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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photos from Tony Bond and Ashley Rasti Bell