‘You’ve lost your rudder, mate. That’s why you’re drifting. All the best!’ With that, the friendly fellow participant paddled downstream, disappearing round the next bend. To say that I was worried was an understatement – for the first time that day the idea of DNF (Did not finish) loomed large and as I zig-zagged down the river without my kayak’s primary means of direction control, I was scared. But then one doesn’t travel 8000 kilometres across oceans and mountains to get stopped by a broken piece of plastic. It didn’t matter that had about 50km more river cover in my rudderless kayak and it also didn’t matter that I’d have to negotiate the sharp bluff corners and rapids in my long sea kayak using only sweep strokes, stern rudders and half-hearted edging. I was going to complete the kayak section and that was that.
But one digresses. I could recount the extreme cold that morning at the Klondyke corner campsite. I could also tell of how my support crew had to leave close to 5am to get to the kayak transition in time for my gear to be checked, leaving me at the mercy of the elements. I could tell of how all the ‘abandoned’ competitors huddled in the waiting tents, sharing blankets and stories. But that would be too much wouldn’t it. Suffice to say that after over two hours of waiting, we were flagged off in bunches to start the 15km ride to the kayak put in. It was cold. But I think I mentioned that before. I had so many layers on that I looked like a green Michelin man but still didn’t feel warm on the many climbs. Did I mention that it was cold?
Green Michelin man grimaces at start of second day
Upon reaching Mt White Bridge, we dismounted and had to run 800m to transition. My knees weren’t doing too well from the beating the previous day and hence my run soon turned into the same shwobble from the day before. After a bit of shwobbling and getting overtaken by a number of cyclists, I reached the kayak and proceeded to munch on a sandwich before suiting up. The kayak transition is the fussiest of the lot – had to put on the spraydeck, PFD (Personal Floatation Device or lifejacket), paddle jacket, helmet and booties. Had to get the drink system in order and then hop into the kayak. Michael would then hop on the foredeck of the kayak and help to fit the spraydeck and then grabbing my trusty paddle, off I went.
Jean and Mike preparing to sample the latest in snack technology – powerbars on a paddle!
The early bits of the 67km paddle down the Waimakariri River were fairly easy but because of the lower water level in the river, there were a couple of bits where I ran aground and had to use my hands to push myself out into the main flow. Before I knew it, I spotted a couple of safety marshals by the bank meaning that a tough section was ahead. Bracing myself for what seemed to be inevitable, I hit the first Rock Garden rapid head on and to my surprise, came out unscathed and upright. Emboldened by this, I approached the rest of th rapids in the way I was taught – paddling strongly and committed to the line I chose, even if it meant going down the guts of a large rapid.
Down the guts with minimal guts.
I came to grief at the last Rock Garden when in my inexperience, the bow of my relatively long boat hit an eddy near the end of the rocky rapids and that spun me round which I believe allowed the long plastic rudder of the boat to catch on rocks and snap off. Several metres of kicking at my now useless foot pedals later, I resolved to carry on into the Waimakariri Gorge proper come what may. The boats used for running rivers during multisport races in New Zealand are considerably longer than standard whitewater boats – mainly because the rapids tend not to be more than Grade 2+ and because of the long distances that one has to paddle in between the rapids. Long boats lack the manoeuvrability of the shorter whitewater boats and thus require the rudder to help it to go in the direction we want. Without the rudder, one cannot concentrate completely on forward strokes and has to use other strokes to keep the kayak on track. It was hard work.
Progress was slow and it seemed as if the entire field passed me before I reached the end of the gorge (and the last bit of serious rapids) but the sight of Woodstock filled me with renewed vigour knowing that the end of the kayak section was near. Though not having the rudder slowed me considerably, it did allow me to take in the amazing views of the gorge at a slightly slower pace. It was an amazing way to see the country close up. And an amazing country it is. The final bits of the river was considerably easier than the upper reaches and without much incident, I managed to pull into the final transition point at the Waimakariri Gorge Bridge.
I was so eager to get out of the kayak and stretch my legs that I popped the spraydeck and stood up even before Michael could get his chance to bear-hug me and pull me out of the kayak. So much for best laid plans. After a cruel short steep climb to the bike-stands on legs that didn’t quite move for over 7 hours, I transitioned fairly leisurely to the bike. Took a bit of time to change completely out of my damp kayaking clothes with the help of a poncho, grabbed the bike and ambled out of transition to start on the final leg of the race, a 70km ride into Christchurch.
Relieved to get out. Never so happy to see trusty support crew.
It was great to be back on the bike and I enjoyed the late afternoon sun that shone down on me, erasing memories of the frigid morning. Things looked up as I turned into the Old West Coast Road and I was able to maintain a fairly brisk pace. The incredible support that I got from practically everyone who lived by the side of the race route was amazing – the cheers and applause gave me a second wind that helped to combat my new nemesis, the increasing headwind. My quickly tiring legs couldn’t quite keep up with the headwind so my brisk pace soon turned into survival cycling – keeping the cranks turning to keep myself moving forward.
Hitting Christchurch proper brought more support from the roadside – was great to see picnics and parties organised just to spectate and support the race. It was this grassroots feel that started with the race organisers, participants and people all along the race-course that really made the difference for me – never before have I felt so welcome and so honoured as a race participant. Warmed the cockles of my fast-pumping heart but sadly couldn’t remove the increasing fatigue from my legs.
As I turned the last corner and spied the race finish in the distance, I mustered all the strength I had left in those leaden legs of mine and rode into the final straight. After almost running over the poor race marshal who was there to catch my bike, hopped off the bike and wobbled unsteadily towards the beach and the end of my odyssey. I heard my name yelled over the PA system and I crossed the finish to applause and the broad smile of Robin Judkins. Another handshake, a medal and another can of Speights.
I did it.
I finished the Coast to Coast!