Report from the Could’ve Been Champion Trevor Gardner
Organised paddling events are not really my cup of tea. The pleasure in chasing numbers up and down some stagnant Sydney water way has always eluded me. I was enlightened, I was a sea kayaker. Not only a sea kayaker but a Coffee Cruiser. And not the wannabe, later-day, born again name-sake coffee cruiser. But a founding member of an elite pod of south coast paddlers that mix hard core open water sea kayaking with pursuit of the perfect flat white.
Well that’s the advertised mantra anyway. As it turns out, there are a couple enclosed water, organised paddling events that have quite a bit to offer sea kayakers. In fact, I use participation and successful completion of the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic and Paddle Polaris as minimum prerequisite for any consideration of anointment into the hallowed Coffee Cruiser pod.
How do these flat water, organised and partially regulated events offer the sea kayaker any challenge? Not surprisingly, the only people that write off the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic (HCC) as a worthwhile challenge are those that have never participated. Many, if not most, of the south coast Gortex-sock-crotch-expanding bruisers have never undertaken a HCC. Why is this? Is it the fact that 111 km, paddled continuously, overnight, in the name of a worthwhile charity, is just not tough enough?
The Bruisers would have you believe that the HCC is beneath them. Reality is that they are not up to the task. Bruisers wax lyrical about crossing Bass Straight as some pinnacle. Bass Straight is only tough if you wait for the weather to be crap and then deliberately set out, just like Vince did. Or you cross in one go, paddling day and night, like Andrew McAuley. Multi-day, island hopping, fine weather crossings during daylight hours after a good nights sleep is the sort of thing that the average Grade 2 Club paddler would scoff at.
This is why the elite Coffee Cruiser pod remains just that: elite. Very few toughened souls have completed both the HCC and the Polaris Paddle. I am one of those chosen few. However, in testament to the toughness of these events, in 2003 even I succumbed to a DNF, did-not-finish, in both events. Shock horror. Hard to believe I know.
Coming off a shoulder injury in mid 2003 I had lost some overall fitness but had not migrated back to couch potato standard completely. By November I seemed to be paddling OK again. Persisting shoulder pain always disappeared once the endorphins kicked in and I didn’t seem too worse for wear. I even felt slightly superior amongst some of the 26 NSWSKC members that had entered the HCC. Being my fourth year I felt I had most of the answers. I had a game plan, one stop only at Wisemans Ferry at 65 km, then push home to the finish. Simple, elegant.
Initially paddling with Phil, Graham and Mark, I had to burn them and push out by myself after an hour or two. I then stopped on the water every two hours for a formal meal and snacked in between. Drinking and eating your way through the HCC is the answer. You can’t paddle for 11 to 15 hours without a constant supply of food and drink. Once you are behind it’s nearly impossible to make it up again.
I had a good rhythm and muscle memory for cadence and speed but my fitness did not correlate with this. Paddling by yourself can be good and bad. With no-one to pace me I pushed on hard. As I passed Dargle Ski Gardens at 41 km I started to get goal suck even though it was 24 km to Wisemans Ferry. Once at Wisemans all the hard work is done. Downhill to the finish. It seemed to take longer than I remembered to reach Wisemans Ferry. I picked up a double kayak at one point and used them for pacing. This prevented me from drinking and eating but I wasn’t worried because Wisemans and a rest was not far away.
Arriving at Wisemans Ferry in 7hr25m Lisa and Jude advised me that I was only ten minutes behind Stuart Trueman. Ten minutes behind the unfeasible legend! Averaging over 8 km/hr. Rather than being concerned by this I was quite pleased. I had felt as if I was running a little close to being lactic over the last 30 minutes or so but had still pushed it home to Wisemans. Once I arrived I lay down for a rest.
I was still lying there when Phil, Mark and Graham arrived. I had not been able to take any food or fluid at all. I had no appetite and no thirst, was not nauseus or vomiting but was unable to drink or eat. My guts were totally shut down. The lads had a good laugh at my expense and I recall being unceremoniously kicked a couple of times. Didn’t have any pain and didn’t even feel that bad. I just couldn’t eat or drink. It was to be another five hours before I could start to drink again.
I was at the finish to see the three lads arrive in 13hr30m. They looked pretty ordinary but they were paddling to the finish, I had been driven. Andrew McAuley had finished in 10hr33m and Stuart Trueman in 11hr21m in a Nadgee. Most of the NSWSKC members finished in around 12hr30min to 14hr. Peter Osman finished in 18hr54min in a Klepper folding kayak!! Peter’s effort is probably the most impressive of all. Being fit and fast and minimising time on water is all very good. Perseverance and pain for 19 hours is another thing all together. For me a DNF was a DNF. I needed to redeem myself.
On to the December 2003 Paddle Polaris at beautiful Tuross Lakes on the south coast. Stomping ground of the Old Sea Dog himself, Norm Sanders. This was the second Paddle Polaris, following the successful inaugural event on Lake Eucumbene in 2002. The Polaris Mountain Bike Challenge and Polaris Urban bike challenge have been running for years and attract hundreds of serious competitors. These are both sort of rogaining on bikes type events. The Paddle Polaris is pretty much rogaining on water but with all the features suited to sea kayakers.
Mark Berry and I had won our class in 2002 (NSW Seakayaker Issue 52). Finally we had found some benefit from getting older. Having the event at Tuross Lakes meant that there would be some surf options available. Breaking out across the famous Tuross Bar and surf landings. All good stuff for hard core sea kayakers. Many of the Paddle Polaris teams looked as if body surfing would intimidate them so we figured we had the edge before we even started.
The concept of the Paddle Polaris is that over two days you can plan your own route and paddle / row around a large estuary or lake aiming to reach as many checkpoints as possible. Checkpoints have variable values. There is a seven hour window on the first day and six hour on the second. You have to be totally self sufficient with respect to food, water and camping equipment. Everyone camps at a designated spot overnight. You are not given the map reference for the camping area until on the water on the first day.
Although primarily a paddling event, many of the checkpoints are on land. Some are a short distance on flat ground, others at the tops of mountain peaks. There are always many more checkpoints than the two member team can complete and so each team must plan a route that suits them. Avoiding the surf without penalty is possible but looks a little lame to my way of thinking. There are long paddles to high yield checkpoints and lots of close low yield checkpoints. The trick is navigating about the water body for seven hours, ending up at the camping area right on time and hitting as many checkpoints as possible. Penalties for being late at the end of the day are savage.
The beauty of the Paddle Polaris is that everyone is in with a very good chance. The Polaris is run at a new location every year so prior knowledge does not come into the equation. Plus you get to explore a new waterway every year. An average Grade 2 paddler with self rescue skills and good tactics can easily beat the super fit paddling athletes with a poor game plan. A rogaining world champion was in one of the teams in the 2003 Paddle Polaris. They accumulated the most points on the first day, only to lose the lot after arriving late at the campsite. They also ran more than they paddled, an option that was possible at Tuross but not at Lake Eucumbene.
After the Le Mans start Mark and I paddled the short distance to receive the take-out card. The night before we had plotted all the potential checkpoints onto the topographic map. The points that are active and their value are different on each day. The trick is that you cannot plan your attack until on the water with the daily take-out card.
We decided on a plan that involved a big initial push out through the surf and down the coast, landing at a small beach. This put us in the general area of several high yield checkpoints. This was not the conservative approach but would have us back into the lake system by lunch with lots of points. All we had to do then was head for the camping area and pick off the checkpoints along the way.
All went well. After landing on the beach through pretty challenging surf we hoofed it up the nearby hill. On the way back down we decided to bush bash down a spur to a lake from where we could follow the shore to a high yield checkpoint. From there it was wading / walking through a swamp to another beach. Another checkpoint and then a casual 15 minute jog back to the kayaks.
The surf exit was a little more exciting than I like but we were both on our way back up the coast. The hard work was down, we had truck loads of points and plenty of time. All we had to do was negotiate the bar and then paddle a short distance to the café at the boatshed. Over a flat white we would plan the second half of the day. Surfing across the bar was routine. I spend many weekends surfing on the bar at Bundeena for fun and the two metre surf at Tuross was like another day at the office. Like Fishkiller says, there are ten good reasons why landing across the surf is easier than breaking out.
I was holding a high brace while riding a biggish wave in sideways after broaching. I overcooked it and flopped over into the white water. I let everything settle down and started to set up to roll. The next wave hit the front of the kayak while I was upside down and swung the nose around. The result was that my right arm was pulled up and outside of the “box” and my right shoulder was dislocated. I was upside down, in the surf with a dislocated shoulder.
I had not wet exited in anger for over two years. I tried to roll up anyway with the expected result. A special kind of pain confirmed that the shoulder was unserviceable. I popped the skirt with my left hand and then hung onto the paddle. Now follows an interesting lesson. I am one of the safety nazis that believes that you have to have your safety gear on your person, not on your boat. Others argue you never leave your boat. I was out of my boat and there was no other way around that. I also subscribe to the paddle leash.
By hanging onto the paddle I was able to stay with the kayak. The leash put me at safe distance and as each waves hit the boat I was pulled along. I foolishly tried to put my shoulder back by hanging onto the cockpit and allowing a wave to hit the boat and pull on my shoulder. That sort of pain was a bit special and I only tried it once.
I was still hundreds of metres from shore and deciding on the best management plan. I would ditch the kayak if I had to because I had all the safety gear I needed on my PFD. My preference was to stay with the boat and paddle and hope we got washed in and not out. Initially I was heading down the beach. My only interest in a rapid recovery was that it gets far more difficult to reduce the shoulder once the spasm really sets in.
Mark had realised that I was in the water and he was working his way in my direction. In these situations you have to presume you are on your own. I did not expect Mark to hang about in the surf but it was good see him approaching. He was about to give me an earful for being out of my kayak when he saw the look on my face. That white, strained, wide eyed look.
The details elude me but we made to shore without losing any gear. I got Mark to pull the shoulder back in and he towed me back across the lake entrance to the caravan park. For a short time we considered the concept of towing me all the way to the campsite. We had enough points as it turned out such that we would only have been fourth last for the day.
The camping area was on a dairy property up the river from Tuross Lake. Half the fun is hanging out with all the competitors at the end of the day. The Paddle Polaris is an event not miss. Well run, stacks of prizes, interesting paddling and a chance to use the range of skills that sea kayakers take for granted. The event director, Huw Kingston, even succumbed to constant badgering about the current lack of certificates and presented me with the, “The Inaugural Trevor Gardner Certificate Appreciation Award”, incorporating “Coffee Cruiser of the Year”. I was totally humbled and this award now takes pride of place on the family wall of fame. I suspect you will find it easier to win the Paddle Polaris by paddling than to meet the criteria for my namesake Award.
South coast hard men Dave Winkworth and Laurie Geoghegan won the Veterans singles class and came 8th overall. Again I had a DNF but this time took Mark with me. He was very gracious about it all. I think he figured I had not deliberately dislocated my shoulder so he went easy on me.
2003 was not my year. Two DNFs, lots of lessons learnt and a good dose of humble pie. A could’ve been champion. I did make Coffee Cruiser of the Year, a title providing not insignificant consolation. I highly recommend both the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic (www.canoeclassic.asn.au) and the Paddle Polaris (www.polarismtb.com.au) to all NSWSKC members. They are the two must do’s on my calendar every year.