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111km? I reckon I could do that!

Woman and a man wearing kayaking gear standing at the water's edge at the end of the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic
Photo: Annette Dawson and Richard Barnes at the finish of Annette's first Hawkesbury Canoe Classic in 2019

Annette Dawson loves to swim. Like many working mums, though, Annette went through a phase in her life when making time to look after herself came last on a long list of priorities. It wasn’t until her children were a bit older that she felt able to take up the invitation from a colleague to join her for regular swim training.

Annette recalls with a chuckle, “That first time back in the pool, my friend swam a kilometre. I swam 150 m with about 300 stops to catch my breath!”

Not one to give up easily, Annette committed to regular training, and before long she and her colleague were travelling from Brisbane to Sydney each year to compete in the Australian Corporate Games. 

How swimming led to running, which led to paddling

Not content simply with swimming, Annette expanded her skill set to include running.

During a 5km race at the Corporate Games one year, Annette was surprised to be lapped twice by a man who was competing in the 10km version of the same course. It was a “friendly lapping”, though, with cheery encouragement from the man each time he ran by. Unusually for such a good runner, he was wearing Dunlop Volleys.

That man turned out to be long-distance paddle adventurer Richard Barnes.

Several years later, after many Corporate Games and City2Surf events in Sydney, Annette and Richard became good friends. Over a post-run lunch one time, Richard said to Annette, “I want you to do the Classic.”

‘What’s that?’

‘The Hawkesbury Canoe Classic. It’s a paddle race.’

‘That sounds fun! I don’t paddle, but I’ve got good strength from swimming. I reckon I could do that.’

‘It’s long.’

‘How long?’

‘111 km.’

‘111 km? Hmm… I still reckon I could do that.’

‘It’s overnight.’

‘What do you mean “overnight”?’

‘Overnight. We paddle the river at night.’

‘Nope. I can’t do that. I need my sleep!’

‘111km overnight. You can do that. You’ve got a year to learn to paddle," said Richard.

And that’s what Annette did.

She joined a kayaking club and began to learn to paddle. And those 300 stops to catch her breath in the pool became 300 times in the drink as she capsized her boat again and again.

Eventually though, with a different craft built more for stability than speed, Annette grew into a confident paddler, and was ready for her first Hawkesbury Canoe Classic in 2019.

There’s something else you need to know about Annette: She’s 77 years old.


Seventy-three when she did her first classic in 2019 in 16 hours, 15 minutes, and 49 seconds.

Since that first race in 2019, Annette’s been heavily involved in paddling, joining the HCC committee, and even being an integral part of the team that helped Richard become the first person to paddle from Australia to New Zealand solo, non-stop, and unassisted in 2023 – but that’s another story.

Annette’s advice for anyone interested in doing the Classic?
“It’s a great goal to aim for. Whatever sport you do, having a goal do reach towards is what keeps you going. Make completing the Classic your goal and get training. If I can do it at 73, now this next one at the age of 77, just about anyone can!”

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