on my hand compass, the compass around my neck, a camera around my neck, I was wearing two jumpers, sprayjacket, PFD, and illuminated hat (when I turn it on). I also carried my Portland Navigator but did not really expect it would be used.
The search was timed to begin at 2000 so I left good and early to give me time to dodge around after I got out of sight in case they were watching, and to give me a chance to become acclimatised to the conditions well before dark. I paddled along the shore to Table Cape and then had a practice paddle out a mile or so and then back in again. It was a little bit lumpy just off the Cape for about 1/2 a mile but not so rough that any of the Maatsuyker Canoe Club would have commented had the rest of them been there. The wind was probably 10 to 15 knots, and the swell nor'nor'westerly. Low tide was a little after midnight.
After paddling around in the vicinity of the Cape to keep warm, at 1900 I headed due north for about an hour, diagonally across the wind and swell. Even after an hour the Lighthouse didn't look far away, but I've been miles off shore before and taken 2 or 3 hours to close a coast that only appeared to be a couple of miles away so ignored the feeling that I should be further out. My only method of estimating distance reliably is to go by the amount of time I've been paddling. In good conditions by myself I reckon on an average of 4 knots, but when in a group or just dawdling along then I allow an average of 3 knots - so I knew I had to be well inside 4 nm offshore as I had been dawdling, and a bearing taken on Rocky Cape Lighthouse confirmed this.
At 2000 I pulled the radio out from inside my PFD and tried it, but with no reply. I then left it swinging from my neck for most of the rest of the night, but found it rather tiresome as it swung around a lot, and tended to catch up with my compass and torch when I wanted to use them. I called every 1/4 of an hour with absolutely no indication of any communication being established - although it gave every sign of working normally. Fortunately I had made prior arrangements that if I wasn't found by 2200 I would let flares off. The Police had been informed and had given permission to use flares up to 2230. The public had not been warned so that the communities' reaction could be guaged.
About 2025 I saw one solitary light close inshore coming from Wynyard direction under Table Cape but very shortly it turned and disappeared back in the direction it came from. For the next 1 1/2 hours I had no indication what so ever that any other vessel was on the water that night - no lights, no faint motor sounds - nothing. In actual fact I was firmly convinced that nobody had turned up and the exercise had been called off.
I could just see the street lights of Wynyard, but any vehicles on the roads were still below the horizon. I kept the lighthouse due south of me, and kept taking a bearing on Rocky Cape Lighthouse to make sure I wasn't too far out to sea. I am not at all familiar with currents in this area and would have thought that the current would have been from west to east, aiding the wind in taking me a long way to the east, but in actual fact I had to keep paddling ESE to just maintain visual contact with the street lights.
By 2200 the wind had eased considerably as had the seas which made the job of letting off the flares much easier. I feel that in really bad conditions this would have been very difficult - if not impossible. They require peeling a piece of tape off the top and removing a plastic cap and the same on the bottom. Another small piece of tape is then stripped away and then a lever moved through about 270 degrees. Then of course there is a very satisfying whoosh as she fires straight up - if you've thought to aim it straight up. A few moments later the night is turned into an eerie reddish day for 60 metres all round. I fired a second one in quick succession and then decided I may as well go home, and proceeded to head for the distant shore. After a few minutes I decided that I may as well have the fun of letting the other one off as well and did so before paddling on again - and it was only by accident that I just glimpsed an answering flare away to the east of me. I immediately stopped paddling, tried the radio again unsuccessfully, and then saw signs of spot lights over the horizon.
It wasn't too long before a row of lights hove into view but before I could distinguish them well enough to count them accurately they started disappearing shorewards. The problem was that if the searchers weren't back in the river by 2230 the tide would be too low for them to retrieve their boats from the water at the yacht club boat ramp. This would have meant staying out till 0200 Sunday morning which they were loath to do. Two vessels stayed out, one a small fast runabout and the other a 40 foot steel vessel equipped with powerful spot lights, radar, and was trying out a light-intensifier (of the Falklands War fame). They lit up a hand-held flare while still a way away and I responded likewise where upon they closed very rapidly. I had turned my flashing hat on just before letting off the first flare at 2200 so was now easy to locate by boats in close proximity. The larger vessel came straight at me from side on intending to throw it into reverse at the last second but chanced to pick that moment to have a spot of clutch trouble and I only just backed away in time to see a large steel bow go past exactly where I had been moments before. It may not have cut the Sea Leopard in half but certainly would have given it a nasty fracture.
This ended the exercise but not the fun for the night. I declined any assistance and set off towards the cape but was bothered by the bright lights still aimed at me, not realising they were getting a bit of action on a video. A polite request brought darkness back and I again paddled on towards the cape - my plan to find the river mouth being to follow the shore till I got there. I couldn't see any flashing light to indicate an entrance but found it OK about midnight, and could see the larger S & R vessel waiting out to sea a bit for the tide to come in - or at least I thought it was. Actually it had attempted to get in at low tide and had gone hard aground. Cecily had gone out on this boat for the night to see the action from their side and so I got a first hand account of the grounding. It bumped around fairly solidly before coming off and then it was found they had no steering and had 2 feet of water in the back hatch and rapidly filling. This called for some large pumps to be brought into action and bailing with a bucket but they were just barely holding their own when the hole was located and blocked with a type of putty, enabling the boat to be kept dry. The visitors on board were then ferried ashore by dinghy and arrangements made over the radio to slip the vessel at 0500.
I had a look at it on the slip the next day and saw one of the twin rudders had bent it's shaft and the top corner of the rudder had penetrated the steel hull.
So that was the exercise.
What did I think of it?
Well I certainly learnt a few things about searches, like how they actually go about it, but I'm doubtful that if I was really in trouble in rough conditions they would even go out to look. They are not professional seamen, but pleasure boat owners, but in the case of windsurfers blown offshore, or dinghies that have broken down and not returned home by dark, they would certainly be useful. And this is the type of search we were trying to enact. It was unfortunate that most of them went in early because of the tide because I would really like to see them stay out all night if necessary, to find me, without any visual signals from myself - maybe next time.
I have always been against the carrying of flares in sea kayaks, partly because of cost and the regular need to replace them, and partly because I believe that if conditions were so bad that we required help then conditions would be too bad for most rescue vessels. Apart from that you do need TWO hands to operate the parachute flares, and need to be very familiar with the operation of them so you can do it in the dark. Had it been much rougher then I feel it would have been fairly difficult to let these off without the danger of being caught by a wave in the dark and capsizing. Of course if you were already capsized then there would be no problem.
The hand-held flares are even more of a problem as they burn for what seemed like a minute, which means holding one hand high in the air for that time - not possible in rough conditions by yourself, you would need another kayak out there to raft up with.
I should have tried the radio out before I left the river but was assured several times that it had a range of 10 or 15 miles - no worries. It was fortunate that I made arrangements to let the flares off at 2200 regardless. But then I don't like relying on radios in kayaks - it is too easy to capsize and submerse them completely - which tends to kill them. And they are a bloody nuisance around your neck, and this was in relatively calm conditions for most of the time.
I found the hand-held compass fairly useless for night navigation - not a patch on the one in the Longboat. That is a proper gimbaled liquid-filled marine type with it's own light. To get a bearing with that you just aim the kayak at whatever you want a bearing on and read the compass. The hand-held one needed the luminous spots brightened up with torch light each time before use, and then the torch was needed again to read the bearing - all very difficult had it been rougher, and probably not too accurate. Not that it worried me on this occasion as all I had to do was keep due north of the Table Cape Lighthouse and keep the streetlights of Wynyard just on the horizon.
I have yet to see a report from the boat club on how effective the light intensifier was, how effective my hat was, or what problems they could see in the whole exercise - but will publish it when I get a copy.
Return to Sea Canoeist Index Return to home page Return to Photo/trip page Return to 'Rescued should pay?'