Clarence 100

“Yes it’s called the Clarence 100, but that’s not to say it’s 100 kilometres. It’s just kind of 100” – Ben Sullivan, race organiser.

The Clarence 100 started in 2015 with a group of friends getting together to paddle 100 kilometres from Copmanhurst to Yamba on the Clarence River in Northern NSW. In 2016 they opened it up as a race and 70 paddlers entered.

The race got on our radar because of the Very Big Year challenge to race 1000 kilometres in a year.

Ross & Robyn, Kate, and I, supported by Jeff and Deb as land crew, travelled North to Grafton to race the 100km three day event. Ross and Robyn raced in their SLR2 double. Kate paddler her Fusion long rec.

I rejoined Frank Kingma from Varsity Lakes (QLD) in a TC2 canoe as a reprise of our partnership at the Myall Classic. Frank is also doing the Very Big Year so we’ve been attending many of the same events.

Spot the odd boat out

In the Myall we paddled my cedar strip marathon racing C2 with Frank setting the pace in the bow and me steering the boat from the stern seat. We’d agreed that we’d switch boats and seats for the Clarence. Both of us are normally stern paddlers, more by chance than choice, so it was a good opportunity for each of us to try out the front seat.

I don’t want to give too much away with Ross and Robyn paddling a canoe in the Morison Cup, but the paddling roles in a tandem canoe are quite distinct. Canoes steer from the rear because of where the paddles enter the water relative to the centreline (technically it’s also about the peripatetic balance point, but that only matters once you get it moving fast), so steering is generally dominated by the back paddler.

The front paddler is ideally the power and the pace, while the back paddler concentrates on steering the boat. Most of the time the paddlers will be stroking on opposite sides and the back paddler calls Hup (or Hut, depending on who you barrack for) whenever the stern paddler wants to switch sides.

That means the back paddler is kept quite busy anticipating course, waves, wash, wind and other conditions. And I mean anticipating. Once a canoe starts to turn, it takes 4 or more strokes to arrest the turn before you begin to have any positive influence on its course.

The front paddler just has to keep the pace. Or at least that’s what I thought until I jumped into the front seat of Frank’s TC2 for the very first time on the start line of the Clarence 100.

First of all, you’re right in the front of the boat. To imagine how much you’re in the front of the boat, put your arms out in front of you with your elbows at your hips and touch your finger tips. That’s the view of the bow from the front seat. All of the width of the boat is behind you where you can’t see it. The front seat is pushed so far forward that my thighs were touching the gunwales on either side, my feet were overlapping slightly on the footrest, and the seat is high enough that the tops of my thighs were above the gunwales. You’re sitting about 7 inches above the keel in old money.

The initial sense of instability in the front seat is quite unnerving. Even more so when we pushed off from the beach and ten strokes later we crossed out of the eddy and into the moving current of the upper Clarence River.

At that point I figured it was either pull hard or go home. Something that new paddlers take some time to learn is that you are at your most stable when the paddle is in the water and you’re pulling back on it.

Day one start in the morning mist of Copmanhurst.

Day one from Copmanhurst to Grafton was hot and fast. The current and a slight tide were with us and the sun was beating down. Frank and I had opted for the early social paddler start time, half an hour ahead of the racers. Not because we were social, but because we knew the canoe would be slower than the skis that dominated the field.

We quickly settled into a pace that surprised a few ski paddlers. A handful of boats started pulling away from us slowly, while another group decided to sit on our wash. I joked to Frank about it being some variation on the ugly duckling story.

The temperature continued to climb as the kilometres ticked over. Even though I was drinking, I was feeling dehydrated and had the first twinges of cramps in arms and core.

There were a couple of shallow gravel banks that the organisers had warned us about in the preface briefing. That slowed the skis down as their rudders dragged in the riverbed and a couple were forced to get out and lift their boats out of the shallows. Others were forced into a couple of narrow channels where they had to queue to enter. Frank and I took advantage of our rudderless canoe to slip past in water that was too shallow for a rudder, but deep enough for a canoe.

The briefing had located the checkpoint at the halfway point on the course, but it turned out to be at 25km, just as the first of the fast double skis from the racing start caught up with us. We were pretty pleased to have held them off as long as we did. We even got a few compliments from the racing paddlers who were surprised how hard we were pushing the little canoe. The tide had slowed and the sun was up, making it hard going.

As we approached Grafton, I glanced over my shoulder and spotted Ross and Robyn edging up on us in the middle of the river. By this time Frank had us hugging the bank to keep the wide bellies canoe out of the tide, which was starting to run back in.

The Bingle’s finally nosed past us with 5 metres to go, despite Frank and I giving it a good push to hold them off.

We had logged 39.7km in xxx hours.

Stage 1 down, we retired back to the caravan park in Grafton to recover for the next day. Sitting on the side of the swimming pool that afternoon, I could distinctly feel the sides of the pool rising and falling like the front of the canoe in the morning.

Expert land crew Deb and Jeff Buchan during some of their rare downtime.

Day two started at Grafton and ran another 40km to MacLean. The tide be against us almost from the start and the river was wide with large stretches of open water which we would have to cross between bends. The challenge would be to hug the bank as much as we could to stay out of the tide without making the course longer than it needed to be. The higher resistance of the canoe hull made us more susceptible to adverse tides, so we would be struggling to stay ahead of the skis this day. The wind was also forecast to be a problem.

We started well with the tide slow and the wind predominantly behind us. While our speed was in the 9-10kph range, we stayed near the middle of the river and chose a course based on the shortest distance to paddle. Our contingent of wash riders had found us again, while we were busy chasing outrigger who had completed day 1 in almost exactly our time. We didn’t get close enough to wash ride him, but we kept the pace up enough to keep him in sight.

Soon the tide had turned and we were back to hugging the banks. Each time we had to cross the river the cross became longer and the wind blowing behind us was starting to stand up small waves against the incoming tide. I joked to Frank that TC2 and “Staring down a wave” were not phrases that normally appeared together. As Frank worked to keep the boat straight from the back, I was reaching out and pulling the front of the boat hard to keep it from getting surfed broadside. We hit a momentary 14kph on the back wave.

We were around the 35km mark when the conditions started to get a little hairy. Tracking along the right hand bank under the cover of the trees, with waves coming in from over our left shoulder. Suddenly we were surfing along a wave which speared us straight in towards the trees. We were already so close to the bank that we had almost no time to react and only just managed to avoid driving into the roots along the waters edge. More waves rolled in behind us as we struggled to back out and get the canoe moving again.

A second, a third, and finally a fourth set of waves convinced us that we couldn’t continue down the right bank and that we needed to cross to the far side for some manoeuvring room.

Looking out across the 300 odd metres to the other side of the river we could see that it was going to be a rough ride. We steeled ourselves and broke from the shore on a diagonal line which would keep most of the wave behind us. We were only a third of the way across before we were broadside on to the waves and taking the worst of it beam on. The next five minutes were a frenzied fluttering of feathered strokes, braces, rudders and the occasional clean forward stroke.

At one stage I tried for a bow rudder stroke on the downstream side and the boat almost slipped sideways over the paddle in the wind. With the blade buried deep and the boat jammed up against the shaft, it would have been a capsize if I hadn’t released my top hand to let the paddle fold under the boat.

We abandoned any ambitions of a downstream direction and allowed the canoe to turn upwind and upstream. I don’t know what the kayakers on the opposite side of the river were thinking as they watched us paddling back up stream. I’d like to think they were having enough problems of their own.

Bow-first into the wind and waves, I had water pouring over the sides of the bow as we plunged through the waves on our way to safety.

Nearing the left bank, the wind started to yield and the waves lessen. A moment to regroup and congratulate ourselves, then we were on our way.

Frank said later that they were the largest wind blown waves he’d ever paddled in. 24 hours later, that statement would be out of date.

We knew we had at least one more crossing back to the right bank for the final run into McLean, but that would at least be with the wind directly at our backs. That crossing was longer, but square-on to the waves, we managed to maintain the stability of the boat and apart from more water pouring over the bow, it was uneventful.

With the frantic activity, I hadn’t had any gels and was banking on there only being two or three more kilometres to the finish line. I wasn’t happy when at 40km, Frank called out the bridge up ahead and said the finish line was another kilometre or so past that.

One of the things you learn paddling distance is that pace, fuel, and water are critical to keeping you moving in the upper distances. Too little water and too much sun had resulted in cramps on day 1. I’d budgeted for 40km on day 2 and that was now behind us. I was knackered and the last three kilometres into McLean was paddled with the needle on empty. We crossed the line and sagged exhausted in the boat until some kindly souls on the boat ramp moved in to see if we were still alive.

Day three was slated as the short day, just 20km from McLean to Yamba. “I can do it in 18” we were assured by race organiser Ben. It was 23.7km and we were against the tide the whole way. Ben being wrong hardly seemed to rate a mention by day three.

Unlike the first two stages, day three was a mass start with the fast boats making a fast break from the line. That left us sitting in a very disturbed wash as we tried to hug the banks and stay out of the tide. We still had our wagon train of wash riders behind us. They seemed to be well adhered to the back of the canoe. A couple of times when Frank’s steering skills faltered we skidded off laterally into the current 10-15 metres off course against the current, and they all followed us!

They stuck with us about the 10km mark when the river changed character and started to widen quickly. We dodged across a shallow sandbar towards the bank and our pursuers pulled back to the middle of the channel.

The wind was softer than on day two, but with more expanse of water the waves were often bigger.

The Clarence is a mighty big river in many places

We were largely on our own for the rest of the race. The faster boats in front were slowly creeping alway from us and we were opening up distance on those slower boats behind us.

Our path took us down the left hand bank until the river turned right and we had to make another crossing. The wind was whipping up waves and I was taking water over the bow again, but the novelty had worn off so I didn’t mention it to Frank. It was a large crossing to an island in mid stream and we could already see kayaks ahead of us making sudden course changes which was a fair sign that they were struggling in the waves. We zigged along our line to the island and zagged as each wave sloughed through, then back to zigging for another 20 metres.

We were on the final zig when I spotted a kayaker in the pack ahead of us capsize. I could see Kate approaching the swimmer from behind and she paused before carrying on towards the island. There was a double ski about 40m away which was turning to come to the swimmers aid and a safety jet ski had been patrolling nearby. I was a bit concerned that the conditions were rough enough ahead of us to prevent Kate from rendering assistance, but that would explain why the kayak had capsized in the first place.

As Frank and I approached, we were fighting to stay in control of the canoe and keep it moving forward. The last thing you want is to be stationary in disturbed waters getting pounded and going nowhere. The double ski had broken off its rescue when the rescue jet ski had appeared from around the back of the island. By the time we got close enough to see that it was Greg from Maroochydore in the water, we too were in the middle of the worst waves of the race. I confirmed that Greg was treading water OK and that the jetski was approaching for a rescue before Frank and I continued our scramble to the (relative) shelter of the island.

We’d all watched the video of the previous years race and the river conditions had been mirror smooth. I’m sure that a lot of out of town paddlers had entered the event expecting nothing worse than a little boat wash.

Last 30 metres to the finish line across a glassy bay

From the island, the final few kilometres took us across the harbour to a beach behind the sea wall at Yamba. There was a pod of dolphins feeding in the shallows, which was a welcome distraction from the though of more wind and waves around the corner. The wind had died down and shifted to directly behind us. There were a few powerboats plying the waters, but far enough between that we could line up their wages for a clean hit.

Rounding the final point we spied the golden sand of the beach and the finish flags. A moment of whoa when an ocean swell wave lifted the canoe about a metre when we were completely focused on the beach ahead, then we were on the beach and finished

Checking my GPS, the final 20km leg had been 23.5km

Our time for the 100km was 11 hours 27 minutes. Kate had finished ahead of us clocking an 11 hours 8 minutes to be the second fastest woman.

Very Big Year paddlers at the Clarence 100: Richard Barnes, Meg Thornton, Robyn and Ross Bingle, Kate and Steve Dawson, Frank Kingma

The race was followed by a huge buffet lunch with free food and entertainment at the Yamba Surf Club. A great way to finish a great race on a great river.

Driving back to Grafton with Frank after the race I admitted to a nightly little concern I’d had in the roughest spots over the three day event. “Frank, I’m not sure I can actually manage a reentry if we’d capsized the canoe. I’ve never had to try it in a racing canoe…”. Frank’s response was typically laconic. “I’ve never done one either. Best we stay in the boat eh?” Probably an even better idea when I remembered the sign of the side of the river reading

 

NO TRESPASSING

DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE

DOGS RUNNING LOOSE

TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT

 

Sure it was challenging, especially for me and Frank in a canoe, but we had a lot of fun. There’s a very relaxed vibe to the race and everybody was there to enjoy themselves.

Will we go back next year? …probably. I’d probably take a ski next time though.

The canoe was a lot of fun despite the struggles we had at times to control it in the rough conditions. We set a benchmark time and I’m sure that there will be others who will take up the challenge because it appears to be a soft time. I hope they get good conditions. Ideally, I’d choose my craft based on the short range weather forecast but that would probably mean taking more than one boat to the event. It’s definitely not a K1/2 event unless you are in an unnaturally close relationship with your boat. Even the long rec boats really needed skirts or pumps to keep the water out in the roughest parts. The safe options would be an ocean ski, or a sea kayak. I’d choose a ski because the tide is potentially against you for long stretches and you want as little drag as possible.

I’d also know better than to trust race organiser Ben and his distance estimates.