Riding the waves – by Richard McMinn (Gold Coast Classic race report)

Before I get stuck into my race report from the Gold Coast Classic held this past Saturday, here is a little bit of background for those of you who do not know me…

I have been paddling for about 10 years. The first 5 of these were predominantly spent paddling white water and didn’t involve any training or racing. Eventually, as with so many Tasmanian paddlers, I had my introduction to racing through multisport competition. This kicked off a new lifestyle (*cough* obsession *cough*) and I joined Next Level Kayaking’s Moving Targets training group in its first year. I’ve paddled with the Moving Targets ever since, and their three midweek sessions have formed the structure that I based the rest of my training around.

This year I have added other sessions to my regime and changed the way I approach training. My training load has increased from 3 or 4 on water sessions a week to 6 on water sessions and 3 in the gym. I have started training with NLK coach Sam Norton regularly, and have learned stacks about the way he approaches training and racing. My focus during training sessions has also changed. Previously I used to try and paddle as hard as I could for the duration of all of my training sessions, believing that ‘if I wasn’t hurting, it wasn’t working’. That has changed this year with most of the winter spent paddling a lot of hours at a long slow pace with the goal of trying to build up my aerobic base.

In the past 2 years I have also added gym training into my routine, starting initially with the Paddle Strong program now being run by the Derwent Canoe Club out of Hobart College, and developing to include a couple of additional sessions by myself each week.

These changes over the past year or so led me up to last weekend’s Australian Ocean Racing Series event on the Gold Coast. This race was a last minute addition to my racing calendar for 2018 and was only made possible through the kind donations from the organisations and individuals that have supported me so far this season.

Due to my study load and other commitments towards the end of last week, I never really had the chance to get myself worked up about the race. I also had booked flights from Hobart to the Gold Coast for the morning of the race. This was a blessing in disguise. Instead of spending the morning ruminating on the conditions and the upcoming race, I was completely focused on the task at hand – that was, getting myself to the start line. This provided sufficient distraction, removing the bundle of stress and nerves that usually sits on the start line of a race. 

The race itself was fantastic. Located in Queensland, it was far too hot and sunny for this Tassie kid. I ended up getting to the start with plenty of time, picked up a V12 from Davey and Tess (Epic Kayaks Australia), and dialled in my settings. Having the same boat for the race that I paddle back home definitely eased my mind! About 3 drink bottles of water later I was feeling pretty good physically, albeit very sweaty. The surf breaking on the beach was huge. I wasn’t feeling too bad at first but the race organisers really emphasized the size of the surf and the need to take care and attention when traversing the break to get to the start line out the back. Training on the Derwent River we never see any breaking waves worth mentioning, so I felt unprepared for the walls of water charging towards me from the moment I stepped into the ocean.

Attempting to get off the beach was an endeavour in itself. I was coping fairly well, bouncing my way over the whitewash until I saw a gap in the waves I thought would be big enough to get myself out the back. It wasn’t big enough though. As I was heading out I was faced with a wave rearing up in front of me. I had a moment to question whether I should continue sprinting towards it, or if I would be better off slowing down and riding over its whitewash. I decided to sprint and try to get over it. It turns out that my sprint was about 0.5 seconds slower than I had hoped and the next thing I knew; the wave was breaking over the boat. I was swept out of the boat and I suspect mine was one of the skis that were “rocket ship-ed” into the air. Sadly I didn’t get to see the spectacle because I was in the process of being pinned to the sand bank.

Eventually I surfaced and began the long swim back to the beach to collect my boat so I could try again. At this point I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any doubts about what I was doing there. The thought of returning to the beach and catching a bus back to the airport that afternoon definitely ran through my mind during the swim back and the following few minutes of waiting for the next gap in the swell. Eventually, after 15 minutes and a couple more wipe-outs I eventually made it out and lined up with 150+ other paddlers for the race.

The racecourse was started off the beach in front of Kurrawa Surf Club. The race took us 4km upwind towards the Sunshine coast before turning and running 12km downwind back to Tullebudgera Surf Club underneath the southern side of Burleigh Heads. Upwind I was in the third pack, which included the legend of Australian surf ski racing, Dean Gardiner, and the current Australian spec ski champion and Australian sprint team member Bill Bain. The latter of these two fell off his ski in front of me and I accidentally ran him over and hit him with my paddle (but that’s another story!). Downwind was where my race really developed.

My start and upwind sections had been ok, but far from my best paddling. After the turn I quickly overheated without the headwind to cool me down. I also lost a couple of places really early on as 2 paddlers pulled through me on waves that I didn’t even try to chase. This started to play with my mind a bit and I started to resign myself to a race of pain and struggle. Luckily I remembered advice from NLK coach Ben Maynard to focus on developing the second half of my race. This little mental note gave me the impetus to down the gel I was carrying for the race to give my body a little bit of kick. It worked better than I had expected and although the time spent grabbing and downing the gel had lost me a bit of time on the paddlers behind, I was still in a solid position. Over the next few minutes I noticed a paddler coming from behind and drawing level with me. I looked over at him and saw the intensity of his focus and the power in his paddling. Usually this would drive me to try to match him. But at this point another voice in my head (this time gym coach, mentor and fellow Moving Targets paddler Taff Evans) reminded me that I can’t control what other paddlers do and I should focus on my own race. So I did.

A few seconds and about 10 hard strokes later I was sitting on a wave with my paddle in my lap grinning at the other guy who looked like he was about to burst a vessel in his neck because he was straining so hard. This was a turning point in my race and I never saw that guy again as I suddenly was able to concentrate and focus on chasing the waves that appeared in front of me. After the race a lot of paddlers commented that there wasn’t any chance to put the paddle down while out there. But I was in the zone and was able to put my paddle down several times through to the finish.

The finish was another story. The swell was much like the start, except this time we had to race through it so we could finish the race with a run up the beach. I took a really conservative approach, backing my boat off the back of every wave to reduce the risk of a wipeout. Unfortunately this approach meant that one paddler got through me as they had the guts to chase those waves into the beach. It was one of those split second race decisions that had a bit of a consequence, but losing one place is nowhere near as bad as what many other paddlers experienced after losing their boats in the back break. I think there were 5 snapped skis over the afternoon. One of these I saw wrap around the head of a swimmer. Miraculously the person fared much better than the boat and made it back to shore in one piece.  

In the end I finished 14th in the open men and 23rd overall. This is a great result given the quality of the paddlers racing up there, including members of the Australian sprint kayak team, along with a who’s-who of Australian spec ski and ocean racing, both past and present. This experience has given me confidence in my ability to control stress factors, focus on my own race and not to overthink; to just enjoy the ride and be present in the moment.

Editor - you can keep up to date with Rick on Instagram (@richardmcminn) and make a donation to his Australian Sports Foundation account here

Picture credits - Tess Brand (Epic Kayaks Australia), Jordy Davis (@theshyalbatross), Christine Fuglsang

If there is magic on
this planet, it is
contained in water.

Loren Eiseley