3am Sunday morning; I’m lying awake wondering how we’re going to get a park at Lavender Bay in North Sydney. The pre-race email from Kayak 4 Kids had said there would be 900 paddlers in this years event and that parking was “particularly limited” around the Blues Point race start. There was a reserved 5 minute drop off area and everybody should allow plenty of time to find a park. A check of Google Earth confirmed that the nearest parking building was eight blocks away and closed on Sundays.
I’d decided to keep the stark reality of our parking problem to myself. There didn’t seem to be any point in both of us worrying about it. Our best chance was to get there really early and grab whatever park we could find, but allow enough time to park at my work in Surry Hill and get a taxi back if plan-A didn’t play out. A 4:30am start was the obvious solution. Once we were there and had our park secured we could catch an extra hours sleep in the car while we waited for the scrutineering to start.
When my alarm went off at 5am, it felt as though my eyes had only just closed and they weren’t responding to instructions. As the digital numbers came into blurry focus, I realised that my race before the race had gotten off to a bad start..
We’d packed most of our gear the night before so there was just the boat to load. Sounds easy, but getting a 7.5 metre double ocean ski off the rack along the side of the house, manhandling it up the stairs, round the meter box, over the roses and past the corner of the house and onto the car in the dark at 5am is no fun. I made a mental note to put higher wattage bulbs in the outside lights before trying this again.
By the time we’d loaded the car, double checked that we had everything, made some last minute gear adjustments for the weather, it was 5:45 and we were still in the driveway…
Blues Point opened for Registrations at 6:30 and for the whole journey there, we were imagining a queue of cars would be lined up to drop off their boats and it would only get worse from there.
Descending Blues Point Road towards the reserve at 6:30 it quickly became apparent why we hadn’t seen any other cars sporting kayaks or skis on the way there. Everybody else was still in bed! Even the officials were still trying to sort out which poles would hold up their marquees.
Panic over, I parked in a dark patch along the street and settled down for a bit of hard core snoring. Kate, by stark contrast, was now wide awake, excited, and itching to discuss race tactics, the weather, sea conditions, the surprising abundance of parking, our luck at finding such a good one, and whether we should buy a couple of the race t-shirts.
Sleep is overrated anyway.
Before long Bob T had also arrived and while we waited for his teammates to arrive, we amused ourselves perusing the flotilla of paddle craft that were rallying on the beach. Like a paddling version of Dunkirk, there seemed to be one example of every boat ever built, some that never should have been built and at least one that might have been liberated from the council chuckout. The various classes were well represented. For singles, it was an even spread between stable sea kayaks and speedy ocean skis, with a couple of OC1 boats thrown into the mix. Doubles were dominated by the double sea kayaks like the ubiquitous Mirage730. With a double ocean ski measuring in at 7.5m long it was pretty easy to spot the other three boats we’d be racing against.
Ominously the trailer of rental boats from Sydney Harbour Kayaks arrived with a new Epic V10 double ski on board. Bobs tales of racing across Gunnamatta Bay with Kristy on one of these twin prop poseidons had us wondering how we’d fare against it in the much slower double we’d bought only a week before. I had to admit some relief when it was still on the trailer when registrations closed. Obviously there were no last minute takers for the slick speedster.
Bobs team mates in team “Big Foot” eventually arrived and it was no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the room, the terrible Tupperware triples.
Being a charity fun race, kayak for kids is aimed at two distinct groups, bring your own boaters, and “the others”. If you don’t, can’t or won’t bring your own boat, you can enter a team and paddle one of the supplied kayaks in a team of three or a relay of up to four three paddler legs.
Describing the plastic boats to an audience of kayakers familiar with high tech composites and ultra lite K1 layups would be like trying to describe snow to an Arab. Fortunately the ever ascerbic Bob came to the rescue with his one line summary: “obviously the designer was told to make them stackable”. We agreed it was unlikely that there was a second design requirement on the designers list.
About 100 of these flat, heavy, bright yellow barges were stacked five deep and ten wide in two rows, like lego bricks in front of the beach.
Bob had never really explained how he’d been coerced into leaving all of his wondrous carbon and Kevlar toys at home to paddle in a polyethylene threesome but I’m betting it involved negatives and probably feathers.
Despite the sheer improbability of their endeavour, Bob, Carmen and Tim were all sporting high tech carbon wing paddles, clearly in the advanced stages of denial over their vessels drag coefficient and maximum planing speed. There was lengthy debate during scrutineering about where Carmen would sit in the boat and what the correct paddle length would be for each of the seat positions.
Kick off for the triples was scheduled for 9am after a course briefing and a quick but obligatory how-to-work-the-paddle lesson, for those who needed it. Paddlers were warned that pair of ferrys would be crossings the course just before the start, one in front of the starters and the other behind. The BYOB paddlers started taking bets on how that was going to play out.
Formalities out of the way, it was time for the launching of triples. Like a horde of yellow lemmings they swarmed off the beach and into the harbour under the watchful gaze of the bring-your-own-boaters who would follow at 9:30.
Three teams deserved special mention. The girl who clambered over the end of the boat, refusing to get her feet wet only to plonk her bum down on top of the open scupper holes in the rear seat score a 5.5. The team who paddled away from the shore, then plowed straight and fast into the side of a yacht moored 50 meters off shore scores a 7.6. And finally the young lad who obviously didn’t want to be in the race with his parents, but had worked out that if you turned the paddle 90 degrees, you could slice the paddle effortlessly through the water while still appearing to be putting in an effort. Presumably there was some reward for his willing participation. For that effort we score him a 2!
Still showing signs of denial, the members of Bigfoot began scouring the stack of triples in search of “the one good one”. Perhaps one of them had thinner plastic than the others, who knows, they all looked like recycled specimen bottles to us. They made some last minute micro-adjustments to the length of their wing paddles to maximise their… ahhhh… actually i dont know why they bothered, perhaps they were stalling. Anyway, taking an end each, they marched it down to the water, mounted up with Bob in front, Carmen in the middle and Tim at the back. Then true to their K1 pedigree, they paddled off in perfect unison. For that demonstration of style, I give them an 8.0!
The much vaunted ferrys crossed the course and the race organisers claim that the triples were virtually untippable proved to be well founded.
As the BYOB’s began entering the water, the gun went off for the triples. Truth be told, the gun didn’t go off because Premier Barry O’Farrell, the guest starter, seemed to have problems with damp powder or dud ignition and finally somebody just blew a horn. The race way on, the hares were on their way…
The hounds began to circle…
As the waves from the ferrys reached the marshalling area, the first biathlon entrant of the day announced himself to officials. Setting up for a T rescue and retrieving his shaggy cushion as it soddenly sank beneath the waves was just what Kate and I needed to distract us and settle our nerves before our first foray into Sydney Harbour. No pump, no spray deck, no race was the verdict of the race oficial, and our newfound biathletic friend cheerfully admitted he’d never paddled on open waters before and retired under tow of the race officials.
Distractions over, we manoeuvred the oversize double ski into a bit of clear water behind the front row of paddlers. Moments later we were off. 17.5km following the Northern shores of Sydney Harbour from Lavender Bay, to Clontarf. Madness. Glorious madness.
The sea conditions had weighed on our minds over the week before the race. We’d been paddling the double for just over a week and while we had developed a pretty good rhythm, our stability as a paddling duet was still a bit questionable. Our fifth ever run in the boat was gong to be a test.
As it turned out, the course was a roller coaster of sea conditions. Starting out bouncy, it settled down as we turned around Kirribilli point and into the next bay. As the slop dropped, the smaller runners under us caught the boat and we could open up with a good paddle stroke, round the buoy at Kurraba Point and back out towards Cremorne Point, where we caught the first of the triples. They’d covered less than 4km in 40 minutes and seemed to be having some heated debate about how steering was to be achieved. With any luck they were part of a relay team and would be relieved by a new crew at Sirius Bay around the next headland. If not, perhaps there would be a prize for the most paddling of the day!
The race course hugs the coves and bays of the northern shore with three transition points where relay team boats land on the beach to swap crews, the non relay teams and BYOB’s follow the course but turn round the buoy just off the beach as their checkpoint. We’d speculated about benefit of a relay team boat having a fresh crew every 4-5kms and whether that could overcome the obvious disadvantages of the plastic perils. We’d also noticed that several of the triple teams had, like team Bigfoot, been sporting some decidedly serious propulsion equipment. The competition was obviously going to be stiff in all classes.
The transition points were particularly tricky as a new team, fresh with energy, but lacking steering experience would wiggle randomly away from the beach. We quickly found that best tactic was to essentially plot a collision course for a wobbling triple and by the time we closed the gap, they’d reversed course and were safely out of our way.
Several of the struggling triples made comments as we sliced past. As Guy Leach, the Event Ambassador commented at the awards, “there were many passionate words of encouragement, but luckily I was already too far ahead to hear them”.
By the second transition point at Chowder Bay, the field had started to stretch out and we were making constant navigational adjustments as we slithered our way through more of the yellow triples. We’d entered the race because it was a good cause and having never paddled on Sydney Harbour, we figured a race with lots of safety boats was the perfect opportunity. The double ski was only 2 weeks old having been an unexpected acquisition from GearTrade. We’d been looking for a Hawkesbury boat, had found it going cheap and had snapped it up. Our plan for the race was to get to the finish, not swim and have a spin on the harbour. We expected to beat the plastics, but end up middle the pack for the BYOB paddlers. So settling into a sustainable pace, we started to scan ahead looking for Bigfoot. With their black wing paddles and faultless paddling styles, we figured they’d stand out like a moment of levity at a Queensland ALP convention.
Still no sign of Bigfoot, but we did notice as we turned back out of Chowder Bay, that apart from the yellow perils there were now only six otherbboats in front of us… Hmmmmm.
Holding our pace steady, or perhaps lifting it a little, we began to chip away at the BYO boats in front of us as well as some of the faster triples that remained.
The trip around middle head proved to be the roughest section of the whole race with waves coming in from the gap and reflecting back off the cliffs. Kate was having a great time in the back, powering forward while I was slapping and bracing like a madman in the front. It was hard to believe that we were in the same boat at times. One of the larger waves took its toll on the ski paddler who had been edging up behind us, leaving us to ride some fast runners into Balmoral and through the last of the triples.
Finally we spotted Bigfoot, slogging hard through the moored yachts in Balmoral Bay. Sensing that they needed some words of encouragement, the best I could mange was “has anybody seen my big yellow lunchbox? I left it on the beach and some bugger paddled off in it!”. We paddled on in silence.
The final leg is a run up Middle Harbour to Clontarf. With the finish nearly in sight, the final duel was on. We had one ski a couple of minutes ahead of us, and two others jostling with us for second place. Over the last 2km, the positions changed at least a dozen times as each boat tried to shake off the other barnacles. Our problem was that the double was throwing off a wake that would make an Irish widow proud and while we could pull ahead, we had no luck pulling away. The Epic V8 in front of us was doing his best to get away, but he also suffered from a useable wake, while the V12 coming up the rear was much to slippery to get a lock on.
As we nosed around the final point into Clontarf, we finally seemed to have shaken off the pursuing V12 after he tried to break away and then blew up just 200m short of the beach.
Realising that we had the inside line of the turn to the beach, and were going to control the final turn, we prepared to hit the beach nose to nose with the paddlernin the V8. Sensing it was going to come down to a sprint up the sand I slipped my feet out of the foot straps, ready to step over the side as soon as the nose hit the sand.
With ballet like grace I stepped over the side of the ski into 2ft of water just as the nose hit the beach. The gasp and splash behind me, suddenly reminded me that I hadn’t alerted Kate to my brilliant plan and I’d just rolled the ski and her still in the foot straps into 4ft of water where she came up spluttering and glaring. Our duelling rival was disappearing up the beach to the finish arch as I waded back into the deeper water.
I never saw V12 guy pull up on the beach behind us and sprint past to take third place. By this time, my sense of chivalry and marital self preservation was screaming at me to make sure we crossed the line together, so hand in hand, we finally ran through the finishing arch, completing our first race together in fifth place…
Hang on a minute, fifth? There were only three boats in front of us.
That’s when we discovered that the race had been won by two paddlers on a V10 double ski who had completed the 17.5km in a savage 1hr 8min. Our time of 1hr 26m had earned us a fifth place with just two minutes separating 2nd to fifth places.
While we waited for Team Bob, we debated what the headline should be in Monday’s sport section…
A) Second double ski.
B) Fifth overall
C) First mixed double ski
D) Second double behind two of the fastest paddlers in Australia.
Team Bob arrived about ten minutes later, and we shouted more forgettable words of encouragement from the beach as they approached. They’d slogged their way to a third in the team of three division, which was a commendable performance over the distance. Surprisingly the two boys were now in the back of the boat having executed some advanced gymnastics out on the water which had involved Bob lying down and Carmen climbing over him to take the front position. Oh what I could do with pictures of that manoeuvre.
At the end of a fabulous day, we’d paddled 17.5km, across the stunning waters of Sydney Harbour, with 900 paddlers, in 200 boats, while helping to raise money for really good charity.
And while the triple paddlers were the source of much amusement, I tip my hat to each a every one of them for getting out there and giving it a go.
This years Kayak for Kids has raised $187,000 which will be used to support families with disadvantaged children.
See you all there next year, but bring your own boat!