40 Year Paddler
Greg Thompson and David Lowe at the start of the 2019 Classic
Hi Greg Thompson here. Hopefully I can finish this year’s HCC as it will be my 40th a significant number. What a journey!
Starting in 1979 under the old banner of the Outward Bound Hawkesbury Canoe Classic with a work colleague daring each other to have a go – we found a TK2 with no rudder and threw in a couple of plastic chair seats, 5 practice paddles on the Parramatta River and absolutely no idea of what we were doing we turned up at the start.
These early years saw a big variety of boats and paddlers - many boats just patched together, nothing like today’s carbon, ultra-light, narrow and fast craft. The average paddler was probably a little different too: a little under done in training, preparation, nutrition and hydration (or food & water as it was called then) – many just having ‘a go’ at a great adventure of paddling nearly all of the mighty Hawkesbury under a moonlit sky.
Our race started and we nearly collided with the Windsor Bridge pylon 300m into the adventure - racing was not an option as surviving and finishing were out goals. It did not bode well as we snaked our way down the river calling ‘left, left, left’ then right, right, right, RIGHT’ as we attempted to steer the boat. Mental note to self: have the steering worked out or get a rudder.
Looking forward to a longer rest at the Wisemans Ferry checkpoint and close to the southern shore we were jolted out of our sense of security when a ferry cable jumped out of the water at chest height. I was able to grab it and stop the boat but it then began to sink (as the ferry stopped on the other side of the river) onto the front boat deck. Fortunately I was able to push us backwards as the cable slipped in to the murk. Mental note to self: “Beware of Ferry Cables” - great decision to have the SES at ferry ‘crossing gates’.
Tony was able to sleep for hours (4hrs) at Wisemans Ferry while I laid there with burning arms. Finally we set off again, there were not many boats left on the river. When we stopped to rest we held onto mangrove branches so we would not be pushed back up the river with the tide. Mental note to self: don’t waste time sleeping/resting when the tide is running out, short rests only and keep moving.
Finally, finally as we paddled from Bar Point through the channel and we saw ‘the finish’ glistening in the bright sunshine – the Brooklyn Bridge. Elapsed time 20hrs 3 minutes and 50 seconds
Mental note to self: there must an easier and faster way to do this adventure.
So started a 42 year sojourn.
It is ‘Moonlight Madness’ and ‘retrospective enjoyment’ I know. I have talked to myself many times on the river, usually with the tide coming in, shoulders, arms and arse aching - mental note to self: remember how bad you’re feeling now before you decide to do this stupid……….. race again; or no way am I doing this again, you have to be an idiot, who does this - self inflicted pain - but I’ll finish first before quitting.
The HCC: what a metaphor for life, for my life. It’s long, its sometimes very difficult, you have friends supporting you, to get the rewards - effort and perseverance are necessary, preparation a must, pain/doubt encountered. When you think you are stable and everything’s going well something happens and everything becomes shakey and impossible. You think you’re hopeless and you’ll never finish or achieve your goals. I need to do things in small achievable bits to obtain the final big goal. Keep moving even if it’s slow, things will change.
I must admit that participating in an event like this has helped me with my mental health and well-being. There is nothing like being in a city of 3 million (1970’s) to 6.4 million (2022) getting out early on the Nepean and having the river to yourself (still). Paddling up through the steep stunning gorge - rain, wildlife, mist, sunrise breaking, heart pounding - I had achieved something and it made the rest of the day better no matter what happened.
Others have joined me in this craziness and shared the pain and exhilaration of competing and completing one of the truly magnificent adventures so readily open to us. The great bonds developed with those who care for you as land crew - this is good stuff.
I have been very fortunate that all my kids have attempted the race with me, it almost became a Thompson coming of age activity with Jared, Ben and Rebekah all paddling a double with me when in Year 11. This culminated in 2009 when we had 2 brothers one sister and one Dad in a K4 and finishing. Mental note to self: when training with family find out first what mood they wake up in for early morning practice.
Paddling the Hawkesbury - massive jelly fish bouncing off your paddle, bioluminescence lighting sparkling up kilometres of bow waves and paddle strokes, enveloping fog sweeping over you, stunning sunrises, crackling yellow tongues of bushfires snaking across high ridges, wind chop beating you, the Milky Way turning on top of you, chasing the paddlers light sticks in front of you, the loneliness and digging deep - all very good.
A couple of serious health scares, fortunately, happened just after HCC so I had enough time to recover to paddle the following year. Post heart issues in April 2012, I was fortunate to have Brendan Luchetti and my two sons offer to crew a K4 with me – no expectations and as always follow my motto finish the race, stay upright and if possible go past as many boats as possible. We had a stunning night finishing on an outgoing tide and not missing a beat with 8hrs 11min 53 sec. Mental note to self: always have a great crew around you.
You stagger up the boat ramp at the finish helped by your persevering land crew, exhausted, stiff, sore, weak, aching, skin peeling, thirsty and hungry. A small medallion is pressed into your hand from an encouraging smiling face. Mental note to self: “you’ve done it – persevered, fought physical and mental exhaustion, achieved your goals or not but you have finished - what an achievement! Say thank you for the medal, smile and be nice to your land crew.”
As you stand around recounting the night’s effort as the pain subsides, you warm up, the mind demons of the night evaporate or you slip off to sleep as the long suffering land crew drive their athlete home. Mental note to self, almost excitedly: “Next year in the HCC I can ………..”
So the sojourn continues …….
Greg Thompson [behind John Harmer, the paddler with the most Classic finishes]