Danger on the water can creep up on you, un-noticed, till too late.
When I set out the day was hot and clear, the sea oily calm.
The tiny ‘tinny’ (Kiwi speak for an aluminium dinghy) swished across the sea. The 15 horse Yamaha humming along, pushing me quickly across the kilometre or so to the point outside Whangamumu Harbour, Northland, New Zealand, on the coast outside the Bay of Islands.
This point was my destination, but on rounding it I could see one of my favourite fishing spots, Wairiri Rock, sitting up in a meringue of foam, across the calm water.
Too much temptation to resist. I started out to cover the 2 or so kilometres to the rock.
On the way I noticed a swell. Heading out to Whangamumu point, I had been protected from the swell, but now I could feel the boat slow as it climbed up the rollers, and then speed up as it ran downhill.
The swell was big enough, around 1.5 meters, but it was a long swell. Big enough for the tiny tinny, but no immediate danger, in the windless conditions.
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I arrived at Waiwiri Rock to find a small flotilla of boats, and hectares of trevally and kahawai schools. Just right for the saltwater fly rod I had tucked away. Out it came, and the fun began.
For three or four hours I caught and released more kahawai and trevally than an adult should catch.
Adults are not supposed to have that much fun, according to some. Perhaps because adults are not supposed to have too much fun, my sport was interrupted by the growing awareness of some good gusts of wind, puffing about.
Waiwiri Rock sits at the end of a point, at the end of a cape, at the entrance to the Bay of Islands. This point had protected me from the North-West wind. A look out to sea, revealed a good number of whitecaps scudding across the water. Time to go.
The motor, as usual, started first pull and I was off. But as I moved away from the point, the more I realised how big a problem the wind had become. It was blowing from the nor-west, quartering the swell moving in from the North. The wind was blowing at some 15 knots.
As I moved out into the bay bounded by Waiwiri Point and Whangamumu Point, the wind now unhindered by the hills, built in force. The wind combined with the swell made handling the tinny very tricky.
I crashed down the faces of the swells, bouncing over the wind driven chop, all the time trying to avoid broaching. I had gone too far to safely consider turning back for the calm behind the point.
I considered, and for a few minutes tried, to change course and head for the safety of Whangamumu Harbour. But the combination of the direction of the swell and wind made this full beam-on passage an impossible option.
To add to the problems, a low thick mist pushing off the hills added to the visibility problems of flying spray.
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Now I was very worried. Scared as hell, truth to be told, and very cold. The wind, flying spray and mist soon penetrated my light summer clothing.
But now, committed to running downhill towards and then around Whangamumu Point, my nerves settled and I set about concentrating on my driving. Even in these rough seas there was a certain symmetry to the chop and swell. By careful speed control I was able to make good progress towards my target.
This intense concentration has its drawbacks.
The whole world became reduced to the immediate area, the boat and the motor. Nothing, absolutely nothing, else mattered. The boat and the motor were critical. Perhaps because of this, any change in the tone, sound, and revs of the motor became pronounced. A cause for more worry.
A strange worry.
This was a motor that for 5 years had started first pull, every time. A motor that had never once stopped running. But now in this muddled mess of a sea, every change in sound, every strange previously unnoticed vibration, became a portent of doom.
The occasional missed beat of the motor, a regular occurrence in the past now set off worries about the fuel and the filters. The motor rattled on. It had to. The sheer rock walls of this piece of the Northland coast offered no sanctuary.
Then these worries about the motor disappeared.
As Whangamumu Point approached new dangers arose. Because of the bad visibility I ended up too close to the point. Much too close.
Not that I was close enough to worry about being hurled onto the rocks, but the swell smashing onto the steep rocks produced a vicious backwash. This backwash driven by the following wind built a dangerous cross chop, crossing the ocean swell, which was growing steeper as it pushed against an outgoing tide current sweeping around the point.
There was another problem.
In the bad visibility and in this washing machine of a sea I could not see the large clump of low exposed rocks that sits off the end of Whangamumu Point.
On good days it is an easy and very safe run for even a fifty footer between these rocks and the point, but in these seas, suicidal in the tiny tinny.
Even though I could not see the rocks I knew the area well enough to know that my present course would take me inside or onto the rocks. I also knew that I had to clear the rocks by a wide margin.
On the northern side of the rocks is a shallow platform of rock that in big swells often breaks. On the southern side of the rocks is a particularly nasty sunken reef 50 meters off the rocks that breaks in even a small swell.
I had to turn out to sea.
This part of the trip was terrifying. The boat was picked up by the backwash and swung across the face of the steep ocean swell. The boat would lurch onto its side and water would crash over the gunwales. Then the swell would swing the boat back down its face, smack into the path of the next backwash.
At times the propeller would break free from the water and race at high speed in the air. Still I could not see the rocks.
But I saw the wave.
Not 15 meters away and out to my left a wave reared up and broke on the shallow platform. I was much too close to the rocks, and with the sea conditions I could not alter my course enough to clear the danger. There was no alternative.
A bigger swell than average pushed up and steepened. The face was relatively smooth, so I gunned the motor and shot across the face in a crude mockery of my old surfing days. Down and across the steepening face I raced, as the swell began to curl.
I shot off the end of the wave and clear of the danger as it broke onto the shallow platform just behind me.
Now I could concentrate on rounding the reef at the back of the rocks and then round the point.
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After what I had just been through I thought this would be easy. I carefully bounced through the wash off the rocks and managed to clear the rocks and its satellite reef.
But just as I rounded the reef, a sixty-foot gin palace at full planing speed, rounded the point in front of me and sped past, not three of his boat lengths away.
His wake hit me on the bow quarter at the same moment as a swell lifted me from behind. I fell into the bottom of the boat still holding the motor handle which turned the boat even further down the face of the swell. The boat lurched, stalled in the water and the gunwale dipped under, as did the transom.
Rods fell into the bottom of the boat, the fuel tank tipped over, my net was dragged over the side, and I was sure the boat was going to tip over. It did not.
I struggled back to my seat and straightening up the boat slowly with a half meter load of water in the bottom headed around the point.
As I rounded the point the transformation in the conditions was magical. Now out of the wind and swell in the southern lee of the point I was in oily calm conditions. I laughed out loud in utter relief as I bailed out the boat and set out for home.
Then the motor stopped. No, not now, I moaned, as I yanked on the starter cord. Nothing.
I checked the fuel. The gauge said there was plenty, so did my eyes when I took off the cap. Still it would not start. I took off the engine cover and gave the motor a spray of WD40. Still no go. I simply could not believe it. The moment I was out of the fertiliser business the motor gives up the ghost.
Should I laugh or cry? Laugh that the motor kept going through all the rough stuff, cry about the kilometre row ahead of me.
As I bent down to pick up the oars I noticed the fuel line was jammed between the fuel tank and the seat. I cleared the line, pumped the bulb, pulled the cord and the motor, bless it, gurgled into life.
Soon I was home. The story to my family and friends sitting on the porch, in the afternoon sun looking out over the clear blue, flat calm sea, met with a wall of ho-hum. There was no way that the drama I had just been through could have any impact looking out over that serene view.
I was lucky, very lucky. Much more lucky than I deserved to be. I broke too many rules.
- I went out in the boat in light summer gear, with nothing to change into if the weather turned nasty.
- I did not check the weather forecast before I left. I did not keep an eye on the weather as I fished.
- I did not keep to the trip plan I had told my family. If I had come to grief people would be looking where I was not.
- I did not have life jackets on board.
There is an old story of the couple who had been married for 60 years. They were being interviewed by a TV station, who asked them the secret of their long marriage. The husband said that when they married they left the church in their horse and buggy and as they neared home the horse stumbled. The husband’s only comment was, “that’s once”.
On the horse stumbling for the second time, the husband pulled his rifle from under the buggy seat and shot the horse.
A month or so into the marriage, the couple exchanged harsh words. The wife said, “that’s once.”
I like to think of that trip as “that’s my once”.