Sunday, 14 December 2014

Pain & No Gain in the 20 Beaches

Last year's 20 Beaches Ocean Classic remains one of the all-time great days on the water, a rollicking run from Freshwater to Palm Beach in a fresh howling southerly, golden beach after beach whistling past as we surfed our way along the coast, and then a crash landing through the surf at the finish. 


It certainly got me hooked, and when I saw a forecast this year closely matching conditions from last year I signed up for another go, despite the physical rigours of moving warehouses over the past month leaving me feeling a bit ragged.
The amended course
Unfortunately for the organisers the southerly system predicted kicked earlier & a lot harder than forecast, and closed all of the beaches along the planned route, as well as making a launch through pounding 3m surf impractical for most of the likely competitors. This coupled with the lack of a safe get-out point if anyone didn't go the full 26km forced their hand, and the race was shortened to a 21km, two-lap triangle. Starting from the Pittwater side of Palm Beach, we were to paddle into the teeth of the SE wind out to to a can a couple of kilometres off shore, then downwind to the mighty Lion Island, and back across the breeze & chop to a marker at the start line.


Paddling mate Gavin from the Gold Coast had flown in with his wife Cath for the race, and was paddling our demo V10 Sport, and we lined up with the other 300 paddlers on the start. 

Lacking any credible training for the race & nursing a jammed up hip flexor and a torn rib cartilage, I figured I'd just put my head down & aim to finish, hoping for some joy in the short downwind run from the outside can to Lion Island. And so it went, a brisk start off the line which I for once ignored in favour of setting my own sustainable pace, and then a turn east at the imposing Barrenjoey headland. As we cleared the lee of the cliff the sea jacked up against what must have been an ebb tide, and several sets were as big an anything I've seen, certainly from the seat of my V10. Contending with the headwind blowing the bow off the crests was making me concentrate enough, without also adjusting to the swell rebounding off Barrenjoey, all in all some very unfriendly surfski conditions!
The mayhem around the turning can (thanks to Surfski Australia)
I stopped to help a guy who had gone in way too close to a breaking bombie, offering little more than moral support & company while he finally remounted after 5 goes on the messy sea. Half a dozen guys paddled past through all this, but there was no way they were stopping and risking a similar fate to the swimmer.

Rounding the can there were more swimmers, and the SLSA rescue boat was busy helping out those who weren't nailing their remounts.
Me going past the ocean can (white visor, thanks to Surfski Australia)
As I turned downwind the power and speed of the swell took some adjustment. You can't catch the swells because with a 10-12 second wavelength they're going about 50kmh, but you can latch onto the 'sea' or wind waves that are running on top of the swell. Eventually getting the feel for the waves I started to get some big fast runs and made some ground on a few paddlers in front of me. Just before Lion Island I saw what I thought was a big seal fin poking up in the water. A harder look revealed a dark grey fin about level with my chest, and a body underneath which was a familiar grey/white and very, very long.... The shark was so big I wondered if there are basking sharks anywhere around Sydney (there aren't), and he or she was busy munching away on something tastier than me. A fine incentive to stay upright!
Gav finishes.
After rounding Lion Island there was a long reach across the bay, and the wind and chop, to the finish can, or the lap marker. This was where I started to feel the pinch, the power required to bash through the waves & balance at the same time was messing with my hip & my rib. Getting to the turn there were a lot of paddlers milling around who had obviously decided one lap was enough, and I'll be honest that the thought had crossed my mind. But, I figured I could bail out anywhere along the course with it being so compact, and bugger it, I haven't pulled out of anything yet, and I reckon I can do anything hard that only goes for an hour!
Gary finishes, a gutsy effort.
Another Queensland paddling mate, Gary, had also contemplated pulling out, but saw me coming & turning for another lap & decided he wasn't going to get beaten by me! Love it...

The first lap took me about 1.10, but the second was a painful grind with only the brief downwind spurt to bring a forced smile. I stopped again near the ocean can to help a double who had gone in for the 20th time, but instead had a dip myself. To say I was relieved to nail my remount first go and paddle on would be an understatement.
Me done, but a bit bent & busted.
The last leg to the line across Broken Bay was pretty damn awful. I was trying to nurse my left leg so it wouldn't cramp in the hip flexor - I didn't even want to think about what that would be like out in the middle of a big blowy bay - and the headland just never seemed to get any closer. My speed had slowed to under 7kmh and it was just miserable.

Finally the pink can marking the turn to the sand appeared & I eased over the line to finish. I asked the bloke who grabbed my ski to pull all the &*%@ weed off my rudder, but guess what? No frigging weed, again...! The second lap had taken me nearly 90 minutes, and it felt like longer.... Gavin was there to help me with the boat having done a fantastic time of 2 hours, not that he was feeling too  cheery either; I think the contrary conditions had taken their toll on all who took part.

I learned a lesson from the race, mostly to do with a lack of proper preparation not just from a training perspective, but also physically. I can usually get away with turning up to these things without any specific training, finish them & have some fun along the way, just by virtue of all the time I spend paddling. Like 80% of people who paddle in these races, I'm in it for the experience, to participate and hopefully to crack a few decent runs, and I love the atmosphere of these big events, they're awesome. What was inexcusable on my part though was going into what is a seriously committing ocean race without being 100% right, yet carrying that same 'I'll be right' attitude about something that could have brought me undone. There is no way I would have done the second lap if it wasn't for the myriad support boats on the course, and that's a very bad reason to carry on in an ocean race or paddle. If I was leading a sea paddle & someone had done the same thing and started to struggle, I wouldn't be happy with them. It won't happen again!

The organisers did well to get us a race considering the extreme ocean conditions, and really are to be congratulated on running an event where everyone came back in one piece. Unlike last year where there were smiles & back slaps all round at the great day we'd all had  on the sea, this time there were war stories and weary bones, but a great experience regardless. Thanks to Gav's lovely wife Cath for taking all the pics.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Testing the Fenn Bluefin

The whole landscape of surf ski paddling has changed over the past 4 years, traceable pretty much to the day the Epic V8 was released. Suddenly you didn't need a background in surf life saving or competitive K paddling as a pre-requisite for being able to even stay upright on an ocean ski, the double whammy of uber stability and genuine ski performance combined in a mass-produced, mass marketed craft now there for all to enjoy.

Over the preceding years there have been a few excellent additions to the genre, with Think bringing out the Eze for smaller framed paddlers and more recently the Big Eze, but the one that has gone a little under the radar is the Fenn Bluefin. Longer than the other entry level skis at 5.8m, and with a sleeker look, it's slightly over the established spec for the genre, and we've been curious about whether this translates to a more advanced performance.

Yesterday on the bay provided a very good opportunity to test the boat in some blustery conditions, with a boomer of southerly producing squally winds ranging for 25-36 knots. While this produces an extreme sea state, on Botany Bay it kicks up boat-length waves running at about 13-15kmh, steep enough to push you all the way from one side to the other in half an hour. The strong wind warning issued by the BOM meant our regular Dolls Point Paddle was cancelled, so Rob & I took the chance to go for a one way, downwind paddle, me in the Bluey & Rob in the Pace 17.

We busted out into the headwind towards Towra Point to give ourselves a bit more downwind time, then turned and scooted all the way to the airport. The little waves lined up perfectly, and we both enjoyed run after run, easing the boats along the bumps.

The first thing that strikes you about the Bluefin is the way it surfs. Like its older sibling the Swordfish it is built for catching runners. A couple of short strokes, a lean forward, and you're inevitably whistling along on the sweet spot of the wave. Being used to my ultra V10, I eased a couple of times when another stroke might have got me a longer run, but that's to be expected when you're in a ski so damn stable you could text & drive for fun. It's also nimble enough to carve around by eye - look left, go left - with a delightful loose tracking stern that slides when you want it to without broaching. Pity was the ride was only 20 minutes, as we neared the airport I was really staring to get the hang of it.

I think it's important to test a design like the Bluefin in these sorts of seas, it's the kind of stuff an ambitious beginner should be aiming to get into and master, and an entry-level ski shouldn't punish you for mistakes like the more advanced designs can. Experience has shown me that mastery of an elite ski on flat water, even to the extent of being very fast, rarely translates to proficiency in moving water on that same advanced craft. Something like a Bluefin as your second ski for the bounce, or obviously as your first ski if you really want to find out what all the fuss about downwind paddling is all about, makes a lot of sense.

The ski is longer and does feel fast with regards to the way it runs longer than you expect it to, and it surfs like a dream, super predictable and balanced. It's a welcome evolution of the species of entry level boats.

If you'd like to test out the Bluey, even have a shot at some of the cool Bay conditions in the video, give either Rob or I a shout.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Vaikobi Performance Gear Sprints into the EK Store


We're pleased to announce that we're now stocking the Vaikobi Performance range in our EK store.

Born in the white-hot environment of surfski ocean racing, Vaikobi has evolved into a full range of paddling gear, with a svelt selection of women's shorts & tops, racing & training kit for blokes, a seriously clever & well priced SLSA-approved water helmet, and the absolute most minimalist, lightweight, fully sanctioned PFD I've ever seen.
It differs from the other range of paddling kit we sell from the likes of Reed, Peak UK & NRS in that it's unashamedly aimed at the performance end, cut for freedom of movement and to either retain or quickly dissipate heat, depending on the season & garment.

The new women's range in particular offers some stylish & well designed gear, which I'm sure will prove popular.
You can see the full range of Vaikobi gear through the page dedicated to their range on our ONLINE STORE, or of course by dropping in to our brand new retail space in Miranda.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Tiderace Xtra - the Vibe Review

We've had the Tiderace Xtra now for almost a year, and in that time I've had it out in small surf, some more torrid surf, cruised around on a couple of instructional paddles, and most recently took it on a 29km club trip along the glorious coastline of Sydney's Royal National Park.

I'm 6ft tall in heels & weight about 94kg.

I'll admit that in a sea kayaking culture that values speed (even if mostly we won't outright admit it), and has always associated waterline with speed, the Xtra has been a boat we've had problems defining.

Paddling the boat along in peaky rebound for a few hours last weekend while keeping a close eye on a group with skinny open water experience, I was thinking about how you'd characterise this short, manoeuvrable boat with a radical planing hull.
Relaxing in my Tiderace Xtra.
Our plan was a return trip to Wattamolla Beach, a beautiful inlet in the rough hewn sandstone cliffs of the Royal National Park, with an idyllic lagoon & an oasis of paperbark trees. As a designated guide, my job was to get in amongst the group, check how everyone was handling the bounce and then wait for them to pass me so I could start my sweep all over again.
View from the cockpit, Wattamolla Beach in the background.
My trace (below) from the journey down, where everyone was reasonably fresh and moving at decent rate, shows an up & down series of spikes as I got run after run angling the Xtra down the faces of anything that had a peak. If you can imagine mogul skiing on the sea, this was it, bouncing down one face, easing over the next one then angling off to skip down another as I ran in & around the group like a sheep dog. My speed varied from nearly stopped still (a big percentage of the time) to over 11kmh, and any time I lined up a run through the group I was running between 8-10kmh at will, and without any great effort, simply by paddling down the hills. It was a delight, and if I was free to paddle the distance without my responsibilities I think I would have easily maintained 8km+ all the way there.
But, this is meant to a boat review right, with the usual references to build, weight, seat comfort, even that famous old Sea Kayaker reference to 'ease of car topping', so why am I rambling on about the vibe from a day trip? Well, quite simply because when viewed in it's entirety, this day trip summed up all of the things that you would need to test out if you were considering a Tiderace Xtra, it's a 'day & play' boat, after all....
The kind of sea state the Xtra chews up
As a typical group with mixed skill levels & experience, we averaged 6kmh over the just under 30km. I haven't been on a trip with my club over the past 10 years that has deviated far from that mean, somewhere between 6-7kmh over an extended distance. So for speed, despite being damn short & rockered, a peaky sea surface provided all of the take off ramps a torquey little design like this needs to run with or ahead of a typical paddle group cruising speed.

While the longer waterline boats frequently found themselves suspended between peaks, stopping & stalling, the Xtra just kept zipping in & out, a dead flat planing mid hull section meaning any power you apply is instantly transferred to lift & acceleration.

It's stable enough to sit next to a cliff in overhead rebound & take photos. And when a little wave or two presented themselves around Jibbon Head on the way home the boat positively exploded onto the face, where you then have a flat hull planing, as well as a defined rail to edge & manoeuvre.

As for surf, it's become my go-to boat especially if the surf is a bit bigger. The video below is a little reminder of how much fun you can have in the waves in an Xtra (and for that matter a Gemini....). We have stock of the Tiderace Xtra in both the standard G-Core & Hardcore layups, feel free to give either Rob or I a shout to arrange a test paddle.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Moving & Shaking

After 4 weeks of toil, shifting our warehouse of 12 years at Marrickville into our new premises in Miranda, severely underestimating the logistical challenges of a decade of collecting a lot of stuff I didn't really need, I can say with great relief that we have MOVED!
Our new warehouse has a dedicated space now for a small shop for EK gear & paddles, whilst the boats are still up on the racks that any visitor over the years to Marrickville will know well, but now in a much more accessible place.
Because of the way EK has evolved, from something Rob & I wanted to keep as a dedicated second interest to our main businesses, we have never fully embraced the idea of having a shop that you can just drop into as you would a traditional store. Instead it's always been advisable to call ahead to make sure we're there, then we'd apologetically open storage crates to find you what you were looking for.
No more, we're now 5 days a week, 8.30am to 6pm Monday to Friday and by appointment on the weekends (when we're out paddling), and you won't need a secret code to get in! The first few customers, including a few frequent flyers, have made comments like 'did you always have this much gear?' and 'Gee you've broadened your range'. Well no actually, with the exception of the the brand new stock we've landed from paddling performance brand Vaikobi, it's just that now you can see it all out on the racks, and even touch it....
That said, as well as a full range of Vaikobi gear, we've now got a much larger range of colours & styles from NRS and Peak UK, as well as having demo boats on hand for Tiderace, Valley & Rockpool, and ski demos for Fenn, Epic & Think. We're also a few minutes from Botany Bay, where we're fully licenced to conduct demo & instructional paddles any time.
So, to celebrate we're having an official launch this coming Friday arvo. From 4.30pm, you're welcome to drop by for a cold beer and a plate of King Prawns, to help us celebrate the latest stage of this excellent little adventure that is Expedition Kayaks. If you're around, do pop in for a chat, there are loads of giveaways & a couple of lucky door prizes.
Just a note on navigation, because southbound traffic on Pt Hacking Rd can't turn right into our complex, check the map below for directions.