Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Nick Cunliffe Coaching this Friday in Sydney

The NSW Sea Kayak Club's Rock & Roll weekend is over for another year, and this year's event featured British sea kayaker & instructor Nick Cunliffe.
Having seen footage of Nick shredding tideraces & surf waves over the best part of the last decade, it was great to meet him and share some quiet chats over a cup of tea or two. Guys like Nick, through the videos of Justine Curgenven, have broadened the scope of what we can do in sea kayaks, redefining them as more than a simple craft of journeying into something we can use for huge fun.

Nic & his buddy Kate Hives from the Hurricane Riders in Canada ran plenty of on water sessions over the weekend & also made themselves available to talk to one & all about their paddling, swapping stories & giving some pretty damn fine advice along the way. They're a particularly gregarious & engaging couple and were a big hit at the event.
The delightful Kate Hives with Rob at RnR 
The good news for those of you not at RnR, or even those that were & might want another crack with Nick & Kate, is that they're booking up spaces for a full day of instruction on the harbour this Friday.

Spaces are limited, but there are enough for the full day or half day courses remaining if you get in quick. Please contact Rob mercer, on 0417 227 627, or through rob@expeditionkayaks.com to book yourself in.

Here's some footage of Nick in action &b the kinds of things you can expect to learn

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Plastic Fantastic - The Epic V7 & Vajda Raptor Arrive

There can be no questioning the boom in surfski paddling over the past 5 years, driven exclusively by the innovative ski designers who have made this fast & rewarding craft accessible to all, through the development of super stable hull shapes.

Probably the only thing holding the crossover fishing kayakers, sea kayakers & sit on top paddlers back, was the high price of the mid-range skis, mostly starting in the early to mid $3000 range & rising.

Epic & Vajda have addressed this glaring lack of a true entry level, budget-priced ski with the respective recent launch of their V7 & Raptor Surfskis. Both designs are shorter than the standard skis at 5.2m and 5.3m respectively, so manageable in an average home garage, or on top of a city sedan.

They're both light in comparison to kayaks, weighing in at 19kg & 20kg respectively, and in testing both have laid strong claims to genuine surfski performance.

The Raptor is made from a lightweight form of ABS called Styrolight, whilst the Epic V7 is a rotomoulded ski, made in very much the same way as our hugely popular Valley sea kayaks. Both feature the full fit out & hardware that their more expensive higher-end models display, and you have to look hard at them pair of them before you realise that they're not composite, but instead plastic fantastic.

Both boats are now in stock, with pricing hovering around the $2200 mark.

Full specs & details on both of these entry level surfskis can be found below.

Epic V7
The new Epic V7 breaks that mold and sets a new standard for rotomold performance. It is lightweight, extremely efficient, and easy to handle. The V7 is outfitted with the same high quality fittings as every surfski in the Epic lineup, including our carbon fiber footboard and pedals and the hugely popular Epic designed bailer. In addition, it features an aft storage compartment with a lightweight, waterproof hatch.
Length: 5.20 m     Width: 54.00 cm     Depth: 35.00 cm    Weight: ~19kg    Capacity: 135 kg Storage: 100l  Material: Polyethylene

Vajda Raptor

A 20kg, 5.3m long entry-level ski designed for a great combination of stability & speed. Made from Styrolite, a lightweight ABS plastic with tremendous stiffness and impact resistance. The ski comes with Vajda's handy carry strap & points, has carry side & end handles, and a rear hatch with capacity for a light overnight trip. Quick enough to have won a recent short course Sydney Harbour race, yet as stable as the steadiest entry level design.
Length: 5.34 m     Width: 53.00 cm     Weight: ~20kg    Capacity: 110 kg  Storage: 95l    Material: Styrolite

Monday, 16 March 2015

Expedition Kayaks Coaching & Training

Many of you will be aware that EK now has both council & waterways permission to operate individual & group coaching & training on Botany Bay. 
We're also a fully accredited National Training Provider registered with Australian Canoeing, delivering training programs in the sea & flat water categories. Since launching our new training arm in October we have been busy developing a program of coaching around the most commonly sought after categories of instruction.

Broadly, these involve two levels of lessons. Firstly, kayakers looking to begin their paddling with a solid base of skills & drills so as to get off on a technically correct path, & surf ski paddlers starting out & looking for the same type of initial instructions. Secondly, paddlers of both types of craft who are looking to broaden their range of paddling conditions, by experiential coaching under more demanding sea & weather conditions.

Our coaching & instruction for sea kayaking is based on more than 25 years of combined sea instruction, with local tide & weather knowledge of the Bay & surrounds that allows us to put you into the conditions you need to get the most of your three hours on the water.

For ski paddlers, our focus isn't on getting you into the top 50 in the 20 Beaches, but rather getting you out on the water on more days than you might contemplate at the moment, by encouraging first competence & then confidence in rough water. We have seen first hand through our association with the Dolls Pt Paddlers, just how quickly a flat water ski paddler can make the jump to open water with the right guidance & skills. If shaving a minute off your 14km race time is your goal, we're not the guys, but if you want to greatly increase your confidence and enjoyment of moving water in your ski, we have all the tools to get you to your goals.

Our 'Paddling in Pairs' session is designed to make you & your regular paddling partner both safe & self reliant on the sea. It's a great option for those of us who have a buddy they spend most of their days on the water with, as it allows you to take away a set of skills & drills to work on together.

We've set up six lesson plans that have proven very popular with our students over the summer, and have now formalised them into the following program:

Session 1 - Intro to Ski Paddling
This is a three-hour class for new paddlers or those who would like to review the basics. The focus of our surf ski coaching is maximising your enjoyment of your ski. Our aim is to broaden the number of days you can take your ski out for a paddle, to build confidence in moving water.
Includes: setting up your ski and paddle, safety and basic weather knowledge, posture, hand position, bracing and balance exercises, stroke basics, the rudder, remounts and assisted rescues.
Cost; Individual Session - $160
Group up to 4 - $80 each

Session 2 – Paddling With Waves
This is a three hour class for ski paddlers who are comfortable in flat water and want to progress to areas with more exposure and a little wave action. Mark and Rob have decades of local knowledge to ensure conditions to match your abilities. This session will provide challenges in a safe and positive learning environment. The focus of our surf ski coaching is maximising your enjoyment of your ski. Our aim is to broaden the number of days you can take your ski out for a paddle, to build confidence in moving water.
Includes: Understanding wind and waves, how your ski responds, bracing, acceleration, timing, positioning on the wave, turning, remounts and rescues in waves. Botany Bay provides a fantactic learning environment for paddling skis in wind, without the consequences of serious open water.
Cost: Individual Session - $160
Group up to 4 - $80 each

Session 3 – Intro to Sea Kayaking
A three hour session for new paddlers or those at any level who would like to review their foundation skills. Starting in flat water with a gentle progression onto the more open waters of the Bay.
Includes: Setting up your kayak and paddle, safety and basic weather knowledge, posture hand position, stroke basics, edging, bracing and balance, self and assisted rescues.
Cost: Individual Session - $160
Group up to 4 - $80 each

Session 4 – Kayaking With Waves
A three hour session for kayakers who want to refine their paddling, rescue and boat handling techniques out on the bay in more exposed conditions.
Includes: Weather, rudderless boat handling, close quarters manoeuvring, rescue options, bracing, catching small waves, strategies for dealing with the wind.
Cost; Individual Session - $160
Group up to 4 - $80 each

Session 5 - Safe Paddling for Pairs
Do you paddle with a regular partner? Are you confident that as a pair you'd be capable of rescuing one another if you had a problem, or do you enjoy learning new skills together, so you can go away & practice them as part of your normal paddling routine? We have found that training as a pair is a very effective way to not only take in new information and techniques, but also to go away & work on new skills with a clearer focus on peer appraisal. In this session we focus on safety for paddlers operating as a pair, and techniques & drills which can be worked on later.
Cost; Individual Session - $160
Group up to 4 - $80 each

Session 6 – You Decide
A three-hour session for 1-4 individuals based on a specific technique/s that you want to focus on.
Includes but not limited to: Forward stroke coaching, remounts and rescues for skis, kayak rolling and re-enter rolling, Wave riding sessions, essentially you tailor the session to the skills, techniques & knowledge you feel would enhance your paddling. We're happy to make suggestions based your level of skill & ambition.
NOTE: Ski and Kayak classes will always be run separately.
Cost: Individual Session $160
Group up to 4 - $80 each

Since the training arm of business began we have been heavily subscribed & the feedback has been very positive, not only in general for our coaching & instruction, but also in allowing us to hone in on the things that paddlers most want.

You can contact Rob or Mark to book a session, or order directly through the EK Training page on ONLINE STORE .

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Rob Mercer - The EK Big Foot Footplate System

If you look at your foot and then at the size of the standard commercial foot peg or peg-pedal combo you will probably notice three things. First, the peg is a lot smaller than the area of your foot and second, because the right and left units are fixed to the sides of the boat somewhere near the deck to hull join, they are wider apart than most paddlers would choose for a comfortable paddling posture. Finally, if you look closer you will notice that the peg is almost vertical even though most of us prefer to angle our foot about 30 degrees forward. Comfort isn’t the only issue here; a larger plate and pedal area makes it easier to engage your legs for more power and control. One solution is to have your boat supplied with a custom bulkhead but this requires forward planning, extra expense and limits possible future buyers and borrowers.

After some frustrating experiences with a few composite aftermarket plate systems that always required fiddly spacer bolts or customized tapered spacer blocks I decided to make an expanding footplate that allowed the tracks to be fitted parallel on the sides of the boat.

After making a very clunky first prototype that seemed to work OK and gave me some key dimensions and angles for further development, I headed off to my mate Greg Davis who owns and runs an immaculately maintained metal-work and tool making workshop. It helps that Greg is an avid sea kayaker and bay surf aficionado, so all of my theorising and bad pencil sketches were accepted in good grace by Greg as he worked his magic; bending, drilling, grinding and punching out some tricky shapes from alloy and stainless. As we closed in on the final product Greg displayed the uncanny knack of dealing with every challenge by making the product simpler and neater.

Rob's bow goes airborne during testing of the prototype Big Foot in 2014.
Two more prototypes were made and fitted to Tarans and Paces and these were tested with full footplates and half footplates. We very early decided that to make the system easy to fit we would design it to replace existing side-track assemblies without resorting to any spacers or other tricky parts. We also decided to avoid potential stress points along the keel line or floor of the boat by avoiding any fasteners glassed to the hull or any system that involved localised downward pressure to be applied to the hull by the plate.

The current design has been tweaked repeatedly in response to testing across a number of boats with a range of paddlers for almost a year. Although everyone who took part in the testing speculated that they would enjoy a full heel foot-plate before the comparative trials, the angle and height of the standard half plate made it the overwhelming winner.

The half plate allows your heel to move a few centimetres forward and under the plate and for many paddlers this provides a leg stretch with the leg completely straight. Many of us appreciate this leg stretch to ease the strain during a long paddle, but personally I also found that allowing the leg to straighten completely facilitates better hip rotation for kayak-specific body movements like edging, sculling, sweeping and rolling techniques, which a full heel plate designed more for racing, can actually inhibit.

Ultimately there will be those who still want a full length angled plate and for them, a custom overlay cut from plywood, sheet plastic or aluminium can easily be screwed on to the existing half plate using the width adjustor screws to fix to the existing threaded backing plate. This allows an individual to customise their own extension to fit individual hull profiles.

Key Features of the System:

  1. Easily field serviceable. Uses standard Marine Stainless for all screws, nuts, washers and hinges. No tricky springs or special clips.
  2. Durable. Made from tough 5504 Marine Grade Aluminium. We recognize that these plates will be used under demanding conditions on the ocean, they were tested to the limit under these very same conditions, and are built to perform.
  3. Easy to maintain. No hidden voids to clog with sand and grit, no tight tolerance parts to jam. Easy removal for occasional cleaning
  4. Lightweight. Simplicity means that despite the robust construction it weighs only 120gms more than the most common toe pedal system used in large-scale manufacture.
  5. Pedals adjust for width fit around a glovebox. For those using the shorter leg position in boats with glovebox hatches the pedals can be set to clear these and other-under deck obstacles.
  6. Four way Adjustable. Width, length, toe-pedal angle, pedal spacing.
  7. Easy to modify. Provides a sturdy base for custom fitting of full plates to suit your needs.
  8. No need to drill. These tracks use the same hole spacing as most popular factory fitted foot peg systems.
  9. Designed by us, manufactured by Greg in his factory a stone's throw from our Miranda warehouse. Made by sea kayakers for real kayaking conditions.
We’re very pleased with the performance and build quality of this custom designed product, and look forward to seeing how it will be received in the sea kayaking world. All of our extensive testing in the past 12 months has been positive and feedback from users has been a significant driving force in the final design. We thank everyone who took the time to offer generous feedback, knowing they were assisting us in the development of a new product.

We have plenty of stock, and the Big Foot plate system is available now to order through our online store for $320 including delivery nationally. Note also, a simpler plate without gas pedals will also shortly be available for non-ruddered boats, for $250

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

New to the EK Store - The Axel Pack Chart Case

Dutch paddler, instructor and expeditioner, Axel Schoevers was a visitor to these shores a few years back, running instruction sessions up & down the East Coast with his buddy Ginni Callahan.
Rob & I with Axel when he visited Sydney
He had an intriguing piece of kit that he had developed himself, a very practical & waterproof chart case. Why bother to make a chart case when there are so many around to buy? Simple, Axel had found that every map case he bought leaked when he took it sea kayaking. Tired of ruining expensive maps, he developed his own, and even Rob, notorious for picking the tiniest fault or likely fail point on any piece of kit, was well pleased when Axel was kind enough to present him with one at the end of his Sydney stay.
Axel about to launch down the reef at 'the Bower' - Sydney 2010
Fast forward to Lady Elliot Island, 80km from the mainland, and a messy but ultimately successful attempt to bust across a heavily breaking coral reef & out onto a heaving beam sea. Chris first, unscathed, then me, losing a GPS & Kayalu Light, then finally Rob copped a snorter as he went over the shallowest part of the reef, braced hard, but broke through to join us in the relative safety of the open sea. Two minutes after we set course & headed off towards our next island some 48km away, I heard a muffled sob, and turned to see a misty eyed Mercer bemoaning the idiocy of our breakout, because that last big breaking wave had cost him his Axel Pack. 'Big deal' I said, in typical empathetic tone, 'just buy another one'. 'Mark', said Rob in his best instructor voice, 'you can't buy them, Axel has to give you one!' You'd have thought he had lost a finger....
The reef at Lady Elliot Island, resting place of Rob original Axel Pack!
Anyway, Axel’s chart case is one of the only truly waterproof chart cases we've found and is a gem. It's double ended rolling closures keep water out even under extreme conditions making it one of the few variable width chart cases on the market.

The plastic tubes slide off to allow you access to your maps and also provide protection when the map is on your deck. Clips on both tubes allow you to clip the map case to your deck-lines. Something tells me Rob hadn't quite managed to get those clips in on Lady Elliot....

These chart cases are hand made by Axel in Zuid-Holland, Netherlands, and now you don't have to wait for Axel to give you one, as we have stock exclusively in Australia. We have a limited number of Axel Packs for sale for $79.95, including free freight nationally, check out our ONLINE STORE (under 'Paddling Accessories').

Justine Curgenven had this to say about her Axel Pack "I have used the same one for years and even put my passport in it on one trip. It's the best map case I know for keeping your precious maps & charts dry & safe.”

Friday, 27 February 2015

An Evening with Sean Rice

Last night my mates at Dolls Point Paddlers hosted World Surfski Champion Sean Rice for a coaching clinic and 'Q&A' dinner.

It was an opportunity to get an insight into the makings of an elite paddler, and also to garner a few pearls of wisdom on our own paddle strokes, set up, attitude and also work through some excellent drills aimed at identifying the true source of paddling power.

Sean began the session with a short theory lesson on posture, hand positioning & boat set up, with an emphasis on the biomechanics of harnessing your big muscles.

From there we headed out into some very mild bay chop for over an hour of on-water skills, drills, balancing exercises & a series of short bursts each focusing on a different aspect of stroke. Mindful of the journey most of the DPP guys have taken this summer from flat water to moving water, he pulled together a series of drills that graduated from form & posture, to balance, and finally to fitness and conditioning.

I noticed a lot of tired core muscles by the end of it, and I don't think I was Robinson Crusoe.

Despite the large group, he managed to get around to each & every paddler, taking the time to offer advice on individual boat set up & paddle length, as well as few short & uncomplicated words of advice on the water, aimed at improving what he could see. For me it was the small observation that my knees are consistently too far apart. I corrected my posture & immediately felt a lift in the amount of power I was able to generate. A really small thing, but the sort of golden tip which I always appreciate. 

A dramatic, burning post-storm sunset greeted as we paddled back to the club, where after a group photo we adjourned to our clubhouse for a counter dinner with Sean & Emily & a cold beverage or two, where Sean held court with tales of the world surf ski circuit. I had no idea that he is the only surf ski paddler in history to be bitten on the head by a seal, which is something you would think will endure as a first, long after he's stopped winning world championships! 

Suffice to say we had a great night, came away with enough food for thought to take away & improve our own paddling, as well as getting a very personal & at times outrageously funny glimpse into the world of the ultra elite champion paddler.

Sean is heading around the country & over to NZ in coming weeks, but will be back in Sydney for another session at Dolls Point on Wednesday March 18. Cost per person is $80, which includes dinner & a Q&A with Sean at the Sailing Club afterwards. There were quite a few people who missed out on this one, so please either give Mark a shout at mark@expeditionkayaks.com, or contact Sean Rice direct through his website (www.yourpaddlelife.com) if you'd like to come along. 

Sean's coaching is excellent; it's inclusive, universal, good humoured & extremely professionally presented, and everyone in attendance last night was thrilled with the experience.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Paddling Strength Training

When Oscar Chalupsky hosted a couple of clinics for us in the early part of last year, as well as a great couple of hours of his no-nonsense coaching, he left each attendee an illustrated exercise sheet with a series of strength & conditioning exercises that he has used to great success over his career.

There was nothing revolutionary about them, but I'm sure each of us with Oscar's exercise card, who has taken the time to run through the drills a few times, very quickly works out whether they do, or do not, have the kind of core strength required to paddle at the top level. Not many do's, I reckon....

I did the Tough Mudder late last year, and while aerobically I was well ahead of most of the participants, the obstacles I struggled with were the ones that required pure upper body power & strength. This year I decided to try to remedy that, not becuase I wanted to do another slightly silly Tough Mudder, but rather with the goal of becoming a stronger paddler.

Our new office is a couple of doors down from something that up until now has been a mystery to me, the PT Gym. It's called Oxygen Fitness, and it's a bit of a contrast to the gym I last frequented, the infamous Giles Gym in Coogee. Demolished, tragically, in the late '90's, Giles was perched perilously on the cliffs of North Coogee, had a big sign in the weights room that said 'DON'T SPIT ON THE WALLS' (which everyone ignored), was frequented in equal numbers by rugby league players, colourful Sydney racing identities, and detectives. Rumour has it the sauna was bugged by the NCA, and while shaving in the steam room, wiping your whiskers on your leg (yes you read that right), you'd often hear a great story about the latest heist here or there, mingled with old footy stories of biffo or coppers talking about a spectacular arrest.

The legendary, now sadly demolished, Giles Gym at Coogee. If it looks a bit crooked, it's becuase it was.
It was immortalised in the Les Norton books, where the hero often went to 'Gales Gym', where there were always old Kings Cross gangsters and hit men who used to sit in the sauna and spa pool that looked over the beach with their gold chains, speaking out of the corner of their mouths in hushed tones. My training partners included several members of the 'Maori Mafia' who ran Sydney's scaffolding industry, blokes call 'Ironbar' and 'Stumpy', Bra Boys, several disgraced detectives and the choregrapher of the Sydney Dance Company (who was head & shoulders the strongest bloke in the joint). It was one seriously egalitarian place!

Giles was unique, it was my training venue for the winters in between cricket seasons, and part of the reason I took up paddling. When it was closed down, I was shocked to visit a 'real' gym and see a bunch of blokes watching Neighbours while riding stationary bikes, occassionally hopping off to lift a ridiculous weight, mostly accompanied by a swagger, some grunting & a fair dose of peacock fanfare. If you'd done that at Giles you may well have been taken out the back & been given some etiquette lessons. After a few weeks of this, I decided to do something outdoors to get fit instead, bought myself an Old Town Nantucket, set my sights on the Hawkesbury Classic & never went near a gym again.....

Anyway, I digress, the gym next door is small, everyone seems to have a neck, it has a few free weights, some torture machines for stepping, the bizarre running machine (why do we need these things....?) and, crucially, affiliated personal trainers who, as often as you like, will reduce you to a whipmering mess on request.

I've hooked up with Ryan, who has a background in outrigger canoeing & is also a former elite footy player. He has taken Oscar's base of exercises & expanded them into something that seems to target every single muscle vital to paddling. Over the course of an hour each week, he's overseen my form on a variety of core & arm strengthening exercises, all aimed at building paddling strength. Essentially, he's given me a base of routines that will make me stronger, taking care to make sure I'm doing every one of them safely and using form that will maximise their effectiveness. I started this program in pretty decent shape, but he has managed to shorten me up like nothing else over the past year or so, and I'm confident it'll produce the results I'm hoping for.

OK, so I know sea kayaking isn't something we do against a clock or even very often in a race, but I tend to look at my own paddling in the context of what it is that holds me back. Like me, I reckon the overwhelming majority of paddlers are limited not by a lack of skill or opportunity, but rather by conditioning and the kind of reassuring strength in your joints & muscles that inherently prevents injury. I've watched people tie themselves in knots at skills lessons, blow themselves up on a short harbour paddle, & often thought they would have been better off leaving the kayak at home once a week & instead doing some decent cardiovascular conditioning. If you start slow, and keep at it, it's really not that hard to lift your overall aerobic fitness, and it happens surprisingly quickly.

Busted ....
So, while the inspiration for this tangent came from a world champion surf ski paddler and his generously shared path to high performance, the benefits of specific strength training geared up for paddling should not only have the less important benefit of making me go faster, but also help prevent the kinds of niggling injuries that can potentially put me off the water.

I'm enjoying the challenge, it's another one of those things that is taking me miles outside my comfort zone, and it doesn't require much more than a couple of spare hours a week out of my busy schedule.

I'm not a qualified exercise instructor so I won't outline any of my specific exercises here, but if you're local to southern Sydney & would like to get in touch with Ryan or the guys at Oxygen then either give me a shout or look them up through their website oxygenlifestyleandfitness.com.au.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Justine Curgenven's 'Kayaking the Aleutians' DVD

We're pleased to annouce that we'll have the first stock of British filmmaker Justine Curgenven's new DVD, 'Kayaking the Aleutians, here later in the month.
The sneek preview we've seen features the wild beauty of this brutal island chain, interwoven with the story of Justine and round-the-world adventurer Sarah Outen traversing the archipelago by sea kayak.

The summary of the film is below:

"No-one has succeeded in kayaking the length of the remote and stormy Aleutian Islands which stretch from Russia to Alaska. Explorers Justine Curgenven and Sarah Outen set out to paddle 2,500km along the archipelago to the nearest road confronting more than 20 long crossings which separate the tiny unpopulated islands. Sarah faces an even more formidable challenge as this is part of her round-the-world human powered journey and she has limited kayaking experience. Alone for 101 days in one of the windiest, roughest places on earth, these two women are swept away from land by unknown currents, pounded by rough seas and approached by bears. Experiencing an edge-of-your-seat journey, they gain a rare insight into themselves, the rich wildlife and the lives of the few people who live in this harsh yet beautiful landscape."

When paddler Jon Turk paddled in the Aleutians many years ago he described the many crossings between unpopulated islands as “the greatest, as yet undone, technical sea kayak expedition in the world”, and on this film he added that  “The film is spectacular, full of high adventure, a touching friendship, and some of the most magnificent scenery on earth”.

As you can see from the trailer the film features the guys using Mick MacRobb's Flat Earth Sails, quite possibly in the most testing environment in which they have been deployed.

In my eyes no single person has done more to haul sea kayaking as a sport into the modern age, with her emphasis on adventure in all it's forms, great magazine-style story telling usually accompanied by a rollicking soundtrack, and cinematography which led the way for paddling films which have followed. This film continues Justine's fine body of work, and like all of her previous efforts, is a ripping good yarn to boot.

It'll be on the shelf at EK from February 15, available from the DVD section of our ONLINE STORE for $34.95 (remember that orders over $50 include national delivery). Pre-order your copy now.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Pain & No Gain in the 20 Beaches

Last year's 20 Beaches Ocean Classic remains one of the all-time great days on the water, a rollicking run from Freshwater to Palm Beach in a fresh howling southerly, golden beach after beach whistling past as we surfed our way along the coast, and then a crash landing through the surf at the finish. 

It certainly got me hooked, and when I saw a forecast this year closely matching conditions from last year I signed up for another go, despite the physical rigours of moving warehouses over the past month leaving me feeling a bit ragged.
The amended course
Unfortunately for the organisers the southerly system predicted kicked earlier & a lot harder than forecast, and closed all of the beaches along the planned route, as well as making a launch through pounding 3m surf impractical for most of the likely competitors. This coupled with the lack of a safe get-out point if anyone didn't go the full 26km forced their hand, and the race was shortened to a 21km, two-lap triangle. Starting from the Pittwater side of Palm Beach, we were to paddle into the teeth of the SE wind out to to a can a couple of kilometres off shore, then downwind to the mighty Lion Island, and back across the breeze & chop to a marker at the start line.

Paddling mate Gavin from the Gold Coast had flown in with his wife Cath for the race, and was paddling our demo V10 Sport, and we lined up with the other 300 paddlers on the start. 

Lacking any credible training for the race & nursing a jammed up hip flexor and a torn rib cartilage, I figured I'd just put my head down & aim to finish, hoping for some joy in the short downwind run from the outside can to Lion Island. And so it went, a brisk start off the line which I for once ignored in favour of setting my own sustainable pace, and then a turn east at the imposing Barrenjoey headland. As we cleared the lee of the cliff the sea jacked up against what must have been an ebb tide, and several sets were as big an anything I've seen, certainly from the seat of my V10. Contending with the headwind blowing the bow off the crests was making me concentrate enough, without also adjusting to the swell rebounding off Barrenjoey, all in all some very unfriendly surfski conditions!
The mayhem around the turning can (thanks to Surfski Australia)
I stopped to help a guy who had gone in way too close to a breaking bombie, offering little more than moral support & company while he finally remounted after 5 goes on the messy sea. Half a dozen guys paddled past through all this, but there was no way they were stopping and risking a similar fate to the swimmer.

Rounding the can there were more swimmers, and the SLSA rescue boat was busy helping out those who weren't nailing their remounts.
Me going past the ocean can (white visor, thanks to Surfski Australia)
As I turned downwind the power and speed of the swell took some adjustment. You can't catch the swells because with a 10-12 second wavelength they're going about 50kmh, but you can latch onto the 'sea' or wind waves that are running on top of the swell. Eventually getting the feel for the waves I started to get some big fast runs and made some ground on a few paddlers in front of me. Just before Lion Island I saw what I thought was a big seal fin poking up in the water. A harder look revealed a dark grey fin about level with my chest, and a body underneath which was a familiar grey/white and very, very long.... The shark was so big I wondered if there are basking sharks anywhere around Sydney (there aren't), and he or she was busy munching away on something tastier than me. A fine incentive to stay upright!
Gav finishes.
After rounding Lion Island there was a long reach across the bay, and the wind and chop, to the finish can, or the lap marker. This was where I started to feel the pinch, the power required to bash through the waves & balance at the same time was messing with my hip & my rib. Getting to the turn there were a lot of paddlers milling around who had obviously decided one lap was enough, and I'll be honest that the thought had crossed my mind. But, I figured I could bail out anywhere along the course with it being so compact, and bugger it, I haven't pulled out of anything yet, and I reckon I can do anything hard that only goes for an hour!
Gary finishes, a gutsy effort.
Another Queensland paddling mate, Gary, had also contemplated pulling out, but saw me coming & turning for another lap & decided he wasn't going to get beaten by me! Love it...

The first lap took me about 1.10, but the second was a painful grind with only the brief downwind spurt to bring a forced smile. I stopped again near the ocean can to help a double who had gone in for the 20th time, but instead had a dip myself. To say I was relieved to nail my remount first go and paddle on would be an understatement.
Me done, but a bit bent & busted.
The last leg to the line across Broken Bay was pretty damn awful. I was trying to nurse my left leg so it wouldn't cramp in the hip flexor - I didn't even want to think about what that would be like out in the middle of a big blowy bay - and the headland just never seemed to get any closer. My speed had slowed to under 7kmh and it was just miserable.

Finally the pink can marking the turn to the sand appeared & I eased over the line to finish. I asked the bloke who grabbed my ski to pull all the &*%@ weed off my rudder, but guess what? No frigging weed, again...! The second lap had taken me nearly 90 minutes, and it felt like longer.... Gavin was there to help me with the boat having done a fantastic time of 2 hours, not that he was feeling too  cheery either; I think the contrary conditions had taken their toll on all who took part.

I learned a lesson from the race, mostly to do with a lack of proper preparation not just from a training perspective, but also physically. I can usually get away with turning up to these things without any specific training, finish them & have some fun along the way, just by virtue of all the time I spend paddling. Like 80% of people who paddle in these races, I'm in it for the experience, to participate and hopefully to crack a few decent runs, and I love the atmosphere of these big events, they're awesome. What was inexcusable on my part though was going into what is a seriously committing ocean race without being 100% right, yet carrying that same 'I'll be right' attitude about something that could have brought me undone. There is no way I would have done the second lap if it wasn't for the myriad support boats on the course, and that's a very bad reason to carry on in an ocean race or paddle. If I was leading a sea paddle & someone had done the same thing and started to struggle, I wouldn't be happy with them. It won't happen again!

The organisers did well to get us a race considering the extreme ocean conditions, and really are to be congratulated on running an event where everyone came back in one piece. Unlike last year where there were smiles & back slaps all round at the great day we'd all had  on the sea, this time there were war stories and weary bones, but a great experience regardless. Thanks to Gav's lovely wife Cath for taking all the pics.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Testing the Fenn Bluefin

The whole landscape of surf ski paddling has changed over the past 4 years, traceable pretty much to the day the Epic V8 was released. Suddenly you didn't need a background in surf life saving or competitive K paddling as a pre-requisite for being able to even stay upright on an ocean ski, the double whammy of uber stability and genuine ski performance combined in a mass-produced, mass marketed craft now there for all to enjoy.

Over the preceding years there have been a few excellent additions to the genre, with Think bringing out the Eze for smaller framed paddlers and more recently the Big Eze, but the one that has gone a little under the radar is the Fenn Bluefin. Longer than the other entry level skis at 5.8m, and with a sleeker look, it's slightly over the established spec for the genre, and we've been curious about whether this translates to a more advanced performance.

Yesterday on the bay provided a very good opportunity to test the boat in some blustery conditions, with a boomer of southerly producing squally winds ranging for 25-36 knots. While this produces an extreme sea state, on Botany Bay it kicks up boat-length waves running at about 13-15kmh, steep enough to push you all the way from one side to the other in half an hour. The strong wind warning issued by the BOM meant our regular Dolls Point Paddle was cancelled, so Rob & I took the chance to go for a one way, downwind paddle, me in the Bluey & Rob in the Pace 17.

We busted out into the headwind towards Towra Point to give ourselves a bit more downwind time, then turned and scooted all the way to the airport. The little waves lined up perfectly, and we both enjoyed run after run, easing the boats along the bumps.

The first thing that strikes you about the Bluefin is the way it surfs. Like its older sibling the Swordfish it is built for catching runners. A couple of short strokes, a lean forward, and you're inevitably whistling along on the sweet spot of the wave. Being used to my ultra V10, I eased a couple of times when another stroke might have got me a longer run, but that's to be expected when you're in a ski so damn stable you could text & drive for fun. It's also nimble enough to carve around by eye - look left, go left - with a delightful loose tracking stern that slides when you want it to without broaching. Pity was the ride was only 20 minutes, as we neared the airport I was really staring to get the hang of it.

I think it's important to test a design like the Bluefin in these sorts of seas, it's the kind of stuff an ambitious beginner should be aiming to get into and master, and an entry-level ski shouldn't punish you for mistakes like the more advanced designs can. Experience has shown me that mastery of an elite ski on flat water, even to the extent of being very fast, rarely translates to proficiency in moving water on that same advanced craft. Something like a Bluefin as your second ski for the bounce, or obviously as your first ski if you really want to find out what all the fuss about downwind paddling is all about, makes a lot of sense.

The ski is longer and does feel fast with regards to the way it runs longer than you expect it to, and it surfs like a dream, super predictable and balanced. It's a welcome evolution of the species of entry level boats.

If you'd like to test out the Bluey, even have a shot at some of the cool Bay conditions in the video, give either Rob or I a shout.