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Cook Straight Crossing by Kayak

I’ve had a hankering to paddle the Cook Strait since 1990.

During the 1990 Xerox Challenge race, we aborted an attempt at kayaking the Cook Strait. After waiting 2 days at Makara beach for the right conditions, Juddy ordered us onto the Ferry instead, and arranged a shorter kayak leg from near the inner Tory Channel to Picton. However this was a disaster, with gale-force winds, and it too had to be abandoned! I have a lasting memory of paddling across an open stretch of water near Waikawa bay where, out of the protection of the headland, the fleet of kayaks was decimated by a sustained easterly blast.

Visualise if you will, unattended surf-skis tumbling and rolling across the Queen Charlotte Sound, mere matchsticks, toys at the mercy of the howling wind, with their paddlers dumped in the drink a hundred metres back. Sea kayakers were treated with similar distain, with many swimming after their craft. Only a hardy and skilled few stayed upright or at least rolled back up again to weather the gale. Helicopters somehow managed to find and pluck to safety those few swimmers that had been missed by the rescue launch in the rough seas.

Although I managed to survive the conditions and paddle safely to Picton, I have since had a healthy respect for the seas in the area. If conditions were that bad in the shelter of the Queen Charlotte Sound, imagine their ferocity in the Cook Strait!

However, my sense of adventure got the better of me in the summer of 00/01, in preparation for the Coast to Coast race. I also reasoned that, like the swimmers, all I needed to do was to wait for the right weather, study the tide and current charts, pick my company carefully and take the right equipment. I reasoned a support boat was over-kill for my skills and preparation.

Lisa Kahi and I would paddle my Sisson voyager, (fresh from a win in the Southern Traverse), and John Howard and another suitably skilled paddler would paddle another Voyager.

Raring to go, in Picton, Lisa and I got a message from John that he’d just injured his ribs and could not come.

A little disappointed, Lisa and I decided to head out to the Tory Channel anyway and see what it looked like. A zippy 3.5 hours paddling saw us to the Tory Channel coastline.

Conditions looked great!

“Should we go for it?” I nervously proposed, (Xerox challenge visions flashing vividly through my mind!). My stomach was not the only thing that tightened,.. typical “b-b-ball-shrinking b-b-butterflies

It did look perfect,..very little swell, no wind, we’d timed the tides and Strait current pretty well from the Cruising Guide charts, and the weather was stable for 24 hours. We had cell phone contact with a very helpful chap by the name of George at the Wellington Coast Guard. I had a GPS to create a back track if the weather fogged out, a compass and map. I reasoned that once we got to Wellington, we than had the choice to paddle back the next day, or to catch the ferry.

We were pretty damn nervous about going it on our own however. Lisa was relatively new to the sport of kayaking, but gutsy being a national grade swimmer. There was certainly an element of risk, not just from the point of view that we were a tiny solitary boat with no support, but I felt very vulnerable, virtually invisible in fact to the speeding inter-island ferries.

In the words of Sir Ed, we decided “nothing venture, nothing win” We decided to shoot the gap, after a quick stretch on the rocks, and a pee.

It was almost mirror calm, so I tried paddling without my spraydeck on. Shortly however, a light breeze popped up so I put it on, but not before I phoned my dad to let someone know our plan. To be totally honest, the phone call was more to skite to someone, such was my elation at finally being out in the big bad Cook Strait in a kayak!

About half way across I realised that I had not compensated quite enough for the current sweeping south through the Strait. What made me realise was that we seemed to be headed on a direct collision course with the Lynx fast ferry! I did a double take when checking behind,…to my alarm, there was another ferry bearing down on us from behind!! We were smack in the middle of the shipping lane and we were rather insignificant flotsam in both size and speed.

To further complicate matters;…

Lisa, a flight attendant with Air New Zealand Link had mentioned to some work-mates that we were to paddle the Cook Strait. A concerned, or, rather, alarmed, a pilot workmate tried to talk her out of it, but compromised with a promise to do a low pass over the Strait on the day to check that she was OK. We’d been looking forward to seeing the ATR fly overhead, and it was due any moment now. I had visions of the Ferry Captains craning skyward to see what this low flying plane was up to, and all three of sea craft colliding! Despite the humour, it was a nervous 30 minutes, as we would be too slow to paddle out of the way of a ferry.

We made it from Picton to Lyall Bay, (beside Wellington airport) in 9 hours. I marvelled at Lisa’s endurance, not skipping a paddle stroke the entire crossing. Women often have more endurance than blokes. I had romantic notions of continuing paddling around to Wellington waterfront, tying the kayak to a dock and strolling arm in arm, salt encrusted, wet neoprene and PFD, into café for a latté and smoked salmon bagel. But by now Lisa, typical of that unfathomable breed we call women, was suddenly in one of those, “choose your words very carefully” moods, which popped that bubble. Typical stubborn male was about to say “stop being so soft”, but heeding past experience, I turned to more pressing matters like accommodation for the night. On the cell phone it turned out that Phil, our mate in Wellington did not have roof racks and there was no-where to store our kayak in his apartment perched on a cliff face! So it was George from the Coast Guard to the rescue. He had a mate who could look after our boat, and he came around to personally transport us there in his trusty Subaru after work. Thanks George!

Next morning dawned too early with the challenge, that catching the ferry back would feel like cheating. So we dragged our weary butts into the kayak and set out from Island Bay. The wind promptly picked up considerably. The forecast for the Strait was OK with a maximum of 20 knots Northerly later in the day. It would be rough, but I reckoned we’d be just fine.… well that’s what I told Lisa anyway. At Island bay, the wind was swirling and gusting into mini twisters (as only Wellington can produce!) much higher than 20 knots and was grabbing and buffeting our paddles. I reasoned with a nervous Lisa that we should paddle around in the lee of the south coast to near Makara beach and re-assess the situation there. We could always turn back. Besides we needed to wait until noon to leave the North Island to avoid a strong southerly current through the strait. Near Makara we pulled ashore to have a stretch, a power nap and to assess the wind. It was rough, with the occasional breaking wave-top, but not dangerous in my experience. I also knew that he Voyager handled superbly in these conditions, was fast yet stable and totally predictable. The breaking waves looked intimidating, but I promised Lisa that there would be no more than 12 waves break across our kayak……. We stopped counting at 30….ooops! It was a battle to counter the wind blowing us sideways south and to stay north of the Ferry route. More than once I mused how easy and exhilarating it would be to surrender to the wind and surf the 2 metre swell down to Cape Campbell, and hitch hike back to Picton for the car.

Half way across I got a helluva fright! Suddenly from upwind, behind a big approaching wave loomed a huge feathered monster!! Just like Jim the giant Eagle (from Bad-jelly the Witch), a giant Albatross flew directly over us, missing us by a few centimetres. Its wingspan was about the length of our double kayak, and for a split second, it occurred to me that this magnificent bird might pluck us out of the water and lift us high above the Strait! Hearts pounding we watched this wizard of the wind and waves skim above the stormy seas, marvelling at the precise control it had, clearing the wave-tops by just millimetres.

Finally reaching the protection of Tory Channel in 3 and a quarter hours from Makara, I was in another of those romantic, hunter/gatherer/provider moods, keen to hook a cod or two for dinner on the way in through the channel mouth. But Lisa was in one of those “ just get me out of the damn boat moods” thus bursting my cute bubble again. Quite justifiably so as it turned out, as she had some wickedly bad chafing around her arm-pits from the neoprene rash top I made her wear as a safety precaution. (So bad was the chafing that despite 2 day’s rest, we had to use more than a metre of duct tape to patch her up for the remaining paddle back to Picton!). Another marvellous display of endurance from Lisa, without missing a stroke for the entire return crossing.

We camped on a sandy beach, deciding to spend the next day naked sunbathing, and fishing, relishing in our achievement of a double strait crossing. Thus began my “ferry fascination” With all of the furore about the wake of the fast ferry I decided to measure it. Camped on our narrow beach, just inside the narrow mouth of the channel, the ferries passed within a mere hundred metres of us. It was a fascinating opportunity to study the wakes, and marvel at the power and magnitude of these beasts. One could hear the deep throbbing a few kilometres off, reminding me of Pink Floyd’s track “Welcome to the Machine”. I also noticed that the ferry captains all got out their binoculars to study us as they passed us. At first I thought it was simply because we were naked sunbathing and quite rightly, Lisa was worth a closer look! As it turned out, it was at the request of the Picton Police that they were looking for us. I had forgotten to phone my old man back to tell him that we made it to Wellington. As only parents do, he had a sleepless night and phoned the Police to share his concern for the worst. Of course I had turned my cell phone off to conserve battery power.

The next day we spent fishing from the Voyager. We learned skills catching cod, Leatherjacket and Terakhi, but nothing quite prepared me for the Octopus! Thinking I’d snagged some kelp, I reeled in my line. Not watching it as it came up, you might imagine my shock as 4 tentacles suddenly splashed and “splocked” around my cockpit, 2 on each side. Just like the horror movies, I thought I was to be plucked and dragged to its murky lair. It was reasonably large, but I managed to unlock it from the boat. Lisa wasn’t having a bar of it, and was no help in figuring a way to get rid of the thing. Finally it spat out my hook and sinker and we were spared our watery grave. It was amazing however, observing it’s “jet-boat” method of propulsion as it towed us around the bay.

I managed to squeeze in a run up to the top of Awapara Island; past the South Island’s earliest whaling station. It is abandoned now, but being restored for historic posterity. A retired couple that live on the Island suggested this “lovely loop route’ to the top and back. I returned bleeding and punctured from the dense gorse I crawled through on the way down,… they must breed ‘em with thick skin in the sounds! On the way back to Picton we trawled for Kawhai. We caught 2, but the buggers both jumped off as I was reeling them in.

The Cook Strait is a marvellous challenge to kayak, but I recommend making sure you have the skills, the equipment, and the right preparation. It is very risky doing it as a single boat, and is much safer with several boats, and preferably a support powerboat.

This is not a trip to take lightly. It a true adventure, but easily accessible.

Have fun, be smart.

Steve Gurney

Recommended equipment:

  • Tide/current charts from the “Cruising Guide” to pick the optimal currents.

  • Marine radio waterproofed.

  • Cell phone is OK but not as good as a radio.

  • AN Emergency locator beacon

  • Map.

  • Compass

  • GPS and set way-points for exit/approach to the coasts

  • Tell someone your intentions, remembering to follow up! :-!

  • Warm gear in case of capsize eg neoprene hat, top, booties, pants

  • Easy to access food and fresh water.

  • An accurate marine forecast for the area

  • Contact with the Coast Guard

  • Be prepared to turn back before leaving the coast if the weather is not good

  • Practice the procedure for a deep-sea re-entry into you kayak.

  • High volume pump

  • Sealed compartments or air-bags

  • Always ask “what if…?”

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