Inaugural Morison 50 an Ultra Adventure on the Hawkesbury River

What do you get when you cross Myall Classic with the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic? No, it’s not stiff shoulders, blisters and a sore backside. The correct answer is the only Ultra marathon of COVID 2020, the Morison 50.

Conceived by Paddle NSW as low-overhead race in the absence of both the Classics mentioned above, The Morison 50 pitted competition-starved paddlers against a familiar river in a less-familiar format. The plan was simple: start at Windsor, paddle for either 6km, 12km or 25km, then turn around and come home. Mother Nature had more to say about that.

Named after one of the true legends of marathon paddling, Joan Morison, the race started at Macquarie Park Windsor, pointing the boats downstream for their allotted distances before a return upstream, yes upstream in the mighty Hawkesbury. Like the Myall there were early and late starts to cater for the differing speeds of paddlers. Like the HCC the plan was to have the paddlers finish in the dark experiencing the excitement of night paddling in the wilds of Windsor.

50km paddlers just before the skies opened.

Like the HCC there was a raft of required safety equipment and scrutineering. Of particular interest was the requirement for a mobile phone and the GPS tracking Glympse App. Paddle NSW’s Naomi Johnson found herself as the technical adviser to all of us who managed to install the app but then knew nothing of what to do next. Looking a bit deeper into it though, the app provides a means of locating individuals by their phone GPS and also provides the paddler with a one stop panic button contact for the safety crew of the race organisers. I think this is a good use of the technology. In a lot of cases, the addition of the iphone to the boat meant that the net worth of the cargo exceeded the net worth of the vessel, in my case by a factor of 3. Nonetheless, a good drybag, carefully and securely attached provided some comfort.

The timing of the start provided the paddlers with a good outgoing tide, which alas was set to change only after the race was complete. It was happy days downstream and a tough night upstream.

First off was the 3pm start for the 50km course. Various craft on this start including a K1, some sea kayaks, skis and SUPs. An hour later the rest of us headed downstream, those dreaming of glory or deluded in the hope that the later start would provide a tidal assist on the way home.

The K1 diamond quickly hit the front but were thwarted at the first buoy before the bridge with the left wingman having a swim. The other three stopped to assist and regroup as the rest of the pack went past. It was the first time for all of us I reckon, passing Brett Greenwood in a race.

The tide was fairly ripping down the river and the leading pack soon sorted itself out with a couple of doubles surrounded by skis and K1s angling for the best wash. The tailwind also a friendly push in the back meant that the afternoon started to get a bit hot. The heat continued to rise with an approaching spring storm threatening with thunder and lightning.

Esther Wheeler from Pacific Dragons was one of the SUP paddlers to tackle the 24km course.

The lightning got closer and the light dimmed. I recalled the Paddle NSW safety briefing in the event of lightning during the race, stay in your car if you aren’t on the water, stay in your boat in the middle of the river if you are. Well I was and I did and the rain came down in buckets. The river flattened out and turned from being a muddy brown to being speckled with silver ball bearings as each raindrop produced a perfect clear sphere as the splash rebounded. The lightning was striking up ahead and I felt for the 3pm starters who were probably in the thick of it.

The temperature had dropped and the rain lasted a good 15 minutes, enough to get quite chilly despite the effort of paddling. However it did clear and the storm grumbled off to the north east.

The 12km mark came up at the Cattai jetty (HCC checkpoint A). Quite strange to be paddling past the jetty without it being full of happy landcrew, instead the rescue boat was stationed there and as we paddled past they made a hasty embarkation and motored downstream.

The threat of the storms and their severity put some prospective starters off and there were a couple of cancellations. Others figured they had driven that far so better get on with it and the later starts went off, slightly delayed by the storm.

The HCC is a race that often has competitors comparing GPS readouts for the distance travelled. Perhaps its something about the river as that turned out to be the case for the Morison 50. The boat charged with deploying the 50km turn buoy just south of Sackville had a mechanical and simply wouldn’t go. This of course coincided with the electrical storm which played some havoc with comms. By the time comms were restored it was up to the 12km IRB to dash down the river to turn the fleet around.

Hawkesbury Classic stalwarts Mark O’Hara and Kent Heazlett cheerful despite the rain.

The 3pm starters were obviously an obedient bunch and patiently paddled on past the GPS reading of 25km looking for the official buoy. 26km, 27km, 28km, 29km no buoy. Luckily, before (almost) encountering the Ferry, the IRB caught the leaders and turned them around. They then turned themselves and headed back upstream turning the fleet around as they went.

This had the unfortunate effect of turning the race leaders into the race backmarkers in an instant. However, this also had the fortunate effect of turning the 50km backmarkers suddenly into race leaders.

So the uphill slog began. The heady speeds of 13, 14 or 15km/hr on the way down ebbed to 10, 9 and 8 on the way back.  Luckily we were treated to a magnificent sunset after the clouds cleared. It was much more rewarding looking at that than the GPS.

So the fast crews overtook the slower crews all over again on the way home. A very strange feeling for HCC veterans, paddling upstream toward Windsor with the sun in your face on the last Saturday in October.

The later starts for the shorter course had similar struggles with the tide. Misery loves company.

Like the HCC the finish is heralded by a distant road bridge. Like the HCC it comes into view and refuses to get any closer until you are nearly weeping. Then all of a sudden it’s behind you and you are finished. The construction of the new bridge has created a couple of eddies near the bridge, one in particular was very exciting for the weary and unwary paddlers.

Paddlers returning to Windsor at sunset.

And just like that the race is over. No landcrew to help you up with the boat, although a there were a few friendly faces offering congratulations and encouragement at the finish.

The best finish was taken out by a double that came in complaining of weed on the rudder.  They hopped out and inspected the rudder, waiting for the triumphant ball of Hawkesbury weed that saw them lose 3km/hr for the last 4km etc etc. They were disappointed only to find a single strand of fishing line. Not wishing to leave plastic in the river they pulled in the line and were surprised when they reeled in the business end of a Jarvis Walker 8 foot rod and reel. Luckily there was no fisherman attached but I can only imagine that the owner of the rod went home to their spouse with tales of a monster in the river that took their hook, line sinker, rod and reel. Such are legends born.

The last few boats trickled in after paddling above and beyond their allotted distance. Surprisingly the only real complaints I heard were the folks who got turned early rather than too late. I think most of us were just happy to be out there competing again.

So the inaugural Morison 50 or Morison 47 or Morison 59 was in my book a big success. Hats off the Paddle NSW for organising the event and running it. No sheep stations were lost and paddling was the winner on the day.

Congratulations to all that paddled and many thanks to all that helped organise and run the race. In particular, thank you to Tony Hystek and Bob Turner from Paddle NSW for doing the necessary heavy lifting to put a race on in these times, Windsor Paddlesports Club for their help and volunteers both in organising and on the day itself, and the intrepid safety boat crews who met thunder and rain with a big smile!

Next year, the Mystery Morison. Keep ’em guessing.

– Race report courtesy of Richard Yates, LCRK