Now in its 44th year, the gruelling George Bass Surfboat Marathon kicks off from Batemans Bay on 29 December.
In what is hailed as the ‘Longest, Toughest Surfboat Race in the World’, competitors (both solo and in teams) will paddle and row their way from the Bay to Eden, over seven days (and seven legs), along 190 km of arguably the best coastline in Australia.
Mel Meaker of Tathra is competing in this year’s event as a ‘solo surf ski paddler’.
Being a solo paddler, Mel doesn’t have team-mates or a support boat. She’s out there on the blue on her own, on a single surf ski which weighs only 10 kg and at its widest point is only 50 cm.
“At the start, there are others around you, but as the race goes on you are more on your own. I actually love that lonely moment out on the ocean. I just focus on my technique, and I think a lot about how much stronger I’ve gotten since I started paddling,” Mel says.
“I’ve really studied maps, and I go beach to beach, point to point along the way. I divide it up and I have a GPS with my time and kilometres and speed.
“Plus I’m watching the waves and feeling where the swell is coming from, feeling where the wind is on my back or my side, monitoring the conditions. Hoping for a Nor’easter, ‘catching the runners’ we call it, when we can catch the wind and swell.”
Even with all the safety crews and support, many would think this very brave. I suggest that perhaps Mel has no fear of the ocean, and her answer surprises me.
“Actually I do have a little fear of the ocean. I absolutely love the ocean, but one of my biggest motivations is to stay ‘on top’ of the water. There are a lot of creatures under there. There’s a whole life under the water, and if I don’t have my goggles and snorkel, then I prefer to stay up on top of the water.”
How does a solo paddler stay motivated, with no one in the boat to push and urge them on?
“I’ve always been one to try and do my best. I’m not necessarily a ‘gold medal winner’, although with the amount of training I’ve been putting in recently … well, I’ve actually tried to shift my focus onto trying to beat others in the upcoming race.
“I know that every single stroke is getting stronger, and I know now that I can do the distance. I’ve been training hard, so I just want to win a leg. I really, really want to win at least one leg!”
Mel explains her decision to rise to the challenge and compete as a solo paddler: “I’ve had such admiration and respect for those who do it, I’ve always been a little scared of what’s out there.
“Part of it is my involvement with the surf club, knowing how powerful the ocean is. I’ve been involved in rescue operations, with club members and people in the community. I want to beat the ocean!”
“In the boats you’ve got people around you and people telling you what to do, whereas with the ski paddlers it’s just you and the ocean.
“But, there is that great back up in safety and support, which has given me the confidence to compete solo.”
During the George Bass, volunteer crews continuously patrol the ocean route, ensuring safety for competitors. “They’ll come past and say ‘how ya going?” says Mel.
“I’d definitely encourage other people to do this. Three years ago I was 25 kg heavier and I couldn’t sit upright in the ski, was just learning to paddle.
“I had been into surf boat rowing so I had a level of fitness and strength, but over those three years I added some training in the gym and also learning from mentors around me. I’ve been to coaching clinics, and we have six or so really great ski paddlers here in Tathra that I’ve been able to learn from.
“Anyone with the right motivation can do it. I’m also working as a full-time cancer specialist nurse in Bega, and I run a business, and I’m doing my Masters of Nurse Practitioner.”
So perhaps being in the George Bass is like having a week off for Mel? “I do kind of take it as my time out!”
The George Bass Marathon is divided into seven legs, with each functioning as an individual race, as well as the overall 190 km event. Each leg is between 19 km (the shortest) and 36 km (the longest).
“It’s three-and-a-half hours to drive a car that distance. I’ve done it in a support boat. I’ve done it with a rowboat team. I’ve done it in an IRB. So all there is to do is the ski paddle, cos I definitely won’t be swimming it!”
Images: Dave Rogers Photography.