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 Moonlight Madness

by Alwyn Duke (about the author)

© 1997, Alwyn Duke

 One week prior to the event work was cancelled so I said to myself, "Al, you should fly to Sydney with your Finn and paddle a superhuman effort in the Hawkesbury Marathon. For those who don't know, the "Hawkesbury" is Sydney's own Avon Descent, also called Moonlight Madness. It's an 111 km night race which raises funds for cancer. More than 530 took part this year.

The first grid is away at 4pm. The concept is that the slower paddlers will be finishing in daylight with average times around fifteen hours.

The course is a fantastic, open, meandering one from Windsor to Brooklyn, nearer the coast. It's a beautiful, scenic trip with heavily wooded banks, sheer cliff faces and the tranquility of the river which is closed to other boat traffic.

However, as I have mentioned, it's run at night so you can't see a thing.

Whitewater enthusiasts, bad luck, no rapids but the tide runs quite fast so half the race is spent sneaking down eddy lines to avoid the current.

The other major obstacles (other than being hit in the chest by a startled mullet) are the ferry cables which run across the river for the barges which carry cars from one side to the other.

Even though we were forewarned by just about everyone, another chap (no. 118) and I tried to limbo under one. Knocked flat, I high braced up. No. 118, however, .... explained what a shock the cold water was, sixty km into the race, as I performed a deep water rescue. Deep water rescues can be hard to perform when your whole body is locked up with cramp due to dehydration.

But this is a tangent. One of the organisers and paddlers' representative, Richard Barnes, did a fantastic job in organising a compulsory support crew for me at very short notice.

My crew, Andrew Eddy, arrived about fifteen minutes before the start, so I quickly explained the drinks and ice I had prepared, my polycose/isosport mix ratios, my rate of fluid intake and other info' such as power bars, soy milk sustagen and last resort Snickers bars. I then explained drink changeovers and where he should stop (as I was running to the start line).

Other peculiarities of this race are compulsory maps (laminated), torch, compass, garbage bag (for hypothermia) and food. This is all re-scrutineered as you enter the water. I forgot the garbage bag but had my cag, so with five minutes to start I was explaining to officials that a fitted waterproof cag was a lot more suitable for hypothermia prevention than a garbage bag.

As I was putting on my spray deck Andrew asked my estimated time of arrival (ETA) at the finish. I said ten to eleven hours. He looked at my Finn and, as others had done that day asking that same question, started to look to the heavens for UFOs. (I would like a dollar for everytime I've heard, "That boat is deceivingly fast").

So after missing my support for the first two checkpoints (and bad de-hydration), forty or more kilometres down the river I got my next drink. I tried drinking then to rehydrate and stop my muscles cramping, drinking four litres in two hours. It stopped the cramping but 65 km into the race my kidneys felt like watermelons and my kayak was full of "kevlar water", as it's known in Avon Descent race boats.

The air temperature was six degrees and by now I was shivering badly. A thermometer was stuck under my tongue at the checkpoint as I put another thermal, cag and beanie on.

Andrew was by now a champion support crew. He had boiled potatoes ready for me, more drink mixed, all my soy drinks and bananas laid out ready to eat and was making decisions for me such as which arm goes in which sleeve.

Seventeen minutes later I was back on the water and away. Soon the tide turned and it was all down hill. (If only I knew which way the river went, as it opens up quite wide). The moon was then up and I could see the ridges of the ranges we were paddling through and luckily navigated myself all the way to the finish line. I was passed by Barry who was paddling an 8.5 m unrestricted class kayak he designed and built himself. His hull left almost no wash (unfortunately). Later, closer to the finish, I was also passed by Nick, the Kiwi, with whom I'd played cat and mouse all the way down the Avon, in his 6 m Excalibur (again, not leaving a rideable wash).


 So I made it to the finish at 3 am, breaking my class record by fifteen minutes and beating my support crew by half an hour (off to the first aid tent for some blankets and physio).

Towards the finish the river opens to quite estuarine conditions which apparently can get quite a swell and chop. This year it was relatively flat. By far the most popular class was for sea kayaks, single and double. I have never seen so many sea kayaks at once with many people paddling purpose built, 22 ft racing sea kayaks. Another popular class was K7, which really looks like a caterpillar if their paddles get out of time.


Caterpillar-like K7   (How about meeting this in the ti-trees?!)

 Andrew arrived with dry clothes and accolades and more "Gee that boat is deceptively fast", and I fell asleep on the grass as he watched other friends finish.

On the way home Andrew was preparing to be my support for next year and my "You must be kidding" is changing. Maybe if I'm better prepared it would be easier.

My flight cost $770. It would have been $630 if I had booked earlier. I took my Finn on the plane with me ­ $30 excess baggage. Entry to the race was $40 with $50 minimum fund raising for the cancer foundation (Arrow Foundation). It is compulsory to have a support crew.

See me if you want info' for next year or ring Richard Barnes (02) 9144 7927 (h) for a free info' magazine.

First printed in Canoe WA, November 1997. Reprinted here with kind permission of the author.

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