Monday, 24 October 2011

Down To The River

The Hawkesbury Canoe Classic: Australia’s most famous paddle marathon, an alleged 111km down the Hawkesbury overnight.

This was my eighth time along the creek, second time solo. Cathy doubled up with Rae to paddle the 730, I was in my trusty Mirage 580. This time around I was using the Greenland blade, Ron Steinwall’s #228 carbon fibre number.

Stinking hot day at Windsor. We had the usual complex arrangement of ground crew: Mick pitching the tent and marking out the campsite, John driving us out, Kaye with us the whole way, Trevor appearing mid-morning after scrutineering. What a great ground crew, couldn’t ask for better ( except our previous crews, of course!).

Most of the NSWSKC paddlers

Our plan this time was simple and similar: don’t get out of the boat. Rae and Cathy had a 4.15pm start, I kicked off at 5. We planned a very brief stop, in-boat, at Wiseman’s but were equipped to go straight through if we wanted to.

Our heroes Barb McGrath and Roger Price were also returning to the river for a second time, and it was a delight to see them again, as ageless and charming as ever. I can’t overstate the debt that I owe to them in kayaking, bushwalking and skiing.

Usual palaver: a carload of gear, food, water, registration, scrutineering (by the ever-generous Mick), faffing around, pretend to rest, check gear anxiously, then too fast to the starting line.

Tides this year were rubbish: slow/fast/slow, two changes and most of the nigh against the current.
Rae, cheerful as usual
Cathy, Kaye and Rae
Cathy and Rae towards the start line.

4.15pm clicked around suddenly and Cathy and Rae were off, powering down the starting straight. Less than  an  hour later and I was goofing around on the water, wondering what I’d forgotten, wondering if I had made a mistake with the stick.

Trevor., me and Kaye
I had a lot of people in the lead-up sceptical about my choice of paddle, which echoes the general apparent unease that a lot of paddlers feel when thinking about using  a GP. The common tropes are that it can’t possibly compete with euro blades, that it will be no good over distance, that it’s an almost perverse deliberate handicap. Basically, a novelty.

My training runs had convinced me otherwise and now, after clocking 103km in 12h55m I feel some experience when it comes to its characteristics over a decent stretch. I was using the Novorca stick, a feather light carbon piece, very snappy in the water but a bit smaller than the blades I made myself. My previous solo time , with a wing and favourable tides, was 12h09m, and I thought all going well I could match that. After all, that first time I did a rescue that chewed up the time.

About two hours in. Daylight saving, wonderful.

And so the night unfolded: I started strongly with the pack of 50+ LRECS, steaming along in the front five for a few k, then the front eight, then the front…ten. There were only ten in our class. Most of the other starters would have been other classes. It felt good to be thrumming along, pumping my legs like no tomorrow, overtaking the earlier starters, as night fell.

Unscheduled stop at Sackville, nose to bank, to rig for the night : fleece on, beanie on, iPod in… hmm, seems I forgot to connect the iPod in its waterproof case. Very careful minute or two as I withdrew the electronics from the case, plugged in the jack, then sealed it all up again.

Evening wears on: start to struggle against the tide. Speed drops from high 8’s to high 5’s. Alternate with slide stroke every now again to crank more speed on but notice after a dozen or so strokes the speed drops off again.

I scoffed energy gels and drank a lot of water ( but only one pee in the whole trip…). This time I had 500ml of electrolyte solution which I also drank at measured pace through the night. Nurofen, the paddler’s little helper, was ready to hand.

There came a moment, quite early on ( probably about 40k), when I was struggling wit the tide, thinking I could walk faster than I was paddling, when I wondered if I would finish. Odd. Twenty minutes or so of that and suddenly got new wind and spirits lifted. Swinging along, listening to my fast-song playlist: everything from Nick Cave, Ed Kuepper and the Cat Empire to Talking Heads, Orbital and Laura Marling. 100+ bpm being my only artistic criterion.

The tide turned and I watched the GPS tick up to 11kph. Bats chirruped as we sped along, a caravan of ethereal green candles on the river.

Wisemans and the fabulous Lane Cove club landing. Thank God Trevor is a member. Because of the low tde there was waist-deep mud: my crew gamely waded into the goop and served up the warm ricecream and hot chocolate and replaced the GPS batteries . Then on: it’s always a weird feeling steaming away from Wiseman’s. It’s very committing. No real stop until Spencer, resisting the siren song of Last Pit Stop.

The rest of the passage went in a phosphorescent dream. After a few hours turned off the music and just enjoyed the night. The tide turned again and slowed me down to low 6’s . Managed to hit a tree ( again) cutting too close to the bank in the dark (again) mesmerised by the light-show in the water, blade on fire, riding a swirl of green, sudden lightning bolts underwater as my passed spooked big fish, setting off green strikes. Clocked an extra 3km hunting across the river to catch the back-eddies and slack water (normally it’s 100k paddle).

Round the spencer turn and down the final straight. By hugging the shore I could get up to low 8’s, and kept that up the rest of the way home. And that damned heartbreaking last 2km across the gap with the lights of the finish shining. Diabolical. Finishing, though, is fantastic.

Again again!

There were Trevor, kaye and Cathy – Rae having extraordinarily left as soon as she finished to fly to Queensland, get in a kayak and paddle out to Moreton Island that night. They had come in at 12h05m, terrific time  for that night.

On the way home Trevor’s van blew the radiator reserve tank: huge bang, lots of smoke, then lots of standing at the side of the freeway waiting for a tow. Cathy and I zombies.
The perfect end to a perfect night. 

Conclusions about the GP? I still can’t shake the feeling it is slower than a wing, though I came second in the class just 6 min behind the leader so in practice it’s as fast as some and faster than most. Moving average overall was 8.1km: to hit 12 hours I would have needed to do 8.4 so I can blame that extra on the crap tides. No really.  It was great to be able to vary the stroke: normal stroke, slide, forward-facing scull, nice tight tummy-stroke, deep vertical strokes – and I didn’t have any of the hand problems I have always had either. No temptation whatever to roll at the end!

One problem was the feet and rudder: because I was pumping legs the whole way I found myself fishtailing the rudder a bit , very hard to avoid over that distance, so that would have added turbulence and drag. Next time, I’ll adjust the footpegs. Or dump the rudder. And I forgot to blow up my inflatable seat so my bum still hurts two days later.

Would I do it again with a GP? Yes, without question. Very tempted to try to find a faster boat ( that is going to be tolerable over the 12 hours) to see what it can really do… hmm, maybe a Flash or even the Zegul Baidarka? I feel that the GP gave me a very comfortable race, felt delightful in the water, and allowed sufficient variation in stroke styles that I could break up the motion a bit and alternate muscles sets when I was getting sore.

Next year, then.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Another Greenland day with the Splinter Group

In theory the water is warming up, and in Sydney we had a string of warmer days, so Dee suggested the splinter group return to the salt water after our luxuriation in the pool and have a day mucking around.

We met at Vaucluse bay and paddled round to Watson's bay. The water was...bracing... but we were all pretty well dressed for it and managed a good few hours. Many different rolls, including Claudia's attempts at a spine roll and Dave Fisher's proficient forward-finishing rolls.

Particularly notable was the hand-rolling glove Dee had borrowed, seen in the video, I didn't play with it myself but looked like a lot of fun.

Next up, the Hawkesbury Classic.!