(See also the landcrew’s story “It’s been a hard day’s night …” and Sundra John’s story “A night (and two days) out with Susie” and Robert Mercer and Sharon Betteridges’ story “Desperately seeking Susie”)
I get the task of being the last one to write about the weekend’s outing with Susie. I’ll try not to re-tell the story completely.
Susie had recently returned from her record breaking swim from Florida to Cuba and a double crossing of the English Channel, so was confident on this new record attempt. She planned on doing it in about 30 hours although no one has successfully completed a Newcastle to Sydney swim before.
On the Saturday morning at Newcastle when we set out from the beach, a good crowd of spectators and news crews had gathered to watch the departure. Sundra and I launched the kayaks while Susie distracted the crowd and media to minimise our embarrassment if we got dumped by the sizable surf. We did that in spectacular fashion anyway. While positioning ourselves to make a run out between sets we both got soundly barreled. I did a boring roll and paddled like hell to punch through the breakers while Sundra did a more adventurous double backward summersault with pike (in a fact he did it three times in case the cameras missed the first one!)
- Lesson 1: Wait back at the beach for a set to pass, not in the middle of the soup!
Out at the escort boats, Susie joined us and we set off southwards. We ran errands, passed messages and generally let her watch us paddle. She stopped for a rest and something to eat every hour. We were all encouraged during the day to have the support of spectators on the headlands, the police launch and media helicopters as we pressed on.
- Lesson 2: If a News Helicopter is hovering a few meters above your head taking close up pictures, keep a good grip of your paddle or at least try hitting the pilot in the head with it before the down-draft blows it clean across the ocean. Don’t even attempt to hold your hat on.
If anyone ever finds themselves paddling all day with a marathon swimmer, remember they go mighty slowly. I think we could still see Andrew Eddy and Salo waving us goodbye on Merewether Beach a good three hours after we set out. And if you think the next headland looks real close, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get there for at least another half a day!
- Lesson 3: Additional items: Very comfy cushion, fishing gear or other form of time wasting distraction.
The squalls that had given us some degree of entertainment during the day became more frequent and intense during the afternoon. Sundra got on board the fishing trawler at nightfall as planned but I wanted to paddle on as far as possible out of sheer stubbornness.
About 11:00pm I was starting to regret having not put my wetsuit top on earlier. It was pitch black outside the immediate light circle of the shark cage, windy, raining and the waves were coming from all directions. If the seas were consistent it wouldn’t have been so bad but the squalls had created quite confused wave patterns. Being wet and not expending much energy on account of the slow pace I was getting very cold. Most of the time I stayed in the lee of the shark cage as every time I moved away to work the arms a bit, I got thrown around by waves that I couldn’t see. It was too late to put the wetsuit on now – I wasn’t putting my paddle down or taking my lifejacket off for nobody! It was heartening to see Susie was having as much fun as I was. She was vomiting regularly, getting demoralised and rapidly heading towards hypothermia. Throughout all this I must say my Storm (Current Designs) was handling extremely well and very comfortable to paddle. I never felt in danger of being tipped, it was just a struggle constantly bracing in the dark, messy conditions.
- Lesson 4: Prepare for the cold, wet and dark before it gets cold, wet and dark.
About 1:00am I decided, stuff it, the last Hawkesbury Classic was a hell of a lot more fun than this, I’m joining Sundra on board the support boat.
- Lesson 5: When getting a kayak on board a fishing trawler in lousy conditions, don’t approach from the seaward side or you will take a swim. When you soundly hit the trawler (which you will), you will turn turtle and you will not have room to roll up – been there done that and dragged the waterlogged kayak on board to prove it.
I soon discovered that warm though I now was, a kayak is a much more comfortable place to be in these conditions than a slow moving, wallowing trawler. Waves go under kayaks gracefully – not so with fishing trawlers. It was a matter of finding a tight corner, bracing oneself in and trying not to think about greasy food.
The rest of the story I think has been told. Susie was pulled from the water soon after with hypothermia and exhaustion. She joined her mother, who had two cracked ribs, on the cruiser and they set off to Sydney Harbour. The trawler that Sundra and I were in continued at a snail pace towing the now empty shark cage back to Sydney – the towline only broke about four times! We didn’t reach the harbour until mid Sunday morning sometime.
With Susie thawed out and swimming again and us paddling along side, this last leg was the highlight of the trip. It was great to get back onto the water again in a real boat, starting with a most excellent trawler mounted backward seal launch. It was an exciting atmosphere with an array of media boats, spectator craft and the Rett Syndrome girls on the Police Launch cheering Susie on. Even some of the Australian Olympic swim team were out there for a look. When she finally stepped out of the water at Darling Harbour there was a crowd of about 10,000 people there to welcome her.
Overall it was a great event. The conditions were awful but Susie did a great job getting as far as she did. It was a very worthwhile activity for NSWSKC to support and the Rett Syndrome Research Association were very grateful for our participation. The swim had raised over $40,000 towards research – not a bad effort. Seeing the little Rett Syndrome girls on the Saturday, who this was all in support of made it all the more worthwhile. The purpose of the swim was more to raise community awareness of Rett Syndrome than to break the Newcastle to Sydney swim record. Susie is Patron of the Rett Syndrome Research Association. Rett is a neurological disorder that effects young girls. Sufferers don’t usually live beyond 12 years old. Researches estimate they are 12 to 18 months away from identifying the gene responsible and hope to find a cure from there. So funds and community awareness are needed to continue the work.
And I’ve just received an e-mail from Susie. The re-attempt will be November or possibly New Years eve to see in the millennium. So if your kayaks are year 2000 compliant you are welcome to come along and join us. Of course it won’t be as much fun next time as there’ll be more than two club paddlers, we’ll all be fit from the Hawkesbury Classic and would have had more than a fortnight to prepare for it!!
Look forward to your company.