Last year my father-in-law who lives in Sydney jokingly sent me an entry form for the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic (HCC), a 111km marathon raced overnight from Windsor to Brooklyn along the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney. Attached was a note: "you do it, I'll be your land crew". I was unable to rise to the challenge then, but I kept it in mind and took up his offer this past weekend.
Forming up with the K1 grid in the bucketing rain at 5:45 pm on a Saturday evening I felt more-or-less ready to grind along for the 12 hours or so I planned to take to complete the event. Now I'm no paddling legend, I'm at the participant end of the spectrum, and I'm getting a good look at the rest of my grid because I'm thinking that I'll only be watching their backs getting smaller for the next while. I'm paddling my fibreglass Arrow K1, patched up after a battering in the Avon Descent, and trucked to Sydney courtesy of a mates-rates deal.
The HCC attracts about 500 craft, and is raced overnight when the moon is full. The star attractions are paddling through sunset, along a glassy river in the moonlight and (in the case of slower folk like me) through the sunrise the following morning. I believe that these things would be wonderful, but the weather this year was terrible and neither the sun nor the moon made an appearance. The course is the wide meandering Hawkesbury River, as it works its way towards its estuary. Tide is a big factor, and my race plan allowed for paddling into a strong rising tide, as well as with this same tide as it retreated. Entrants must have a land crew, who meet up with their paddler at major checkpoints along the way. Craft range from a huge pack of fast double sea kayaks to a K7 and a K8. I saw lots of boats that were new to me, and a number I wouldn't want to try and paddle anywhere, let alone 111km in one go.
Paddlers' safety is catered for by a thorough system of minor checkpoints, with detailed information on each paddler's location and expected arrival time at the next checkpoint posted for land crew to view. The first part of that description turned out to be true, but the information posted about me during the race was largely incorrect. My land crew were highly impressed to find that according to the board I was covering 20km per hour for the first three hours.
Back to the race. Grids had been starting since 4 pm, and at exactly 5:45 pm the starter blew his whistle (the caps for his gun had dissolved in the downpour) and we were off. Despite telling myself repeatedly that going hard at the start was pointless I found myself in the pack working out who to follow. After a while the top paddlers took off and I hooked onto the back of a small pack doing a pace slightly above what I planned to paddle at. It was raining. A lot. It had been since we left home late morning. My dedicated crew and I had stood around at the Windsor start all afternoon while I registered, the boat got scrutineered and we listened to a very poor pre-race briefing. It was really miserable around the start area. Instead of lolling about on the grassy bank in the sun watching the grids before mine take off, I sat huddled in the car with the heater on trying to stay warm, wearing every piece of clothing I could find.
The rain alternated between bucketing down and drizzle, with the odd gust of wind to spice things up. Checking the Internet later, the towns along the race course received between 50 and 100mm on Saturday evening, and a flood warning was issued for the Hawkesbury River the next morning. So much for sunsets and moonlight. No mention was made at the briefing of the forecast or how race organisers planned to deal with the conditions, despite this being the dominant factor of the day. The latter stages of the race were on much more exposed waters, and previous races had been stopped earlier than planned when wind, chop, tide and currents combined to create hazardous circumstances.
On the river I was enjoying the last hour of light, and continued to sit behind a couple of other K1 paddlers. I got chatting with a guy doing his 19 th HCC, who was very friendly and helpful. The first major checkpoint arrived at 12.4km, but my land crew missed which was fine because I was comfortable and had decided to paddle on to the 30.8km checkpoint. During those next two hours the flow of the incoming tide took effect, and sticking to the banks helped to minimise the exposure to the adverse current. Darkness fell and the green cycalume sticks attached to the front and back of every craft at scrutineering glowed in the gloom. From here on these little green dots in the distance became my major focus to guide me as to where the river twisted and turned, and which line to follow (sometimes!).
The first grid away are the non-competitive paddlers who are aiming just to finish ("just" is a little harsh here). I had tossed up going in this class, but when I consulted race organisers I was advised to go in my racing class so that I would be passing slower craft through the night, giving me the little green dots to follow. It was also conceivable that in the non-competitive class I might be in the lead for a while, not a good place to be when you don't know the river and it's dark. I did have one run on the Hawkesbury a couple of days before race day, covering the last 13km of the race where the river is widest. I did this on a warm and sunny afternoon, so I do believe they occur along this river.
Soon after the second checkpoint ("B") I've caught a few of the very slow non-competitive paddlers in Wobbegongs. Without moonlight and with very few dwellings alongside the river it was very difficult to accurately estimate the layout of the landscape, and from this to guess where the river heads. Excellent maps were supplied, and I had these taped on the deck with a map light to read them by. They included a compass bearing for each leg of the river, which I now started paying attention to. For about half an hour I was on my own, with no green dots visible in front or behind. It was raining hard, and the whole scene was very eerie. I started to question my own safety. I couldn't even see the water I was paddling in - if I took a swim here I'd be in the middle of a wide river in the dark. I concentrated instead on working out which twist in river direction was next, and getting the timing to the next checkpoint nailed down.
By now the tide was at peak incoming flow, and as I rounded each corner the boat would start ferry gliding across the river as the current swept again the bow. Keeping to the edge of the flow required careful concentration not to run into fallen trees, buoys or other river obstacles. A couple of times I picked up weed as I went through a shallow inside of a bend. Dimly in the distance green dots became visible and with some relief I started to paddle by slower craft. From here on I was continually passing boats spread at intervals of a couple of hundred metres, and did not again become isolated. Overtaking is a great boost to morale, and I enjoyed each passing move. Friendly words were exchanged during most overtaking manouvers.
A little behind my planned timing I reached the Sackville Ferry crossing, and after being sure to avoid the ferry cables pulled in to the checkpoint for food and drinks, and to give my sore butt a few minutes relief. As I called out my number to the checkpoint official I was informed that the race had been shortened and would now finish at Wiseman's Ferry, 65.5km from the start. I was not having any problems with the conditions (the wind was light, and I was keeping warm in the downpours), and I asked for confirmation of what I'd been told. I spotted the special yellow flashing lights of my land crews halloween headgear (long story, but it was easy to spot), and I'm taking a break. They have known for some time of the shortened race, but I'm just adjusting to the idea. I'm both a little relieved to suddenly discover I'm almost half way, and disappointed that the challenge I have come here to tackle has been reduced in difficulty. I am told later that the latter stages of the course (where I took my leisurely practice run) has half metre chop with gale force winds, so I have no problem with the organiser's decision to can the event early.
Pulling out from Sackville I'm quite mixed up about the whole change-of-plan thing. It's hard to change mindsets, to reset goals midstream. 10km on from Sackville is the Dargle Ski Gardens, another chance to meet my crew and eat some of the honey sandwiches that do the job for me during a long event. Dargle is a huge mud pit, and my land crew are almost knee deep in oozing mud, wet from head to toe, and enjoying the experience a deal less than I am.
Back out on the water there is total silence for long periods, other than the light splashing of blades through water and the continual hissing of water drops hitting the river. The green dots are laying out the path ahead, except when one of them takes a strange detour and falls out of line with the rest of the procession. I'm using my stopwatch to set goals for each minor checkpoint, and my timing requires continual adjustment as the tide relents, peaks, and then turns my way. Checkpoints "F", "G" and "H" are passed in due course, and now the tide is noticeably helping me out. I look over at the bank and can see that I've picked up to about 13kph from the steady 9.5kph I was paddling on still water and the somewhat depressing 8kph I made into the incoming tide.
I'm getting tired but there's now no need to hold back, no requirement to store up energy for the long push from Wiseman's to Spencer, and then the agonising struggle to the finish line at Brooklyn (at least that's what I was expecting to face). I passed a double where the paddlers were having a loud argument with each other, and another where they were singing. On a beach at a bend about 50 craft had pulled up for a short break between checkpoints. My bladder was working to the same schedule as these people, and I also pulled in for a moment of relief. Back on the water the tide was still encouraging me along, which together with the ongoing overtaking of scores of other craft was keeping me happy.
The finish line (actually a flashing orange beacon) was visible from a couple of kilometers away, and as I crept closer I reviewed my decision to give this event a go. I need the odd challenge to stretch myself, and the thought of entering this event had given me something new to aim at. It hadn't turned out to be the experience I'd expected, but I was here, and I had completed the event that was on offer for me to do.
I was handed my medallion as I exited the Arrow and my faithful (and totally sodden) land crew took me and the boat and loaded us both into/onto the car. The finish area had "anticlimax" written all over it, people were just getting off the river and going home. It was 1:15am, I had paddled for 7.5 hours, within 10 minutes of the time I set myself to get to this point. I was sore and tired, but in good enough shape to have continued if the option were available. With some mixed feelings, particularly with the experience of finishing in this way, we trouped off home for an unexpected sleep.
Postscript: All the organisation is voluntary, and they mostly do an excellent job (I've pointed out a couple of minor complaints along the way). In particular, they provide lots of useful information in a paddler's guide and a land crew guide, which for me coming over from WA were terrific. Doing this race under the moonlight on a glassy river would make it a ripper I suspect, but I may never know!
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