'Fun' not the right word in waka marathon

Last of the Summer Wine make a good account of themselves in 23rd Annual Whaingaroa Hoe.

Last of the Summer Wine make a good account of themselves in 23rd Annual Whaingaroa Hoe.

ALL IN IT TOGETHER: Waka crowd the start of the 23rd Annual Whaingaroa Hoe, a 24-kilometre waka ama race in Raglan. Pictures by Louis McKenna
IT’S ALL AHEAD OF THEM: Last of the Summer Wine crew members line up before the race. They are (from left) Andrew McKenna, Gary Paul, Murray Brightwell, Rod Hibbert, Dave Langford and Chris McMaster.

WHEN I volunteered in February for a 24-kilometre waka ama marathon, the race was abstract. If I visualised it at all, it was a sunny scene of podiums, camaraderie and a pleasant drive through the North Island to Raglan, known for its surf culture and cafes.

Punished and strained muscles, a blistered bum, aching shoulders, short tempers, hours in the boat and being swamped in heavy seas didn’t figure.

Our crew was Last of the Summer Wine. We needed a name, but didn’t call ourselves that when we turned up for training. We were just a bunch of guys doggedly jumping in the boat, and, at least in my case, sometimes not wanting to be there.

That was true when we had a couple of heavy downpours, and the council opened valves and delivered a flush of raw sewage into the rivers. I turned up to training the next day half hoping it would be called off, but everyone showed so we launched our boat as usual and jumped in, albeit quickly. Out in the bay we crossed a line where the sludge ended and the blue sea started, after which you could open your mouth and eyes again.

We settled on two training sessions a week plus one or two at the weekend, but they were longer paddles than I’d done for the sprint nationals. To get the serious kilometres under our belts we paddled beyond the three-mile buoy, around Tuamotu Island, and up to the island on the Waimata River more than once a session.

I heard two schools of thought about how much we should be training: one, that we should cover up to 30km a session to make a 24km race feel easy; and two, that we should work up to 24km, and maybe never even reach the magical number. We settled on the latter. If we’d taken the 30km option I’m not sure I’d have made it to race weekend.

We started training in the warm days of late summer, with long daylight after work and steady weather. It wasn’t long after the sprint nationals, so we felt good and ready to go. Some time into the training, the days grew shorter and cooler.

One night, after wheeling past the surf around Tuamotu Island, it was suddenly dark and winter, and Gizzy’s distant lights appeared sweet and warm, but far away across the sleek black sea. The water splashing up from the bay was cold.

Energy in the sea

A few times we took to sea and the waves were big enough to splash over us, and one time, we only ventured out a hundred metres or so before turning back. Mad dogs and Englishmen. You can’t ignore that energy.

Sometimes it can lift you, even when it’s not physically lifting the canoe. That wildness inspires you; you rise to the challenge and it’s as if the sea powers your arms and back. It’s not easy but when it comes along you feel the boat lift.

I liked glancing up from the man in front to catch the sun dropping behind the hills and burning the clouds and water pink to bronze to black. It’s a change from concentrating just on the rhythmic “hups”, the repetitious strain of pulling your paddle through the sea and watching the dark swirl around the hull of the boat.

One night, coming in at dusk, we were swamped. The bay hadn’t thrown us its worst that evening, though neither had it been a quiet sea. We lined up, waiting for a break in the waves, and aimed for the river. But a couple of waves in quick succession slammed over the top of us and filled the boat, and tugged one of us into the surf.

We leaned left to prevent a capsize but the sea was on top of us. My paddle was snatched away, we lost a bailer or two, we lost a drink bottle. The water was only thigh-deep when we jumped out, but it was strong and full of slash from upriver. It threatened to drive the boat into the sea wall.

A couple of bystanders dropped into the shallows to help us, and after two tries, we had her bailed and turned. With another break in the waves we leapt in and shot through the Cut in to the safety of the river, wet through and cold.

Over a cup of tea later, I thought it was fair enough to get a little kick in the tail to remind us we were out of our element, that the sea cared as much about us as it did the pine slash that was swept downriver.

A week out from Raglan, tempers frayed. We’d intended to go up and down the Waimata to the island three times, but it was choppy at the Cut and with me at No.1 filling in because our stroke had injured his back in the World Masters Games in Auckland, we lost our rhythm. One of us decided to pull the pin after two trips to the island, said we’d done enough, but a couple of us disagreed and traded a few cross words.

“Tired and emotional” is a euphemism for drinking too much, but none of us had been drinking. We were just tired and emotional.

Race day in Raglan was clear, sunny, breezy. The race was laid out through a couple of branches of the estuary, and we lined up at the start with 40 to 50 other boats. All the age groups came up together, and after some jostling and a false start caused by a strong tide carrying boats over the line, we were on our way in the 23rd Annual Whaingaroa Hoe.

It was a jostle for the first 500 metres, with waka everywhere banging into each other as crews and steerers tried to clear a way for their boats. I heard a couple of kiato (cross-beam members) taking the strain with a splintering, but didn’t see any damage. After the first buoy we cut clear across the bow of another waka, leaving them behind, and I heard at least one insult slung at us. But it all seemed pretty legal, as Stephen Joyce might have said.

The first kilometre or so was a stretch; your heart pumps hard no matter how much warming up you’ve done as you try to claim your own turf in the river of boats.

The canoes spread out quickly and I thought we were far to the rear, but at our first turn there were nearly as many behind us as in front. We targeted a team of young guys in front, hard to miss in their smart blue uniforms. We caught up and even got ahead after the second or third buoy, but we couldn’t hold them and they pulled away.

Into the long part of the race I took over calling for a bit to give our caller a break, and we hit choppy water. That was the grist of the race — tough, long work — and at the third buoy we turned 180 degrees and had the wind in our faces for the return, the second half of the race.

We caught and passed a couple of boats in front, including the smart blue team, which gave us a lift. We took our last turn in close to the buoy, and another boat plunged in out of nowhere at an oblique angle. If it was Ben Hur they would have been ramming us, but we dug in and pulled away and didn’t see them again.

Upping the power

Our caller took over and kept upping our power by increments of 5 percent. On our last few kilometres my legs started quivering like a side of freshly killed beef, which was interesting and scary and strange because my arms and back had done much more work than the legs, which had been sitting quietly out of sight for the whole race. From the final turn it was pain and suffering as we upped our rate, trying to catch the boats in front and keep out of reach of those behind.

We smashed it to the end. That’s all.

We didn’t get a podium but we didn’t come last in our age group, and no one passed us either.

Got out of the boat, had a drink and felt more or less done for. I was shot for a couple of days; I don’t know about the others.

My wife asked me if it was “fun”. I don’t think “fun” is the right word.

But we’re going to do it all again in October.

WHEN I volunteered in February for a 24-kilometre waka ama marathon, the race was abstract. If I visualised it at all, it was a sunny scene of podiums, camaraderie and a pleasant drive through the North Island to Raglan, known for its surf culture and cafes.

Punished and strained muscles, a blistered bum, aching shoulders, short tempers, hours in the boat and being swamped in heavy seas didn’t figure.

Our crew was Last of the Summer Wine. We needed a name, but didn’t call ourselves that when we turned up for training. We were just a bunch of guys doggedly jumping in the boat, and, at least in my case, sometimes not wanting to be there.

That was true when we had a couple of heavy downpours, and the council opened valves and delivered a flush of raw sewage into the rivers. I turned up to training the next day half hoping it would be called off, but everyone showed so we launched our boat as usual and jumped in, albeit quickly. Out in the bay we crossed a line where the sludge ended and the blue sea started, after which you could open your mouth and eyes again.

We settled on two training sessions a week plus one or two at the weekend, but they were longer paddles than I’d done for the sprint nationals. To get the serious kilometres under our belts we paddled beyond the three-mile buoy, around Tuamotu Island, and up to the island on the Waimata River more than once a session.

I heard two schools of thought about how much we should be training: one, that we should cover up to 30km a session to make a 24km race feel easy; and two, that we should work up to 24km, and maybe never even reach the magical number. We settled on the latter. If we’d taken the 30km option I’m not sure I’d have made it to race weekend.

We started training in the warm days of late summer, with long daylight after work and steady weather. It wasn’t long after the sprint nationals, so we felt good and ready to go. Some time into the training, the days grew shorter and cooler.

One night, after wheeling past the surf around Tuamotu Island, it was suddenly dark and winter, and Gizzy’s distant lights appeared sweet and warm, but far away across the sleek black sea. The water splashing up from the bay was cold.

Energy in the sea

A few times we took to sea and the waves were big enough to splash over us, and one time, we only ventured out a hundred metres or so before turning back. Mad dogs and Englishmen. You can’t ignore that energy.

Sometimes it can lift you, even when it’s not physically lifting the canoe. That wildness inspires you; you rise to the challenge and it’s as if the sea powers your arms and back. It’s not easy but when it comes along you feel the boat lift.

I liked glancing up from the man in front to catch the sun dropping behind the hills and burning the clouds and water pink to bronze to black. It’s a change from concentrating just on the rhythmic “hups”, the repetitious strain of pulling your paddle through the sea and watching the dark swirl around the hull of the boat.

One night, coming in at dusk, we were swamped. The bay hadn’t thrown us its worst that evening, though neither had it been a quiet sea. We lined up, waiting for a break in the waves, and aimed for the river. But a couple of waves in quick succession slammed over the top of us and filled the boat, and tugged one of us into the surf.

We leaned left to prevent a capsize but the sea was on top of us. My paddle was snatched away, we lost a bailer or two, we lost a drink bottle. The water was only thigh-deep when we jumped out, but it was strong and full of slash from upriver. It threatened to drive the boat into the sea wall.

A couple of bystanders dropped into the shallows to help us, and after two tries, we had her bailed and turned. With another break in the waves we leapt in and shot through the Cut in to the safety of the river, wet through and cold.

Over a cup of tea later, I thought it was fair enough to get a little kick in the tail to remind us we were out of our element, that the sea cared as much about us as it did the pine slash that was swept downriver.

A week out from Raglan, tempers frayed. We’d intended to go up and down the Waimata to the island three times, but it was choppy at the Cut and with me at No.1 filling in because our stroke had injured his back in the World Masters Games in Auckland, we lost our rhythm. One of us decided to pull the pin after two trips to the island, said we’d done enough, but a couple of us disagreed and traded a few cross words.

“Tired and emotional” is a euphemism for drinking too much, but none of us had been drinking. We were just tired and emotional.

Race day in Raglan was clear, sunny, breezy. The race was laid out through a couple of branches of the estuary, and we lined up at the start with 40 to 50 other boats. All the age groups came up together, and after some jostling and a false start caused by a strong tide carrying boats over the line, we were on our way in the 23rd Annual Whaingaroa Hoe.

It was a jostle for the first 500 metres, with waka everywhere banging into each other as crews and steerers tried to clear a way for their boats. I heard a couple of kiato (cross-beam members) taking the strain with a splintering, but didn’t see any damage. After the first buoy we cut clear across the bow of another waka, leaving them behind, and I heard at least one insult slung at us. But it all seemed pretty legal, as Stephen Joyce might have said.

The first kilometre or so was a stretch; your heart pumps hard no matter how much warming up you’ve done as you try to claim your own turf in the river of boats.

The canoes spread out quickly and I thought we were far to the rear, but at our first turn there were nearly as many behind us as in front. We targeted a team of young guys in front, hard to miss in their smart blue uniforms. We caught up and even got ahead after the second or third buoy, but we couldn’t hold them and they pulled away.

Into the long part of the race I took over calling for a bit to give our caller a break, and we hit choppy water. That was the grist of the race — tough, long work — and at the third buoy we turned 180 degrees and had the wind in our faces for the return, the second half of the race.

We caught and passed a couple of boats in front, including the smart blue team, which gave us a lift. We took our last turn in close to the buoy, and another boat plunged in out of nowhere at an oblique angle. If it was Ben Hur they would have been ramming us, but we dug in and pulled away and didn’t see them again.

Upping the power

Our caller took over and kept upping our power by increments of 5 percent. On our last few kilometres my legs started quivering like a side of freshly killed beef, which was interesting and scary and strange because my arms and back had done much more work than the legs, which had been sitting quietly out of sight for the whole race. From the final turn it was pain and suffering as we upped our rate, trying to catch the boats in front and keep out of reach of those behind.

We smashed it to the end. That’s all.

We didn’t get a podium but we didn’t come last in our age group, and no one passed us either.

Got out of the boat, had a drink and felt more or less done for. I was shot for a couple of days; I don’t know about the others.

My wife asked me if it was “fun”. I don’t think “fun” is the right word.

But we’re going to do it all again in October.

Andrew McKenna came to Gisborne two years ago to learn the art of waka ama, having a break from climbing rocks in central Victoria. Last weekend his team competed in the 23rd Annual Whaingaroa Hoe, a 24-kilometre waka ama race in Raglan. He took a job as digital editor at The Gisborne Herald to support his waka habit, and was asked to file a report.

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