Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Mark & Rob Paddle the Classic


Just over a week has passed since the 40th Anniversary of the Hawkesbury Classic, Sydney's own iconic 111km race overnight from the foot of the Blue Mountains to within smelling distance of the ocean.

Both Rob & I had managed to get our hands on Greg Slade's specialist long-distance racing kayak, the SLR1, and to varying degrees had spent a few weeks getting ourselves into Classic mode.

We were both eyeing off a time in the low 10 hour range, but as that's substantially faster than either of us had managed previously we weren't thinking too far ahead.
Posing with Roddy who smoked a 10.03 in his second attempt at the race
I had battled with the seating position in the race kayak in comparison to my skis, never quite managing to get it dead comfortable, but after a pain-free 20km the weekend before with my Sutherland club mates I figured I was right. The drawback, both a blessing & a curse, was that to get to a good position I was sitting really high, incredibly destabilising but also great from the perspective of getting over my stroke and generating more power. 
Swapping yarns with Irishman David Horkan who added a 9 hour Classic to his long list of open water achievements.
Rob's apprehension was centred around his legendary poor night vision, so he had Steve Dawson download a very accurate race trace onto his GPS and was set to follow the little yellow line all the way down the river. Little did he realise that we were paddling into a night that would become legendary because it was so dark it created an entire field of paddlers with poor night vision!
Lined up at the start
The hype around the anniversary running of the event attracted a big field, up around 500 paddlers, including Dragon Boats, and also the much less intimidating option of a 65km 'dash' to Wiseman's Ferry, rather than the whole shebang.

For the first time the great majority of competitive classes started together at 5pm. This is a little earlier than we're used to, and with the opportunity to wash ride a whole armada of slightly faster boats, the first 5km after the gun were absolutely hectic.
Rob left, me right as we approach the Windsor Bridge
I saw Rob disappearing off into the distance safely embedded on the wash of a few big doubles, and settled into a steady speed alongside David Little in his K1.
Hangin' with David over the daylight section of the course
My backside was feeling good over the first 25km and I was prematurely self congratulatory about my pulling off a great escape, fluking a perfect seating set up on the night, even though I hadn't really managed it up to that point in all my training.
Rob looking comfortable at the 12.5km mark.
As the sun set I started to go numb in my right bum cheek, and that was the last moment in the race that I was free of pain. I had a quick stop just before Sackville to add a blow up cushion that had got me through the Myall Classic with a few wobbles, then again at Sackville to install a slither of foam that John Denyer handed over to me when he saw me struggling.

The into-the-tide stretch to Wiseman's was a tough one, as it always is. You have to be up close to the banks to get out of the current coming at you, but in the pitch black, moonless night you literally couldn't see your paddle hitting the water, let alone an overhanging branch or hazard.

At about 45km I ducked under a branch that my cyalume light illuminated dull green moments before it would have coat-hangered me, and on the other side of the tree there was a boat stopped dead. In fact it didn't even look like it was floating. I asked the paddler if he was OK, and he said 'actually not really'.
The conversation from there went like this:

Mark 'Can I help you'
Paddler 'Yes, I think you'll have to, I'm stuck hard in a tree'
Mark 'Have you tried back paddling'
Paddler 'Yes but I'm too far up between the branches'
Mark 'OK, I'll come alongside & see if I can free you up'

I pulled along one gunwale & the tree blocked me from getting closer, so backed up & came along the opposite side.

Mark (in best I'm-in-charge-now-mate-do-as-I-say voice) 'OK, I'm going to lean over your deck & try & prise your boat out backwards'
Paddler 'Who is this?'
Mark 'I'm Mark'
Paddler (chuckling) 'Mr Sundin!'
Mark 'Who's this'
Paddler 'It's Rob!'

A healthy dose of hilarity ensued, firstly because it was so dark we couldn't see one another, and secondly because we were so bloody frazzled by near enough to 50km of effort that we didn't even recognise one another's voices! It just goes to show you where the race takes you mentally. Eventually we freed Rob's bow from the oversized slingshot frame he'd perfectly bisected, and took off together to make up lost time, after I reminded him that those seven minutes he'd lost, I was gonna get back on recourse for assisting a stricken paddler!
I love this pic, the two of us pulling into Wiseman's side by side, looking a little frazzled.
At Wiseman's we pulled in together for a short rest, I jumped out & tried every single bum & hammy stretch I knew to try & release the tennis ball knot that had formed in my right buttock, while Rob sorted out his water change.

I got back on the water first & headed for home, delighted that the tide was releasing & the speed was starting to reach into the 11-12kmh range. For the first time in eight Classics I pulled over at the Low Tide Pit Stop, where a gregarious bunch of dudes dragged me from my boat & offered me all sorts of incentives to stay. Sadly I spent 5 minutes doing nothing more exciting than stretching & swearing, before I remounted for the final 25km home.

My GPS had me on track for a time very close to 10 hours, but the tennis ball and the easing of the ebb flow saw that blow out to 10.15 by the time I reached the bridge at Brooklyn. 
My finish - yes I know where the camera guy is after 8 Classics!
Rob had an entirely different adventure on the home stretch. He became a little obsessed with staring at the GPS track, and noticing how as the tide started to crank, his arrival or finish time began to dip below 10 hours. The screen was telling him he had 40 minutes to paddle 7km to the end whilst moving at 13kmh, to get under the magic 10 hour mark, when he looked up in the darkness & BANG! was shoulder charged by a jetty bollard! Upside down in a racing kayak he decided to have a crack at rolling, but couldn't manage to get any purchase solid enough to prevent his backside floating free. Exasperated he swam the boat to shore minus his hat, GPS & drink system, emptied it out & set off once again. He crossed the line 40 seconds faster than me in 10.15.19. The irony of following Steve's dead-eye track was that the jetty was a recent installation, & everyone, including Steve, who was dutifully following his line had a near-miss story to tell. Except Rob.....
Rob finishes, dripping wet, no hat, no GPS and just the tube from his Camelback!
So, in the grand scheme of things a pretty decent set of times in the Classic for a pair of sea kayakers, by our count 13th & 14th single paddlers home, but we've now got that malaise typical of Hawkesbury paddlers, the 'geez if only I'd done this, this & this it could've been a really fast one...!'

My Mum Suzanne had her responsibilities double for the night with Rob's inclusion, but as always handled the pressure with a throw-your-head-back laugh & her brilliant laid-back efficiency. That's eight Classics for Mum now, she's starting to talk to the greenhorn crews with some authority when she's asked!
A last pic with our crew, my Mum Suzanne.
Thanks to Dave, Louisa & Rosy for generously sponsoring my race, and well done to everyone who had a crack, the Classic remains one of the few extraordinary challenges that an ordinary person can conquer.

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