• Paddling in a Storm

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    Date: Sunday 12 March, 2023
    Distance: 21km
    Conditions: Light wind. Afternoon storm.

    What do you do when out paddling and you see a storm approaching? Get off the water? Maybe, maybe not. You have Buckleys of out pacing a fast moving electrical storm. Furthermore, it seems that the shoreline is not necessarily the place to be when it comes to lightning.

    Today started off as a relaxed meander from the Boat Passage across to St Helena for morning tea. Followed by a spot of shark bothering then onto Green for lunch and return. It was a quiet calm silvery start on a miserable amount of water. There was just enough to hide big rays nestling in the sea grass which, when disturbed, suddenly took off pushing an impressive bow wave.

    The silver morphed into a clear blue sky day. Yet the Bay remained surprisingly devoid of traffic. We had morning tea in dappled shade. A distant rumble had Mark comment about thunder and Graham levitated, slightly. It was a plane and not the forecast storm.

    Clouds were starting to gather in the west as we paddled clockwise around St Helena. An inch of water at the entrance to the NW lagoon forced a pause. We sat and watched baby bull sharks cruising the shallows. Backwards and forwards. The smooth repeated pattern traced by their fins was mesmerising and there were quite a few of them. Then the flooding tide bumped and scraped the kayaks across the coral which spooked the nursery into a thrash of water. Silence.

    Soon they were back. The baby bullies around St Helena are up to 1.5 metres long, pale grey and tend to congregate in loose packs. The generous tide allowed us to poke around the mangroves down the eastern side of St Helena where, much to our surprise we came across a second group of baby bullies. The funniest incident was a giant splash closely followed by a ‘holy shit’ coming from deep in the mangroves. Mark had startled a bullie. It was disturbingly big for both the depth of the water and density of mangroves they were both sharing at the time. Certainly makes you think twice about hopping out of your kayak when having difficulty manoeuvring in the shallows amongst twiggy mangroves.

    By the time we emerged at the SE corner of St Helena the wind was up, the SAGS racing at a fair clip, the clouds looking more ominous and Graham was going home. Mark, Jack and I sailed across to Green and found ourselves a shady place with the welcome breeze. It was busy. Several runabouts were hauled up and families with young children were spending a day on the beach. By the time we had eaten the SAGS were healing, the clouds seriously broody and this time it definitely was thunder. Time to go. Yet only we seemed concerned by what was coming in over the city. We left the children playing in the shallows and made a direct beam reach for the Boat Passage.

    We crossed behind the path of a solitary paddler flying a white sail heading towards Wynnum. There was no response to Jack’s call on Channel 69. By now the clouds were dark. The thunder was rumbling more often. Strikes were visible and timed at 10Km. Then 5Km. I took my sail down as the meagre remnants of the wind were not worth attracting unwanted attention. Strikes at coming in at 3Km. With 20 minutes of paddling time left we wanted to get the hell out of there.

    We pulled up on the beach at the Boat Passage with the first splodges of rain. I asked Mark to move the car further away from what now looked like the tallest tree in the car park. He duly obliged. The warm rain was pelting down and we were thoroughly rinsed. Strike at 1Km. Holy crap. We did not wash the boats or gear. Jack had already left and we were gone soon after. The phone rang – it was Graham asking if we were okay.

    So there was a possible storm forecast. Were we foolhardy to go out? If the forecast for a possible storm stalls your intentions, then you may never get out on the water in summer. The only thing I have read that may be worth considering is that if caught on the water with an electrical storm approaching, keep your distance from each other to around 300m. That way if someone does take hit, not everyone is likely to be affected (this is apparently based on observations when a strike grounded close to the shoreline of a swimming beach). Nice theory but difficult to do when visibility maybe less than 50 metres.

    What about squalls? These are seldom forecast and can be hair raising. If you see a squall approaching, take a bearing as chances are you will soon lose sight of land. If you think of it, tighten your lifejacket, even better, clip your crotch strap (if you wear one). Time to hang in there and ride ‘em cowboy.

    If it gets really nasty could you turn turtle ? It would not be the first time I have contemplated hiding under my kayak. The last time I seriously considered this would have been easy as we were in shallow water in a coral lagoon off the east side of Mud Island waiting for an electrical storm to pass. About 30 minutes before I had been approached and beckoned over by an official looking powercat. It was Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ). The two people on board told us we were about to get hit by a fast approaching storm from the NE. I was asked if the radio on my deck was a VHF and if I knew how to use it. After receiving an affirmation they simply left. I had never seen a MSQ boat on the water before, or since.

    Going turtle could be tricky if you are in deep water and about to be enveloped by an electrical storm or squall. So I have no idea what to do aside buckle up tight, load up (I do this by filling empty water bottles adding 2 to 10Kg), sprout a few chicken feathers, hang in there and, if really frightened, become increasingly spiritual and hope for the Grace of God.