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.

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