Sunday, 29 January 2012

For those in peril on the sea

My effort to kick start my non-existant ski season suffered another blow when I woke up on Saturday morning to find a message from Mark Basso reading "Sea Kayaking in the sun....last good day for a while I think.....ring me if you're up for it. I have an extra drysuit you can use too". While my mind swam with images of icebergs and frozen hands off the Norwegian coast, in the middle of winter, of all seasons, I sipped my steaming coffee and mindlessly flipped my phone over and over in my hand.

In the end I agreed. After all, I would be going out with an immensely experienced guide. While I'm waiting for the replacement spray-skirt for 'Gwendolen' to arrive from Alpacka I thought that any kind of paddling would be good experience for future adventures in my packraft. And experience was something I was lacking. My other efforts in sea kayaks had been a very gentle paddle around a quay and marina on a humid but drizzly evening last summer and our ill-fated attempt at taking the Grade 10 kids on a sea kayaking trip towards the end of the last school year. That excursion ended up with us 'abandoning ship' 30 minutes into the trip when a storm rolled into the fjord and the coast guard was called... So with a whopping 90 minutes of experience tucked nervously under the belt of my newly acquired PFD I put myself in Mark's hand and those of the North Sea...

The actuality was an almost windless coastline. No icebergs in sight. The Gulf Stream can be kind on days like this and we launched in glassy clear waters. It took me a while to get used to the tippy kayak again and Mark gently took me through a kayaking 101 as he smoothly (me, less so) crossed the sheltered bays and straights that braid the small rocky islands of the west coast of Sotra together. With one-on-one tuition I started to get to grips with the myriad of little details I had to remember. Sitting position, body movements, arm movements, paddle orientation, different strokes, etc, all while my senses were overloaded by the beguiling crystal clear waters below and rocky scenery around me.

On our first break we put ashore on one of the desolate islands, reveling in the rock striations that fold and swirl beneath your feet and the stubborn excuses for plant life that call this rock home. Mark regaled stories of less benign weather. Of epic adventures both here and in Canada. He pointed out the route he wanted us to follow. White caps and sea foam un-eased me.

Time to go we headed back to the kayaks and put-in. The narrow straight between two outcrops known as 'The Gaunlet' surged and pulsed close by, menacingly it seemed to me. Mark then stated that he had never seen it so calm...

As we headed out of the shelter of the island and into the North Sea proper I began to feel a little nervous. Despite the calm weather the swell and wave refraction from the shore started to test my abilities to keep my body line within the confines of the boat. Slow but powerful, the swell rocked my kayak. If the swell came head-on I was fine, from the side and I struggled to keep balance. Keep paddling, Mark encouraged, maintain a course.

And suddenly I was in a world I didn't recognise. Black, wet and upside down. Somehow I kept a hold of my breath and the paddle and found the spraydeck handle. A quick tug and I pushed my self clear of the boat. Don't let go of the paddle. I bobbed to surface only to get nailed in the side of the head my Mark's rapidly approaching kayak. His calm demeanour and humour calmed my somewhat fluttering heart. With years of experience of plucking hapless souls from the brine he talked me through the 'T rescue', working together to secure then flip my kayak and empty it of sea water. 


Don't let go of the paddle.

Bottomless fathoms. 

Dark thoughts rose fleetingly in my mind before Mark's instructions brought me back to the task in-hand, porpoising myself back onto my now righted and securely rafted boat. Within a couple of minutes I was securely back under my spray deck with my paddle in my hand. Time to head back to calmer waters. Mark's confidence in me had written cheques my limited skills couldn't cash. Still a few hundred metres to get back to calmer waters. Keep paddling. A couple more heart-in-mouth moments as swells boiled up beneath my boat and we were back inside the bosom of the islands. 

Now I could laugh about it. Now I could tell tales of monster waves and dramatic rescue. Truth was I had rolled in some of the calmest weather imaginable. We joked and he teased. After some more paddling to get warm and rinse the adrenaline surging through my viens we put ashore again. Don't let go of the paddle. I laughed out loud. I had exited the kayak, removed my dry-bags from the hatches and walked all the way round to Mark's landing spot, all whilst still clutching my paddle. A celebratory hot chocolate, a celebratory beer. 

We set off again for a circuit of another island. The water here was glassy. We spotted giant sea urchins through the aquarium clear water near the shore line. We fished one out and marveled at it's purple coloured spines and spiky texture before returning it to the deep. We joked more. I whistled the Hawaii 5-0 theme tune, totally without conscious thought. In the gloaming light a man sat sentinal to a huge fire on the shore, it's orange flame and smoky aroma so tempting. Salt and dryness caked the backs of my hands. The muscles in my arms throbbed and cramped as the tide ushered us gently back to the dock. One more lesson to learn. Don't porpoise out onto the floating dock unless your brand new rescue knife is secured to your PFD. Otherwise you will hear a splash and watch forlornly as it's bright orange handle and carbon blade shimmer and flutter down through several metres of water and come to rest next to a giant starfish, infuriatingly out of reach, at the bottom of sea.

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