After a great paddle in Shark Bay with Jeff and Sharon a few years ago, we’d vowed to try the more exposed transit of the Ningaloo Reef, from the small resort of Coral Bay north along the west side of the Northwest Cape through Cape Range NP as far as Tantabiddi boat ramp. All up about 150 kilometres or a week’s paddling.
The entire coast of WA is bare, windy and exposed to swells raised by storms in the restless Southern Ocean, with few settlements and little shelter or natural sources of freshwater to speak of. Only the extensive lagoon of Shark Bay and the reef-protected shoreline of the Northwest Cape provide potentially interesting sea kayaking, sheltered from the daily sea breeze, even if access to fresh water is still a problem.
What makes Ningaloo special is that the continental shelf is unusually close to the shore; in places the drop to the abyssal depths is less than a mile. This fact, as much as the presence of the reef, explains the unusual diversity of marine life which led to the marine park’s newly awarded UNESCO status. Small fish, turtles, rays, small sharks and dolphins live or visit the lagoons between the main reef’ and the shore, while bigger creatures right up to humpback whales, tiger sharks and not least the whale sharks for which Ningaloo has become famous, usually feed along the outside edge.
After a 1200-km overnight drive from Perth we arrived at the Coral Bay (CB) where Jeff’s first comment on easing himself out of the driving seat was ‘Jee-zus, look at the swell out there!’. The reef lies just below the surface a kilometre offshore here, and the Indian Ocean breaks on it unceasingly, forming a glaring band if ice-white surf, at times thrown 2-3 metres into the air. That wasn’t an undue worry for us as we were planning on staying well inside the near-continuous Reef, but the winds were another matter
Following weather reports over the preceding weeks I was beginning to wonder if September was such a good time after all. Asking around, many said a month earlier (as we’d been at Shark Bay) would have been fine – or May, or in high summer between cyclones. Everyone had their own suggestions, but the fact was right now the forecast for the next week (left) was 20 to 30 knot winds from the east or southeast, with gusts half as much again. As a result all fishing and tourist boat charters were cancelled out of Coral Bay.
Sounds grim unless you’re into tough conditions, but the good thing about following the Ningaloo is that it’s easy to bail out and cross the low coastal dunes to a rough 4×4 track that runs just inshore. A few cars ought to pass along it each day, so I figured even though I’d never go out in an F5 or 6 in the UK (where the seas are bigger, the skies greyer and the water much colder), here with reliably sunny 30°C days I’d give it a go as we’d never be far from the shore. We’d considered starting halfway up the coast at Ningaloo Homestead and just doing the less exposed northern stage, but the other two were keen to do the full run from Coral Bay (left). And anyway, getting Jeff’s van in and out along the Homestead’s corrugated access track with his 55-kg Perception kayak on the roof was not ideal.
Sunday Jeff and Sharon drove out to leave caches of food and water at the Homestead and another point up in the Cape Range park, while I investigated logging our route and details with anyone who was interested. Turns out that was a short list as most marine activity in Coral Bay was concerned with nipping out through the reef in motor boats for the day of fishing. Kayaking beyond the Bay itself was unknown and I was told within a day we’d be out of range from the local volunteer rescue services anyway. But we had my sat phone, Jeff had a VHF, plus a chart and a GPS each. The weather wouldn’t suddenly get much worse; it would be challenging from the start, so we knew what we were taking on.
Monday 6am and Jeff was raring to go; no time for breakfast – straight to the beach from where our mission was to cover 40 clicks that day, even although we had 9 days to cover the other 110 kms to Tantabiddi during which time we planned to linger and enjoy some reef exploring.
We loaded the boats on the shore, set off and flicked up our Pacific Action V-sails. Behind us, a curious crowd of early morning dog walkers had gathered while I struggled to follow a straight line across windy Batemans Bay (‘Coral Bay’). The sea was flat enough but the Incept seemed hard to control as the sail flapped or swayed violently from side to side. I tried to imitate the sail position Jeff was running on his big tandem, but soon even he reckoned it was already too windy to use the sails, so we pulled them in and paddled around Point Maud into the big scoop of coastline that leads north some 60km to Point Cloates below the Ningaloo sheep station.
The wind still blew off shore at this time which helped flatten the seas just as Jeff predicted, but soon a mile-long gap in the reef let the ocean swell through from the left. It rolled beneath us harmlessly and crashed with occasional fury on the sandy beach far to our right. As the morning progressed we tried sailing again. With years of experience and a well set-up boat, Jeff was much more proficient at this, but during the stronger gusts I was again struggling to get to grips with the K40. Where was the 10kph+ rush the PA sail had promised? Testing it in Scotland had hinted at this potential, but now the winds were an order of magnitude greater. One problem was the force of the wind had loosened and pushed my mast feet forward, so lessening the all important elastic tension which keeps the sail pulled forward, especially at lower angles. At one point Jeff leaned over and tightened the straps (and later I revised the straps to link directly to a couple of lugs) but as the hours passed I could feel myself losing confidence in my boat, too busy trying to control it or keeping up to even grab a drink, take photos or just look around.At the sandy Bruboodjoo Point we pulled in for a snack after five hours paddling. Unknown to us, there was a camp here called Nine Mile, occupied by self-sufficient recreational fishermen. Having already covered 20kms, I wasn’t feeling reassured about what lay ahead, when a woman bathing nearby confirmed that the winds were set to get stronger through the week.
We set off again into what was now a strong southwesterly – the daily ‘sea breeze’ which rolls in in late morning along the entire west Australian coast (and is known as the cooling ‘Fremantle Doctor’ down in Perth). In this stronger wind I was even less able to sail as steadily as the tandem. We had tried long and short line towing (rather than rafting up alongside) but under sail or not, the bobbing Incept was all over the place, fouling the Perception’s rudder and at times pulling me over or burying the bow. After a bit of that I decided to revert to paddling, and by now even doing that in a straight line was a struggle.
At the time I couldn’t pin down the source of the difficulty, but I’d probably never been out in such winds. Jeff thought my rudder was ineffective or not articulating fully, but it was doing as well as normal for a mushy foot linkage and a bit of rudder cord drag due to the packed payload. Could the rudder be too small to operate with the sail? Unlikely. Later I wondered if I may have reached the operational limits of the wind-prone K40 – at least when combined with my rudimentary skill level. My boat was about as high above the water as Jeff’s, but with much less weight below, and at 17kg, was less than a third of the tandem’s weight. And even with a rudder it still lacked the sharply defined stern and bow ‘keel-edges’ of a hardshell to enable it to cut and hold a line in the water against back- or sidewinds. As it was, it was a bit like trying to ice skate in slippers; you can work up some speed sure, but directional control is minimal.
This blobby shape is an inevitable consequence of inflatable kayak design that’s difficult to get round. The result – with sail or just paddle – was that the light kayak’s hull itself was as prone to back/side winds as the sail, and so weathercocked (back end coming round) as I zig-zagged inefficiently to try and counteract it. Weathercocking is not unique to IKs of course and I don’t think the boat’s trim (load level – about 30kg) was off – there was 10kg of water right at the stern. It’s just that in the current conditions the K40’s light weight, buoyancy, rounded hull and high sides conspired to push it about on the water, even if those high sides and the boat’s innate rigidity greatly helped limit swamping compared to the bendy Gumotex Sunny in Shark Bay a few years ago. The sail needed more tension to stay up when pulled down low, but that was easy to remedy and I noticed also occurred on the Perception where Sharon had to hold up the upper mast at times.
I can’t be certain those observations about the boat’s handling are correct, and perseverance may have overcome them, but even when the K40 had sailed steadily in less strong winds earlier that day, it was still much slower than Jeff’s 20-foot-long tandem with its bigger 2.2m PA sail. I assumed weights and hull profiles of the two boats would have matched up, but as well as being a hardshell, length has a lot to do with it, so instead of keeping pace with J&S in my new, faster, sail-equipped boat, even when I sailed well I was left just as far behind as I’d been a few years ago paddling the Sunny in Shark Bay. It was all going Pete Tong and I foresaw this was how those stories in Sea Kayaker ~ Deep Trouble begin: “Jeff, Sharon and Chris left Coral Bay in clear conditions but with strong offshore winds forecast. They were equipped with blah blah but had no blah…”
As the tandem surged on I sponged out the swill taken on by the towing and a bloke in an alloy dinghy or ‘tinny’ came over to ask if I was OK. It was an encounter that was to pay off soon. I set off again, paddling with the odd small wave breaking from behind. The tandem was fast becoming a speck up ahead. It was decision time because at that moment, without a chance to talk over options with the other two, getting widely separated like this didn’t seem like a good idea. After the unexpected Nine Mile Camp, there was nothing till the Homestead from where it would be more awkward to bail out if I’d had my fill by then. I looked back at the Camp, now a couple of clicks behind. Up ahead the tandem’s sail was nearly as far off with no sign of them slowing down. I decided I’d pull in. Hopefully the other two would notice that, stop so I could catch up and get the van keys and rejoin them on the less exposed waters north of Yardie Creek in a few days time.
‘Thank God that’s over’ I remarked with relief as I landed and lifted the boat over the exposed coral slabs marking the tide line along the beach. It was about 2pm. I grabbed a bottle of water and set off north along the coast to meet up with the J&S who I was sure would do likewise soon. An hour later I reached a very conspicuous zone boundary post just before a small headland – an obvious place to wait, I thought. I climbed onto the structure and scanned the beach about a kilometre ahead. Was that a boat or just a rock? There was no sign of the distinctive PA sail and after 15 minutes nothing had moved so I decided that they had shot on ahead. Short of something holing my boat, there was no reason for them to think I couldn’t paddle ashore and they knew I had water, food and comms and so could work it all out.
I returned to the boat, finding a handy half full water bottle, and paddled slowly south into the wind for an hour and a half back to the scattered collected of caravans at Nine Mile. Over the dune I walked to the nearest van where an Australian flag curled and slapped in the wind.
“Hello, is this immigration?” I said with a grin to the old guy, mimicking one of the Asian boat people who frequently beach themselves on WA’s shore.
“I saw the flag and thought this was immigration“
Clearly my joke was going down like a lead lure.
“Oh that, I just use it to see where the wind’s blowin’ from.”
Jim was one of the many retired Australians who now far outnumber backpackers up north, as they seek to escape WA’s southern winter. Coral Bay’s caravan parks were full of them and, as I was to find out soon, every site in Cape Range NP up ahead was full of ‘grey nomads’ too. Hardier and better equipped types based themselves for longer periods at zero-facility sheep station sites like Nine Mile, where rents were cheaper and stays unlimited. Even then, Jim (the guy in the tinny who’d asked if I was OK, earlier) told me that normally Nine Mile would have had 60 vans parked up. The unseasonably strong winds over the past couple of weeks had driven off most of them, leaving just a dozen diehards. With summer on the way and fishing in such conditions difficult in a tinny, Jim was about to head south himself.
I explained my situation and asked whether he had a radio to call Ningaloo Homestead. Many vehicles run these in the north. Jeff had made an arrangement to check in with the Homestead on his untried VHF that evening, so could get my message and leave the van keys there. Jim only had a CB, but he did have Ningaloo’s phone number. He expressed repeated surprise that the other two had not waited once I was so far behind, but I figured they’d recognised I’d had my fill and bailed.
I tramped back to the boat as the sun sank and explained the situation to Jane at the Homestead who thankfully got it all in one take. They’d experienced worse kayak dramas before. She’d pass on my request for keys when Jeff turned up there next day to retrieve a cache of food and water he’d left with them just before we’d set off.
Long story short
Jeff and Sharon had stopped just a few kilometres ahead of the point I’d walked to and waited for me till next morning to turn up. When I hadn’t, Jeff walked back to Nine Mile, found out what happened, walked back and continued on towards the Homestead, arriving the next day. Separated by 10-15kms that night, we both had rough nights of tent-flattening winds after which the host at Nine Mile offered to drive me back to Coral Bay where he was heading anyway with his laundry. At the caravan park the host and I set to the van doors with coathangers and zip ties until they yielded. Though we couldn’t get past the immobiliser to hotwire it, the van became a handy base while I worked on a new plan.
By now on the notice boards in town there were Strong Wind Warnings for entire northwest coast of WA. I updated our status with the DEC (parks authority) and, not a little anxious myself now after more calls to the Homestead, a day later finally spoke with Jeff. He apologised for not stopping earlier – I suspect the sailing was just too good and I too had been looking forward to the rush of being batted up the coast under sail with my feet up. His VHF didn’t get through and his walk to Nine Mile explained the day’s delay in getting to the Homestead.
With that sorted out, all that remained for me was to wander around the Coral Bay campground eyeing up likely candidates until I succeeded in persuading a young Brit backpacker that for fuel and 50 bucks, it would be an awesome adventure to drive me 120kms to the Homestead and back in his clapped out Suzuki banger.
If Jeff’s $1500 van was rough, Rory’s 20-year-old Suzuki Swift truly had three wheels in the scrapheap. Even he admitted it would probably not make it to Darwin as he and his mates had planned. The CV joints clattered like a football rattle and I’m sure the 60 clicks of corrugations along the homestead access track brought the Suzuki’s imminent Big Bang forward a few months.
At the Homestead Jane confided that the southern bay up to Point Cloates was indeed the more exposed ‘open water’ stage of the Ningaloo passage and the wind had certainly come up on Monday afternoon. When it blew like that for ten days at a time, she admitted it drove her nuts. But all this as least boded well for the more sheltered northern section of the paddle in a few days time. The car got us back to Coral Bay where I started the van up and headed north to Exmouth, planning to meet J&S at Yardie Creek in three days time.