The Great Toro Race 2018

The Great Toro Race 2018

Competitors in the Great Toro Race of 2018 – Picnic Point with the original Toro TC2 in the foreground

Once upon a time a young American canoe racer got the idea to come to Australia and race in an event called the Murray Marathon. It was 1971 and his name was Andras “Andy” Toro. He’d heard about the 404km, 5 day event from a friends. While at first it seemed an unlikely quest, he contacted the race organisers to see if they could help an international competitor enter the race. The organisers agreed to waive the entry fee and organised for Andy to be supported by the Australian Airforce team.

The next problem was how to organise a boat. Andy was a bit of a celebrity on the international canoe circuit having defected from the Hungarian Olympic team during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. By 1971 he was studying Naval Architecture and Naval Engineering at the University of Michigan.

So he built a boat.

The original Toro, constructed from cedar strips. You can see the ring beams where the sections were bolted together

Being the Murray, the canoe of choice at the time was the peculiarly Australian TC (touring canoe) class, which was shorter and wider than the equivalent ICF Canoe spec of the day (and still is). As short as it is, a 16’6″ canoe was never going to be airline friendly, so the boat was constructed as four sections which could be disassembled and bolted back together on arrival in Australia. Andy and his partner Douglas Soules caused quite a stir arriving at the race with a boat in their luggage.

Despite a warm welcome, arriving in Australia was quite strange. The strangest thing was that all of the paddlers on the start line were wearing cotton pyjamas. The reason became apparent very quickly as the temperature climbed quickly through the day, and by the start of day two, Andy and Doug were also decked out in white cotton pyjamas.

The climate proved to be one of their biggest challenges. With no experience in racing in the desiccated land down under, they assumed that they would be able to drink as they went through the check points. On the first day, starting from the second wave, they had soon overtaken the first wave and were leading the race at a fair clip. As dehydration started to become a concern, they began to wonder why they hadn’t found the first checkpoint. There wasn’t anywhere to go off course, but there was no sign of the Airforce support crew and their much needed water.

Soon they were wondering whether they had missed checkpoint 2, and then checkpoint 3. They paddled the entire distance of day one with no water, crossing the finish line first, but in a very bad state.

The Airforce team were quickly on hand to tell them that they’d been going so unexpectedly fast on the water that they’d reached the checkpoints ahead of the support vehicles and their land crew had been chasing them all day to catch up.

Dehydrated and exhausted, they were again surprised to find that the Airforce team mobile mess was stocked almost exclusively with two staples of Australian performance race fuel. Steak, and beer. Andy does say to this day that a cold Fosters is quite palatable after a day of racing with no water.

Andy and Doug finished first on four days before the organisers rearranged the handicaps for the final day making it nearly impossible for a canoe to cross the line first.

Long story short, Andy and Doug were the fastest canoe team on the water in 1971 and the returned to the US leaving their canoe behind them in Australia. There was no point taking it home as the TC2 spec is only raced in Australia.

As is often the way with boats that win races, everybody wanted one and soon the canoe known as “The Toro” could be found in large numbers racing the rivers of Australia.

Over the years, designs improved, and the Toro stopped arriving first at the finish line. The boats got pushed to the back of club sheds and under houses. The Toro became euphemistically referred to as “The Planter Box” because you were better off filling it with begonias than racing it.

Fast forward to 2017 when one bright spark – Michael “Mad Mick” Dinkgreave – had the thought that there were enough Toro’s lying around in sheds to hold an event where every crew was racing the same boat. An event where skill, endurance, and navigational cunning would be the only deciding element.

The Great Toro Race was conceived.

The race covers 28km of the Murray River from Picnic Point to Barmah Bridge – a section of the Murray Marathon known as The Narrows because it winds through deadfall trees and snaking bends over most of its distance. A Le Mans running start is also a feature of the race. A 200m run through trees to a narrow beach with only room to launch a pair of boats at a time.

2017 was the first year for the Great Toro and was an instant success amongst canoe paddlers.

 

In 2018 Mick organised for Andy Toro and his wife Jane to return from the US to race in the event that bears his name. 47 years after racing in the Murray Marathon, Andy is a coach and competitive outrigger paddler.

Andy and Jane Toro front)
Race briefing – short and to the point
Pre-race briefing
The first wave, including the honored guests are excused the Le Mans start

Unable to attend the 2017 event, Kate and I were keen to try our luck in 2018. We placed our entry. A boat was assigned from the fleet and we were assigned a place at the back of the starting grid.

running start through the trees
Dodging trees and picnic tables
Wave three start. A little crowded. Getting away quickly was important
Not every crew makes a clean start

We finished third in the mixed category behind some excellent competition. Along the way there were some laughs, some spills, some shenanigans and the odd conniption.

Winning combo of Jeremy and Rod. Getting away clean, knowing the course and an average speed of 12.1 are apparently the secrets of success
Jane and Andy in the original Toro. Competitive 47 years later
Steve & Kate chasing hard
The Toro TC2 (front) has long been outclassed by the Harrison TC2 (rear) and there was no catching the team in the Harrison on the day. But only a Toro can place in the Great Toro Race
Jane and Andy finishing at Barmah – First mixed
Janey and Peter – second mixed
Steve & Kate – Third Mixed

We enjoyed it so much, that we’ve put our names on a list of paddlers (along with about 10 others) who are lined up to have a new Toro built for the 2019 race.

The awards dinner afterwards was held in the Barmah Hotel, where they serve the world famous Barmah Parma, and beer which was cold and good. There were cash prizes for first finishers in each category and also enough spot prizes to make everybody smile.

Overall winners – Rod and Jeremy with Andy
Andy Toro, Race Organiser Mad Mick, and Jane Toro

Photos from Tony Bond and Ashley Rasti Bell

6 Comments

  1. great story thanks Steve

  2. Thank you for your interesting article of the Great Toro Race. After 47 years returning to the Mighty Murray was an emotional experience for me. I would like to express my gratitude to “Mad Mick” to have the foresight to breath life into the Toro boats and organize the race. Also, to all the fellow single bladers to form a brotherhood around concept. We are indeed precious and unique to the Mighty Murray. My life dream is fulfilled that the Toro canoe is well and thriving as a class of canoe to be raced.

    Once again thank you for your hospitality and promise that I will return. And in the meantime if I can be any help to any of my brother single blader, please do not hesitate to call.

    Keep the paddle wet,

    Andras “Andy” Toro, the Original

    1. Way to go Coach. Nice story and great see you and Jane still out there doing it. Love the Rosses…

  3. Thanks Steve. Great report. Well done & great paddling with Kate in the GTR! See you at the RPM. Regards Roger GPB

  4. Great write up Steve.
    Fantastic that Andy and Jane could make the trip and still be competitive in the old boat.
    It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend which proved that the spirit of the single blade is alive and well again after almost fading out altogether nearly two decades ago.
    Let’s keep this race concept growing each year. There are still plenty of old Toros about looking for crews and new Toros coming out of the mold.

  5. Helen and I paddled a sea kayak in the Great Toro Race and were accorded an early start as we are known to be slow. The highlight of the race was watching Andy and Jane passing us with a very smooth paddling style and superb use of the fastest currents in the river, no matter how close to the snags they paddled. I wish I had a video of their paddling technique: it would be a lesson for all older paddlers in still being fast and safe at older ages. I do regret having to now abandon my excuse of old age in being so slow.

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