A little adventure off Wollongong


It’s a small club; those who have taken a perfectly good sea kayak and turned it into several pieces of splintered fibreglass. In February last year I joined it.

A few people have urged me to write about it, not least for the jerry rigged temporary repairs that got me off an island and back to where we started. So some time down the track from the event here I go.

I had organised an outing for a small group of Illawarra paddlers who occasionally get out together. We were going out of Wollongong Harbour and heading out on a loop around the Five Islands further south. It was a moderate day; my log book records moderate seas at worst, 6—15 knots and swell of generally 1-1.5m. My memory recalls a nice day, easy paddling, nothing to worry about.

This pleasant day turned adventurous once we’d got to the southernmost islands and were heading around the south side of Big Island. I was paddling close, but wasn’t in rock roulette or gauntlet mode. I was cruising. I wasn’t even wearing my helmet.

What must have been the next forty seconds or so happened almost without me realising. One second I was paddling along, the next, with an apparently seamless transition and minimum of fuss, I was being driven up on to rock shore of the island. There wasn’t time to get worried or panic. No impact or grinding of fibreglass was evident to me, though as became clear later it was happening in spades.

Up the rocks I went and then down, up again and down again, up once more. At least I think this is what happened. Maybe it was just up and down and up again. In any event as I slid down the rocks for the second or third time, backwards and upside down with my boat on top of me, my imperative was flip myself up. My hope being that I could back off on the next surge. I slid and slid for what felt a mile but must have been all of two metres, and managed to flip the boat and get positioned to power off backwards. The next surge came and as it sucked back off the rocks I paddled backwards hard and went precisely nowhere. A quick look forwards showed me why. The front metre of so my boat was sheared off. Still attached by the decklines and full of water, it was acting as an anchor.

Only one thing for it – I hopped out and began to drag the boat up the rocks. This was easier said than done. It was a very rough surface, waves continued to wash up, buffeting me and the connected pieces of boat. Rough fibreglass edges threatened to cut me. The gear in my front hatch started to wash out and literally bounce down the rocks into the water. I watched – food, dry bag, first aid kit, helmet…..I was dimly aware of the humour in the situation. Helmet libertarians Fishkiller (see Flotsam & Jetsam 49, 2002) and Geoghegan will love that image.

Eventually, I wrestled the wreck up onto the island. Step one. Luckily I was fine, only a few grazes.  But now what? Big Island is about 500m off the mainland and, even if I swam back, what would I do with my boat? Getting back to retrieve it would be a hassle, cost me, and could generate unfavourable coverage for sea kayakers.  Far better to get myself at least to the mainland, even if not back to Wollongong Harbour, some eight kilometres away.

I checked out the damage. The front metre to a metre and a half was torn off; the front two inches of the bow were gone; there were several cracks through the hull and deck; and there was a lot of cosmetic damage. Clearly my sensation of no impact as I washed up and down the rocks had been erroneous. What did I have? Not a lot but I did have duct tape and two spare paddle halves. A plan formed. Calling to the others, I cadged another large roll of tape. With the help of another member of the group who had landed in a calmer spot and walked over, I positioned the broken bow near the rest of the boat and duct taped it back on. I then used the spare paddle halves as splints and taped them to the boat and the broken off bow. It seemed reasonably solid. I then taped over the hole in the nose and taped over the various cracks. We then laboriously carried the boat along the rough shore to calmer waters. We threw it in and I jumped after it and climbed in. It was floating!

We paddled to the beach at Red Point and had a well deserved rest and snack. The boat had taken some water but not too much and so I resolved to paddle back to the harbour and avoid a taxi rode and car shuffle back. Having made it this far, it seemed only right to soldier on!

I made it back but I’m not sure it was a brilliant idea. The tape, paddles and misshapen hull created tremendous drag and I was very glad when we made the harbour – with only two or three pump outs (yes, those hand pumps can be useful). Dirk Stuber bought me a coffee in payment for the ‘entertainment’. Thanks Dirk.

What to do with the broken boat? Could it be repaired? Based on photos, David Winkworth and Laurie Geoghegan thought so. With the help of Stuart Trueman I got it to Laurie who managed to make a new bow and fix up the other damage.

You may have seen it at Rock and Roll 2010 out in front of Laurie’s tent. It’s perfectly seaworthy again, if a little worn looking, but you couldn’t say it doesn’t have character. I still love paddling it, though I have also gone back to plastic and now own a Valley Aquanaut as well (thanks to Mark Sundin and Rob Mercer for tiding me over with a boat or two).

As to what happened? I’ve been paddling for about nineteen years, I like gauntleting and paddling in close and I’ve had close calls before.  You could say it had to happen eventually. Maybe.

However, I think what happened at the time is that my attention wandered for a very short period. As a result I paddled over a relatively deeply covered rock shelf that I should have seen by looking ahead as well as looking down and I paid the price.

Expect the Unexpected


In late November last year my original plans to paddle the Royal National Park coast were changed after an unfavourable forecast, and I decided instead to head out onto what I thought was the relatively safe waters of Port Hacking. I put in at Gunnamatta Bay, and made for South West Arm.

At Lilli Pilli, as I followed the shoreline, I saw the approach on the opposite side of the channel of a man in a tinnie. As he passed me I heard the throttle roar and I turned to see him fall overboard. Any comical aspect to this sight soon disappeared. The outboard’s throttle had jammed wide open and the boat was doing high speed donuts.

My immediate thought was that the man in the water was in serious danger, and I turned my kayak and began to paddle toward him. I didn’t get very far before I realised that I too was in danger, and stopped to weigh up my options.

Getting out of there fast seemed like a very attractive idea, but I couldn’t leave a man in the water alone with an out-of-control boat. Moving in closer to rescue him with a stern carry was going to leave both of us vulnerable.

My indecision was abruptly interrupted. The tinnie had completed about a dozen circles when it hit a random wave (probably a reflected wave from its own wake) and left its circular pattern on a tangent headed directly at me.

I was about thirty metres away, and despite my immediate fear, felt sure it could not maintain a straight course for me. I was only half right – the boat turned one way, then the other, and then unbelievably locked onto my position like it was fitted with a heat-seeking device.

A futile attempt to move out of the boat’s path left me broadside to the impending collision. I managed to overcome fear, shock, and disbelief by shouting some expletives very loudly. This was unplanned, but it seemed to help kick in the much needed adrenaline. The bow of the boat was heading for impact at mid-thigh. This would have had the bow quarter impacting directly with my head and body.

When it came within reach I somehow managed to deflect the bow, and it rode up over the kayak deck. The deflection caused another problem however – pushing the bow away had began to spin the tinnie slightly, and as it rode up and over the deck the stern of the tinnie was heading for me.

The outboard screamed as the prop left the water, and I could clearly see the spinning blur of blades coming towards my chest. I was able to deflect the stern, and the runaway continued its crunching path up and over my deck, with the sickening sound of the prop chopping through fiberglass.

Having completed its assault on me, the seemingly possessed boat left to make more high speed turns in mid-channel, and I did what I should have done when I first saw the runaway boat. I reverse paddled to the nearby shore, got my feet onto land, and lifted my kayak out of the way in case of another attack. Several nearby rock fishermen ran to my assistance, and took some convincing that I was unhurt.

From the safety of shore I watched the swimmer get picked up by a half cabin cruiser, and three fishermen in a large tinnie with a powerful motor chase down the runaway. They had one man at the helm, one man leaning over the bow with a gaff hook, and the third man holding his legs.

This rodeo act continued for what seemed like about fifteen minutes of a mostly circular pursuit, with the occasional random tangent, until the cowboys successfully unhooked the fuel line and the ordeal was over.

After exchanging details with the boat driver I opted to turn for home, as I didn’t know whether my kayak could still float with what I later counted as fourteen holes in the hull and deck. The impact had also bent one of the footrest rails quite badly, so my foot-operated bilge pump was dislodged and inoperable. This made for a very wet paddle home, but I was glad to be in one piece, and grateful that my kayak had not simply gone straight to the bottom.

As I paddled I reflected on what had happened, and thought about what I should have done differently, and what I would do if ever faced with a similar situation.

It was clear to me that I should have immediately pointed my bow toward the danger zone, then reverse paddled to the nearest safe landing, exited the kayak, and waited on shore.

In the case that an incident like this occurs where there is no near safe landing, the best option would be to reverse paddle to a relatively safe distance, and wait with the bow pointed toward the danger zone, until it is safe to perform a rescue.

I was also aware that I had nearly made a decision to paddle that day without wearing my PFD, because of the “safe” protected waterway I was in. I considered what would have happened if I’d been knocked unconscious or badly hurt and in the water. Survival would certainly be much surer with a PFD.

Above all, the lesson of the day was that it’s never safe to assume that you are free from danger, and should always expect the unexpected.

Reflections on Rob’s Tuesday night paddle

By STEWART MORGAN, with added research from Andrew Eddy


In my Summer 1999 issue of NSW Sea Kayaker there was a new trip in the Regular Events Calendar:

“On a weekday – perhaps Wed, Grade 2”

It went on:

“Why should the North-Siders have all the fun? Rob Mercer will run a regular fitness paddle one evening mid week. Launch from Rose Bay RSL and paddle to South Head and return.

You must have equipment and lights to NSWSKC and Waterways specs.”

The reference to “North-Siders” is from the pre-existing and popular Roseville Bridge to Balmoral (return) night trip run by Nevil Lazarus for many years prior. That paddle doesn’t exist anymore though the OANDORA paddle has recently taken its place.

A few things about the paddle did change: it changed to Tuesday nights around 2004, it departed mainly from Watsons Bay and went well beyond South Head. It’s not a grade 2 trip either, it’s listed as training paddle “that includes skills practice and a safe exposure to the ‘outside’ sea”.

The 11Th Anniversary Paddle

My first Tuesday night paddle was in 2008 after I had retired from work, I became a regular Tuesday-nighter for a couple of years until an injury stopped me paddling for a while. I was still on Rob’s email list so when I saw that the paddle on the 16th November would be the 11th anniversary I decided to go.

Appropriately eleven paddlers turned up for the 11th anniversary, it was a typical Tuesday night paddle. After a briefing on Watsons Bay beach,  also known as Rob’s Office, we paddled out the Heads and headed into the wind. That night we headed south into a 10-15kt SSE.

As usual the group was varied; in strength: a world ranked veteran was part of the group; a wide selection of boats: a few Mirages, Valleys, an Impex, an Epic and a Q-Kayaks Southern Skua. There were all types of paddles: European, wing and a Greenland.  Though the latter stayed on Rob’s boat as his spare.

Stopping initially at the Hornby Light to regroup we staggered our starts to minimize group spread, repeating this as we regrouped at the familiar landmarks along the way, the Gap, and the Coastguard Station.

Off the Coastguard Station Rob got us to paddle backwards into the wind to be well clear of the cliffs. This exercise always demonstrates the difference between the ruddered (Mirages) and the skeg boats, at going backwards anyway.

Following some rolling practice we continued south against the seas until we reached Diamond Bay before turning and catching rides on the following seas to retrace our route back to Camp Cove for yet more rolling and then on to Watsons Bay .

With kayaks washed and strapped onto the cars we watched the sun finally set over the harbour while having a beer at the Watsons Bay Hotel.

A Few Reflections

The paddle is listed as a training paddle in which I think it excels.

In the time I have been doing the Tuesday night paddles I have developed my confidence and paddling skills much more than I think I would have just continuing to paddle within my comfort zone. Paddling with limited vision at night in choppy seas and rebound attunes your balance making bigger seas much more comfortable to be in. Rob uses a buddy system with new paddlers or in rougher conditions. I recall on one of my first night paddles being ” looked after” by T.J. as we caught 2m NE swells back through the Heads towards the city lights.

Training exercises like towing take on a different perspective in the “outside” sea, like trying to attach a towline to a kayak pitching up and down over a metre in a moderate sea. I learnt to use a carabiner that doesn’t snag and to clip on to the deck-line away from the bow, much less relative movement.

Trying to dual tow into a building 20kt NE wind and sea, you don’t make headway; don’t bother, just go the other way.

It wasn’t all rough sea. One evening with a glassy smooth sea we were quietly paddling next to the southern cliffs under the Coastguard Station. Suddenly that 1 in 1000 wave appeared sucking the water from the rock shelf. I tried to roll under the wave but according to Chris James who was watching from outside the break zone, I ended up being surfed backwards in a broach. Fortunately the wave dissipated before it hit the cliff face. I continued the paddle that night much further out to sea.

Even though I was familiar with paddling through the Heads I had to reorient myself with the area while paddling at night. The view of the city at night after rounding North Head is mesmerising with all the lights. Unfortunately ships’ lights are lost in the background of the bright city lights behind. One night it was only when I spotted that the city lights had been blacked out, in the shape of a tanker did I notice the navigation lights on the ship heading out to sea. We paused midway across the Heads to let it clear.

Then there were the whales, the one surfacing for a breath when we were rafted up in the dark off Blue Fish point. It surfaced just metres away from the closest kayaks. Sometimes we had to paddle after the whales a few kilometres offshore. One evening as a pod were approaching, Matt Bezzina got a great photo of one broaching near T.J.

Apart from the padding skills learnt on the Tuesday night paddles, I developed friendships with the other paddlers. This in turn led to more paddling trips, such as the Whitsundays, Jervis Bay and Seal Rocks. On these trips it was reassuring to know that the skills and attitudes of the paddlers had been developed on the Tuesday night paddles.

Over the eleven years I would guess hundreds of paddlers have been on the Tuesday night paddle and all would join me in thanking Rob for his dedication in continuing this contribution to the club’s training program.

Book Review: Confessions of a Wave Warrior (Eric Soares)


If you are the kind of paddler whose interests lie in the dangerous zone between the open sea and the safety of the shore this is the book for you.

Eric Soares has obviously always had an adventurous streak in his character and much of his life has been devoted to pushing himself and his friends to the limits: off beaches, cliff lines and points, mainly along his native coast of California. He has gone on regular jaunts to isolated and exotic spots in far flung places. In order to ride huge waves and paddle the features of steep cliffs and gauntlets, Eric and his crew of ‘Tsunami Rangers’ have developed a lot of their own gear. They have designed their own craft and they have finally settled on a sit-on top vessel, both single and double. Apart from being generally very versatile, these are particularly quick to remount in a capsize, something that Eric and his mates seem to do regularly, which is not surprisingly given the conditions that they love.

Not only does this avoid some of the messy rescues that members of the NSW Sea Kayak Club have on occasion been involved in i.e. removing water from a capsized kayak whilst in surf or gauntlet zones then trying to unite paddler and equipment. Scrambling back onto a sit-on top and paddling yourself back out of the danger zone seems to be a much easier task.

As Eric Soares says himself it is only 0.001 % of the population who will be keen to surf into rocky caves and gulches, regularly damaging delicate fibre glass boats, and calling it fun.

He lists the skills required as being a strong paddler, being able to roll and self rescue, a good long distance rough water swimmer, and possessing a hardy body and mind. Together with a spirit of adventure and the proper mix of curiosity and courage this tiny percentage of paddlers would be fit to be ranked as ‘Tsunami Rangers’.

Further details about the book may be found at www.tsunamirangers.com

Editor’s note: sadly Eric Soares passed away on on February 1, 2012

Where does it hurt? Miles from anywhere!


What’s the first thing a trained remote first aider does when confronted with a serious situation?

Take a deep breath.

So that’s what we did. After some practice.

August saw a series of unfortunate events around the Nielsen Park Surf Club. In the space of two days there were explosions around a campfire, people cast violently up against rocks with severe injuries, any number of burns, sprains and punctures, snakebites and half a dozen casualties simultaneously with everything from broken bones and sucking chest wounds to chronic vagueness. Thankfully, with the assembled skills of the NSW SKC members, directed by Bruce McNaughton, every casualty made a near miraculous recovery and walked away from the carnage with no lasting effect. Except maybe the vagueness.

On a blustery August weekend a dozen of us gathered for two days in Chris James’ wonderful café overlooking the beach for Bruce’s Remote Area First Aid course. By turns swept by strong winds, blasted by the sun and lashed by sheeting rain, we had as many changes of weather as bandages.

The week before, Bruce had taken a group of us through the Senior First Aid certification refresher: profoundly valuable but presumes being less than half an hour away from an ambulance. Essentially, modern first aid aims to stabilise the injury until the Penthrane can get there.

In the nature of our chosen passion though, medical help is often far further away and just raising the alarm can take hours or days. The combination of a wilderness sport with potential for all kinds of complex injury means a sea kayaking expedition needs to be self-reliant if anything goes wrong. Each of us that weekend aimed to learn enough to be useful in a remote incident, and maybe even save a life. Thanks to Bruce, we learned a lot more than we expected and became much more confident in our ability to handle what may come.

And so we hunkered down, going through everything from managing breaks and abrasions, spinal injuries and hypothermia to diabetes, heart attacks, burns and venomous wildlife. There are things you can do with a triangular bandage which are undreamed of in normal company. Perhaps fortunately, emergency childbirth seems to have slipped from the syllabus.

Bruce is a highly effective teacher and his years delivering first aid courses shone through with his superbly paced and practical tuition, tailored to a sea kayaking context. The group was enthusiastic and worked well as a team on the complicated situations.

We improvised with paddles, Thermarests, jackets, paddle floats and sleeping bags. It is amazing how you can make a robust stretcher with a couple of paddles and a pair of jackets, or some paddles, rope and a ground sheet.

The theory was punctuated by practical exercises, which included liberal use of Bruce’s kit of gory prosthetics and fake blood, much to the consternation of several passers-by. These were challenging and we often forgot that first injunction: take a breath, calm down.

The weekend finished with the certification exam, which included both practical and theoretical questions. One particular notable question reminded us why we should always remember (as one does) to carry thirty or forty flares to mark out a runway for aircraft. On reflection possibly that wasn’t so practical.

Here’s what Bruce had to say about the weekend:

“In August, 12 club members attended a First Aid Course for personal improvement and to increase their skill level and hopefully – never to help anybody.

It was good to see from the Trainer’s point a group that had on their mind to learn. They threw themselves into all aspects of the course and I think we covered every possible situation that may arrive.

It gave them confidence in themselves and confidence in their fellow paddlers if anything may eventuate.  Team work was a big thing although some may be solo paddlers and it made them aware what was achievable with limited help, support and equipment”.

Fellow participant Chris Walker added:

“For years I’ve been paddling, trekking and venturing out in the wilds of Sydney streets thinking my first aid knowledge was up to scratch – until I attended the First Aid Course run by Bruce.

Little did I realise that, in the twenty years since I was a surf life saver and highly skilled in first aid, most of the knowledge I’d accumulated was either wrong or, worse, now considered dangerous practice.

It made me realise how much I’d been depending on “the other bloke” to have all the gear, knowledge and common sense in first aid. I’d even hired Sherpa guides in Nepal hoping they could take this load off my shoulders. Now at least, if somebody’s heart stops beating, or they get a scald on the hand from too hot a cup of tea or even a fracture, I do really know what is best practice”.

And Graeme Auld had a more direct experience:

“I booked for this course because I knew Bruce and I thought it might come in handy some day.

Like most people I didn’t expect anything to go wrong amongst the people I know. Then about a month before the start of the course, there were two falls at home (one fatal), a collapse due to a brain abscess, and a heart attack, all happening to close friends of our family in the space of a week. I realised then that the course possibly has more relevance to everyday life than it does to our sport and things can go wrong for anyone. I recommend everyone does the training”.

Overall it was a terrific weekend: great company, brilliant setting, Bruce was an excellent (and patient) trainer and the course material was spot on, except for the bit with the forty flares.  We all hope we never have to use what we learned, but I’m sure I speak for the other course members in saying I feel now that I have the skill to deal with a range of challenging situations with confidence. This is not just a vital skill for the wilderness but for life.  A couple of weeks later my daughter broke her arm and I was very glad I’d done the course!

Sea skills in the surf zone


On a sunny winter’s day, an assorted bunch of colourful sea kayaks lined the grass near Sydney’s Wanda Beach.  At 9am the briefing started.  Instructors Harry Havu and Keith Oakford with their merry helpers, Karen Darby, Tony Murphy and Guy Reeve had an onerous task, to impart knowledge and hopefully skills to a bunch of fledgling sea skills aspirants in the surf zone.  We divided into two groups.  I was in Harry’s flock.

Harry gave a very good briefing.  He discussed why sea kayakers have to deal with surf, typical east coast surf breaks, shifting sand bars, why a sea kayak will broach, the paddler’s box, the dangers of overreaching in surf, how to hold onto the kayak in the surf, why there are rips and what to do if stuck in a rip current.  The forecast was discussed, a SE swell, a NW wind and an eight second wave period.

Harry expanded on the briefing once on the beach with the surf visible.  Here it was easier to point out the crunch zones, broadly an inner shoreline one and an outer break, bars and rips and the dangerous swash zone where unbroken or reformed waves break. As Harry spoke, his back to the waves, I commented on a bigger set coming through, not once, but twice.  Harry would look over his shoulder and these energetic waves cowered, magically shrinking as if hiding from Harry’s gaze like naughty children.  I would not have been surprised if Harry was thinking I was either exaggerating or incredibly nervous.

We watched Guy and Tony paddling out first, Harry commenting on their timing and technique.  A couple of fledglings were launched, the waves pounded a few of them back in.  It was my turn.  I found that paddling with a full length wetsuit provided more resistance to my stroke reach, or maybe it was me putting in extra effort to paddle forwards as Harry had instructed.   I suspect it was the latter given my sore pectoralis muscles the following week.  I realised that I was approaching the outer set a fraction too late.  I paddled quickly towards a steep wall of water.   As the wave crested I lowered my head to the deck, the arching wave breaking over my back.  I was through, surprised at the lack of white water I encountered and minimal loss of momentum.   I kept on paddling as fast as possible to avoid the next breaking wave.  Then I joined the small group of those who had not been washed back and completed a celebratory roll to saturate my steamy wetsuit.

It was quite a while before the next kayaker arrived.  The delay was due to an incident.  An upturned sea kayak, its white hull camouflaged in surf froth, had collided with a fellow participant (standing in the water) causing a potentially serious knee injury.  Arrangements needed to be made with cars, gear, first aid, kayaks and gear.

Next we paddled towards Boat Harbour where the surf was smaller.  Harry instructed us in low brace technique.  Paddling parallel to the break we put the low brace into use.  He reminded us of the triangle of death and that we were the pilots of potential missiles.

After lunch Harry gave some on-land instruction covering expanding on high braces, use of stern rudder to stay on the wave and how, if you get the timing right, you can ride on the back of a wave to land.  We made our way along Bate Bay towards Wanda.  My personal objective was to use a stern rudder to stay on the wave longer before bracing.  I caught a nice unbroken wave, deploying the paddle into a stern rudder position while edging my kayak, it worked.  My sea kayak started to broach as the wave broke, as Harry said, there would be a time to change over to brace.  Securely in a brace position, the wave crested over my head and deck, then I felt a rush of cold water around my legs.  Suddenly I was in the drink, then upright.  Darn, my first roll in surf and I had to bail out of my kayak as my paddle was five metres away!  I blame the distraction of my imploding spray skirt for releasing my paddle.  At least I experienced my first “paddleless” roll.

I had to wet exit a few times but had a great time and learnt a lot.  Big thanks to all members of the club who make these training days possible.

Hawkesbury Canoe Classic 2011…the roundup

Compiled by RAE DUFFY

The Hawkesbury Canoe Classic (111km from Windsor to Mooney Mooney) is the City to Surf for Sydney kayaking and many club members have taken up the challenge over the last 34 years.  About 600 participants compete in so many classes of boats and ages that the race is more about your own goals than competing against others. The first wave starts at 4pm Saturday and the last boats come in about lunchtime Sunday. It raises funds for the Arrow Foundation, provides a challenge, and for anyone who has taken part, there are lasting memories of the fantastic organisation, jokes and camaraderie of participants, volunteers and crews. Paddling through the night provides that extra element of adventure.

2010 was to be the year of record breaking times with a full moon and perfect tides but the weather had the last laugh and about a third of the starters didn’t get to the finish line.  Strong southerly winds and rain saw many of the less stable paddlers swimming and the race was called off at Spencer at 7am for anyone who was not past that point because the conditions were becoming too dangerous.

NEIL DUFFY: Those of you who read my journey in NSW Sea Kayaker Issue 80 will recall that until twelve months ago I was a severe aquaphobe (definitely no kayaking for me), and then four months ago I spent two weeks paddling in the idyllic Whitsundays.  My initial paddling goal had been to do the 2010 Hawkesbury Classic with Rae in our double.  After our Whitsundays adventure the Classic was less important but in early September we dusted off the double and went for a couple of test paddles – a 20km Botany Bay excursion and a 40km Port Jackson trip.  All went well, the boat was okay, the bodies felt okay and we managed a reasonable speed without threatening our marriage.  So the decision was made – YES we would “do” the Classic.

A few more training paddles then we decided to paddle the Myall Marathon, 47km, just to gauge our progress.  We managed the first half in 2hrs 10mins but the return journey was against the tide and my body and mind decided that perhaps this was not such a good idea. The Hawkesbury was beginning to seem “a paddle too far”.  However after ten minutes on land (we finished in 5hrs 10mins) I felt pretty good so the Classic was back on.  Rae decided we needed a Hawkesbury training paddle so we set out at 3.30am one Saturday morning to meet Keith and his partner Shane for a Wisemans to Spencer return trip.  It all worked well, the food tasted okay, the water/Endura did not taste too foul and I was felt fairly confident that I could manage the Hawkesbury and that a respectable time was possible.

RAE DUFFY: This was my third consecutive classic in a double.  The last two years Kate and I had trained hard and finished in good time, without too much suffering.  Neil and I could have/should have done more training but what we had done went well and we felt confident that we could finish and even thought we had a chance of improving on my time from last year.  We chose to start in the Brooklyn or Bust category to get an early start with the hope of finishing before the tide changed towards the end of the race.  As the day drew near and we checked the weather, storms and high winds from midnight were another incentive to have as much of the river behind us as early as possible.

NEIL: A few more training paddles and we were ready. Mike, our super landcrew, rolled up at 8am and we headed off.  First issue – traffic jam in the Eastern Distributor so we turned around and headed south to go north.  Arriving at Windsor at 10am we got a lovely spot under the trees and prepared to pay our money and get the boat checked; all done by 11am.  I was a bit excited and so could not rest.  At 4.20pm we launched for our 4.30pm start.

RAE: Despite getting held up at the check-in and not having enough time to warm up and get organised on the water properly, we made a good start and powered down the river towards the first checkpoint.  After the first hour I relaxed and got into the rhythm, I was a bit hot but expected it to cool down soon. Three hours into the race as the light started to fade, we passed Sackville but didn’t feel we needed to stop.  We’d been sipping drinks, had a couple of snack stops and there was lightning flashing in the distance reminding us of the storm to come – so on to Wisemans.

NEIL: We struggled to get settled so were at the back of the fleet, but pushing forward.  The gun went off and so did we, made it under the bridge in about 3rd place, everything so far to plan.  We settled into a nice rhythm and headed for the first checkpoint.  I was surprised when we started to pass boats from the 4.15pm start relatively quickly.  We got to Cattai on schedule feeling good.  The only issue was that we were both very hot, probably too hot.  The run to Sackville was really good, keeping on schedule and no physical or mental problems.  This all seemed very easy.

RAE: The night got darker and the tide turned against us but it was still warm, the moon came up and it was a pleasant evening to be paddling on the river.  Neil however was starting to suffer, he hadn’t had any problems with his wrists during training but now his right wrist was starting to hurt.  We stopped to rest a few times. As time went by it became obvious that it was going to be a battle just to get to Wisemans.  The next 25km was tough for Neil but he kept going and finally Wisemans came into view.

NEIL: Just after Sackville my right wrist became painful.  I suspect that I was gripping a bit tight with all the adrenalin pumping.  Then food and fluids became a problem, nausea came on each time I ate or drank something … not good signs.  I battled on for a while then told Rae.  We kept going, hoping it would settle.  It got worse!!  So after 7 hours we got to Wisemans – 3 great hours and 4 not so good.  We made the decision (Rae reluctantly) that we would pull out. I got the wrist strapped, which helped but didn’t want to get back in the boat.

RAE: 65km and 7hrs 4mins into the race we handed in our number and went for a hot shower leaving our wonderful crew Mike and Jackie to clean up and then drive us home. I fleetingly considered asking Mike to throw his paddling gear on and finish with me but Neil didn’t look up to the task of crewing for the rest of the night.  As someone told us earlier in the day, the race isn’t won in the first three hours and I think we pushed too hard early on.  Neil probably gripped the paddle too hard, an easy mistake to make when caught up in the excitement of the race and trying to meet the expectations of a wife who’d done it before.

NEIL: After about three days rest, still with a sore wrist, I decided that I would be back in 2011.  I am determined to finish the Hawkesbury Classic.


Stoker – Boat 197

This was HCC number seven in a row and for the sixth time back in the trusty 730 with my paddling powerhouse wife. As the thunder and lightning rolled around the edges of Windsor at the start we had plenty of time to consider the forecast: 25-30kt S-SE winds rising from midnight, potentially blasting into our faces in the long south-facing reaches after Wisemans. Ha! We laugh at hardship! Confident in the knowledge that our bombproof Mirage would see us cheerfully through everything Huey could muster, we lined up again at the start.

In the intervening couple of years Cathy and my cadences have diverged: typical bloke, mine has sped up and become shallower, while Cathy’s has become more measured and powerful on each stroke. You may imagine the jollity of the conversation as the long rainy night dragged on, exhaustion set in and we both thought the other was drifting out of sync.

We were still married when we arrived at Wisemans, into the arms of our terrific land crew, the indefatigable Trevor and Kaye. I admit to getting a bit vague and taking a few minutes longer than I intended as I slurped down the hot rice cream… but with Trevor’s whip cracking in my ears it was back in the boat and off on the next leg.

Fortunately the winds didn’t really come up until about 3.30am and by then we were powering down the long southerly stretch after the Spencer turn, just 8km or so from the end. It was getting a bit brisk: probably 10-15kt head on, with continuous heavy rain and wind-raised waves clapping on the bows. We were in the groove though, on track for a good time… when we came across a bloke upturned in his K1. After an age trying to manoeuvre the 730 in the strong wind we came alongside, pumped out his boat and attempted a deepwater rescue.

The lack of decklines on his boat, the fragile shell and the general grumpiness and tiredness of the swimmer meant it didn’t work, even when another paddler came to assist. So we towed him off to the oystery bank, waited while he got his scattered life back together and he set off again into the murk. Twenty minutes later, midstream, there he was, out of his boat once more. This time we managed a cowboy re-entry, and again he scooted off into the dark. We were very glad of all those hours spent practising rescues with the club, we both felt confident in the situation. Didn’t expect the rescuee to be quite so surly, though!

We came in to the finish just after 5.15am, 12h03min after we started. To his credit the racer we had twice rescued was among the first to greet us and thanked us for pulling him out.  In the pouring rain our ground crew lugged the boat to the car and got us changed and warm. And then we slept.

After correction our time came down to 11h25min and after handicap (bless them!) an amazing 10h30min, 27th placing in the race. We won our class, the highly contested and prestigious mixed veteran 50+ Long Rec 2. Well, OK, we were the only boat in that class so I guess technically we also came last. A good night, we emerged without injuries or regrets. The 730 sleeps another year, until echoing across the wine dark waves it hears once more the Call of the Hawkesbury and our paddles spring to our hands.


From the front cockpit

The Hawkesbury Classic is about what happens in your head.  Frequent milestones, frequent rewards, that’s what gets me through. I enjoyed this year’s Classic the most of any I’ve done, despite the rain and winds. I had my low point pushing against the tide towards Wisemans. As Ian’s cadence from the back seat kept beating faster and faster, I couldn’t waste energy on negative emotions but I knew I was in danger of burning out too early. The Nurofen by then had run out, I tried some Panadol but it didn’t cut the mustard.  When I went very, very quiet for a long time, Ian finally realised he was pushing me too hard. Just like marriage itself, we both had to compromise. We finally found a middle pace.

What a joy to see our landcrew at Wisemans. With the tide now pushing us to the end, we breezed the last 45km. Then when the wind picked up around 3.30am, it was quite an adventure rescuing the K1, even though the last thing you feel like doing after paddling 90km is to hand-pump out a full K1 cockpit, then tow it to shore. Of course the K1 has no decklines, nothing to put a tow-rope on, we just had to pull the swimmer and his boat in the dark. With the second deep-water rescue, we stabilised his boat while he used our pump to empty out. He didn’t even have his own pump, so without another craft there was no way he could successfully self-rescue. Once at Brooklyn, we were proud we got him to the end – and ourselves too, in good nick and ready for the next one. Bring it on.


A third attempt at the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic or ‘I must be bonkers!’

After a break of one year, I planned to paddle in this year’s HCC. Previously my steed was the comfortable and versatile Mirage 580. This time It was the twitchy but sleeker Rapier. After a year of familiarising myself with it, and trying to improve my endurance and speed,  I felt ready for the ordeal – and was determined to come in under 12 hours.

As has been my experience before, the weather started off overcast and warm. I’ve never had the pleasure of a crisp night under a full moon and the stars – it has always been pitch black. Also, we contenders had the angst of a strong southerly change predicted to appear around midnight.

As this was a race against myself I entered the ‘Brooklyn or Bust’ field.  I lost time by starting at the back of the pack discovering that several minutes lost at the start line translates into something significantly more later on. I’m not sure why, it could be due to the wash or could be simply psychological. My run to Sackville with the outgoing tide was good though. After a short break being well looked after by my wife and sole ground crew, Christine, I was back on the water.

Sackville to Wisemans Ferry has always been the most difficult stretch for me – endless bends in the river, trying to avoid shallow water full of rudder dragging waterweed and the incoming current with deteriorating light slowed me down significantly. It became a hard painful slog. The break at Wisemans was the sole goal in my mind that kept me going. Eventually the bright lights of Wisemans appeared like a psychedelic hallucination. After a hearty meal of ham and cheese sandwiches washed down with pumpkin soup and coffee I was back in the saddle and on my way.

Visibility was now very poor – navigation was almost totally dependent on my GPS map. At one point I almost collided into an invisible moored boat forcing me to turn on my head torch and beat a hasty retreat. From now on the weather began to deteriorate with rain and increasing wind.

One psychological disadvantage of starting with the first group is that for most of the race you are constantly being overtaken by superior paddlers – but at this stage of the race the field has really spread out with extended periods of solitary paddling, cyalume lights occasionally seen, barely visible in the distance.

The junction at Spencer confused me again – like every year – wasting precious time. Then the SW wind really picked up as I crossed the exposed Bar Point to enter the passage by Milsons Island. The checkpoint boat moored here was straining at its mooring lines which became obstacles while my kayak was blown against the boat. I managed to disengage myself and aim for the home stretch remembering not to aim too early for the finish but continue south, along the coast line to avoid being grounded on the southern shallows of Milsons Island.

My time of 12 hours 13 minutes was disappointing – I certainly did not realise the potential of my kayak. But that’s what the HCC does to you – very soon you start thinking of how can you improve your time for next year.


15hrs 48mins; 4th HCC

My 2010 Classic was relatively uneventful. Up to Spencer there was only light rain and little to no wind. Visibility was reasonable. The moonlight, even through heavy cloud, was sufficient for safe paddling. I did not experience any navigational problems, such as hitting the river bank or buoys.

From Spencer there was an incoming tide churning against the river current and quite a strong head wind. However, it did not pose a problem for my trusty Mirage 580. I was only forced to hold the paddle firmer, to prevent it being blown away.

I thought my preparation for this year was perfect and my time would be well below 13 hours. I was wrong, the last 12km took more than 3 hours. This was mainly because I made a cardinal mistake in preserving my limited energy resources. I paddled hard for 500 metres or so and then was forced to rest, drifting backward on the wind and tide, then paddled another 500 metres and so on.  I knew my paddling pattern was wrong but I could not change it at that time. Regardless of this problem I’m happy with the result and considering where I should improve for next year’s Classic.

Additional points

At the start I had an argument with a scrutinizer who rejected my PFD, as he could not find an Australian Standards approval stamp on it. In the end however Richard Barnes very kindly let me use an old but approved PFD of his.

Two months before the Classic I strained some tendons in my left shoulder.  (3 years ago I did the same to my right shoulder and it took about 2.5 years to mend). However, the injured shoulder does not prevent me from paddling, it even forces me to improve my body rotation.

Just before the Classic I went to a kayak shop and asked if they have a surfer’s polypropylene top because I thought that it would keep my shoulder warm. Instead, I was recommended a ‘targeted’ compression long sleeve top and decided to buy and try it in the Classic.

It was perhaps a bit too small, and as such it really was a compression garment. I wore it from Windsor to Sackville, and it felt quite strange but perhaps also had an effect on my performance, as I reached Sackville in about 3 hours.

It was my best time in four Classics and four familiarisation paddles across this stretch. After landing in Sackville, despite feeling perfect and not at all tired, I decided to replace the compression shirt with my trusty old cag, as heavy rain was reported down the river.

After heading off from Sackville it took about 15 km of very unpleasant, slow and boring paddling to get used to the normal clothes again.

I did not feel any shoulder pain during the whole Classic, however it came back with a vengeance for the following three nights.


The biggest decision: to enter or not?

Is this yet another aspect of my mid-life crisis?

First step to seek advice…

“Can’t think of anything more boring” – Mercer

“Nice paddle, but wrong time of day, can’t see the scenery” – several

“Why on earth would you do that?” – majority

So entered anyway, confirming the mid-life crisis theory, slightly daunted by my vague memories of paddling the HCC in a TK2 in 1989, taking 14hrs 53 mins.

The paddle

A relief to be ‘racing’.  No need for any more worrying whether or not I had done enough training.  I paddled with two stops: a brief leg stretch and drinks stop in the rain at Sackville and a slightly longer sit down at Wisemans in pouring rain.

Despite the rain I was warm in a cag and glad I was not in a sit-on top or canoe.  I was fairly comfortable grinding through the kilometres until turning the corner at Spencer.  Very social for the first few hours, chatting to paddlers in passing.  Occasional interactions in the dark, one memorable one being a female howl during the 90 seconds of full moon that we were treated to before the cloud and rain returned.

The last 15km in heavy rain, a driving headwind, incoming tide and a steep chop were unpleasant to say the least, and I was glad to be in a sea kayak.

I was very pleased to finish in these conditions, 12hrs 58mins – two hours faster than 21 years ago so mid-life crisis averted.

Will I enter next year?

Possibly, if I can find a landcrew. I missed out on the advertised moonlight paddling this year and have obviously already forgotten how stuffed I felt when I staggered out of the kayak on the ramp at Brooklyn.  At least I now know that both potato salad and instant noodles give me terrible reflux, so will not try them again at pitstops in future events.

I need to thank my landcrew,  ably assisted by my 11 year old son Miles, who did a great job finding me at the stops and convincing me that I was travelling well.  The organisation of the event is absolutely fantastic as is the contribution of all the volunteers who make it possible.


I never thought I would have been involved in the Classic after reports over the years of the pain and suffering endured during this arduous event. They were right.

Much information was gathered from various sources prior to the race. I felt the need to be prepared for what I was about to endure.

The GPS was set with all the checkpoints, the last thing I would want is to end up going the wrong way. This was one item not to be without.

I came close to being somewhat hypothermic, but was prepared with lots of thermal layers.

The start was at 5:00pm, the kayak was set up and ready to go. Ben indicated that he would follow me. Ben arrived just in front of me at the first checkpoint near Cattai where a small crowd was gathered to provide support.

By the time the mandatory check point at Sackville was reached, I was cold and it was time put on a few more layers. My arms were a little sore but there were paddlers a lot worse off than I was. So I shouldn’t complain.

On to Wisemans for a slightly longer stop, a coffee, a bit to eat and off again.

By the time I reached Spencer, I was wet, tired and it started to rain.  This leg of the classic from Spencer to Brooklyn was the longest. Getting to Brooklyn on time was the only thing on my mind. As tired as I was, managed to get to the ramp… just in time to assist Campbell for whom I was crewing 🙂

Congratulations to all involved.

So what did I learn?

I’m glad I chose not to paddle.

The GPS was invaluable in getting me the mandatory check points on time.

Next time I would not take as much gear and leave the deck chair, BBQ and table behind. My arms were buggered carrying this load from one checkpoint to another.

The last leg from Spencer is the longest leg for the crew at 57km. This is a tiring drive especially after little or no sleep.