The Prince of Paddle Boats
The title should probably read: “The Princess of Paddle Boats,” because the central character is a piece of moulded plastic that I have named in the feminine as The African Queen. This choice is not caused by infatuation with old movies.
The African bit does partly hinge on the location where the moulding happened, the South African city of Durban. It is also to do with its form when I bought it, as ungainly and strange looking as the boat that gave its name to that much applauded 1951 film.
In its manufactured shape, my boat had been what its makers had intended to be a sea kayak, or at least their interpretation of one. But by the time I paid $650 for it on Gumtree classifieds, it looked more like an old shoe that had been banished to the bottom of a wardrobe, forgotten and squashed by all the more favored shoes thrown and stored on top of it.
I had been assured by the seller, a guy called Max, that merely some exposure to sun would restore the boat to the shape its maufacturers intended. It turned out to be a sales pitch worthy of the dodgiest used car. The story goes that the plastic used to make such kayaks, polyethylene, has a “memory.” The theory being, that once made, it will remember its intened shape and return to it with a gentle application of heat, should any misfortune distort it.
It is a bit like the theory that all humans are born benevolent and any distortion changing this, can be rectified by love, understanding and compassion. No amount of sunlight or heat from any other source would do anything beneficial for the shape of the African Queen. Like the damaged person, this boat needed more intensive therapy.
Apart from a life support system or perhaps a motorbike, a fast narrow sit-in kayak is an extension of he body guiding it. You don’t merely sit in a proper sea kayak, you wear it. Just as a miscalculation with a motorbike can have the rider skidding across the bitumen, a miscalculation with a sea kayak can have the paddler face to face with the marine life. While the results are likely to be less bloody, a capsize in the wrong place or circumstance can be as life threatening.
When I gave up motorcycling a few years ago I wrote a piece for The Age newspaper (my former employer) describing the rider and bike as a kind of mechanical centaur, a reference to an ancient Greek mythological being half man-half horse. In trading the bike for the kayak I realise I have simply gone for an aquatic version of the same thing.
About five years ago Jill and I took up kayaking after she had been doing so with her school students, particularly in Port Phillip Bay. We live a ten minute walk from the bay in suburban Black Rock. We also like to go down the bay to Dromana where the family has a boatshed (see earlier blog Languid days by the bay) and the coast is a long sandy beach.
As a former school and club rower (and even a coach) from my youth, I didn’t need much convincing. We began by hiring different types of sea kayaks from a local shop, but we always came back to one: a New Zealand made craft called a Tasman Express. Longer kayaks are generally faster and these at 5.3 metres, reward good speed for effort; important if you want to cover distance, which tends to be important in open water. Mine came in bright yellow, dubbed the Banana Republic and hers in equally lurid orange, I called the Papaya Princess.
They were plastic, but they were also fast, comfortable and stable, particularly good in foul weather, a blessing given the bay is Melbourne’s waterway, and the city is reputed to experience four seasons each day. There have been times we have we have gone out in calm sunshine, only to batter our way home into a leaden sky squall. We have done a couple of expeditions too: up the Glenelg River on the South Australian border with two friends and four days on the Gippsland Lakes where we had to carry our own fresh water: 40 litres each.
A couple of years ago, a pair of Tasman Expresses were paddled across Bass Strait to Tasmania, a voyage usually taken as an island hop over several days. It is so popular with serious sea kayaker, that there is almost a traffic jam at some spots. I only mention it to demonstrate these are worthy craft and my pleasure in their versatility led me to declare such sea kayaks: the prince of paddle boats.
We took them to Lake Eildon, up in Victoria’s north east, where for about 25 years we have had a house overlooking the water. When friends came to stay some brought their own kayaks, and we had two old fibreglass tourers plus a blue plastic beginner’s kayak to fill out the fleet. We would often let kayakless friends take the Tasman Expresses, leaving me to try to paddle one of the old tourers, which were often not much fun as they were easily blown off course and were hard to keep in a straight line even in calm water.
I saw an old sea kayak on Gumtree Classifieds and bought it to use on the lake for times when we couldn’t be bothered carting up the Tasman Expresses. It was also a New Zealand boat called a Challenge Sequel, a bit shorter and narrower than our others. The hull was scratched but OK while the seat and rudder mechanism were a mess.
When Jill told a kayaking friend at her school what I had done, his reaction was: “You bought a sea kayak? For Lake Eildon, isn’t that overkill?” The interrogator obviously did not know what the lake’s waters are capable of dishing up when the wind blows and is concentrated by those steep sided hills that give the waterway’s shoreline its charm.
About 15 years earlier, in a small open canoe I accompanied a fitness fanatic friend who swam two kilometres from our town, Goughs Bay to the southern shore. Doris our chubby blue heeler came too.
He made the swim without drama, but the drama hit about the second he got in the boat to return. Dark storm clouds down the western end of the reach toward Eildon town, sent their advance guard- winds approaching 80 kilometres an hour.
The water, glassy on the way over became surf for the return. Fortunately it was blowing the direction we headed and this tiny boat with two men and a dog, surfed the waves back to town. I learned not to underestimate the lake.
With my Banana Republic, I’ve paddled from Gough’s Bay to Jerusalem Creek, Big River, the Howqua and made the 20 km to Jamieson’s outskirts in a little more than two hours. That’s 10 kph average and I can go faster in a burst, which annoys the hell out of jetskis and speedboats keeping to the 8 kph limit inside the yellow markers. I’ve even overtaken a houseboat out on the lake.
Leaving a crease on glassy water or bashing through high chop, on your own or with friends is a powerful feeling, especially sensing it is done by your muscle. We are both in our 60s and not especially fit. But there is one sensaton I do find disturbing.
On a completely still day when you paddle from our town towards the southern shore, you get about half way when the reflection on the water turns from the light of the sky to the almost black olive green of the mountains opposite. It is a really unnerving feeling. You and your boat seem to be floating on what could be the blackness of space, there seems to be nothing beneath you. Any little wind that brings the faintest ripples will end the senasation and the unease that goes with it.
After buying it I spent many days work repairing the Sequel and on its maiden voyage after refit, promptly capsized in some windy chop in Port Phillip Bay off Beaumaris, losing a favored hat and sunglasses. I had also neglected to take a pump and paddle float so I could get back into the thing. Fortunately I had flipped off a sandy beach with an onshore wind. Could have been ugly if things had been different.
The following weekend we took the Sequel to the lake. I paddled one of the other kayaks while I offered Jill a chance to marvel at my handiwork with the new old boat. She marvelled so much, she pinched the thing there and then. It has a very sharp turning ability with the rudder which she seems to value highly. It also acclerates quickly from a standing start and with her aboard, handles any rough water.
Indeed she likes it at least as much as the Papaya Princess. It’s blue green turquoise color camouflages it against the lake and background. It sits menacingly low in the water, but its unusually high foredeck makes it looks like she is in the conning tower of a World War II submarine. Given its speed and manoeverability the thing looks unsettling and powerful. I sometimes wonder when she is going to come screaming at me, submerge and start firing torpedos.
This wasn’t fair. Now that she had purloined the Sequel, which I named the Turquoise Terror, what was I to paddle? I tried one of the old fibreglass tourers and even the little blue plastic beginner’s kayak, but there was no way I could keep up with her. I had to have something at least as good, preferably costing no more.
Back to Gumtree I encountered Max, who declining my offer for another kayak from the stack he had in his backyard, offered me the one on the bottom for the same price I had paid for the Terror. What we placed on my car’s roof was a strange looking thing, apart from its shape, the front half was yellow and the rear blue.
After I paid him, Max confessed it lay on the bottom of the stack because he didn’t like it, finding the performance sluggish and the steering vague. His favorite kayak was the shorter sibling of the Tasman Express known as a Penguin. I notice he now has that up for sale too.
We took the distorted yellow and blue boat for a test off Beaumaris Beach the following Saturday. The steering was vague and the settings hard to adjust. Worst of all the front deck was so flattened I could barely get my knees under to control the rudder pedals. The seat had also come apart. But the hull was good and the speed seemed promising.
On the net I found it was called a C Kayak Skimmer. It was pretty roughly made and its new price in South Africa was about what I’d paid for it squashed.
I put it out in the summer sun, but it stayed squashed. I extended a car jack under the front deck and made little props to push up other squashed parts and applied weights to squeeze down bulges. So much for polyethylene’s memory. It had been stuck under that pile so long, all it could remember was the shape caused by its neglect. Days were spent in the sun with the jack and props, but once removed the deck just sagged and bulged back. At first I called it the Ugly Duckling, but as the prospect of it becoming a swan receded, it became the African Queen.
It looked like I really had done my dough, the steering was impossible and worst of all Jill looked formidable in her turquoise warship. I tried a permanent aluminium prop under the front deck, to give it some height to shed waves coming over the front, but the prop fell out, the deck went flat and even the slightest wave washed some water into the cockpit.
About this time, with Jill and a friend, I paddled down the lake to a little island supposedly containing Aboriginal artifacts. They turned back and I went on to round the island. They were a good way ahead before I saw them again. It was quite calm so I paddled harder than I had ever done in that boat. It flew. I easily overtook even Jill’s turquoise rocket.
So I persevered on and off for months. The front deck finally stayed a respectable height when I installed an aluminium tubing arch held by a crossbeam, glued and screwed before removing the jack. I installed similar prosthetics to bumps and bulges all over the boat. The steering problem turned out to just be a bent pedal.
A couple of months ago we went out with our neighbour, who goes long distances in his full-on fishing kayak, trolling his rods for redfin or trout. I went halfway down the lake before leaving him to paddle a favored stretch of fishy water. Jill had already turned back, but I had the car keys.
I paddled hard. The African Queen proved fast and stable. Suddenly I found myself on the olive black water, paddling into outer space. I was happy, it had passed its first test and it looked like a proper kayak too, at least as respectable as Jill’s war machine.
The final test would be rough water.
In the meantime I had found Rosco Canoes in Brisbane sell a plastic skeg you can screw to the rear of boats like our two old tourers, to make them go in a straight line. I had gone up to the lake house by myself and thinking the African Queen too heavy to lift onto the car roof, I took out one of the old boats with its new skeg. A kayak that would never stay in a straight line had been transformed. It gone from a hassle to a pleasure.
Jill arrived for the week end as did a strong northerly wind. We took out the sea kayaks and they were in their element, but returning into the northerly mine seemed to be burying it bow in the waves.
I experimented by ungluing the seat and re-attaching it 30 millimetres back. Jill went home but the northerly stayed and I discovered I could lift the Queen on and off the car. With the wind behind me I paddled quickly down to Artifact Island. On the return the wind strengthened, but I found the seat movement changed the balance enough to lift the front over the waves. The return journey was even faster than the day before.
I took photos of my once distorted lump of plastic, pulled up on the island. When I looked at them back at the house, I was proud. I felt I had done it. Not only did it perform, but looked like a real kayak as well.The renamed Ugly Duckling was to be a swan after all.
Note: to view the photos full frame, single click on each image.