The 111km Hawkesbury Canoe Classic is tough for all competitors. It’s not just the distance, it’s the challenge of doing if throughout the night when your body thinks, quite adamantly, that it should be in bed asleep. Of course there are all the aches and pains to deal with, unfavourable weather or tidal conditions, injuries that might occur, the test of fitness, nutrition & hydration considerations, temperature management and many more issues that can ruin your chances of a good race time or even finishing.
In 2010 I attempted the Classic with paddling mate Gelo, in a small plastic, heavy canoe. We were trying to prove a point – that the race should be inclusive, open to paddlers and boats of all types & abilities, that charity and fun should be the flavour of the day. Unfortunately we had to deal with terrible weather (gale force winds, torrential rain & electrical storms) plus the fact a plastic canoe is slow and hard to control in high winds, but we slogged through it all until, at the 93km mark, we were stopped and told the race had been called off with conditions too dangerous. The SES crew then threw us a rope, towed us to shore, and with that our race was over.
In the official results we received a DNF (did not finish), a result that has stuck in our throats ever since. No one told us why, since we didn’t quit, didn’t stop due to injury, rather we were stopped by officials and told the race had been closed down. On a recent request for more information we were told that either we ran out of time (possible) or that we quit and had asked to be towed to shore (which we vehemently deny).
Gelo and I decided we had no choice but to do it all again to prove a point. In what we dubbed the “Unfinished Business” project, we planned another crack at the event in a slow, plastic canoe. Gelo would have to fly in from his new home in Dubai, we’d work with Paddle & Portage Canoes to get a Wenonah Prospector canoe, kit ourselves out in gear from Camp Hike & Climb, and then make a new attempt.
This year Team Fat Paddler put together a team of 13 paddlers (and all their brilliant land crew) who would attempt the race in everything from sea kayaks to surfskis to canoes (racing canoes or, err, white water canoes like ours). As usual the team added laughter and colour to the event as they represented what Team Fat Paddler is all about – friendship, support, humour and importantly, charity (TFP raised over $12,000 for the events charities). Each of course had their own challenges to face, and as the night later proved, many of them were overcome by their own misfortune with 6 DNFs by the end of the race.
Gelo and I were determined to bring our own colour to the race. Dressed as a combination of rally car drivers and jet fighter pilots, we appeared ready for the race in race suits and helmets, much to the laughter of many and disbelieving eyes of many more.
At 4.15pm our divisional race commenced. We pushed the canoe downstream into an incoming tide and a headwind, fighting to keep the boat going straight amongst the other competitors (and trying not to crash into anyone!). Then we settled into a rhythm, with a thumping soundtrack from our canoe’s sound system to help us.
The first 30kms or so went by without incident, with us arriving at the first major stop at Sackville 5 hours later. We’d planned to make the shortest stop we could as the tide was going to be rushing out at that time, so our longtime land crew captain Burnsie handed us a couple of foil packages he’d prepared earlier (best toasted sandwiches and banana bread EVER), changed over our hydration kits and after only a few minutes we were back out into the current, heading north.
As is usual for the Classic, it’s from there that it all went south. Gelo had been struggling with jet lag ever since about 6.30pm and by 10pm was desperately trying to stop himself from falling asleep. His head would nod, his paddling would weaken, and I’d have to paddle extra hard, frequently switching sides to make up for him. An hour later and I also started to fall asleep, which lead to a terrible case of being “out of sync” – either I’d be charging and Gelo would be lying down or nodding off, or he’d suddenly fire up and I’d be nodding off and barely paddling myself. We started to play the checkpoint game as our outgoing tide stopped, the bastard incoming tide commenced, and we desperately tried to hold out from pulling over to sleep until “just the next checkpoint”.
Sometime after 2am we struck disaster. Gelo had kicked into Dubai time and was quite awake, but I was falling asleep every few minutes, almost throwing Gelo from the canoe on a couple of occasions. Earlier we’d tried me paddling solo with Gelo resting in the front, but the back of the canoe narrows and made balancing for a rest difficult. Instead we decided to find a beach and swap positions so I could have a quick sleep in the front.
When I awoke 15mins later, Gelo admitted we were lost. We were now so far back that there were no more boats ahead to follow in the dark, and Gelo had been unable to find where the river actually went. He had partnered up with another paddler with the same issue and together they had paddled in circles, looking for the way. Gelo conceded he wasn’t even sure if we were going in the right direction, and with the GPS in the back of the canoe somewhere (which he didn’t know how to use), I couldn’t check to help.
Five minutes later and an official race boat motored up, checking on what was happening. We were now officially the last boats on the river and, unfortunately, paddling the wrong way. They didn’t exactly tell us where to go, but at least we knew which direction. Which lead us to our next problem – with my additional weight in the front, the trim of the canoe was out and Gelo couldn’t steer at all, with the canoe indiscriminately turning left or right against out wishes. We needed to change over again but couldn’t find a place to pull in with the banks seemingly an endless barrier of reeds. But if we didn’t, it would be daylight before we reached Wiseman’s Ferry at the 65km mark.
The situation was desperate. I managed to navigate correctly to where I thought the river was actually heading, leading our other paddling mate with us, before spying a rock sea-wall that looked like our only option to get out. Risking broken ankles, we stepped out and climbed the rocks, before taking our rightful place. Then we were off, fast, as I led our canoe and our fellow lost soul the right way to Wiseman’s.
With a last turn to go, the time had now passed 3.30pm. I was starting to fall asleep again and Gelo was starting to suffer with a sore elbow that was getting progressively worse. We were exhausted, in desperate need of a change of clothes and hot food, and more importantly, couldn’t wait for a massage with the physios to help with our backs and shoulders.
We finally pulled in at Wiseman’s at 3.55am, exhausted, but over the moon that food/rest/pain-relief were at hand, before Burnsie broke the bad news. If we weren’t back on the water by 4am we’d be out of time and receive another DNF. The million dollar question was, what did we want to do? I looked at Gelo, he looked at me, both of us with pained expressions on our faces. Going on without a stop felt like an excrutiating decision to make, but stoicly Gelo said let’s go and after a running toilet stop, we pushed back out into the water.
It’s hard to describe how we felt at that very moment. Gelo had fired up again and was ready to charge down the river. I was getting cold, started to abuse him and demanded we stop for the hot soup that Burnsie had managed to get onboard the canoe. Gelo would then have his own moments where the pain would get too much and he’d rest. On occasion I’d also demand a rest and, sliding down into the canoe footwell, I’d catch a few minutes. We continued in this tired, exhausted hell for what seemed forever but, before we knew it, the sky started to lighten and the new day was upon us.
Sunrise woke us up fully and gave us a new resolve. We checked the maps and worked out our time and came to the conclusion that we were still dangerously close to missing the cut-off time at Spencer, at the 98km mark. We had 18km to go roughly, and 3 hours to do it – easy for a surfski but for a slow fat canoe, it was going to be a real challenge. Certainly it was a lot faster than the times we’d done so far throughout the night.
After a quick chat we decided it was time to give it a solid crack – we’d sprint the remaining distance at least to Spencer, where we’d stop and rest/refuel. If we made the time, we’d continue to Brooklyn and accomplish what we’d set out to do. If we missed the time, we’d continue onto Brooklyn anyway, for the moral victory at the very least. And with that, we settled into a strong rhythm racing from checkpoint to checkpoint, just scraping in each time.
With 5kms to go to Spencer, we hit a wall. Gelo was completely spent, his paddle doing little more than touching the water as the pain in his elbow got worse. I’d run out of fluids in my hydration pack and we didn’t have time to stop to rummage around in the canoe for water, so both of us pushed on whilst dehydrating and feeling terrible. When we finally saw the checkpoint at O we had 20 minutes to go, and with 9 minutes left we checked in. We’d made the minimum cutoff time… and just had the last 15kms to go. We took a well earned stop for several minutes – guzzling water, eating through our lolly packs and washing it all down with Red Bull. Then we head off again, on our final 15kms into Brooklyn against the now changing tide.
The last section was glorious. Gelo and I had time to reflect on the years it had taken to close this chapter, at what it had taken to get him back from Dubai for the event, about what it stood for. We reflected on the epic night we’d had – the pain, the sleepiness, getting lost, missing out on the major rest stop, the sprint at the end. This was more than an event, this was bringing closure to something that had been niggling away at us for years, and we were stoked at the outcome.
We crossed the line to the cheers of the many folks still there (despite us officially being the last boat across the line). Our team mates cheered and helped us as we staggered up the final ramp. Our official race medal was carefully placed into our hands, and with that we’d finished the business!
There are so many more stories of the Classic, not least amongst my team. Everyone that does a race like this has all manner of weird, wonderful, and sometimes devastating incidents. Of the 13 paddlers in Team Fat Paddler, 6 pulled out due to sickness or injury, and each of them has a story to tell. Regardless of the outcome though, they have a new story of adventure to tell their great grandkids when they get old, and I guess that is the importance of events like this. Get outside, push yourself, create stories, and all in the name of charity.
There are so many people to thank. Gelo for flying over from the Middle East to help us beat our demons, Burnsie who for the 5th year in a row captained my land crew efforts and catered for many of the TFP paddlers & crew (and I might add washed the mud out of my canoe after the race!), Mogo for lending us the generator that powered Burnsie’s espresso machine, Rachelle Mascord for her photography support, all of the land crew on TFP who supported their paddlers, the paddlers of TFP themselves who make up the BEST paddling crew in Australia today *grin*, my wonderful wife Rebecca who does so much behind the scenes to help me pursue my adventures, and of course my sponsors who help us with gear & knowledge including Camp Hike & Climb, Wet Fitness, Paddle & Potage Canoes, Vinyl Stickers & Hayden Surf Craft. Cheers also to the organisers & volunteers who put on such a mammoth event, and of course to all the other competitors and their crews.
Finally, those at the event may have spied the talented Emily & Stuart of Stem Media filming the antics of the Classic for an upcoming project, known only as FatPaddler.TV. Like the land crew, they too tracked through the night to capture all of the antics on film, which will go towards something special later in the year. Below is a very short preview they sent to me hours after the Classic, a bit of an in-joke if you like, but a fun if not tiny taste of what might be to come. Cheers, FP