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Completing the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic 2011

November 2, 2011
Good coffeeI’ve been neglecting my Blog. I suppose I could blame it on work since I have been enjoying my new job. It’s been three months now since I came off that extended ‘gardening leave’ period and was padding every other day. I start work early and sometimes finish late. I am passionate about my industry and I have gratefully found, what I like to call “the holy trinity” in this job:     1. The technology is really sexy 2. Our customers are happy and 3. I like the people I work with – and they like each other. Given my pedigree as a sales person, this is also breeding an urgency to succeed.
But in hindsight – I suppose I was harbouring extreme doubt and fear about my ability to complete something as big as the Hawksebury Canoe Classic (HCC).It’s an interesting mental cycle. I was making excuses in my mind. Rehearsing reasons for failure. And then when the next weekend came around – those reasons found a way to materialise and I would miss another training session. All in all, I reckon I squeezed in nothing over 27km and a handful of leisurely 15 to 20km paddles. I was so disappointed in myself. I had so much time to prepare – and I felt like I let it all waste away…
My friend

My wife

Anyway – I remember saying to my land-crew, Eileen (wife) and Frank (friend) in the week prior – that I would see how it goes but there was every chance we would be driving home by the first checkpoint, and be in bed well before midnight. Strangely, this mental resignation took the pressure off. I wasn’t thinking about the race – but I had such a busy week ahead of me, as well as a trip to the US on the Monday immediately after, that I packed everything the weekend before. And then before you know it – it’s Friday night and I’m lying in bed using a meditation to get to sleep. Somewhere in that state of zoned out bliss I remembered Sean (The Fat Paddler) telling me it was more mental than physical. He said “If you can paddle 30km – then you can paddle 111km”. And that was when I first felt the determination.

Saturday morning we left early. Eileen, Frank and I jumped in the car and picked up Sean. We had the marquee and everything we needed to select our position and set up camp at Windsor. It was beautiful at the site. There was residue mist from the night before and a slow emerging sun which promised a very warm afternoon. Burnsie was right behind us. He is the Land Crew Leader and has a lot of experience helping Sean in past campaigns. He is also incredibly well prepared and before you knew it – everything was set-up and Burnsie had delivered freshly brewed coffee and biscuits to our hands.

Morning plastic

Mines the slow looking plastic one in the middle 😉


Camp TFP with Burnsie & Eily at the ready !!

I’ll skip the detail of Saturday except to say watching the field around us grow to something like 1500 or 2000 people, watching the vast array of boats arrive on roof-racks, and enjoying the camaraderie of Team Fat Paddler (TFP) &  land crew was simply wonderful and a great day in itself.


Less than an hour to go at The Briefing !!


TFP - 10 paddlers in 9 Boats - all wonderful people & friends.

At 4pm I was sitting in my kayak on the water, out the back, behind the many other “Brooklyn or Bust” paddlers waiting anxiously for the horn to sound. And then I was paddling…..

My first recollection was that the sun was so damn hot. It was bad enough sitting around all afternoon seeking out the shade trying to conserve energy but paddling for 2 hours in that heat was really dehydrating. Not to mention we had an incoming tide so we were paddling against the flow. I tried to stick to about 60% of effort, but finding the rhythm took a little while. I enjoyed the company of two paddlers for the first 30km. Mel (from Greenland Downunder) who I had known previously, and Alistair who I had just met on the water. It was good to chat every now and then as the km’s disappeared. I also remember getting a real morale boost paddling past the first checkpoint at Cattai and seeing our entire land-crew on the banks cheering us on.

LandcrewBy 9.30pm we were 31 kms in and had reached the first of three major check-points – Sackville. This is where we could stop and get refreshments, restock supplies and receive encouragement from our land-crew. It was already very dark when we paddled in and there were hundreds of torches on the bank searching for their respective paddlers. I found Eily and Frank easily enough. I just used my usual method – I called out “BABY” really loud and they knew where to look 🙂  I remember getting out my boat and feeling wobbly on the sand. Eily and Frank were outstanding. Like a finely tuned pit-crew on the race track. They walked me over to a seat, sat me down, filled me up with hot pasta, re-filled my water bottles, re-stocked supplies on the boat, rubbed deep-heat on my back and helped me change into warm clothes. I got the updates on how the rest of TFP were doing and saw a few equally weary faces of fellow TFP members – all the while offering encouragement to each other. There were some minor injuries all round. Mostly muscular and blisters. Some nausea and throwing up. Nothing the land-crew and first aid tent couldn’t fix. I had my hands strapped up with gauze and tape and then we were back on the water.Winning

I had lost track of Mel and Alistair, but fellow TFP Grumm and I agreed to paddle together for the next leg. The Fat Paddler (Sean) and Trav had also arrived not far behind us in their 2 man Canoe – so as it turned out, we all took off together from Sackville. This was the part I was dreading in the weeks prior – but it turned out the be the easiest stretch of the whole race. I was concerned about how I would be feeling and how I would cope with the isolated dark stretches of water. But with Grumm on one side and Sean & Trav on the other – well, we talked and laughed a fair way down the river. We also had the tide now running with us. It was quite surreal on the water. At points it was overcast with cloud and fog. It was also pitch black. The sky was one shade of grey. The mountains on either side were black and they cast equally dark shadows in the water. The only way I knew which way to go was by following the illuminated glow-sticks stuck to the back and front of every boat. And they dotted the river ahead, forming an illuminated mystical trail…

After a few hours Grumm and I had pulled away from Sean and Trav. They were never really far behind. If we had stopped, it probably would have only taken them 5 minutes to catch up. But we had a good stroke happening and I noticed we had begun overtaking a few boats on the water. We were never short of adventure either. Twice I almost rammed these huge buoys head-on. They were unmarked and the size of tractor tyres – usually sitting in the middle of a wide bend in the river. Each time they emerged out of no-where and I only just managed to push the rudder and point my nose a fraction away from a direct collision – so I side-impacted them instead. At speed that’s a scary proposition. Each time I bounced off, a had a bit of a wobble – and then we had a good laugh, some cursing and more paddling.

By about 1.30 am we had completed another 34km and reached the next major check-point at Wisemans Ferry. It seemed like we would never get there. If there is one thing about paddling distance that I will forever remember, is that the next corner or checkpoint is always much further away than you think. The monotony of paddling in the dark is laborious. Without a gorgeous bush-land view to recharge your spirit – you remain on high alert and scan for the faintest obstacle inches from your bow. And it never seems to end…..

Leaving Wisemans Ferry with FP (Sean) for the final leg...

By the time we pulled in to Wisemans Ferry, there seemed fewer boats at the beach than at Sackville. I suppose the spread in paddlers widens by this point, given the distance and speed everyone travels at.  Some people only stopped for minutes at Sackville, while others didn’t stop at all. In my case, I think I stopped for about 30 minutes. Coming into Wisemans was a similar experience – my land-crew were superb. I had my hands re-strapped. Ate another big bowl of hot pasta and had Frank rub my back hard with the Deep Heat. I changed into dry clothes – kissed my wife and headed back to the boat with Grumm right behind me. Eily asked if I planned on stopping at Spencer. The thought of quitting this race never entered my mind once I had actually started paddling. My tail bone, both heels, the balls of my feet, and my left shoulder all ached in new and interesting ways. My hands looked like the top layer of skin would come away with soap. But I was determined to finish this bastard. So I told her I would pass Spencer and meet her at the finish.

Taking off from Wisemans Ferry was a challenging proposition. It was 2.30am, the tide had turned again and was now running hard against us. The sky was pitch black, there was faint fog, the waterway was a wide expanse of nothing, and not a glow stick in sight. This time Grumm and I were grateful to have another TFP, Alan Jones, join us. Alan is an amazing paddler. He can speed it up or slow it down with ease.  The three of us took off into the night.

The tide must have been running hard. I was watching the map and the distance between the first two checkpoints was only 6km. That first checkpoint should have taken less than an hour to reach given our average speed. It actually took us over an hour and half to get there – and that was when I fully realised the strength of the tide. This was quite demoralising. But with Ying there is Yang. One of my unforgettable memories of this night was Alan singing. He has an angelic voice and can sing really well. Once we passed the last set of ferry cables  – Alan started singing and it was mesmerising, surreal and soul enriching. Took my mind off the tide. Simply AMAZING.

By daybreak – Alan had taken off ahead. Grumm and I were slogging it out and nature called me for the third time since we took off from Wisemans. I needed to pull over to an embankment and then disaster struck. I put my full weight on the left pedal and then there was a loud TWANG and I grimaced with the comprehension that I had snapped the cable running to the rudder. I had relied on that rudder for the entire race to make steering easy and now I had the remaining 30km ahead of me with no rudder. Just as well I had plenty of practise steering (or edging) without a rudder, and I managed to adapt quite easily. I don’t have a skeg on my boat so if the rudder is up – then maintaining a straight course is abit difficult, especially in wind or swell. This was really frustrating for me at first – and I struggled with some mental issues at this point. I think I resigned myself to quite on about 3 occasions. Problem was – there was no-one and no-where to give up to 🙂

Misty morning

Team re-unites !! Grumm & Alan behind me - Trav in frame.

About 5 more km – and we found a pit-stop. Some volunteers had set up coffee and biscuits on the side of the river and paddlers were permitted to stop here and rest. I took the opportunity to recharge and in doing so, caught up again with Alan and Grumm. Taking respite here also meant that by the time we were about 20km out from the finish, The Fat Paddler and Trav had also caught up with us. At the outset, I would never have guessed that myself and 4 other  members of TFP would see the home stretch in together.

Home stretch

The last 10 - 15 km to go....

We paddled as a team. We supported each other with encouragement. We bitched, moaned, sledged, belched and laughed the remaining kilometers away. I felt energised by the camaraderie – and even though I was in tremendous pain and fatigue – I had mentally flicked the automation switch and was locked in endless powerful mechanical strokes.  Paradoxically – I felt strong.

We could see the finish at Brooklyn. It was still about 20 minutes away – such was the distance across that wide expanse of water. We could see the tiny black and white stripped TFP shirts on the ramp. The sun was out, the swell was rolling and the motor-boat activity was increasing. We paddled with new-found urgency and it suddenly dawned on me that I was about to do it – and finish the HCC. I think it was this realisation that I achieved what I thought impossible only days earlier – brought an enormous swelling of emotion. I struggled to hold back the sobs of shock and delight – lest I felt less manly amongst my team-mates. I knew the minute I saw Eily or Frank – I would lose it – and spent alot of the remaining time trying to subdue the emotion and crack a joke or think of something else.

coming in

Jubilation as the I approach the ramp...

getting out

The outstretched hand of friendship....


I did it....

It was 18 hours and 7 minutes since I began paddling to the sound of a horn the afternoon before. I remember the bells ringing as we reached the ramp. I remember two members of TFP standing on the ramp with outstretched hands – offering me assistance. I remember the cheers, back slapping and sheer relief from the aches and pains of that monumental paddle. I remember hugging Eileen and Frank – and I remember wiping my eyes…

I also remember the blissful feeling of sitting in the car in fresh dry clothing, just before I fell asleep, thinking with a new-found and very intense conviction….”I can do anything I set my mind to !!!”

I’ve always thought I was confident and optimistic – but I don’t think I ever really believed that until now.


The best hug....


I suppose my face says it all.....

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Grumm permalink
    November 3, 2011 1:15 am

    Great article Champ…it was an absolutle pleasure spending those lonely hours with you along the HCC; watching you bounce off bouys, snap rudders, curse, avoid smashing into my boar and keeping our spirits up.

    Justifyably, you should be extremley proud of your achievement.

    • November 3, 2011 6:10 am

      Thanks Grumm – and you equally so of your effort !!

      You put in a mammoth effort and dug deeper than any of us to get to the end. You helped me out more than you will know.

  2. Denham permalink
    November 3, 2011 1:44 am

    Great stuff Michael….and truly inspirational. I still recall us sitting at your dinner table and you telling us about your challenge….and this was all a just blimp on the horizon. Congratulations on seeing it through and look forward to hearing all about it soon.

    It’s going to be so much easier next year!!! 🙂


    • November 3, 2011 6:12 am

      Thanks Denham !!
      I’m not so sure about how easy it will be next year. I had no idea what I was in for. Ignorance is bliss you know 🙂

  3. Martyn Riddle permalink
    November 3, 2011 2:36 am

    Top effort!

  4. November 3, 2011 2:56 am

    Congratulations Mikey, an awesome effort, especially considering the mental hurdles you faced on this journey. I told you on the very first paddle we had together that it was entirely mental and that if you could beat the self-doubt you’d do it easily. Then as I watched you over the last 20kms, smiling away despite the pain and powering in,to the finish I felt so proud of how far you’d come. A well deserved success, and yes, you CAN do anything. Cheers mate, FP

  5. November 3, 2011 6:17 am

    Thanks Sean !!
    For as long as I’ve known you – Your advice has always been invaluable.
    Much appreciated 🙂

  6. November 3, 2011 6:55 am

    Mate (and I think when you’ve padded 111km together you can truly call each other “mate”) I never thought for a moment you might not finish. It’s always interesting when I do an endurance event like this or Trailwalker or WildEndurance — the battle’s 90% on the inside and on the outside, all of us look like invincible warriors. Afterwards you talk to each other and it’s all, “you other guys were making it look easy, it was me who was slowing us down” when really, we’re all hurting on the inside.

    Plus, it’s hard to tell with you when you’re smiling and when you’re grimacing in pain 😉

    My wife Mel reckons you must have been hallucinating with fatigue and that’s why you thought I was a good singer, but thanks for that, I had a great time singing in such an extraordinary situation for such an appreciative audience. If only I didn’t have to paddle, I could bring my guitar next time.

    Oh yes! Next time! Of COURSE there will be a next time, though not always the very next year (since we’ve all promised our families by now that we’ll never do it again). But as the bad memories fade and the good memories remain, and as once again we confront the awful reality that we really are middle-aged men who will turn to blubber without a fitness goal, I can guarantee you: you will be back.

    And so will I, and I can’t wait…

    • November 3, 2011 9:02 am

      Thanks mate !!
      Yes – fear of the middle age paunch is our secret motivator isnt it…??…. That and an inner longing to combat the aging process….. Ha !!
      Appreciate your kind words Alan….

      PS – I can still hear that song…… 🙂

  7. Nathan Lane permalink
    November 3, 2011 12:11 pm

    Mate, you should be proud of your efforts. I remember meeting you for the first time this year on the mooney training and having a laugh as you explained that 70kgs worth of gadgets you had in your boat and the fact that your wide reckons that there is nothing left in the camping store..hahahaha…I am already thinking towards next year and am comtemplating buying a canoe. Something stuck in my mind from the calssic. It was an old lady who came up to sean and trav and said “I’ve been volunteering for 30 yrs, it used to all canoes you know”. You might see me in a canoe next year…just a warning…haha.

    • November 3, 2011 1:03 pm

      Dont get me started mate – I coudnt afford a canoe…. hahaha…
      But You should be proud…. You’re fast becoming an endurance specialist. I take my hat off to you for your effort this year !!

      … and I will always remember the image of you standing on the ramp and holding your hand out in support when I docked……
      One day I’ll explain that gesture to you in more detail – but there are those that will look at the picture and know what I mean…..

  8. November 4, 2011 12:44 pm

    Congratulations Mick,

    The way you ran through the story of your race, explaining your thughts at those difficult times made me feel and understand what you were going through. I ahve never paddled a race that long before. I’ve only paddle races up to 45kms. In those races I can relate to the emotions yu must have gone through, especially on what training it sounds like you did. Congratulations again on the race and your blog.


  9. November 4, 2011 11:25 pm

    Thanks Rod,
    I appreciate your comments. Although I dont think of it as a “race”…. grin….
    I think I must have finished right down the back of the line. But I’ll have a benchmark to measure agaisnt for next year 🙂
    Again – thanks.

  10. November 6, 2011 12:21 pm

    Tip top effort mate.
    How long did it take you to recover?

    • November 6, 2011 9:04 pm

      Thanks Gray,
      I loved the way you zipped in for a chat in the middel of the night – and then zipped out again. Its like you had gears on your kayak *grin*…..

      So I pulled up suprisingly well. I was really stiff and sore all over on the Monday morning – but since I went straight onto a plane and flew to the US – it never really got any worse – and was more or less gone by the third day…..


  11. Scott Sawyer permalink
    November 7, 2011 2:01 am

    Hi Mick,

    Awesome effort. Thanks for sharing your story. Very inspiring. It seems that for any event of any type there are a plethora of on line experts telling you how much training to do for it. It is always a lot and I believe aimed at people competing rather than participating. I love the idea of showing people just how much can be achieved by us mere mortals balancing a family and job. Adventures are all relative and you are a great example of another modern day adventurer.


    • November 7, 2011 3:13 am

      Hi Scott,
      Yes – you are right, Competing and Participating are two very different things… and for me – getting involved is more than enough….
      Maybe next year, I’ll be keen to shave off some time – but I just loved being out there in the thick of it with my team mates….

      Thanks so much for your kind words Scott – and for sticking with my Blog on this adventure 🙂


  12. Vicki Boiles permalink
    November 7, 2011 12:37 pm

    Congratulations Michael! I feel so proud of you!!! What an awesome effort and an inspiring account. I never doubted that you would achieve your ‘kayak pursuit’ and I have always believed that you can do anything you set your mind on doing – and now you believe it too! Oh and love the ‘best hug’ photo moment 🙂

  13. November 7, 2011 12:58 pm

    Hi Vicki,
    Thanks for reading and I really appreciate those comments…


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