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.