Paddlers Kayak Shop in Simon’s Town hosted adventure seeking Robert Hewetson from Noordhoek who recently paddled onto Fish Hoek beach after kayaking alone from Durban, a trip that took him 51 days.
Despite the fact that his son thinks his dad is “even older than Father Christmas” and the fact that he had very little experience of kayaking before he set off, 42 year old Rob embarked on his 1 650 km voyage on 21 November 2012. After paddling 45 to 50 kms a day, he paddled onto Fish Hoek beach on 15th January.
In preparation for his trip, Rob used Google Earth and marine charts to plot his landing and camping sites, finding the GPS co-ordinates for suitable spots every ten to fifteen kilometres along the coastline. “Where possible I chose isolated spots for the tranquillity and spots close to river mouths for the ease of finding potable water. I printed and laminated available aerial satellite images and planned to keep these on deck but discovered that things like this tend to disappear in the surf..!”
Paddling out through the swells in Durban, he also realised that his boat was far too heavy and had to ditch forty kgs of provisions. Despite this, his boat still weighed 100 kgs, a quarter of the weight supplied by his store of water for the beach landings where finding fresh water would have been a problem. “Packing my kayak in the morning was a mission. It took two hours initially but by the end of the trip I had managed to hone it down to an hour.” Prized possessions amongst his luggage were three specially designed drybags which he inflated and used as rollers to get his laden kayak up the beach. “Without these it would have been a major struggle,” he says.
Rob would paddle about at a distance of five kilometres from the coast “as it is safer out there – the sharks and reefs are generally closer to shore.” Much of the time he had a current against him dropping his paddling speed at times to 3 kph. “One day, though, I had a strong current behind me and my average speed over 35 kms was 11.5 kph. I clocked a maximum of 29 kph! I would paddle for three days and rest on the fourth. There were only three days when bad weather conditions kept me off the water. I experienced a strong current and high winds in the vicinity of Mazeppa Bay. Going around Robberg the wind was very strong and the NSRI received three calls about a ‘kayaker in trouble’. Near Woody Cape in the Eastern Cape there were just cliffs and lines of waves as far as I could see. I surfed in through three lines of smoking waves straight onto the beach but the next morning when I launched out into the surf, the swell subsided exposing a reef. Twenty metres beyond it I was knocked over by a wave. Thankfully I managed to do a roll!”
“For surf launches fitness is very important. I would often spend up to ten minutes in the waveline waiting for a break between sets to get through dangerous waves in the backline. A great percentage of my landings were not with me in my boat! Lining my boat up in front of my landing spot about when about 1km offshore, I would paddle at full speed for the shore and whatever happened happened! I would catch the biggest wave in and usually would be taken out about 30m from shore – which was good as often there was a big shore dump. I am not a great swimmer so I would slip into a pair of flippers which I kept strapped to my waist inside the cockpit when I realised that swimming for shore would be inevitable!”
Fishing daily for his dinner, he had a number of surprising catches. “At one point I thought I had a huge tuna on my line, and it took me 1h40 to get it close to the boat. Actually It was a 2m long Blacktipped shark! And then one evening I was still 10kms off shore and it was late afternoon when I hooked a 3m Zambezi shark. Again I initially thought I had a huge tuna on my line. After a struggle of close to two hours I brought the shark close enough to the boat to identify it as such, and could actually feel its tail thumping the underside of my boat as it swam. It was scary, and I was very careful not to fall in at that point. I was also quite concerned that it was nearly dark and I was still far offshore, so I hastily cut the shark free and paddled to shore. And then one afternoon I caught a large bonito off the Wild Coast. A group of herd boys helped me pull my kayak up the beach. I could see them eyeing my fish, so we made a fire and shared the fish and all four boys fell asleep at my camp!”
Fifty one days of paddling took its toll. “My hands were constantly wrinkled, my heels were worn through and at one stage I counted a total of forty wounds on my hands and feet. On one occasion I forgot to reel my fishing lure in before landing and I ended up with one treble hook in my right leg and the other stuck in my left heel, effectively hobbling me. I had to rip one hook out directly in order to swim to shore. I cut most of the other hook out on the beach, but was left with a section of hook embedded for the remainder of the trip. A friend removed this last bit at a braai after I had reached home!”
Rob listed the “things that went”:
- His kayak, the two halves of which may be seen at Paddlers!
- His rudder
- 2 GPSes (“To have a GPS die on you, let alone 2, is critical!”)
- Tent poles
- VHF radio
- Fishing rods and speargun
- Gas stove
- Cell phone
- Outer and inner tent
- Dry bags – several types (as an aside – “…only one make kept things dry. Everything was always wet and sandy!”)
Sounds as if Rob is a good candidate for the next “Survivor” series!
“I was nearly mowed down three times by a chokka boat of the Tsitsikamma coast. My radio was not working and I could not alert the pilot to my presence. I managed to get out of its way and discovered from the crew of another chokka boat that the boats are set on auto pilot and follow a pattern to seek chokka. I was not purposefully being chased.” On the plus side of the chokka boat encounters were several meals of fresh calamari!
And the loss of his kayak? “I thought I had made it through the surf after launching from a small beach at Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay when suddenly a huge 4m set came through. I got dumped backwards, but hung on and did a roll. The next set knocked me off again. I tried to put on my fins but the boat and I were being dragged over rocks. I had to let my kayak go. The kayak ended up in pieces on the rocks. After a few beers with some guys I met on the beach, I gave up thoughts of giving up! My mom brought through a kayak that Paddlers kindly lent me. (Moms will be moms even when their babies are older than Father Christmas.)
Amongst the most memorable experiences on the trip were the kind and generous acts of people he met along the way. Already on his first day of the trip, after a hard paddle of 56 kms and a long swim against the current, he was surprised by there being a box of Kentucky chicken left for him at his tent. “And at Kidd’s Beach I awoke one morning with an elderly lady outside my tent delivering, a flask of hot coffee and sandwiches for the day. It was 5am!”
And the sea life he encountered? “Whales, turtles, a variety of seabirds, rafts of penguins, a great number of flying fish, a huge school of dolphins that swam along with me for 45 minutes between East London and Port Elizabeth, curiously watching me from the side and leaping over the prow of my kayak, a Tiger Shark that swam under my boat …. I camped one night a few kilometres up the Elands River on the Tzitzikamma coast surrounded by cliffs when I was awoken by scuffling and heavy snorting around my tent. I could not sleep … I was paranoid thinking it was a leopard. In the morning I discovered that it was a little posse of very curious otters that had been investigating my camp. The only unpleasant creatures I had to deal with were the myriads of sea lice that would crawl over me in my tent and in my kayak once I reached the kelpy shores of the Western Cape – and perhaps the occasional crab raiding my tent.”
After spending his last night at Hangklip, Rob crossed False Bay to Fish Hoek beach and the welcoming party of his family and friends in a fierce South Easter, completing the crossing in just six hours. “The pressure was on me when paddling onto Fish Hoek beach – I could not fall out in front of the crowd gathered there!” he said with a smile.
Asked how he motivated himself to keep going, Rob replied that the first hour would always be a bit difficult. “But if you have eight hours of paddling ahead of you there is no point in complaining. Every hour I would take a two minute break and have a sweet. I was very strict about this which helped. I also divided the day into eight sections, which made it manageable. When I was hurting I would concentrate on my stroke and would forget about the pain. Fishing helped.”
Living from the sea most of the time it was only at the end of the trip that Rob had to resort to his dehydrated meals. “My fishing rod was broken,” he smiled ruefully. “On my next trip I would like to be fully self-sufficient. It would have been possible on this trip but it would have been difficult. Doing it on my own was a good feeling. I like feeling responsible for myself.”
His next trip? “I would love to paddle along the Wild Coast again. It was beautiful ….”
His challenge now? “To wrap my head around working again,” he concludes with a grin.
Copyright: Viv von der Heyden
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