Hawkesbury Canoe Classic 2010 – Part 3

Leaving Wiseman's Ferry around 3.30am - 45km to go!

Leaving Wiseman's Ferry around 3.30am - 45km to go!

(Continued from Part 2 – or start at Part 1) With bellies full of pancakes and bacon, Gelo and I felt ready to face the horrible weather and the last 45kms of the race. With rain still pouring down, we slowly paddled out into the main channel and  past the main ferry crossing. The river at this point turns south to meander back down to Brooklyn, which meant turning into the building southerly wind that had been developing. The rain started to intensify and a thick fog rolled in across the river, cutting visibility down to 30 metres or so.

Our landcrew's final view of the canoe as we paddled off into the rain.

Our landcrew's final view of the canoe as we paddled off into the rain.

As we passed the second ferry crossing (the last sign of civilisation for many miles) the Marine Rescue lads asked us how were doing. Answering with “exhausted” was probably not wise, and the volunteers cautioned us on pushing it too much harder in such difficult conditions. We promised we’d throw in the towel if it got too tough before paddling on down the river.

The rain now was starting to really kick up and our visibility was now almost zero.  We were keeping some-what close to the bank to help us navigate, which was fine until I suddenly saw a strainer (ie a tree lying across the river) a mere foot in front of Gelo’s face. I yelled out to him to watch out and he threw his arms up in front of his face, catching the tree branches across his fore-arms before they bent around him and flung back at my face. I threw myself backwards against the canoe and held my paddle in front of my face as the tree branches whipped across me and into the back of the canoe. Miraculously, we’d both avoided any injury at all, but as we discovered later our canoe number had been struck off the back of the canoe!

With a sigh of relief we continued on, drifting a little further out from the riverbank for safety, but into the growing wind and hammering rain. Then when it felt things couldn’t get any worse, we both started to get the nods as exhaustion set in. The rain was now coming in horizontally and hitting me in the eyes, forcing me to close them against the rain. As soon as my eyes closed I’d momentarily fall asleep, almost dropping my paddle before jumping up awake again. This was getting worse and with the weather now getting gnarly I was genuinely worried about out safety. So I suggested to Gelo we pull over for a quick powernap, an idea he readily jumped at.

So we found a small muddy beach and pulled in, anchoring ourselves in the mud with our paddles which we wrapped our arms around for support. Then we both lay back in the canoe, faces open to the raging rain and wind, and promptly fell asleep. Around 10-15 minutes later we awoke, drenched and getting cold, but feeling much more refreshed by the quick sleep. We had a laugh about the fact we’d both slept with our faces to the storm, but knowing we needed to warm up quickly we pushed off out of the mud and back into the river.

The storm was now absolutely raging, the rain now coming down so hard that I couldn’t even see Gelo in front of me. The wind was now gale force and driving straight into us, not only making paddling harder but also whipping up breaking waves that were slamming into the canoe. Gelo and I gritted our teeth and barely uttered a word, other than the occassional “hut!” signalling a change of paddle sides. We’d paddled in similar conditions the week before and new how precarious our position was, as the canoe jumped over waves and bobbed about in the crazed water of the river. This was a serious challenge, and it went on for what seemed like hours. The storm was so bad that as we passed a houseboat sometime after 4.30am, we could just see its inhabitants inside trying desperately to bail out water that was pouring in through its ceiling.

Then after an eternity, the winds and rain eased a little and just as we started to ease off from our exhausting pace, the sky started to lighten for sunrise. For a while the wind dropped down to a much more manageable level and we paddled down a calmer Hawkesbury in the never ending rain.

As we fought against the tide, we started to realise we were barely making headway. The incoming tide was dragging at the boat and in our weakened state it was hard for us to beat it. Gelo in particular was now starting to really struggle, as the effort required earlier when paddling into the gale and crashing waves had completely nailed him. I was finding myself needing to switch paddle sides to take a few paddles on his side of the boat before returning to my own side, as his weakened paddling was turning the boat constantly towards his side. He mumbled something about a break and I realised we really had no choice. He had had it, and I had to let him rest.

About 500 metres further down the river we found a small inlet leading into the mangroves that wasn’t affected by the incoming tide. We pulled the boat in there, anchoring it into the mud, and then lay back for a nap. I figured we were coming last anyway so what difference would a bit of a nap make. Immediately we both fell asleep.

About ten minutes later I awoke with a start, and realised an amazing thing. A couple of kayaks had just gone past us, meaning that we hadn’t actually been coming last. The competitive sportsman in me fired up and I was enthused to chase them back down and finish knowing we didn’t come last. I shook Gelo awake explaining that we had to race them to the finish, and then despite his protests freed the boat from the mud and pushed back into the river.

The paddle against the tide was brutal, but we managed to keep up with the double kayaks for the next kilometre until we came across the Low Tide Pitstop. Gelo looked at me with those big brown Greek eyes and pleaded for a break, so we pulled into the mud for a quick cup of tea and a piece of chocolate. The other kayaks continued on their way, again leaving us in last position. I quickly finished my tea and then urged Gelo to hurry, something he was clearly not going to do!

A clearly broken Gelo. The tea and chocolate helped I think!

A clearly broken Gelo. The tea and chocolate helped I think!

We pushed back into the water and continued down the river. I could see one of the kayaks about 500 metres in front, the other a good kilometre or more ahead. The tide was still killing our progress but I was determined to catch them up, so I spoke to Gelo about a strategy. From now on we’d closely hug the inside turns just metres from the banks to take advantage of the slower moving water, whilst the kayaks remained out in the channel. As the river meandered we’d have to cut directly across the river to keep out of the faster moving channel as much as possible. This would increase the distance somewhat, but we figured it would give us a speed advantage.

As it turned out, we were right. We passed the first kayak within a kilometre and passed the second another kilometre beyond that. Compared to the double kayaks we were flying along, making the most of the slow water as they fought the tide. We pulled away by a good kilometre or so before we realised they’d worked out our trick. Now they were also following our exact track, and with their more streamlined boats, they were starting to close the gap.

Gelo during this time had been begging for breaks, which I had categorically refused. He was now so spent that he could barely move the muscles of his face to talk, and I was finding more and more that I was having to paddle for him. I was too excited about our own private racing finish to let him stop however, and to give him credit, he never once put the paddle down and stop. We were now just over 5kms away from Spencer, and I was determined to beat our little group of kayaks.

And then fate intervened. Bad weather had forced the event to be shortened to Spencer, and now it looked like the race organisers had decided to call time and stop the race. We knew this was a possibility as we’d been told by other checkpoints, but when we spied an official boat making its way to us, we suspected the race was finished.

With the news now confirmed, we finished our paddle at the checkpoint before Spencer where we checked in for the last time. With 93.5kms under our belt, and 17.5 hours of paddling behind us, we’d put in a massive effort that both of us were proud of, despite not making it to the end. Gelo was finally able to smile knowing the ordeal was over, and as we laughed and joked about the insane night we’d had, we got news that the Emergency Services motor boat was going to tow us across the river to a landing point where our landcrew would come to get us. This was going to be our last little bit of fun before the race ended!

When we arrived at the bank, it was mere minutes before the TFP Landcrew arrived, and in the still pouring rain we all helped to pack our gear away. Gelo and I changed into warm clothes and Burnsie brewed up some hot tea and coffee for us on the side of the road to help warm us back up. With all our gear packed away, we could only think of one thing – food. I was craving a good old Aussie meat pie, so the lads drove us to the Spencer General Store were we sat down to fresh coffee and steaming hot pies with sauce.

Hmmm, pies. Hot, steamy, saucy pies!

Hmmm, pies. Hot, steamy, saucy pies!

And with that, our stormy odyssey was done. We’d seen all levels of adversity out on the river that night and despite not finishing the full distance, had achieved plenty in our big fat slow canoe to feel good about ourselves. Then as the lads drove us all back to Sydney, Gelo and I promptly fell into a deep sleep.

An event like this cannot happen without the amazing support of lots of people. In particular I’d like to thank the following:

Grumm, Sacha and Burnsie for their incredible support in truly aweful conditions during the event. We could not have done it without your incredible support and help, not to mention the great sausages and pancakes!

Nat, the Team Fat Paddler Director of Propaganda, for his big win for us a few weeks ago. Love your work mate!

Blue-Earth in Drummoyne who got us into the little red canoe. Sydney Harbour Kayaks for their ongoing support during our training. GoPro cameras for the brilliant GoPro Hero HD video camera. Vinyl Stickers for, well, for all the stickers! And Shamrock Tshirts for the team wear.

The organisers and volunteers who make the HCC what it is. In particular, Wendy and Caroline. You guys rock!

All the volunteers from the likes of Marine Rescue, NSW Maritime, Surf Lifesavers, and all the other crews who are out there making sure that paddlers remain safe. The friendly waves and jokes from you guys really help when us paddlers are absolutely shattered. Great job!

Gelo, who picked up a canoe paddle for the first time six weeks ago when I suggested the crazy idea of entering an open canoe in the Classic. Your good grace and humour are a pleasure to be around, and I was incredibly proud of your efforts in the last few hours when you were clearly exhausted beyond anything you’d ever experienced before. The fact you didn’t simply throw down the paddle is testament to your character. I’d paddle with you again any day!

And lastly, my wife Bec and my girls Grace and Ella for putting up with my mad paddling escapades. I know you don’t really get why I do it, but I appreciate that you LET me do it!

Until next year! Cheers – FP

The Fat Paddler by Sean Smith