Penrith’s White-water Stadium is a small part of the regatta/sprint lakes created in the rehabilitation of a sand and gravel quarry on the floodplains of the Nepean River. It is green, cool and peaceful – in complete contrast to the traffic congestion, highways and motorway criss-crossing Penrith just a couple of kilometers south.
When I checked out the location, the course was empty and surreal! I discovered that the five great pumps don’t operate that often – only when they have group bookings and then they were generally on for 2 hours at a time. The channel was a U-shaped structure of 320m length with some 7 drops and a total fall of 5.5m. A wide conveyor belt transported you, your kayak and the rafts and passengers from the finish pool up to the start pool. There were large patterns of holes in the cement. What were they for – jets? bubbles? No, they were for fixing ‘pillars’ and ‘toblerones’ to create obstacles and change the currents. But just now the bollards were jutting out from the sides, like fingers, channeling water into drops and forming eddies. I also met my instructor and new best friend, Josh Williams, of the 2007 Australian Junior Slalom Team. He sorted me out with a kayak, spray deck, helmet and PFD. In the pool he checked out my paddling strokes and observed my rolling with the age old advice to make sure my paddle began at the surface, roll up leaning forward over my deck and practice more on my off-side.
Next time I returned to the stadium all 14,000 litres per second were raging, lethal and angry! I arrived early and observed the bronze rippling arms of young men as they effortlessly maneuvered through impossible waves in their slalom boats using single paddles. These paddlers quietly disappeared with the arrival of 3 rafts of tourists, Josh and me in our Daggers and two girls who had a whale of a time in an inflatable double.
Josh suggested we start a few drops down below the start and exit at a wider eddy 2/3s of the way around. We would do this middle section as often as I needed to gain confidence. He must have noticed I was quivering like a bowl of jelly!
Within the first few minutes I learnt a few good facts. We seal-launched into a narrow eddy from about 1m high and at an uncomfortable angle. I had expected to shoot straight across the eddy and end up in middle of the torrent but it was relatively easy really. I popped up like a duckling facing the right way in the eddy. I then discovered that these eddies were strong and precise, making the eddies of our summer playground at Eildon look very wishy-washy. As I madly flapped backwards, Josh just sat as cool as a cucumber with his paddle across his deck telling me to save my energy. He then demonstrated that breaking into the current at the base of a drop would shoot you right across to the other side but if you use the second wave breaking-in was much easier. And it was. I never fell breaking in or out of the current.
I did however have two swims. The first, a wave knocked me over and I did almost roll up twice. Here lies the beauty of rolling on both sides! I had been timidly sticking to the left side of the main current so when I tried rolling on my preferred (and only) side my paddle was in the turbulent aerated water. Had I thought to roll on the off-side my paddle would have been in less turbulent water and I may have been more successful. But now I was in the water and I did everything right – I held onto my paddle and the kayak, lay on my back and wrapped my feet around the kayak to ride it the remainder of the course. But it was hard work and uncomfortable plus I had to empty the kayak at the pool. This is all tiring so a rest was needed. Josh took the opportunity to make a quick run and I swear he was back in all of two minutes! The next swim was when I hit the bollards and plopped in, slid down a drop, exited my kayak, whizzed past two eddies, ditched the paddle and swam for the 3rd one. There was a small smile of satisfaction knowing Josh was working hard to retrieving my gear.
Now it was time to start from the very top on what would be our last run. By now I was focusing further downstream instead of concentrating on the wave immediately in front of my bow. I was also breaking further into the current in an effort to miss those pesky bollards but this meant I had to work harder to get back into the eddies. I just missed our last designated eddy and Josh extended his paddle to pull me in. As a result we lost the paddle, I slipped down a drop backwards and Josh set off paddle-less! He did a marvelous job of staying upright but was in no position to coach me. Grim determination kept me upright, after all, I had swum through this section twice already. In the safety of the pool he borrowed my paddle and manoeuvred UP a drop to retrieve his own paddle circulating in an eddy. Just about then the siren sounded and shortly the water slackened.
We thought we had 2 hours but it wasn’t to be which is a shame as I was just getting the hang of this and would have liked a couple more runs.