Freycinet Challenge

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Start of the team section on Day 1.

Before reading this blog you should understand that out of 166 paddlers, I came 96th which is hardly inspiring.  However, this story isn’t about winning, it’s about why I compete, it’s the difference between spectator and competitor, it’s the pain, frustration and inspiration of having to race and make decisions during a race, of trying to find that something extra to amaze, or in some moments just to survive.  It’s my story of the Freycinet Challenge.

Friday Night Prelude

I was very distracted coming into Satruday’s stage: I’d not only had all the problems and doubt arising from my poor health and training leading into the event, but I’d then also had to deal with seeing C and her new partner for the first time since we broke up at the induction on Friday night, and whilst it was cleansing, it still really hurt.
It was cleansing in that once I’d had time to digest the finality that this encoutner provided, it opened up a new future for me.  It was a bit like the release of that huge clump of sea weed from my rudder at the first turn of Saturday’s stage: It was the removal of a crippling weight that had slowly been building up as I tried to follow a path that was obviously wrong, and until it was gone I didn’t even really realise just how much it was holding me back.   So yes, Friday’s encounter was painful for me, very painful, but this is obviously a period of change in my life, so I need to embrace it, move beyond the pain and embrace the new futures it opens up.  Just like I did after that first turn in race.

So let me tell you about the days race.

Day 1 – 14km – Mouting Lagoon

After a bit of a scout of the first part of the course, and given that the tide was fast rushing out the channel, we (myself and Richard who was also staying at Swanick and was competing with another team) had decided to take the main channel, rather than the riskier inside channel. The problem with that plan was that as the first riders came in and their paddlers set off, they all went up the riskier but faster inside channel.

My turn came around, and given that every paddler before me headed up the channel, well I figured I would too.

Me in the red life jacket, note the paddlers and sand banks in the distance.

The first kilometer or so went well enough.  I kept up with the boats in front of me, though I could feel that both my arms and lungs were burning beyond my limits.   I just had to hope that as the race went on that I’d get into a rhythm and start to feel better.   I was passed soon after by the lead racers on their second lap, and then something bad happened … I missed the channel slightly and crossed a bit of shallower water.  This didn’t seem terminal, but suddenly boats were shooting past me like I was standing still.   I put every ounce I had into each paddle stroke, and yet I felt like I was attached to the ground. My GPS would later show I was averaging 5-6km/hr, about 2-4km/hr slower than my race pace.

Now here is the interesting thing about uncertainty … You might be saying to yourself, well obviously you had a big clump of seaweed slowing you down, so why didn’t you just stop and clear it? … The answer is that you only know that was the problem because I’ve told you that’s what the problem was. Out there on the water all I knew was that suddenly I was giving it everything I could and I was going nowhere.  What I didn’t know was if I was perhaps being overtaken by paddlers who were just a lot faster than me, I didn’t know if it was just because it was so shallow that the drag was slowing me down and those people passing me were in a deeper channel, and I didn’t know if perhaps my worst (well second worst, after having a heart attack) fear for the race was coming true … I had nothing to give.

So, I found myself faced with a question on every paddle stroke … Do I do another stroke and keep moving forward, however slowly, or do I stop and check my rudder, possibly losing a minute or so for no reason?  Faced with this choice, I didn’t know the right choice, I mean up until the night before I didn’t even know weed in the rudder was an issue fo skis, and so I just kept on paddling stroke after stroke after painful stroke hoping things would get better.

It was only as I was coming up to the turning buoy that two things happened that finally let me get more understanding on what was happening: (1) I was overtaken (quickly and easily) by someone I knew was not that much faster than me, and (2) I’d finally entered deeper water and realised that it wasn’t the ground drag that was slowing me down. Having narrowed it down to either my having no power or a rudder problem, I had a new problem given I was now in deep water  … do I paddle into shore (away from the buoy) to check my rudder or do I keep paddling and see if it was just me?
Again I chose to continue as I knew that I wasn’t feeling well, and hence the most likely cause of my pace was plain and simply me.

As I rounded the buoy I noticed a huge amount of turbulence and drag behind my boat, so I took a second look, and it was only then that I saw the huge clump of seaweed stuck to my rudder. Fortunately a combination of my change of direction, a drop of pace and my frantically moving the rudder back and forth managed to drop my seaweed anchor and I suddenly shot off.

It was like being set free, and suddenly the rapidly growing gap between me and the paddlers in front, first slowed and then held. I was back in the race.

Soon after that I made my next tactical mistake, the group I was following cut back in to the channel about half way back to base, and figuring that this part was safe, I followed, except the tide had dropped further and that shallow bit I paddled through on the way out was now too shallow and just as I was coming up to the boats in front of me, I hit the ground and had to get out of the boat and pull it 20 or 30 metres over a sandbank.   By the time I got to the other side, the guys I was chasing (who had flip up rudders) were again 50 or so metres in front of me.
Convinced I couldn’t make any more mistakes, I followed the two paddlers in front of me around the starting buoy in a clockwise direction, despite this being the longer, harder way as I assumed this was the mandatory direction.  Of course as soon as I did I had to watch as four paddlers behind me went around in the much faster anti-clockwise direction.   I lost another minute in this manouver and overall it took me nearly an hour to do the first 7km lap which is just pathetic.

Yes, I know terrible posture and stroke – that’s why I’m getting coaching.

One of the four paddlers that caught me was a guy I know from the huon series – Phil, and I pulled back up alongside him and found myself able to hold pace with him as we followed the deeper main channel back up to the far turn around the buoy for a second time.

I stuck to the main channel all the way up and all the way back, it was probably a kilometer further, but I overtook several people who overtook me on the first lap, and ended up completing the second lap in about 43 minutes … Almost a full 17 minutes faster than the first lap.

Uncertainty in a race can be crippling: the certainty of incrementaly continuing what we are doing in the hope that whatever the problem is, it will fix itself, is so much more compelling than the alternative option of taking a gamble that maybe it is something that is really wrong, and that we should stop what we are doing and act.

I guess that’s not the just the story of my race, but probably my life right now.

Day 2 – Coles Bay

View GPS

Today was meant to be a kilometre shorter than yesterday, but according to my GPS it was only 30 metres less.

The forecast was for a strong southerly this morning, but in the wise words of one Kim Harris “I don’t believe in forecasts anymore.

I hit the water not long after six thirty and it was like a mill-pond: I even recall lamenting that there wasn’t a little more wind to give me some sort of advantage in the Epic V8 as I paddled across from the boat ramp to the start with a gaggle of other guys.

Sure enough, 10 minutes later the wind started picking up and the rain commenced falling, I found myself wishing I had brought a kag or something with me to keep myself warm. But I didn’t and as was so reasonably pointed out to me by one of the other guys – we  have to paddle in what we’ve got, as does everyone else.

The start wasn’t as chaotic as I expected given there were 180 boats on the starting line, and in fact the whole race just seemed to ebb and flow, sometimes I’d struggle, and sometimes I’d be pulling people in. 

As always, I found myself combating the first quartile (a quartile is 25% so the first quartile is the first quarter of the race) doubts. My muscles and lungs were immediately at their limit, yet other paddlers still seemed to be pulling away from me quite easily as we headed out towards the first buoy.  I came around the first buoy for my first view of the whole field, there seemed like there were an awful lot more boats in front of me than there were behind me, quite simply I seemed to be doing really badly, and I found myself swearing internally, asking myself why I do this, why I don’t train more, why I don’t lose weight … Why, why, why … Yes, for the first part of the race I always race in doubt.

However, the race starts to reach an equilibrium in the second quartile. Sure the odd boat shots past, or capsizes and drops back, but generally you find yourself in a pack of racers with whom you can compete.

Today, just as I was turned at the far end of the beach, I heard someone pipe up behind “you ready for round 2?“… It was Phil again from yesterday.   He quickly came up beside me and we had a bit of a chat as we made our way back along the beach, I know Phil is a stronger paddler than me, though he does tend to fade just slightly at the end, so as we came around the starting buoy to start our second lap, I made the decision to see if I could lose him before he could settle into my pace.

He held on for a while, but I spotted a “think” (it’s a model, like Epic and Fenn, not a particularly thoughtful kayak) boat 10 or 15 metros in front and pulling away, and made the decision to try and catch it.  I accelerated with all I had left, and whilst it took 3 or 4 minutes of big effort I just managed to grab his tail before I burnt out. A quick glance behind confirmed that Phil hadn’t been able to follow, nor had another girl that beat me the day before, and so I got to ease back for a short while and just concentrate on sticking to the back of the boat in front as it slowly pulled me forward. We were into the middle of the race:  Tactics time.

We rounded the far buoy out near fisheries, and I caught a quick wave and managed to jump ahead of the pack I was in, though the jump was short lived as the think boat and another guy reeled me back in and then put a sizable gap, maybe 30 metres between them and me before we crossed around the starting buoy for the last time and headed back along the beach. I rounded hard and surged, gambling on being about to handle the side on waves better than them given my boats extra stability, and I managed to shut down about 2/3rds of the gap (20 metres) before the end of the beach section, I turned hard again at the next buoy, and surged one last time just managing to pick up the think boats tail as we headed back out into the wind.
After a brief rest, it was time to race again – there was no more strategising to be done: we were into the fourth quartile, it was either cruise home on this guys tail, or blow myself up trying to get past him. I had to go for it. It was a painstackingly slow process, but I managed to move out from behind and move up past him and one other guy, to slip into the beach a respectable distance ahead (well nine seconds). From there it was a quick exit and run up through the dunes to transition.

I had predicted a one hour thirty minute time if yesterday was a bad day, I came in in one hour thirty minutes and forty seconds … I hadn’t allowed for the extra minute to run up to transition. I can live with that given that both races were pretty much the same distance and I was sixteen minutes faster today.


Overall my effort was, by the measure of those around me, below average but that’s missing the point.  I have two things I wouldn’t otherwise have – I have the knowledge that once more I faced my fears and doubts, and I came out the other side – I persisted, survived and ultimately I amazed myself with what I came up with (hey pu that in the context that on Wednesday I was in Emergency having a suspected heart attack).

The other thing I’ve got is my entrants bib and that makes me happy.

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