My first attempt at the Hawkesbury Classic was waaay back in 2001, in the 25th race, in a diabolical recreational sea kayak known as the Old Town Nantucket. 14'8", 67cm wide, 32kg and sold to me by a very convincing kayak shop salesman as 'a great fast sea kayak for the Hawkesbury Classic'. And you wonder why I am so careful to ask questions and steer people the right way when they ask me which boat might suit them these days! I positively laboured over the course, coming home in 17 hours, 53 minutes, proud as punch to have finished & was thereafter hooked.
Back then my crew was Mum, Nicole, & Mum's late husband, ex footy legend Brian Chicka Moore. I finished with my t-shirt wrapped around my head, in blazing sunshine, and if my memory serves me correctly 475th out of 480 finishers.
|The Sutherland Shire Canoe Club, Hawkesbury Classic Chapter|
Fast forward seventeen years & I managed to complete my tenth Classic on Saturday night, in a fast flat water race kayak, with a carbon paddle, all the gear, a targeted training program (kinda), but no less an inner glow of positive energy at having made it once again down this serpentine 111km route. This year there were even a couple of boats in the race that I had helped to design, in the pair of Audax' being paddled by Nick & The Don. Who wouldda thunk that could have been possible from the rank beginner, hopelessly arm paddling his Nantucket over the line back in 2001!
For me this race is always a reminder that I was a beginner once, and also of course of where that paddling path has led me since & what it's added to my life.
|Smiling Hobbit from the Shire|
And in a nutshell, that's the great thing about the Classic, it's one of the few extraordinary things an ordinary person can achieve, and I bet there are literally thousands of satisfied smiles being smiled by the myriad collection of masochists who have made the journey from Windsor to Brooklyn, when they stop & reflect on their own experience.
|Pre-race tactical chat|
|Crew Captain Ross|
As always my race was part of a club effort, the mighty Sutherland Club out in force with crew, marquees, watermelon, and enough encouragement and good humour to power a small city. Mum was on hand for her 10th Classic as my trusty land crew, highly organised & fresh off the plane from Sri Lanka to get the job done!
|The Don, on the water.|
We debated what to wear, as it was a hot arvo at Windsor and many of us decided a wool t-shirt was the way to go, knowing that the temperature wasn't going to plunge under a cloudy evening sky as it can when things are clear. It's always a crucial strategic decision I the Classic, as the cold bring's paddlers undone more than anything else.
|Locked & loaded, Canoe 195|
I lined up on the start line alongside my mate Johnny Denyer, who has been training the house down, and joked - loudly - that there was a $5000 hot spot on the first bridge at Windsor, about 300m from the start line. As I cracked my funny I looked right & saw gun paddler Mick Carroll, possibly not thinking it was all that funny, & I thought well hell, I've never been first to the 'first' bridge, lets give it a crack. Anyways, the horn sounded, I shot off like a scalded cat, got my bow to the front, started to taste glory, only to have Mick change gear & smoke me by two boat lengths. And I'm not convinced he was trying all that hard either. So from that point, heart rate apoplectic, only 110.7km to go, depending on who you believe, carry on!
|Nearly beating Mick to the Hot Spot!|
I slipped into a pack with John, Richard Fox, Nick in his Audax, which was pretty cool I have to say, and Brendan O'Sullivan in a K1 doing his 32nd Hawkesbury. A scorching ebb tide had us running at well over 11km an hour for the first 40km, and I even entertained the thought that with this much recent rain, maybe it was flow! Just maybe the flood tide would be negated by all that rainwater careening down from the Blue Mountains.
|The peloton from the start to Sackville (pic thanks to the talented & generous Ian Wrenford)|
Yeah nah. Within half an hour of such wildly hubris-laden optimism I was up against the bank, hiding from the flood tide, in the dark, down in the 8kmh zone & working into a long, long grind.
|Doing it easy with the ebbing tide (pic thanks to the talented & generous Ian Wrenford)|
I stopped about an hour before Wiseman's to free up some weed and had The Don, Bob Turner, sidle up alongside me in his Audax. Considering we'd spent many hours crossing Bass Strait earlier this year that made me feel quite a bit less miserable and alone. The familiarity turned to vaudeville moments later, when maybe ninety seconds after delivering a spray about my poor line, essentially too far out from the debris-strewn river's edge, he launched himself into a bank of reeds and came to a crunching halt.
"Bloody hell, are you alright" I said barely concealing a rumbling belly laugh.
"Yeah fine, play on"
"Yeah I'm #%?!! sure, I'll catch up"
"Righto. Geez I'm glad I was here to see that"
True to his word, ten minutes later I heard the familiar slice of his man-sized Gamma Rio, and as I caught a sight of the Audax bow in my periphery a faint green glow from my forward cylamume light silhouetted a dirty great fallen tree and I 'chested' it at full speed. If it was a game of footy, the tree would have ten in the bin & a date with the match review committee. Bob didn't even have to say anything, I knew what he was thinking. Something like "Geez I'm glad I was here to see that". As I disentangled myself from the branches, a pissed idiot watching on from his adjacent bonfire and banjo session said 'mate you owe me $20, that's my favourite tree'.
As we hit the long chute into Wiseman's and the 60km mark the wind began to blow, producing tiny little following waves that were very disconcerting in my racing kayak. I was glad to reach the safety of the ramp where Mum & the crew were waiting. Despite the grind I was there in good time & felt like I was still half a chance of getting under 10 hours.
|Overjoyed at the long stop at Wiseman's Ferry.|
I had a speedy three minute changeover, and as the guys lifted the boat to send me on my way an official ran over & stopped me in my tracks. The race was suspended pending the removal of the Wiseman's Car Ferry from the middle of the river, where it had broken down & clean blocked our route home. He said we may not even get back out there & the delay was left open-ended.
I chucked on some dry warm gear and sat down to stretch & try to avoid getting cold, while The Don did his strange yoga thang on the mat in front of me.
After a 39 minute delay, we got the green light, I'd sorted myself out in another five minutes, & took off into the still raging flood tide to get the thing done.
Now I'm on the record saying that this race is really all about getting to Wiseman's, and that the leg home, whilst still 40km, is general pretty cruisy. Not so this year, as the wind continued to gust across various exposed stretches of river, providing chop & mess that you would eat alive in a ski or sea kayak, but in the dark, in an unstable racing kayak, provided a whole world of pain. Just as the tide turned I was joined by the Flying Dawson's, powering their double Atlantic to a new record in their class, and I enjoyed singing along with them to the new Sutherland Club song.
I rounded the final turn, 3km to go, with the wind really starting to crank and running straight over the fast ebbing tide. I was well & truly buggered from all of the extra stabilising my core had been doing for the past four hours, and realised that I couldn't risk paddling a quartering line to the finish and the very high chance of being capsized. So, I beat down the channel into the teeth of the wind until I was adjacent to the finish, then had to turn towards the line with about 1km to go across the chop to get home. To say it wasn't fun would be an understatement. That might sound odd coming from someone who paddles in waves of all shapes & sizes most days of the week, but it was genuinely challenging, especially with nothing left in the tank.
I crossed the line in 10.32 by my GPS, but at the time of writing we're all still unsure of how the race committee will deal with the ferry stoppage. I commend them for stopping the race shortly after I finished, as it was getting dangerous at the very most dangerous spot for weary paddlers. A crappy outcome for the hordes who had slogged it as far as Spencer for sure, but definitely the right call. A nightmare of a night for the poor buggers in charge really, ferry breakdown, wind & waves, handled as always with aplomb.
So, ten of these things done & that 'pleasantly weary' feeling of achievement once again. Probably the toughest one in many respects; the rough stretches, the ferocity of the spring flood tide; but a week out they all feel like the 'toughest' one!
The race is run to support the Arrow Bone Marrow Foundation, and a hearty thanks to Daniel, David R, and David K for sponsoring my effort, it's really very much appreciated.
To my Mum, what a bloody trooper, we worked out that 10 Classics paddled equates to about 3000km driven in the dark, along some windy bad roads, sleep deprived and lost half the time, requiring an organisational skillset that would make Rommel proud, and all done with a big smile. Thank you!
This year the elephant in the room was the poor turnout, numbers have dwindled alarmingly since the roaring success of the 40th race a few years back. You'd have to think some serious changes need to be made if the race is to continue in what has a become a crowded and competitive market, full of much cheaper, much less demanding events than this iconic ultra marathon. The most obvious solution is a relay option. If the organisers can make that fly, I reckon it'll be back as a 500-paddler event in no time.