“If you want something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t want it, you’ll find excuses” – anon
In the week leading up to the Massive Murray Paddle, I’d lost confidence in my plan to paddle a canoe. I’d realised that I needed a holiday more than a race and particularly a race of 404km where I might spend five days fighting a canoe in the wind. Luckily Kate agreed that we could take our new Sladecraft SLR2 and paddle as a mixed double team. I think she was also a bit apprehensive about the new event, which is a step up from everything else we’ve done. Different in so many ways.
The distance is huge, 404 kilometres. It’s the longest race in Australia. The climate along the Murray as it meanders its way through Northern Victoria is also intimidating. Even though the event has changed dates from late December to mid-November, we were still heading into forecasts of temps in the high 30s.
Racing on a river with flowing water would be very different for paddlers more familiar with the tidal waterways of NSW. Even 111km up the Hawkesbury river, the tide still flows noticeably upstream.
The biggest difference is the multi-day format. Each day of the MMP can be considered a long distance race in its own right. Four times we would cross the finish line knowing that we had to do it again tomorrow.
We arrived in Yarrawonga on Sunday after a six hour drive from Sydney. A small crowd was gathering at the football oval for pre-race registration. The scruitineering had been done by email which was simple. We’d simply sent in photos of our boats, and as long as they were professionally built, they were approved.
Michael “Mad Mick” Dinkgreave had hammered a racing canoe out of a sheet of colorbond and had attracted Colorbond as a sponsor. His corrugated canoe was a tribute to the early canoeists of Australia who had used materials that were available to build their canoes. There are many archive photos of canoes made from corrugated iron or kerosine tins.
We we arrived, he had the undivided attention of the event scruitineering team who had requested a number of safety modifications before he was passed.
When we reached the front of the queue for race registration, John who was running the timing, had assigned us to an 8:00 start, but after a quick discussion we negotiated our way into a late start in the last wave at 8:30. It seems like a strange move looking back, but we were keen to put ourselves amongst the fast boats so we had somebody to push our pace.
We were also quietly confident that we were going to be competitively fast in the SLR2. We’d recently won the Morison Cup and set a new record for the club time trial in the process.
We collected all of the merchandise which we’d preordered as part of our entry. T-shirts, hoodies, singlets, hats, and cooler bags. The hoodies were a bit controversial. Not the sort of thing I’d normally pick off the rack, but we figured it would be a momento of our Murray Marathon adventure.
We handed our boat over to the Sydney Harbour Kayaks team who were running the shared minibus that would be our ground crew for the next five days. The main reason we hadn’t been able to paddle the MMP before was that we didn’t have any ground crew. For the first time in 2016, the organisers were trialling a shared minibus which would act as ground crew and transport for a number of paddlers. It cost us $500 a seat, but when we added up what it would have cost for fuel, food and accommodation for ground crew, it looked like a good deal. They would be looking after several paddlers, which meant they would be stopping at all of the checkpoints, while we were planning on carrying everything we needed in the boat and making no stops.
We arranged with our driver, Conal, to collect us at 7:30 from the motel. It wouldn’t be a problem as the other bus passengers were in the earlier starts.
Everything organised, we headed to a local eatery for a big bowl of pasta before we retired to the motel to toss and turn until morning.
Day 1 – Yarrawonga to Tocumwal – 94km
“The beginning is the promise of the end” – Henry Ward Beecher
Many of the paddlers had already started by the time we were delivered to the start at Yarrawonga. The second wave departed a few minutes after we arrived, and the third wave paddlers headed down to the water, leaving only about eight boats with us in the last wave. There was one other double left. The rest were singles, long recs, skis, and K1s.
While we waited to get on the water we struck up a conversation with Greg and Tim, the boys from Maroochydore in the muscle shirts. They were paddling longRecs together in a two man relay. They were interested in what sort of pace we were expecting to run and it was obvious that we were being lined up for a wash ride. I explained that we would normally sit on 10.5kph – give or take a bit – on the flat, and Greg seemed to think that was good news.
Before long we were on the water and drifting towards the start line. The rough starting line formed, a horn sounded, and we were away.
Kate and I dropped into a familiar rhythm quickly. I think we caught the rest of the wave by surprise as we went from standing still to what we’d call Hawkesbury pace in about 10 strokes. Maybe Greg had thought we were exaggerating when I’d told him our average pace, but I wasn’t. Over 50km, it’s usually closer to 10.7kph. With the current running our way, we were doing 13.0kph as an average and peaking to 15kph on the swifter bends.
Of the other starters, Greg probably came closest to keeping up with us. For about 200metres. By 2km, we had lost sight of our pursuers.
We spent the first couple of kilometres testing different lines on the river current. Initially we split the river width into thirds and we’d run ⅓ of the way from the inside of each bend. That kept up out of the slowest water on the inside of the bend but still had us shortening the overall distance by not going around the whole outside of the bend. The water was a little faster on the outside, but the distance was a lot longer. We were coming out ahead on inside.
After a couple of kilometres Kate started probing further into the inside of the bends. Although the water was even slower, we were chopping more off the distance. Because the river winds so much, we were actually cutting in and out of the slow water so quickly that the boat was barely slowing.
We decided we had our line and settled in for the long haul.
We carried two GPSs in the boat. Kate’s was set to the map so she could plan the bends ahead and mine was set to speed and time, so I could watch the pace. There were only three or four spots on the first day where the map helped up decide whether the river branch on the right was the main course or a tributary entering. For everything else, it was pretty obvious. Mostly the map kept us on the tightest line when we couldn’t see around the upcoming bend to which way it would turn next.
We’d been paddling for about 45 minutes before we came across the first paddlers from the earlier waves. Judging from their progress, they were from the first wave, but who knew.
Another hour went by and we continued to pass paddlers. Mad Mick was having a hard time with his Colorbond canoe. He had only paddled it for a few short sessions and was finding it very hard over the long haul, especially as the wind was beginning to pick up.
The temperature was also rising. Eventually it would top out at 38C. Hot enough to dry your throats, and make it hard to suck in enough air. We started drinking often to combat the dry heat. I drank 5 litres of water and electrolytes on the first day.
As we passed the slower paddlers from the early starts, we were wondering how we would fare as the relay teams started swapping crews at the checkpoints. Would we suddenly find ourselves being challenged by fresh paddlers?
Somewhere between 20km and the first checkpoint we came upon the Torquedo safety kayak. The safety kayak is a Mirage 600 double kayak with an electric outboard. The idea is that the hull shape and electric motor are less disruptive to paddlers than a normal safety boat and petrol engine. Their job was to move amongst the paddlers handing out water, snakes and encouragement to tired paddlers throughout the day.
I commented as we chugged past that they were throwing out a good wake but it was a shame they weren’t going a bit faster.
A few minutes after passing the safety kayak, Kate spotted a brown snake swimming across the river. We picked up the pace for a few kilometres.
The wind continued to build as we passed checkpoint B, and around the 40km mark it was creating waves that were spilling into our cockpits as we punched through. We were making good time. Our average speed was sitting at 13kph with spikes up to 15.5, against lows of 10.5 as we crossed from corner to corner.
Approaching the 4hour and 50km mark, we decided it was time to stop and eat something more significant than energy gels. We were on a regime of one energy gel every hour. Kate was drinking constantly from the hydration tube around her neck. I dislike (I would generally use a stronger term) having things around my neck so I gulp down fluids each hour when we stop.
(There’s actually some research about hydration that points to larger drinks being better than constant sipping)
We chose a likely looking beach and pulled into the eddy. For lunch we had sandwiches and some date balls which gave us something solid in our stomachs. After a moment for a relief stop in the trees I flicked the electric bilge pump on and pumped about 30 litres of water out of the boat.
The bilge pump we have in the SLR2 is rigged to empty a flooded boat and requires me to reach back and flick a switch to activate and deactivate it. It can empty a flooded boat in under a minute, but doesn’t sit low enough to empty the last inch of water in the bilge. To empty the boat, we needed to stop and tilt the nose of boat up so the water ran back to the pump.
As we set off again, I started redesigning the pump in my head, for next years race.
As we passed through Checkpoint C, it was obvious that the paddlers we were passing now were moving faster than those we had passed earlier. The father and son team of Gary and Tyler Creed were belting along in a TC2, paddling it hard and going strong. A couple of TK2 relay boats being run by the Australian Army team were also going well. As we came up on them, we spotted our ultimate quarry. Up ahead of the other paddlers, the SES safety boat which was closing the river was visible with its blue flashing lights. It had taken us 65km but we had moved from the last start to the very front of the race.
The SES boat took a few kilometres to adjust to the speed of our boat pushing up behind them. In a couple of spots where the river was narrow, we closed the gap and started to bounce around on the the waves they were creating.
Sitting in the back seat I occupied myself by estimating the distance and time to the section finish. We had just gone past 65km on my GPS. The stated distance for the day was 93km. That should leave 28km to go which would be slightly more than two hours at 13kph. Then again, we were probably cutting enough corners to reduce the overall course length by 5% (the Hawkesbury can be reduced by 10% if you cut the corners tight, but the Murray isn’t wide enough to cut that much off the corners). A 5% reduction would mean a total distance of 89km and we’d only have 24km to go.
In my head I visualised the distance from Chipping Norton Lakes to Woronora. 25km.
For the next two hours we wound through the turns and twists of the Murray River, the blue flashing lights of the safety boat coaxing us along.
The temperature was peaking for the day and a dry wind was blowing. It hit 38C at some point during the day. Hot enough to make it hard to breathe hard and uncomfortable to swallow. We were drinking lots of water, just to keep the air flow up.
We rounded a corner and saw some people standing on the bank up ahead. The safety boat appeared to be slowing down. My GPS was showing 91km but this looked like it was the finish line.
We couldn’t see any flags, and there was nothing to indicate this was the finish except the safety boat had stopped. We angled towards the boat ramp where the safetyboat was now timing off their mooring lines. As we passed a trio of people sitting on a barrier, the hooter went off signalling that our first day was over. The flags and marquee were apparently still in transit along with some of the other equipment. We’d arrived at the finish faster than the organisers had expected.
Our finish time for day 1 was 7:00:06. We’d averaged a blistering 12.8kph.
We parked the boat and walked back down the boat ramp and into the cool water of the Murray. It was a welcome relief from the searing heat of the day.
We were the lone competitors at the finish line until Tim from Maroochydore arrived at 7:34. His teammate Greg ambled over and told us he had though we were kidding when we’d told him what our average speed would be.
The next paddler to arrive was Mike Rae in a K1 who came in 40 minutes behind us. Tom Simmat arrived 7 minutes later.
Slowly over the next few hours, while we sat around in the sun, the rest of the paddlers rounded the corner and crossed the line.
The only problem we had was that our gear was in the bus with Conal and he’d been waiting at the final checkpoint for Kat and Lou to go through.
“The Girls” as we knew them on the bus, were from Canberra and had only bought their kayaks three weeks before the event. They’d paddled a total of 10km prior to turning up at the start line. In a way they exemplified the new spirit of participation that the organisers were trying to instil in the event. Watching them paddle, they were unfamiliar with their boats. Their gear was good, but better suited to touring, they carried water in a six pack of bottles. They had things in their boat were was obviously the result of a lot of thinking about what they might need, but just had us shaking our heads.
While we waited for Conal to turn with our gear, we organised with the Maroochydore team for them to carry a bag of gear for us on day two. They were the ground crew most likely to be waiting at the finish when we got there.
Kat and Lou arrived in 12:22. The safety boats followed them around the bend and everyone cheered them as they paddled the last 300m to the finish line. Their day one was over and they were looking alright. Stu from the safety kayak told me later that the girls had been stopping for a rest every five kilometres. That was part of their race strategy.
As we drove back to the motel in Yarrawonga we were thinking about our time for Day 1. We were six seconds away from having a “six hour” time for the leg. Admittedly it might be six hours fifty nine minutes, but there is a definite cachet in having a time that starts with a six.
We walked around Yarrawonga for an hour clooking for somewhere to eat and ended up eating back at Burkes Hotel where we were staying.
John the timekeeper found us at dinner and let us know that he was merging the last two starts on day two because there were so few boats that would be in the last wave. We’d be starting at 8:00am.
We went to bed and slept very very well.
Day 2- Yarrawonga to Tocumwal – 94km (again)
“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein
Because of the recent severe flooding along the Murray, the Day 2 checkpoints were inaccessible and the organisers had already determined a few weeks out that day two would be a repeat of day one.
Cancelled legs have become a frequent occurrence on the Murray in recent years as the organisers have more become more concerned about bush fires and other hazards.
For competitors, the main complaint about cancelled legs is that people come for five days paddling, book accomodation along the route, and then only get four days paddling, so they can’t claim to have completed the event. A replacement leg fixes that problem.
We arrived at the start line fresh and relaxed. The nerves we’d had about the tremendous distances, and lining up day after day had been defused by a good night’s sleep and waking up feeling pain free.
Our previous long distance racing experiences on the Hawkesbury, gave us a reason to be concerned. (Jeff should just skip to the next paragraph, you don’t need to know this) By the end of a Hawkesbury, we’re generally exhausted, taking a few days to recover. There’s usually some missing skin from rubs and chafes, and some muscle soreness that goes beyond a single nights sleep. The Hawkesbury particularly, is physically punishing. It’s an obvious comparison to make. The HCC is 111km (99km if you run corner to corner). Day one is 94km. Close enough that the difference doesn’t matter.
While the similarities had been concerning, the differences were significant. The HCC is a night event, with an early start that throws your sleep pattern. It’s exhausting by design. There’s also a sense of nihilism, that comes from knowing you can recover in the weeks that follow. Chasing records and racing the clock drives you to push yourself to the edge. As Mark Sundin said to me once, the aim is to cross the line at Brooklyn with nothing left in the gas tank. For most people, the Myall and the HCC are events which you peak for and subsequently recover.
Our plan going into had been to the Murray had been to maintain a fast but sustainable training pace. A pace that wouldn’t leave us broken or blistered for the next day. The plan had worked well for day one.
With a 7:00:06 for day one, we entered day two intent on a time that started with a six.
Day two was set to be a good day for us. The weather was a little cooler, with no strong wind. We now knew the course. Kate would be able to retrace her GPS track from day one, while making some improvements to the early parts of the course where we’d been uncertain about our navigation strategy. We also knew how the distances would play out. There’s something you have to develop a feel for in distance paddling, how your body discharges over time and distance, the pace that can be maintained. It comes with miles and I don’t think there’s any substitute for large amounts of time on the water.
The muscly men from Maroochydore were waiting with us at the start line. Greg had given us a bit of stick over my speed estimates from the previous day. He thought we’d been overcooking it. I’d been deliberately undercooking it.
Going off the line with a six hour time in mind, we turned up the gas. We knew there were a few corrections which we could easily make to shave the required seven seconds. We could improve on the cornering over the first part of the course where we’d been feeling our way. We wouldn’t be paused checking our route through the handful of spots where the side tributaries were difficult to distinguish from the main channel.
Even though our late start had been consolidated into the next start and we were off earlier, there was a lot of clear river between us and the bulk of the competitors. After day one, many of them had been encouraged to move to one of the earlier starts and the officials had introduced an earlier than early start for a handful who had come in late on day one. Better to start early that to finish late was the agreed approach.
With everything in our favour, the rest of boats in our start had dropped behind us after 200m and were out of sight, more than a river bend behind us, within the first 2kms. We didn’t ease up.
Feeling that we had the measure of the river section, we went harder than we had in day one. A little too hard as it turns out.
Kate had perfected her navigation and was running the boat corner to corner with inches to spare as we scribed the shortest distance down the river. David Little had told me to make sure I got a GPS track for him to follow when he and Pauline did the Murray in 2017, but unless the river is flooded to the same level in 2017, our course will look like a 90km portage along the river banks.
As a measure of how much tighter we were running, we dragged our rudder through a handful of sandbars thact we hadn’t been bothered by on day one. Even they didn’t seem to slow us down. We were flying.
30km into the course, we came across the guys in the safety canoe. They were powering along with their electric motor and throwing out a good wash but we were simply moving too fast for it to be of any use to us. I remarked that they’d be a good ride if they could go a little faster as we powered past.
The trouble with pushing harder was that it accentuated the power difference between Kate and I. Pushing hard, my blade passes though the bottom of the stroke faster and every time my attention lapsed, I’d find myself half a stroke ahead of Kate.
That made day two a great day for speed, but a rotten day for photographs. In almost every photo of us, I was out of sync with Kate, sometimes with my paddle on the opposite side. Usually it was as we were running in shallow water around the beach checkpoints, which was where the photographers were hanging out.
Around the 50km mark as we came within sight of the SES river close boat, we stopped and had a break. I knew we kept getting out of time and the break while we had some food was exactly what I needed to shake off the problem. Returning to the water a few minutes later, we were back in sync (I was back in sync), and we had a good run to the end of the river, with the SES boat leading the way for us.
We crossed the line in 6 hours 54 minutes and 30 seconds. Despite having already sliced 4km off the listed course distance on day one, Kate had managed to subtract another kilometre making the distance 89.05km.
As we packed the boat away and changed into our dry clothes, Shannon from Sydney Harbour Kayaks came over to say he’d seen us out of time on the water. He couldn’t understand how we could be so fast and so out of sync at the same time!
We’d clocked our six hour something time, but it had been at a price. I’d raised some decent blisters on my hands, which were probably going to give me some grief over the next three days, and we’d left a trail of awful looking photos on social media.
But day two was done. We were first across the line again and ahead on time and handicap when the results were tallied.
Day 3 – Picnic Point to Echuca – 78 km
78km. Day three was the first of the easy days. After a sub-seven hour time for day two, we were looking forward to a bit of relief.
Picnic Point also brings about a dramatic change in scenery on the river. The assembly area is a caravan park between the bush and the river. It had rained the night before and the car park was a sea of ankle deep mud.
Tony Bond had come down from Echuca to watch the start and take some photos. Some of his photos from the earliest start showed mist on the water. The weather had changed and temperatures had dropped significantly.
A masseur had set up a table in the marshalling area, offering relief to weary paddlers for a very reasonable price. She wasn’t getting any takers in the cold morning air, so one of the muscled men from Maroochydore was pressed into service for a photo opportunity. By the noises Tim was making, he was either enjoying it very much or suffering from a bad case of stomach cramps.
The first section of day three passes through an area known as The Narrows. It’s a winding course through hundreds of dead trees and submerged snags which force paddlers to twist and turn through through pretzel-like contortions.
Kate and I worked together to pick the course through the maze. Luckily the late start had reduced down to a handful of boats and we had plenty of manoeuvring room. We’d heard tales of previous years when paddlers had log jammed trying to navigate the narrow passages in large numbers.
We’d shaken off the hoodoo from day two and switched up to a very fast cadence which had the big SLR2 absolutely flying. Again we were clear of the other late starters within a few hundred metres. That was an important part of our day three plan as we needed maximum clearance to turn the big double through the tight turns.
We came across the safety kayak, who were patrolling The Narrows, keeping a watchful eye over the less experienced paddlers who were navigating the course less quickly than us.
Stu, who’d been driving the safety kayak the previous day was in the front with a video camera and Ben was taking a turn in the back at the controls of the motor. We could hear Ben speed up as Stu noted our approach and said something about how fast we were going. Ben obviously didn’t believe that we were going to get past them with their motor and gave it full throttle.
Stu has some really good video of Kate and I passing them at speed and in perfect time. If you listen carefully, you can hear Ben weeping in the background.
At the end of The Narrows, the trees gave way to a lake and the river banks rose up around us. Steep banks on both sides channelled a freshly building wind directly into our faces. There were plenty of twists and turns in the river, but somehow the wind seemed to defy direction to be constantly in our faces.
Despite the fast cadence we running, Kate was getting blasted by the cold wind up front and having a pretty miserable time. There was nothing we could do about it. We hadn’t packed much warm gear, expecting to have hot days and knowing that space on the shared bus would probably be at a premium. Our decision to go without pit stops through each day meant we had no relief waiting for us at any of the checkpoints either.
All we could do was paddle on. Kate’s teeth were chattering.
We didn’t know much about Echuca except that it was home to house boats and paddle wheelers. We were relieved to round a bend and see the first of the house boats that indicated we were getting closer.
We picked up the SES river close boat at about the 50km mark. Again, it pretty much coincided with our food and relief break. The steep banks offered few opportunities to pull over. When we finally gave up on finding a good spot and pulled over, the water was a metre deep and I ended up holding the boat against a log while Kate clambered to dry land. True to form, after not seeing any other boats for ten minutes, three passed us while we were trying to be inconspicuous amongst the trees on the river bank.
Also true to form, there was a much better beach 200m downstream and around the next bend.
Following the SES boat, the steep banks were causing the boat wash to rebound across our path. That went on for about an hour until we stopped for a gel break. The SES boat kept moving ahead of us and the increased gap eased the size of the rebound.
Watching the GPS distance, I knew we weren’t going to be doing the stated 78km, but as the 70’s started ticking over, we still had no idea how close we were to the finish at Echuca.
I’m pretty sure nobody has ever called Rod Clarke a beautiful sight, but as we rounded a corner to see Rod Clarke sitting astride his surfski telling us we had three kilometres to go, I honestly thought he looked like the best thing I’d seen all year.
Three kilometres. Less than fifteen minutes at our pace. Distance to the finish line is one of the best things you know in a long distance event, because you can judge how much to push for the line.
We struck out a little harder.
Soon there were more signs of civilisation and the buildings were starting to get closer together. House boats were moored along the river banks and we got our first glimpse of a riverboat.
That was a bit of a problem. The first riverboat I’ve ever seen was in the process of pulling away from the dock ahead of the SES boat that was ahead of us. They were just getting underway, but it was pretty clear that along with our SES escort boat, we were travelling quite a bit faster than the riverboat, which was now out in midstream.
As the distance between our three boats closed, we could see the finish flags on the riverbank up ahead. The SES boat was forced to slow down as they came up behind the riverboat. We had the finish line in our sights and weren’t stopping although we weren’t entirely clear about the technicalities of passing a paddle wheel driven riverboat.
Fortunately, they were as intent on getting clear as we were on getting through and the path to the finish line opened up. To add to our good fortune, our line to the finish was now perfectly aligned to the large bow wave from the slowed SES boat.
We surfed their bow wave the last 50 metres into the finish line at Echuca for our third successive day of line honours.
We’d paddled a total of 76.46km in 5:59:20. We were quite pleased to be under six hours for the section, even if only by 40 seconds.
Kate was frozen and we were incredibly grateful to Rod Clarke and Tony Bond who literally gave her the shirts off their backs to get her warm while we waited for our gear to turn up in the van.
There was a sausage sizzle on the dock that night, put on by the Echuca city council. Not feeling like sausages, Kate and I slipped away to a little Greek Pizza outfit, where I demolished a family size lamb and fetta pizza by myself. It barely touched the sides.
Day 4 – Echuca to Torrumbarry – 62km
We started day four knowing that it would be hard to catch the early start paddlers over the shorter 65 km leg. We’d been catching the lead boats at around 50-55km each day and with a shorter leg, we could expect them to pick up their pace.
In our plan, day four was practically a sprint, probably under five hours if things went well.
I’d given Kate my polypropylene tshirt to wear so that she’d stay warm in the front.
We lightened up the boat by removing the extra water, keeping the food and other extras to a minimum. We weren’t going to be on the water long enough for the weather to change.
Compared to the first three days, day four seemed to was over in a flash. The timing problems from day two had been well and truly exorcised. We kept the stroke rate high and the boat responded.
We started looking for the lead boat from the 50km mark, expecting them to appear at any time. By 55km, we’d stopped passing paddlers, there didn’t seem to be any paddlers in front of us.
Things like that start to play on your mind when you’re out on the water, nobody else in sight. Have we taken a wrong turn? We hadn’t seen any turns, but that’s the point if you’ve missed one isn’t it? Distance racing gives you plenty of time for self doubt.
The mystery was solved as we came around the final bend and Torrumbarry came into view. The safety boat was tied up at the dock. Jason, one of the C1 paddlers had moved forward to an early start to get the line honours on the shortened section. While we were a bit disappointed to have our run of first across the line finishes broken, we had to concede Jason had put in a gut busting effort to stay in front of us.
We’d covered 57.5km in 4:40:50. An average of 12.8kph.The time keepers rewarded Jason by moving him to a later start
That night all of the competitors and crew were invited to the Murrabit Footy Club for dinner. A good stick to the inside of your ribs feed of steak and salads.
Over dinner, John the timekeeper talked to us about his plans for bringing everybody into the finish at Swan Hil in a short period for a more exciting finish. The slowest paddlers would start early so that they arrived around half an hour after the fastest paddlers. John had been carefully checking through the pace averages for the previous four days and thought he could get everybody into Swan Hill over an hour and a half to two hours.
There was a bit of dissent from some paddlers who were only doing sections. Normally they would start at the start and finish at one of the checkpoints. The organisers were keen for everybody to cross the finish line at Swan Hill so the section paddlers would be starting at checkpoints along the way. To make sure they didn’t cross the line before the lead paddlers, their starts would be held back until the first 10 full distance boats had gone through the checkpoint.
As the leading boat, we were happy with this. They might catch some of the top ten boats, but we would be 20-30 minutes ahead of the 10th boat by the time we hit the first checkpoint.
We retired to our motel, which was pretty basic, but had a hot shower with a good flow and a soft mattress. That was all we needed.
Day 5- Murrabit to Swan Hill – 77km
We’d started the Murray five days earlier in Yarrawonga in sweltering 38C heat. Temperatures had crashed as low as 6C during the week. We’d had rain and wind from every direction.
Day five was spectacular. The temperature was in the mid 20s. The skies were clear and blue. Perfect paddling conditions.
There were seven paddlers in the final start for day five, eight if you included the relaying muscle men from Maroochydore. We’d got to know each other over the five days since Yarrawonga. We were all racers, chasing a time rather than a finish.
By day five Kate and I were so far ahead, we’d literally have to sink the boat to be beaten. There was only the clock for us to chase.
And yet there was a warmth to the group. I’d heard how Tom Simmat had given Mad Mick a thermal shirt on one of the colder days after Mick had had a couple of swims.
One of the starters had horrible blisters on his hands, the skin had blistered, the blisters had torn off and he was down to the pink raw skin underneath. There were shoulder strains, and strapped wrists. I had a chafe on my backside from rotating on the dry seat that was like a carpet burn. We’d all be glad to see the finish line.
It was a strange thing to do but it just seemed right to get everybody together for a group photo. Of all the experiences and photos that we bought home from the Murray. The photo of the last starters on the last day is one that will always be part of a special memory for me.
John the timing coordinator had let us know that a couple of middle of the bunch paddlers had got onto the water in the earliest start. We were a bit disappointed to hear that, they would be hard to catch from our start over a short distance and we did feel like we’d earned the right to cross the line first at Swan Hill.
As 9:00 approached, we lined up on the start line for the last 77km of our great adventure. We were pumped.
From previous days, we knew the actual distance would be between 5% and 10% shorter than the stated 77. How much shorter was the subject of much speculation. One of the locals from Swan Hill who paddled the section regularly assured us that it was 73km.
Kate and I were estimating we’d be on the water for something just under six hours.
Two and a half hours in we came across the lads in the safety kayak. They’d given up trying to race us. They’d found a surfboard on the river and were amusing themselves by trying to waterski behind the electric powered kayak. It was all going quite well when we went past, but I heard later that the kayak hit a snag and they only just saved the motor from slipping off the back of the boat and into the depths of the Murray. After that incident, I suppose they just had to paddle their kayak like the rest of us.
About 30km in, things were starting to hurt. Muscles and joints that had been worked hard over the preceding four days were starting to complain, and skin had chafed off various parts of our bodies where constant rubbing had taken its toll. But the end was getting nearer.
The remaining miles counted down as the river banks got lower and the trees started to thin. The landscape along the Murray has many faces and we had enjoyed the spectacle as much as the race.
Twenty kilometres from the finish, in my head there was just a marathon distance left to run. Marathons had become the unit of measure, a way of breaking down the distance into smaller units that you can plan your race to.
Less than two hours with the current beneath us.
Houses started appearing. There were occasional banners on the river banks cheering competitors on towards the finish line.
Rounding a corner, we saw a canoe full of paddlers heading back upstream towards us. They all had Murray numbers on their life jackets. The non-paddling members of a relay team who had come out to cheer their team across the finish line.
“Five hundred metres to go” they yelled out as we approached an island in the river. Then suddenly it was “Go Left, the finish line is that way!”
We’d been going right with the main flow because we couldn’t see the finish line. The sudden course correction almost bought us unstuck, nearly being swept onto debris at the top of the island as we paddled hard to change course.
It turned out that it wouldn’t have made any difference as the finish line was well downstream of the island. We would have been fine either way.
The crowd started cheering as we approached the line. Something indistinct about Kate and Steve Dawson was called out over the sound system and then the horn went as we crossed the line.
Impulsively I tossed my paddle up into the air and over the back of the boat. It was a perfect moment. For me.
Kate was instantly unimpressed that I’d thrown away my paddle and that we spent the next two minutes trying to manoeuvre the double to retrieve my paddle which seemed to be enjoying its newfound freedom, floating in the swirls and eddies of the Murray.
Everything after that is a blur of faces, handshakes, and exhaustion.
We had finished day five in 5:29:30, having covered 70.69km. We didn’t catch the safety boat on the last day. The fast boats that had gone off early had been about 16 minutes ahead of us into Swan Hill.
We won the Murray Marathon. We were first on time and first on handicap. We set a new record for our class.
Our total unadjusted time for the event was thirty hours and five minutes.
At the awards ceremony where we were awarded the Ponde Trophy for coming first.
The highlight of the awards for me was seeing the kids relay teams being awarded their trophies for completing the event.
The Murray was a massive challenge for Kate and I. We identify ourselves as paddlers. It’s our main recreation activity, and we play, tour, train, and compete in paddle disciplines all year long, and we still found the Murray a daunting proposition. The distances, and getting back in the boat day after day create unique challenges that aren’t part of other events.
I am in awe of the kids who participated in the event. The large school teams in the relay, the kids from the Blues and Brothers team, who came together to complete something they can be justifiably proud of.
A special mention goes out to Tyler Creed who at 14 paddled a canoe the full distance with his dad Gary. Tyler has a bit of a connection to Sutherland as the owner of Ross Morgan’s old C1 which was given to me by Trevor Farrell. When I didn’t have enough time to make use of it. I offered it up to a group of canoeists on the proviso that it gets paddled and every time it gets passed on, the money goes to Trevor’s charity, Youth Off the Street. Gary put his hand up and so Tyler trains in a boat that came from Sutherland.
After the prize giving Kate and I wandered into Swan Hill to have a quiet celebratory dinner by ourselves to decompress. As we walked from restaurant to restaurant looking at menus, we came across one of the schools teams who were sharing some pizzas outside an Italian place.
They recognised us and cheered and clapped as we approached. We congratulated them on their win and shook some hands. As relay participants, each one of them had paddled a distance that would match to many people who define themselves as paddlers.