Friday, 28 October 2011

Tackling the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic – With a Greenland Paddle

Last year, I participated for the first time in the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic (HCC), a 111km ultra marathon held on a tidal river – at night. Facing a long night of rain, strong tides, complete darkness and a final 10km stretch with 35+kn winds, I made it across the finish line in 16 hours 11 minutes. 2010 was reported as the worst weather experienced in the 34 years this event had been held, a third of the field were unable to finish, there were many capsizes in that final stretch, and as the weather worsened, those still on the water had the last stage of their race cancelled.  I had so much fun I wanted to sign up again as soon as I crossed the finish line.
This event isn’t just for fun but has a serious purpose – it is a charity fund raiser with the major beneficiary being the Arrow Bone Marrow Transplant Foundation which raises money for Leukaemia research. This is a cause with personal connections for me – as a teenager I watched a friend struggle against a disease that is all the more cruel for its prevalence in afflicting children. Vicki was a strong, courageous, vibrant and beautiful girl – she died before her sixteenth birthday. Treatment and services have been improved greatly over the years and I am proud to be a part of an event that will continue to contribute to those improvements, knowing every step forward will increase the quality of life and chances of recovery for those struck by this terrible disease. Last year the HCC donated a record $324,000 to the Arrow Bone Marrow Transplant Foundation.
I was eager to challenge the river again, and this time to be a little bit different, I decided to use a Greenland Paddle. What better way to promote their use and strike up some interest than to prove their effectiveness over the gruelling 111km. With overseas trips, and all the practice I’d put into Greenland rolling, I’d had less time for training for the HCC this year, but I was still confident I could improve on last year’s time – I figured if I made it through last year’s fun weather, this year should be much easier – I should have paid closer attention to the tide charts J
A flurry of activity at the scrutineering tent.
The first tasks for the day are registration and scrutineering. Boats are queued up and everyone takes their turn to have their craft and compulsory safety gear officially checked and their race numbers affixed. Then comes the long, nervous wait. I’m in the non-competitive ‘Brooklyn or Bust’ class which is the first to start at 4.00pm. While there are plenty of uber fit athlete types polishing their hulls and trying to scrape seconds off their best times, there are still plenty of paddlers of average fitness willing to give it a go and just happy to make it over the finish line – that’s me J
Boat, landcrew and paddler waiting .... It's well worth arriving early to get a shady spot - Windsor gets Hot.

A crowd of paddlers all wait their turn to pass through the marshalling gates.

The latter part of the day goes all too swiftly with pre race briefings, final preparations to be made on the boats, a quick change into paddling gear and then it’s a hustle to get a crowd of kayaks through the marshalling gates, past their final inspection and into the water. Everyone jostles for position gathering for the obligatory photo op then, with the crack of the starter’s pistol we’re off!

The front of the pack - there are 99 paddlers registered for this division (My boat's nose just in frame on top right).

Even in a non competitive class, there are those who get caught up in the excitement and want to get off to a racing start, it’s best not to get in their way. As the chaos dies down everyone gets into their own rhythm and the field begins to sort itself out, I found myself paddling with Michael whom I’d spoken to on-line for a while but met for the first time today, and Alastair – both first timers in the HCC.
It was easy to forget the pain and fatigue of last year’s effort, I had also forgotten just how beautiful the river is. We paddled along at a steady pace, the winding river treating us with an ever changing view of bushland, sandstone cliffs and riverfront homes. We still had a few hours of hot sun beating down on us and I found myself wishing for some of the cloud cover we’d had last year. Even this far upstream the effects of the incoming tide could be felt and we were working hard to keep up a good pace against it. As we paddled along, chatting and admiring the river I was frequently asked about my Greenland paddle by other kayakers. This would be the most common conversation starter for the whole night. I couldn’t help gaining a little satisfaction from some of the comments made as I apparently made it look like I was comfortably cruising with my skinny paddle, while others had to work hard to keep the same pace.
Passing checkpoint A with Michael.
All too soon we were approaching our first checkpoint - the first of many to be passed through the night. Each checkpoint has a letter designation from A through to T forming a vital safety network. These are manned throughout the night by volunteers who record the number of each paddler to pass, note the time, and relay the information onward. Only four of these points can be accessed by our land-crews, ‘A’ is an optional stop, at only 12.4 kms into the course few people stop here, but it is great to have our crew wave and cheer us on as we pass. Our trio kept on paddling, joined briefly by a double kayak. I was pleasantly surprised when they recognised my boat, these were the two paddlers I had spent most of the night either paddling with, or leap frogging throughout last year’s race, catching up with each other at the end after battling through the wind and recording similar finishing times. It was great to see them back again this year, although I felt they were cheating by using a double this time. 

These first few hours are the first test in resolve. Old injuries wake up and call for attention (after 16 years in martial arts there are a few of those) and muscles stiffen in protest. All you can do is keep paddling, it all sorts itself out eventually. As we paddled on we were treated to the river at its finest. A pair of Black Cockatoos flew high overhead, swallows darted in and out of their nests tucked under ledges in the beautiful sandstone cliffs. I couldn’t help stopping for a couple of hasty photos, a quick burst of speed easily catching me back up with my paddling partners.
Michael admiring the beautiful sandstone cliffs that line this stretch of the river.
(We were still paddling hard while sightseeing)

The last of the light.
I took a couple of more pics as the sun set and the light faded then the camera got tucked away, there would be no more time for photos during the night.  The encroaching darkness brought another surprise for the first timers. Each boat is equipped with a green cyalume (glow stick) at bow and stern. These tiny sparks of light gliding down the river are a beautiful sight, giving a feeling of connection even to the boats far ahead. We followed the stream of green glows onward past the next few checkpoints.
My paddle still drew lots of interest, with others paddling alongside for a while and asking questions as we went. Alastair complained that I kept sneaking up on him any time I paddled behind him, he couldn’t hear the paddle as it glided silently through the water, a strong contrast to the slap and splash of the wing paddles favoured by the majority of paddlers. We paddled into Sackville together, wishing each other luck as we separated to find our respective land-crews.
Landcrew for 500 paddlers wait in the darkness
for their paddlers to arrive at Sackville.
My crew did an amazing job, pulling my boat up and out of the way, refilling my water and changing maps while Wayne basted my back in liniment, handed over the ibuprofen and I rushed down a sandwich. Our first official stop and I was refuelled, refreshed and back on the water in under the fifteen minutes we had allocated for this stop. The tide had finally turned and I was eager to get back on the water and make the most of it. With a last shout of ‘see you at Wisemans’ I was off again, paddling strongly and looking forward to the next stretch.
Straight out of the checkpoint I realised the tides were very different this year.  Last year, while waiting at a ferry crossing, I’d had a lot of trouble holding my place against the current – a few even capsized as they fought to hold steady against the strong current and avoid being swept into the ferry cables. This year, if you stopped paddling for a moment to grab a muesli bar, or fiddle with some equipment, you stopped. The help I was hoping for from the current wasn’t going to be there. I paddled onward, pushing my pace up, if I wasn’t getting much help from the tide, I at least wasn’t being hindered anymore. I had a longer break planned for the next major checkpoint so I felt I could push harder and have a bit of time to recover.
I had enjoyed the social aspect of the first part of our paddle but now I was on my own. This is what I enjoy most, just me and the river (and about 500 other paddlers but they weren’t intruding). A river at night has its own unique beauty. The occasional bat flew overhead and their high pitched calls were added to the soft chorus of crickets, frogs and birds. The river banks were just silhouettes and shadows as the river followed its winding course. I was frequently passed by faster boats as the doubles, skis and k4s powered down the river and true to the HCC spirit, most of them would exchange a few quick words, giving encouragement and sharing their enthusiasm before disappearing into the darkness. I pushed on, trying to set a pace that would eat up the distance without destroying myself in the process. I have heard stories of more competitive paddlers pushing beyond their limits, thinking hallucinations and dehydration a fair trade off for extra speed. If I’m going to spend all night paddling, I’d rather enjoy it.
The lights of ‘Wisemans’ finally appeared and I pulled into checkpoint ‘I’ at about 1.30am. I quickly found my land-crew who once again did a great job looking after me and my boat. A change into dry clothes and a cup of soup had me feeling fresh again and ready to go. Wayne let me know how my time was going, I was well behind the time I had expected and the tide would be turning again soon. Last year had started with an outgoing tide – the changes through the night meant two out going tides during the course. This year was reversed. We had started against the tide, struggling to keep a good pace against the resistance, had little help from the outgoing tide and would soon be facing another high tide coming our way. Everyone was hurting, but those willing to get back on the water were still determined. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to achieve the ambitious time I had set myself, but was still certain I could beat last year’s time. A final farewell to my land-crew and I was off. I wouldn’t see them again until the finish.
I paddled strongly and made it past the first ferry crossing. Feeling fresher after the rest I put in a bit more speed, rounded a bend and came to the next crossing (not sure who decided there needed to be two ferries so close to each other). The ferry was in motion so I had to stop. There are four ferry crossings along the course and there are strict rules about passing them.  An official boat moored before each crossing ensures these rules are followed. Any incidents between ferries and kayaks could result in the event losing its licence for the use of the river. The threat of disqualification takes care of those who may be foolish enough to still take risks. We all face the same disadvantages – sometimes you have to stop, sometimes you get lucky with the timing and just paddle on. It was with mixed feelings that I watched the ferry cross, a car and trailer loaded with three kayaks on board, there were at least three paddlers who decided Wisemans was their limit. Thanking the volunteers I headed on into the darkness. Not long after, I was passed again by boat number 111 – a k4 encountered earlier and deserving of special mention. Most of the k4s and outriggers are very competitive. They don’t speak to you as they pass, putting all their concentration and energy into keeping perfect timing and on choosing the best lines. Boat 111 was different – they chatted and laughed among themselves, they talked to each and every paddler they passed and as they zoomed along paddling in perfect unison, they gave the impression that they were having a blast. Just the thing to lift the spirits of the slower paddlers.
With the faster boats pulling rapidly away and the slower ones still (hopefully) behind me, I found myself alone with the river once more. This stretch was just as I remembered  – Dark! The cyalumes were now a feeble glow, only visible at close range. Every now and then sounds carried along the water, the splash of paddles, snatches of conversation or even singing, but the phantom paddlers stayed elusively out of sight. As scheduled, the moon rose about 3.15am. A tiny sliver of a crescent moon hanging just above a hilltop, it gave such a feeble light I wondered why it bothered at all. Soon after, I think it gave up in embarrassment, disappearing again leaving me with only the stars for company. As I paddled along I was treated to a brief meteor shower – an amazing sight to experience on the river. Navigation was getting trickier now, it was getting even darker with fog starting to gather. While I enjoy paddling alone, there is something to be said for those who team up with club members or friends, they always have someone to encourage them and to help keep up the pace. I had only myself to rely on and had to keep pushing myself to paddle faster, not wanting to lose more speed than necessary to the tides. Just to add insult to injury, the river also had many weed choked stretches. Even at high tide these had been a problem, now with the water still low it was impossible to avoid them all.
Between checkpoints L and M is the ‘Low tide pitstop’, an interesting feature of the race. A bonfire on the bank glows invitingly, and volunteers in gumboots lure people in with the promise of tea, hot chocolate and even home made scones. These guys do an amazing job, between the water and that cozy fire is a broad stretch of thick, sticky, river mud. The volunteers spend the night knee deep in mud hauling boats up to firm ground so tired paddlers can stagger over to the fire and warm up. I declined their hospitality, remembering a skeg box packed solidly with mud and way too much time lingering by the fire last year, but I thanked them for their efforts as I passed. The number of boats pulled up in the mud reassured me that there would still be plenty behind me as I paddled onward. Next came probably the toughest section of the whole night for me.
With the tide still against us, the few boats in sight were creeping along the river’s edge, trying to make use of eddies to ease the resistance. The pace I had been pushing all night was taking its toll and I was feeling very very tired. Added to that was a constant feeling of nausea and reflux and I was to spend the final 20kms fighting this (I later heard that a number of people had issues with illness during the night). As I fought against the current, stronger at this end of the river, I was surprised to find that I was nodding off. My eyes kept closing of their own accord and I would snap awake at each pause in cadence. I had heard of others falling asleep while paddling and just couldn’t imagine how it was possible. Time for more food. A quick muesli bar, more water and I paddled on, only to find my eyes blurring out of focus and closing again. I struggled onward as I approached checkpoint O. It was past dawn. There had been no dramatic sunrise, no fanfare, just a steadily increasing amount of light and a lot more noise from the various birds who had spent the last hour or so announcing to all that they were awake. Last year, when I passed this point, it was still dark. It was time to face facts and check on the time, something I had avoided doing all night – I had already paddled hard throughout the night, checking on my progress earlier could not have made a difference. A quick look on the GPS told me more than I wanted to know. It was already past the time I had intended on finishing. Dealing with disappointment and frustration is something I have to help my students with frequently, giving myself the same advice was much harder. Combining disappointment with physical and mental exhaustion, it was a struggle to not just put my paddle down there and then. I shook myself out of it and paddled on. I wasn’t going to make the time I wanted, but I was still going to paddle across that finish line. On to the next check point and another 4km down. I finally caught up with a few other paddlers, struggling against exhaustion to make that last stretch before the finish. I spoke briefly with a gentleman who was paddling his sixth HCC, he told me the same thing several others had said during the night – this had been their toughest year yet. With the tides and their timing, I had the consolation that many had struggled through the night and were getting much slower times than they had wanted. I had to remind myself my main goal was just to get to the finish line – I am not a racer, just an average paddler in a sea kayak aiming to get to the finish. Passing through Milsons passage, I passed the island and the end was in sight. I paddled onwards hoping to finish looking stronger than I felt. I finally crossed the finish line with a time of 16hours 53 minutes, feeling far more ragged and exhausted than I had last year.

Crossing the finish line at 16hours 53 minutes.

I have to admit, there were a few dark moments during the night when I doubted I would ever do the HCC again, but as my crew helped me up the ramp, I was already making plans for next year. Let’s see what the tides bring next time!

Rudder up and ready to try standing after a long night of paddling,
other paddlers in frame (top right) - making their final push to the finish line.


  1. Congrats Mel, a very well written account that mirrored the experience of many others. Cheers, FP

  2. Thanks FP. Congrats on Team Fat Paddlers success, by the way. Your team put in an amazing effort on both the fund raising and the paddling. Looking forward to more fun next year!