Last weekend I had a great trip to Victoria to compete in the Great Ocean Paddle. It’s a surf ski race along the beautiful coastline around Torquay, at the start of the Great Ocean Road. It’s always a fun weekend and the course, as well as being very scenic, usually throws up some good conditions. The other think I like about the event is that race director, Jarad Kohlar is from an adventure racing background so he’s always keen to get us out in some decent downwind conditions. One year this caught me out. I was leading the race and had a disastrous wipe-out on a big wave with about 2km to go. I guess they don’t call it Point Danger for nothing!
I enjoyed the drive down on Saturday afternoon. I’d just had my first week back at work as a PE teacher so I was looking forward to some relaxation. The highway is really good, making this event very accessible, and although I was still on a motorway, I could feel myself becoming more relaxed as the buildings became smaller and smaller and the landscape became a bit greener. I arrived in Torquay at about 7:30 and immediately met Davey and Tess Brand of Epic Kayaks, my major sponsors and sponsors of the event Great Ocean Paddle, but also my good friends. We always have a great time together when we’re at events like this. Also in our little squad was Oscar Jones, a former junior world champion in ocean racing and someone who is really starting to make an impact in open competition. We carb loaded on delicious local pizza and I enjoyed a nice pale ale from the Bells Beach Brewery (when in Rome!) and talked for quite a while about paddle length and angles, what’s the best fluid to consume during the race and whether a south-westerly or a west-south-westerly would be the best wind for the race. Not that I really had any control over the weather!
The morning of the race we got up for breakfast. Tess and Davey had booked a really nice Airbnb in Jan Juc. I fuelled up on oats and muesli and a couple of apples. To my horror, this delightful home was the kind of place that had eight different types of tea but only decaf coffee! Fortunately, Tess and Davey were on hand to perk Oscar and I up with apple, lemon and ginger tea and freshly ground beetroot juice. We packed our V12’s onto the roof of Tess and Davey’s car and headed off to Port Roadknight, the start line of the 20km race.
In the car on the way down, Oscar and I were grizzling that we were running late. “Hurry up, Davey!”. We’ve both done some work in flat water kayaking where paddlers have regimented and quite long warm-ups. Arriving 15 minutes before the start of a race sounded quite stressful to us. Davey is a bit more relaxed. Or perhaps he’s just so well organised that he doesn’t need a lot of time to prepare. He appeared to be very sensitive to the mood, for about 30 seconds and then continued to wind us up by asking if we wanted to stop and get a coffee on the way! We got there, scrambled out of the car, chucked on some paddling shorts and raced on down to the start line. Just in time to watch the Division 2 race start.
Unfortunately, there was a delay. The water safety guys were concerned about the safety boat to paddler ratio, due to such a high number of entries. Consequently, there was quite a long wait while the Division 2 race finished the 20km course and the jetskis zoomed back to oversee our race. We decided to go and have lunch at a local café near the star line. Davey couldn’t help himself. Grinning from ear to ear he said “See, I told you boys we had plenty of time!” Initially I was a bit frustrated but then, sitting amongst 50-odd paddlers at this café, I became a bit more reflective; sitting outside on a nice day, drinking coffee and talking about our favourite sport. What else would we rather be doing? We ended up all having a great time cracking jokes as we waited for the start.
Finally the race got underway. Jamo Porter, who I rated as my main opponent going into the race as he’d beaten me the previous weekend at Maroochydore, shot to the lead and stayed therefore the first five minutes with Oscar and I sitting on his wash. Conditions were a bit offshore, about a 15 knot westerly which still provided a bit of a tailwind. For the first 5 or so k’s we shared the washleads, changing every five minutes. We did this until we got past Point Addis where the good runs were expected to begin. I might sound a bit strange to be talking it easy but you can conserve so much energy by doing washleads. If I went on the attack too early, I would have been going flat out for 20km while Oscar and Jamo could do washleads, save some energy and share the load to work against me. There’s also the risk that if you try to break away and don’t quite pull it off, the other guys can then counter-attack right after you’ve done a surge, leaving you full of lactic acid, off the back of the wash pack and feeling pretty embarrassed!
After about half an hour, the runs stared to open up and we got our first few “paddle down” runs where we could actually sit and rest while surfing the runs. It was at this point that the race really started for the front three. It was actually a disadvantage to be on the wash because although you could still get a tow from the wash, you could only surf one way, unless you wanted to risk a collision with the leader. I gradually started to pick up the intensity and push over a few more waves, getting faster and faster and trying to take control of the race. We’d nearly reached Point Addis. I was ahead, Jamo was level with me but about 100m nearer inshore while Oscar was starting to fall behind, about 50m behind but further out to sea. I thought he still might be a threat at this point as being further out to sea is like having money in the bank, allowing the paddler to stay on the natural direction of the wave for longer without having to cut back towards the finish line.
After Point Addis, we hit a bit of a dead spot. The runs were really short and slow. I found that even if I pushed hard to get onto the next run, it was so slow that it was hardly worth the energy for so little reward. Jamo caught me and for about a kilometre we were chatting, laughing about the frustrating nature of the chop we were in. This went on for a while and I think it was an interesting comparison of boats. Jamo was using the V11 which I think was better suited to the short chop whereas my V12 was faster in bigger runs and had a higher top speed in flat water.
At about the about the 15km mark, after we’d escaped the rebounding slop, I saw my opportunity. There were larger groundswells running towards the shore with little wind chops running offshore. I found I could put in a few big, powerful strokes to catch the groundswells in towards the shore and then catch three or four wind chops back out. I decided this was it, this was the time that I would attack and break away. I knew I only had 5km to go, which would be about 20 minutes at the pace I was going so I started to put the foot down. My GPS watch gave be a lap time every kilometre. 3:58 was my baseline. I’d tell myself “Good job!” for every lap that was under four minutes and I was quite cranky at myself when I let it slip to 4:05. This was good motivation to make sure I was always on a run, keeping the boat moving at all times.
I was approaching Point Danger when a man on a jetski caught me and said that he’d sit on the end of the reef so I’d know where to go. This was a great relief for me as it was the exact spot where I’d fallen off during this race a few years ago. Fortunately, the swell was very small this time. I made the 90 degree turn and headed for at Fisherman’s Beach with about 2km left to paddle. The surf gods must have been on my side here because I was able to pick up a perfect little wave. I had to paddle quite hard to stay on it but I was on that wave for 40 double strokes. Nearly home, I had a look over my shoulder and saw that I had quite a big lead over Jamo. I thought I had it in the bag.
“Thunk!” Many paddlers will know the horrible sound that echoes through your boat when your rudder hits something. I’d just done this in the lead with 100m left to go in the race. I was trying to catch waves on the point and went too close. “Uh oh!” I hoped I hadn’t damaged the boat. A jammed rudder could have thrown the race away. I was about a minute ahead and there was no way I could swim 100m that fast in togs, let along fully clad in my paddling gear and PFD. Fortunately the rudder was okay and I could still paddle but I was still right on top of a shallow reef. I paddled about 50m at 90 degrees to the direction of the course and because it was so shallow, I tilted my ski 45 degrees so that the rudder wouldn’t drag, paddled the last few strokes to the beach and jogged up to the finish line with my lightweight V12 Elite on my shoulder. Job done, and apart from a small cosmetic scratch, the rudder was fine. Jamo finished in second and Oscar in third. We stood on the beach awaiting fourth place and were very impressed when we saw the sky blue V11 of Davey Brand come around the point in fourth. Davey has come a long way with his paddling in the past 12 months and at this rate, he will be dangerous next season!
The Great Ocean Paddle was a great event. A good course and well organised it’s a good race to tick of your list. You can also go along and make a week of it, if you have time, with lead up races held on Melbourne’s Yarra River and Port Phillip Bay in Sandringham. I wold like to thank my friends at Epic for their support in getting me to the race and to the Peak Adventure team for putting the event on. I look forward to going back to the Great Ocean Paddle in the future.