Surf Safari race report - by Richard McMinn
This year the Surf Safari definitely lived up to its reputation as one of Australia’s toughest races. While I had spent the weeks leading into it hoping for a downwind race from Tinderbox the weather gods didn’t want to play nice. Instead of a southerly or a northerly (the only downwind course options available for the race), we were faced with westerly gales gusting over 40 knots. Or in other words, it was forecast to be crazy windy and side-on. Not ideal…
On Friday evening I was wasting time on Facebook and noticed that every sporting event in Tasmania was being cancelled for Saturday due to the forecast of wind, rain and snow. But not the Surf Safari. I don’t think I’m the only one that was waiting for the text message, email or update from the race organisers cancelling the race. But it never came…
That morning I was far from impressed to wake up to a coating of snow creeping down the mountain and the wind buffeting the house. It was a strange feeling getting up and preparing for an important race at home. All of the races I have put the most weight on recently have required some sort of travel to get there and so Saturday hadn’t felt much different to any other training day.
Eventually I got myself organized, jumped in the car and took off. I didn’t realize until a bit before I got on the water that I had actually forgotten to grab my pre-race snack. I was a bit tentative about this because I hadn’t had a huge breakfast, but at that stage I wasn’t too concerned because we had just been informed that the 21km race was going to be shortened to a two lap course to Crayfish Point and back (about 4.5 km each way). I was confident I would be able to hold on for 18km.
The race itself can only be described as brutal. Gusts between 30 and 40 knots consistently dropped onto the course, but as they were blowing straight off the shore there was no chance to build up any decent runs to chase. Unusually though, the breeze was wrapping around the points at either end of the course. This meant that we were lucky enough to have a mixture of headwinds, downwind and crosswind on each of the four legs of the race.
After the initial frenetic pace from the start to the first turn and onto the hotspot (won by my training partner Sam Norton), I managed to settle into a decent rhythm and caught up to Launceston paddler Steve Blizzard. He and I have been pretty much inseparable at races this year so I was pretty determined to try and get one up on him this time. It seemed he had similar plans and turned up the pace after we rounded the bottom mark for the first time (which was nearly at Kingston Beach, not Crayfish Point as expected! We both remarked to each other was 7km from the start – our 18km race had suddenly turned into 28km!!!). I tried to stick with him for a while but was conscious that I couldn’t hold that pace for 28km so I backed off and let the next pack catch up. This pack consisted on Ben and Roz on the Next Level Kayaking V10 Double and Sydney Olympic silver medalist Danny Collins. The double ski was putting up a pretty nice wash for me to sit on, and there were a few little runs to chase, so I took the opportunity to collect myself and think about my strategy for the rest of the race. I decided at that point that I would try to have an energy gel after turning the marks at the end of the first lap. The idea was that this would give me the kick I needed to get through to the finish of the race.
As we approached the end of the first lap the wind was properly picking up. There were a number of the surfboats and some of the final surfski paddlers on the shorter course approaching the mark. This meant that the turn was going to be pretty hectic with a fair bit of traffic, about 30-35 knots of wind and a very short and messy chop to negotiate. I rounded the mark fairly cleanly, directly behind Danny Collins and ahead of Ben and Roz and managed to pick up a couple of short runs quite quickly. Unfortunately the water was a bit too unstable for me to be able to grab anything to eat. I was sure another opportunity would come up later in the race, after all I was only just halfway…
Once we moved back into the more sheltered water under the hills of Lower Sandy Bay and Taroona, Danny Collins and I were working together quite well, sharing 1km wash leads. We fairly quickly rounded Steve Blizzard back up and the three of us worked together down to the bottom mark, which had been moved back up to Crayfish Point to shorten the second lap. At this stage I was still feeling pretty controlled and happy with how I was paddling. I still hadn’t had any gels, as I was reluctant to stop paddling. Taking a break that long would drop me off the pack I was with and would mean either sacrificing two places or it would require a fairly solid solo effort to make up the distance.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing. In reality, I should have taken the time to have a gel during that section of the race back down to Crayfish Point. After we rounded the bottom mark, I very rapidly started to feel my body breaking down. It started in my shoulders and felt like I couldn’t lift my paddle. Then my feet started cramping. Then my sides started cramping. By this stage Steve and Danny had dropped me and I was back sitting on the wash of the double. I did a quick “calculation” of how quickly I was deteriorating compared to how far I had to go and realized that if I didn’t do something I was going to end up limping very slowly over the line. I bit the bullet and stopped paddling.
As is always the case with energy gels, I started to feel the effects pretty quickly (I’m never sure if the speed of the effect is genuine or if there is a bit of a placebo effect, but I’m not going to question it!). I was able to pick my pace up and got back into the rhythm of the race. I noticed I was starting to slowly close in on Ben and Roz, as well as Steve and Danny ahead of them. This gave me a bit of an additional boost and I tried to push quite hard to the finish. Sadly I ran out of runway and I wasn’t able to close the gap down completely. I finished in 9th overall.
Earlier in the year I sat down with Ben and we set a couple of goals for the race. I had initially hoped to make the podium, but updated this goal to the top 10 when some of the interstate paddlers registered. Another goal we had set was to improve the consistency of my paddling. In previous years I had been quite up and down and I had a big weakness in the second half of my races. I feel like I have managed to improve in this, but I am still disappointed in the management of my body and race. These errors in nutrition are not dissimilar to ones that I made during the Palm to Pines last year, and cost me up to 2 to 3 positions. I had hoped that learning that lesson once would be enough.
Editor - you can keep up to date with Rick on Instagram (@richardmcminn) and make a donation to his Australian Sports Foundation account here https://asf.org.au/athletes/richard-mcminn-2018-19-australian-ocean-racing-series/
Picture credits - Don Marsh