Over the last few months we had been up and down the rocks at Deadmans at least a hundred times. Whether surfing or spearfishing, it had become so familiar, even in the dark of early mornings, each hand hold and footstep to the water. The gearing up and scamper across the slime and barnacle covered shelf, the underwater contours of the reef and the nuances of coming back in on the surge after a dive. Each instance, another comforting layer of experience on top of the last. Sure, there had been some sketchy moments during some heavy swells but the foundations were strong. This was our beloved backyard and we had paid time and skin in homage.
On the 25th of January, myself and my mate Richard had arranged for a late afternoon spearfish off the drop off there. Our mate Joel, had shot a large kingfish that morning in what was described as clean, blue conditions – so we were pretty pumped.
Getting to the parking lot above the Bower, I could see the wind had turned and there were big tracts of white water slick over the reef due to the wash from the rocks. It was the slack of the low tide and still being hopeful of clean visibility and big fish in the deeper water, in we went.
The visibility however, was borderline and very washy. Despite the challenging conditions, I was pleased to get what I felt was a PB Australian Salmon. To ensure distance from the catch I put the fish on my float line where it would sit alongside my float, 18m behind me.
We hung around for another 30min but with a growing current and declining visibility we began the swim back down toward the rock off.
The tide had now fully turned and with the long period easterly swell, had begun pushing large volumes of water against the rocks. To escape, this water was being forced to drain down the reef in a raging torrent, more reminiscent of a series of white water rapids in the Zambezi river than ocean. The epicenter of which, a foamy maelstrom of aerated water and backwash lay in the shallow cleft just north of the rock off.
With the incoming tide running north and directly toward this – getting out was going to be challenging. But we had been here before, the key was simply to allow for the current by starting the swim in early from the deeper water south of the exit.
On the way back we encountered a large amount of whitewash reverberating off the shallow water along the cliff. Swimming through and around this was a bit of a blind affair and when we emerged, I realized that we were already a bit too wide and north of where we wanted to begin the run in. Too late we began the hard swim against the current to get back up toward the rock off spot.
It was about now, that I began to really notice the weight behind me. I had made the mistake of not winding up my float, flasher and fish before making my run and with the current, the float had now done a complete arc past me and was sitting 18m away in the middle of the maelstrom.
I looked up to see Rich had made it through to the rocks – lucky man.
Seeing this and taking the stubborn approach, I began to fin as hard as possible toward safety but each time I made some small headway – a wave would surge over the float and drag me toward the inside shelf. I was going backwards and tiring. I needed to cut an angle to get back to deeper water and very soon but the anchor behind me had other ideas. Weighing up other options, exiting with the current through the breaking Deadman’s inside slab was also not one I relished. That and also trying to explain to the tourists in Shelly that I had not actually been spearfishing in the nature reserve but had merely been washed up with my tail between my legs. Not an option.
Surging water over the inside reef
All of a sudden my fins scraped bottom as I was sucked over the shelf toward an incoming wave. I had just been pulled into the maelstrom. Fuck.
All of a sudden my fins scraped bottom as I was sucked over the shelf toward an incoming wave.
Incoming wave over the inside reef
Another wave, more flopping over the inside reef and then rocked by backwash. Fuck. Fuck. This really wasn't going well. I was now red lining trying to kick my way out of there.
Some backwash for you sir?
Another wave and I realized that I wouldn’t make it out without getting rid of the parachute behind me. Focusing on timing breathing between submersions, I was about to unclip my spear gun when the decision was taken out of my hands. My line had become fully tangled on the inside reef and the next outward surge toward an incoming wave trapped me in place for a proper beating. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I let go of the spear gun and pushed forward though the foam.
Mini barrels over the Rob Allen
reed from the drag I was then able to front side crawl out of the wash and get back to deeper water. The lessor intensity of the current allowing me to take stock, get my breath back and prepare for the next shot at making the rock off.
Angling in from wide, I emptied the tank. It was a relief to see the gloved hand of Richard extended down the rocks. Another reason to always dive with a buddy!
Funnily enough, a few months back I had recovered a complete speargun from under one of the ledges in the whirlpool. At the time I was bemused at how it ended up there – I now had a pretty good idea.
As it turns out, Richard had dropped his own gear on the way in for the very same reason. So there we both sat forlornly, on the very rocks we had built so much familiarity with, the ones where we had picked up others litter from, surfed and dived from with reverence and it didn’t mean a single thing.
Looking at my float caught on the inside
Experience can be an empowering quality, its what gives you the ability to make calm decisions under pressure and deal with situations as they arise from a familiar base. It can also make you complacent. In hindsight, the conditions weren’t favorable from the start but we had become a bit too cocky. No matter how much time you have put in, complacency is never a good thing and the sea has an incredible knack of teaching you this. In some ways it feels like a betrayal but then the ocean is a fickle mistress at best and one to be respected at all times. Lesson well learnt.
In the end, with timing, perseverance and lots of swimming, everything bar the fish was reclaimed.
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.