How to: Survive your first ocean paddling race

By Emma Francis

I’d describe my first ocean-paddling experience as more of a near-death experience. It all happened about three years ago at the now defunct Great Ocean Adventure Race at Apollo Bay. Trying desperately to impress my date, I nonchalantly volunteered to do the 14km ocean paddle leg as part of a team.

I’d been paddling for all of four weeks.

At the time, I was blissfully ignorant of the task at hand and paddled off with all the confidence of Karla Gilbert on steroids. I had no clue about wind or swell, but legend has it, it was blowing its tits off that day. To cut a long story short, I capsized about a kilometre off shore, lost my paddle, and had to cling pathetically to my kayak for a good ten minutes before I was spotted by the IRB. By the time I was ferried back to shore, I was hypothermic – despite it being the height of summer – and was promptly stripped of my wet clothing in front of the entire lifesaving club.

My date, of course, thought it was all very funny, until I told him I’d lost his $500 paddle.

There are two morals to this story. The first is that trying to impress the opposite sex through feats of daring is bound to end in tears. The second is, never underestimate the paddle leg of an adventure race.

Now, I don’t want to scare anyone off ocean paddling – it’s an exhilarating sport that can take you to some of the most beautiful places on earth. But, perhaps more than any other multisport discipline, it requires skill, practise and a sobre appreciation of the risks. So to help you have a successful and, above all, enjoyable multisport season, here are my four ocean paddling commandments.

1. Thou shalt paddle often

I can’t stress this enough. There’s no shortcut to ocean paddling success – you simply have to get your bum in a kayak and paddle as often possible. Every year at Peak Adventure, about three weeks out from a big event we get a sudden influx of newbies to our squad, all hoping to nail their paddling skills in just a few sessions.

Sorry, but unless you’re a born natural, you’re leaving it too late. Paddling requires a fitness and technique all its own.

Tip: If you’re signed up for an open ocean event, the time to start paddling is now. If you’re new to the sport, aim for at least two 60-minute training sessions per week, stepping that up to three sessions a week in the month prior to the race. If you’re lacking motivation, remember it’s always easier training in a group environment, so find a local squad to join.

2. Thou shalt understand your environment

Not all ocean paddling is created equal. Depending on the weather, and where you’re paddling, you can be faced with glassy flat water, messy chop, rolling swell, a nasty shore dump, unpredictable offshore bombies – you name it. All these external factors beyond your control can have more influence on your race-day result than your fitness and preparation. For this reason, it pays to swot up on the conditions pertinent to where you’ll be paddling.

Tip: If your race is in the open ocean, there’s not much sense in only ever training on a lake. At a minimum, you need to know how to negotiate the break zone so you can at least get off the beach. If your goal is a PB, then you need to practise using the ocean conditions to your advantage, such as catching the runs. So, if you’re inexperienced, make sure you get in at least two solid ocean skills sessions before the big day.

3. Though shalt paddle the right craft

“Do you have anything faster?”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question when fielding ski hire enquiries. People (okay, blokes) looking for every advantage they can get on race day sometimes get sucked into what I call Ferrari-syndrome – a belief they can make up for their shortcomings (not training enough) by picking the sleekest, high-end vehicle.

The golden rule of paddling is this: always pick stability over speed. Why? Because you’ll invariably be faster in the boat that allows you to  relax, fully utilise your stroke, and get maximum torso rotation and leg drive. If you’re all frozen up through the core because one false move is going to tip you in the drink, any advantage in hull speed offered by that full-carbon toothpick is going to be lost on you – and then some. And, remember, if you do fall in, the skinnier the boat, the more difficult the remount.

Tip: Get advice and try out different craft before deciding which one to use for the race, then train on that ski or kayak consistently in the kinds of conditions you might get during the race.

4. Thou shalt know how to remount in deep water

If you’re an inexperienced paddler, assume you’re going to fall in during the race. Don’t fear it – it’s all part of paddling. Just make sure you know how to remount your ski in deep water. Practise this skill over and over again until it’s second nature. It could very well be the difference between finishing the paddle leg and being dragged to shore on a jet ski with your tail between your legs.

Tip: Buy and wear a boat and paddle leash during the race. This will prevent you from being separated from your ski/paddle if you fall out. 

Of course, there’s plenty more to mastering ocean racing than what I’ve just mentioned, but if you can at least adhere to these four golden rules, you’ll be well on your way to a successful, safe and, above all, fun race.

Emma Francis is a Level 1 Kayak Coach with

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