The loneliness of the long distance paddler: Mel’s solo George Bass Challenge

Lisa Herbert23 December 2019
Mel Meaker has been training by paddling up to 24kms on her 10kg surf ski. Photo: Dave Rogers

Mel Meaker has been training by paddling up to 24 km on her 10 kg surf ski. Photo: Dave Rogers.

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.”

Constantly monitoring winds, swell, counting kilometres. Mel after the Mini Makai Cup 2019. Photo: Mini Makai Facebook.

Constantly monitoring winds, swell, counting kilometres. Mel after the Mini Makai Cup 2019. Photo: Mini Makai Facebook.

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!”

I love those lonely moments on the ocean. Photo: Dave Rogers

I love those lonely moments on the ocean. Photo: Dave Rogers.

“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!”

To follow the marathon or Mel’s performance, go to Facebook of the George Bass Marathon website, for updates and live tracking.

Images: Dave Rogers Photography.

What's Your Opinion?

31 Responses to The loneliness of the long distance paddler: Mel’s solo George Bass Challenge

Marg Kermode Marg Kermode 6:08 am 27 Dec 19

Good luck Mel!!

Ceciley Anne Furtner Ceciley Anne Furtner 3:07 pm 25 Dec 19

Good luck Mel 👍👏😀

Kerin Saul Kerin Saul 9:54 am 25 Dec 19

So impressed.

Christine Goldberg-Otton Christine Goldberg-Otton 4:17 pm 24 Dec 19

Stay safe and good luck

David Leser David Leser 10:56 am 24 Dec 19

You are inspirational Melissa take care and enjoy

Vikki K Vikki K 9:01 am 24 Dec 19

What an amazing woman! Go get it, Mel!

Brooke George Brooke George 8:12 am 24 Dec 19

Kristie Gannon Stacey Gannon Briony Sheppard Lynsey Barrett I love this day!!!

    Stacey Gannon Stacey Gannon 8:33 am 24 Dec 19

    Brooke George soooo do I... mum and I were just talking about it this morning!

    Lynsey Barrett Lynsey Barrett 9:15 am 24 Dec 19

    Brooke George can’t wait for this!

Lou Mcpaul Lou Mcpaul 10:14 pm 23 Dec 19

Good luck stay safe xx

Bernie Maher Bernie Maher 4:37 pm 23 Dec 19

Good luck Mel, stay strong
Regards and best wishes for your journey
Bernie Maher
South Pambula

Wendy Deacon Wendy Deacon 3:09 pm 23 Dec 19

Safe paddling Melissa, I’m sure you’ll make it.

Diane Lang Diane Lang 1:35 pm 23 Dec 19

Good luck way you win more than one leg...👏👏👏💙

Helen Wilson Helen Wilson 1:32 pm 23 Dec 19

Good luck and stay safe!💕🎄

Michele Heaton Michele Heaton 1:05 pm 23 Dec 19

Paddle strong girl , enjoy every stroke 💪🏽

Kerry Parbery Kerry Parbery 10:56 am 23 Dec 19

Go girl! Will be thinking if you as you travel south. I will be there in spirit this time! Have a very Merry Christmas before you start your journey. Good luck. X 🤗💕

Lee Robson Lee Robson 10:38 am 23 Dec 19

So impressive Melissa...Good luck!

Marnie Meacham Marnie Meacham 9:15 am 23 Dec 19

Stay safe, paddle well .

Tammy Glass Tammy Glass 8:39 am 23 Dec 19

Melissa wow! Good luck ! Xx

Teena Tutt Teena Tutt 8:39 am 23 Dec 19

Go Melissa Meaker you’ve got this 👍👏💪

John Gardner John Gardner 8:39 am 23 Dec 19

You got this Mel 💪🏻

Ahoy Jenni Ahoy Jenni 8:35 am 23 Dec 19

Who knew !! You dark horse Mel! Go girl 👍👏