Battle of the paddles: Hamilton Island

By Marc Connors 3 April 2013
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A race that tests skill and stamina in the unpredictable island seas of the Whitsundays.

THERE ARE FEW THINGS more satisfying than flying into tropical sunny Queensland after a few days of torrential rain during the harsh grip of a cold Sydney winter.

The transition is so swift that it takes a while to adjust. I found myself doing just that in June, flying in for the Gatorade Battle of the Paddles on Hamilton Island, in the Whitsundays.

It didn’t take too long to ditch my windstopper fleece, reach for the sunscreen and sunnies, and start to feel at home.

It’s easy to see why Hamilton Island makes a fantastic location for a paddle race: direct and short flights from Australia’s east coast capital cities; hassle-free mobility with electric golf buggy (with the added bonus of no traffic noise); accommodation is close to the main beach of Catseye; and, there is great wining and dining all within hopping distance.

To top it off, the incredible scenery of Hamilton Island and the surrounding islands are ideal for mapping out interesting and challenging race courses.

Battle of the Paddles: Hamilton Island

The Battle of the Paddles is traditionally an internationally renowned outrigger event with competitors flying in from all over the world.

This year, however, surf skis, board paddling and stand up paddling were introduced to boost numbers and make the event more inclusive.

The entire event was run seamlessly; there is no doubt the logistics are made easier by the layout of the island. There is plenty of room for all the equipment, everything is close and there’s no traffic or potential problems that can afflict events run on the mainland.   

As soon as I found out that there was a surf-ski event as part of the Battle of the Paddles I jumped at the chance to participate. The race course looked amazing. We would all load skis and selves onto a barge on the morning of the event to the Lindeman Island starting line.

The race would then traverse a group of islands before taking paddlers out to the open sea for the final stretch back to Hamilton Island.

Paddle training

Dean Gardiner, from Oceanpaddler, helped me out with a ski and, excepting a gross dereliction of training, I was ready.

Being a downwind event, I thought I’d be able to get away with a lack of training– in good downwind conditions, a paddler surfs the runners, using only bursts of paddling effort between the swells, and is able to momentarily relax.

The problem, though, is that the group of islands surrounding Hamilton Island intensify the movement of water through and around them and this is further amplified by large tidal movement. It suddenly becomes very demanding.

To add to the challenge, the first stages ran perpendicular to the swell and wind and then, after traversing through a set of islands, it culminated in a bumpy section at a point of an island where it greets the open ocean.

This created a backwash of swells off the island’s vertical cliffs, creating a rough and confused sea state. There is nowhere to hide when there are only about 70 competitors. It wasn’t long before I realised I was going to fall way behind.    

 Once around the outlying island and on the downwind section back towards Hamilton Island, conditions smoothed out with a nice tail wind and the swell became slightly more organised.

I quickly remembered why I love this sport so much; surfing the swells as they push down the coast is one of the real enjoyments of ocean paddling.

As the course approached Hamilton Island, however, the swell seemed to lose its power and direction again and I hit the wall. Getting to the finish line became a case of thinking about one paddle stroke at a time.

The thought of another enjoyable evening kicking back on Hamilton Island was all that got me home and I was happy but exhausted when I finally got to the beach.

Luckily for me, the finish line at Catseye Beach has no shore break, meaning I could ride my ski onto the sand without dealing with any shore dumpers. Definitely give the Battle of Paddles a try – just make sure you train.

Source: Australian Geographic Outdoor November/December 2012.