It was going to be a dark, wet, and strenuous night, but after months of rigorous training there I was facing the starter’s gun in the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic. Twelve hours and twenty one minutes later I crossed the finish line at Brooklyn Bridge just as the first rays of light were piercing the eastern skyline.
The Hawkesbury Canoe Classic is a paddling race covering 111 kilometres of the Hawkesbury River from Windsor to Brooklyn. The race had its beginnings in 1977 when members of the New South Wales Outward Bound Ex-students Association decided to organise a canoe race along the route they had paddled during their course, raising money for medical research in the process. The first race attracted 250 paddlers and raised $8,500. Twenty seven years later the event attracts over 600 paddlers in about 400 boats and raises in excess of $1.7M for medical research. Of the original 250 paddlers, two have completed every race since then.
The race is held annually in October as close as possible to the full moon. The weather at this time is usually more stable, with lengthy daylight hours. You might be left wondering what the full moon has to do with the race. No, it isn’t some sort of pagan ritual, although being a little affected by a full moon might go some way to explaining why you would subject yourself to this type of gruelling punishment.
The race was originally run overnight to take advantage of calmer weather conditions and lighter traffic on the river. The Hawkesbury is a mecca for water-skiing enthusiasts who are more likely to be partying than skiing on a Saturday evening. It also allows the slower paddlers to make the last painful strokes in daylight.
The organisation of the event is outstanding, with hundreds of volunteers working towards one common goal—the safety of the paddlers and their support crews throughout the event. This was no mean feat, given that 600 paddlers had to be accounted for at the nineteen checkpoints throughout the evening. But it was seamless, a credit to the hard-working officials and the army of untiring volunteers.
So just how did I come to be in this event? Many years ago, more than I care to remember, I was living in Papua New Guinea where I took up paddling a surf ski. A number of my work colleagues joined me over time, and we even had our own surf club of sorts—The Loloata Surf Club, based at Loloata Island. The surf ski kept me fit and provided many enjoyable hours paddling along the Papuan coastline.
Well you know how the story goes, returning to Australia and a new job in Sydney the focus changed and the Loloata Surf Club became something to raise a toast to when the boys got together for a reunion, although the only exercise seemed to be the bending of the elbow and talk of times, enjoyable ones mind you, long past.
A couple of years ago I decided to buy myself another surf ski (they tell me my original is still going strong in Papua New Guinea). It took me another twelve months to translate that into action and at the beginning of this year I purchased a shorter version of a typical racing ski. This lasted me about two months before I outgrew it. It had whet my appetite for paddling again so I decided to buy myself something faster and commit to paddling in the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic. Christine Haywood from Pro-Kayaks, a specialist Kayak shop situated on Sydney’s Narrabeen Lake, assisted me in selecting the right craft, which for me ended up being a Fenn Mako XT.
The team at Pro-Kayaks run a training clinic each Saturday morning and on joining this group I quickly discovered the only thing I knew about paddling was that you needed a boat and a paddle. Whilst still trying to perfect that elusive technique exhibited by the champions I’ve improved immensely since my first session. In fact to the point that I’ve felt confident enough to join the Manly Warringah Kayak Club which races every Sunday on Narrabeen Lake.
But what about the race I hear you ask? In typical fashion I committed myself to the Classic without giving much thought to what an overnight paddle totalling 111 kilometres really entailed. Those who know me are probably saying, so what’s new Baz?
In the lead-up to the event there are a number of familiarisation paddles that effectively cover the whole course in sections over a number of weeks. This was really helpful for me as it took out some of the mystique of what lay ahead. In addition to many paddling sessions, some covering thirty kilometres and more, I spent a fair amount of time cross-training, doing weights, swimming and riding a bike to increase my fitness level.
Originally I entered myself in the Veterans 45—unclassified craft. This group was timed to start last at 6pm. However, on one of the familiarisation paddles someone casually remarked that the 6pm starters was the fast group comprising all the serious paddlers. Rightly or wrongly so, I had visions of myself bringing up the rearguard, paddling into a dark abyss by myself and as back-marker in the event. I quickly amended my entry to start in the Brooklyn or Bust category, a group reserved for those who aren’t out to break any records, and as it suggests, just want to make it to the finish line.
After spending the later part of the morning registering myself, having the craft checked (there was no hidden outboard) and my life vest certified, the time had come—I was in the starters hands. Too late now, the gun sounded and off we went.
We had some light showers of rain in the first 20 kilometres and darkness descended very quickly. This didn’t bother me and I settled into a routine, after all I only had to put one blade in after another and pass one check point at a time. The moon came up about midnight, although it spent a lot of time behind the cloud and didn’t provide much light at all.
I stopped at Sackville, a ferry crossing on the river, and the first major check-point in the race. My support crew was made up of Janet my wife, and a long-time friend, Bob Todd. They were a welcome sight as I pulled into refill my water supply and grab a quick bite to eat. The paddle to Wiseman’s Ferry, the event’s major checkpoint, was hard as I was now challenged by an incoming tide. I stopped at Wiseman’s much longer than I had anticipated, in fact my total stop time for the event was a lengthy ninety minutes, however I was running ahead of my planned time and my crew thought they should not push me back out onto the river until I was ready to go.
Leaving Wiseman’s behind I was quite relaxed and felt that I was actually going to finish; that was the plan from the outset mind you, but there is always a sneaking element of self-doubt. I stopped at the pit stop barbeque which was situated about twenty kilometres past Wiseman’s. It isn’t an official checkpoint, but on a bend in the river a small band of men serves you scones and jam, soup, and a hot drink. At 1.30 am in the morning and some eighty-five kilometres downstream from the start it is hard to put into words just how good those scones and jam tasted. They were so good I actually had three!
Rounding checkpoint Q and heading towards Milsons Passage I felt a renewed vigour. Perhaps it was the sense that the finish line was little more than a few kilometres away or maybe it was just a relief knowing that in a handful of minutes I would be able to get my butt out of the boat, either way the last three kilometres weren’t easy. I could see the finish line, but it just didn’t seem to get any closer. Eventually a town crier was ringing a bell and announcing my name, the crowd that had gathered was cheering and there was Janet and Bob clapping and waving frantically—I had made it!
As I stepped out of the boat I was presented with a medallion to signify just that—it wasn’t a fast time, I didn’t break any records, but none-the-less I felt like a winner.
Next year? I’ll be a starter – for sure!