The Doctor 2017: Rottnest Island to Sorrento Beach – Luke Dooley

(The massive start of the men’s race was empowering. Photo credit: John O’Sullivan.)


“The best ocean race in the world, apart from cutting right instead of left”

The conditions for this year’s doctor could not have been better from my point of view with winds exceeding 25 knots in an almost perfect direction with swell to match. I was paddling a double ski with Ray Smith; a partnership decided after a few successful practice runs in the weeks leading up to the event. After nutting out all the problems and getting myself used to steering a 7.5 metre long double which filled with 60kgs of water every on wrong move, we were confident and excited to take on the roaring conditions; or at least I knew I was!


There was carnage at the green turn mark. Photo credit: John O’Sullivan

The ferry ride over to Rottnest was far more lively and enjoyable that last year as everyone was getting excited and gearing up for the already pumping seas. After arriving on the island, it wasn’t long before it was time to paddle back as the wind was already in and looking like it was going to be a massive improvement on last year’s flatwater heat marathon. We headed over to the army jetty where the crowd was gathered. I was checked in immediately after Hank McGregor and was able to watch his warm up routine. I was under strict instructions from Ray to treat it as if it weren’t a race and catch as many runs as possible to preserve his energy over the longer course. That seemed a lot easier of a task before lining up on the start grid with over 300 entrants! Before two o’clock we were off and racing. It was a very exciting start and we managed to power past a surprising amount of people with ease. We had to head around the green spit post at the end of the bay before we swung north east back to the cardinal mark and Sorrento. I had been advised by Darryl Long just before the start to take the left hand turn nice and wide as there was a seriously strong current capable of slamming boats into the post. The tip paid off greatly and we had a safe passage around the mark while keeping Ray’s delicate ski damage free. Unfortunately for the start of the women’s race, the leaders hadn’t been given the same advice as me and two out of the three leaders were slammed into the post, sustaining damage to their skis.

There was a lot of wash for the first kilometre or so which made getting a clean run on the waves very tricky. The other problem was finally getting a run and finding a seemingly stationary ski right in front of our bow, forcing us to abandon the run like a surfer when somebody drops in on a good wave. It became quite frustrating as we were sweating it out trying to find a run and being denied at every opportunity. The added length and reduced turn ability of our double ski added to the frustration when singles cut us off from all angles. I also had to remember that I couldn’t charge straight through the field as my orders were to preserve Ray’s energy as much as possible; especially in the early stages. I looked down at my foot strap after seemingly no time at all and was amazed that we’d already completed four of our twenty eight kilometres. We were rocketing!

We began to find a bit of rhythm and got onto some good runners. The slightly side on wind coming from the south made it a little tricky and added to the difficulty of cutting right instead of left. It was soon after that I looked up and was amazed at how quickly all the other paddlers had disappeared. We could see not one out of the three hundred plus skis. Everyone seemed to completely vanish in the massive waves. It wasn’t until about fifteen kilometres later, just before the cardinal mark, that we saw another paddler. We saw absolutely nobody for over an hour; left, right in front or behind us. There weren’t even any SUP boarders visible, not a sole around.

We were beginning to get a few good runs but it wasn’t as smooth as I hoped it would be as the cutting right instead of left component was really challenging my skills. I had become pretty good, even in the double, at just peeling off and lining up wave after wave during our practice runs, however trying to do that on my opposite side was really challenging. My struggle unfortunately began to show the nearer the cardinal mark we got. Because I hadn’t been cutting right enough, our approach angle to the mark was way too north which mean we had to deal with an increasing amount of side on waves. This made the ride very uncomfortable and reduced our average speed by an entire kilometre per hour from 14.5 to 13.5. It also meant we were catching fewer and fewer waves, increasing Ray’s workload. The final five kilometres before the mark were very uncomfortable as I was sliding from side to side on the massive water lubricated seat and was battling to control the rudder pedals which felt impossible to move and ineffective in steering. We edged closer and closer to the mark however it seemed to take an age to get there. The mood did begin to lighten though when I realised that the second we’d round the mark, the wind was blowing in such a direction that would allow us to reach Sorrento at warp speed with little to no paddling effort.

Hank McGregor (RSA) and Cory Hill (AUS) battle it out mid-sea. Photo credit: John O’Sullivan.

Five hundred meters out from the marker, we saw our first head. A SUP paddler was visible just in front of us. Then another popped his head up, and another and another. Within seconds, we’d gone from not seeing a single paddler for over an hour and now suddenly there were dozens of them all cutting in and heading for the turn. Finally, we rounded the cardinal mark. The pain was now over and all I had to do was guide our boat onto the safety of Sorrento Beach. It was in those final eight kilometres that we experienced our biggest waves and roughest sea as we made our way over the underwater reef shelf. The waves were absolutely enormous. They were picking up our seven and a half metre long double and shooting us forwards, nearly positioning the stern vertically above the bow. The waves were also moving at an alarmingly fast rate which was very frustrating as I struggled to keep the bow from burying itself in the wave in front, which would slow our boat speed and fill us up. There were a few extremely frustrating moments when we came off the back of a roaring wave and ended up with two full cockpits, weighing the boat down and severely hampering our progress. To add insult to injury, the single skis around us seemed to experience this problem far less and shot right by us, leaving a trail of rocketing bubbles behind their rudders. We were forced to slowly build up the momentum until we finally emptied and were able to hop back on some more waves. It took several attempts on one occasion which took all of my patience to remain calm. I tried not to think of being in the V14 which would have suited the faster runs perfectly and would have had no problems with filling up.

Thankfully we eventually got some movement back and soon found ourselves bounding over the water faster than even the powerboat hoons which tear through Ascot! We were absolutely belting along and I loved every second. The speed of the boat was just immense and on several occasions, I felt as if I’d hardly paddled for minutes, just lining up run after run, using the rudder to navigate the waves. A few were even beginning to break kilometres out to sea and certainly had some zing on them with the twenty seven knot average wind speed we had behind us. On one of the waves I even managed to break my own PB of fastest ever boat speed. Instead of 24.7kms/hr, my new top speed was 27.9kms/hr without even paddling! We were now paddling almost faster than I could run. I began to think of some of the other less experienced paddlers out there who, unlike me, would not have loved the conditions so much. I began to imagine how scary conditions like these would be for beginner paddlers, especially so far out to sea. I just hoped that there would be no accidents as it could very quickly and easily turn nasty.

In what felt like about three seconds, we were beginning our landing on Sorrento Beach. It just amazed me how the five kilometres leading up to the mark felt like three quarters of the race and the final eight K’s had been over and done in the blink of an eye. Our landing was effective, although not quite the perfect exit I’d achieved in the past. I ran up the beach, handed in my number and was amazed at how strong I was still feeling. I was also amazed at Ray’s ski as I realized that for the whole twenty eight kilometres; I remained completely comfortable in the seat with no sore bum whatsoever! I was very pleased with the seat which was almost on par with my Epic. The final cherry on the cake was seeing Darryl come onto the beach a few seconds behind us. I began to realise that we’d done far better than I’d imagined; even with my failure to cut right.

Boats and boards of all shapes and sizes continued to roll onto the beach with paddlers looking increasingly tired as they moved up the shore. Our time of just over two hour was very impressive and I would be very interested to see what it would have been if I’d done a better job of cutting right. Hank McGregor came in 17 seconds behind the winner, Australian Cory Hill which was a very impressive effort to do the twenty eight kilometres in just over 1.5 hours.

A navy sub rescues a wayward paddler! Photo credit: John O’Sullivan
Rachel Clarke (NZ) wins the ladies ski in 1:55.47. Photo credit: Terry Bolland.

There were a few nervous moments however as we were standing on the beach at the finish, looking out into the turbulent waters. Skis began to roll onto the beach with no sign of the paddlers which was a very alarming sight. The rescue chopper began sweeping and hovering, life guards on the beach got out their stretchers and rescue boats out at sea appeared to converge around a position. We on the beach stood in silence as an empty red tip Epic V10 double rolled up from the surf with the back bungy straps pulled and stretched, looking as if somebody had tried to use them to hold onto the boat as it was ripped from their grasp. The boats kept coming and we ended up with five unmanned skis on the beach. We began to breathe again when we saw paddlers wrapped in blankets arriving ashore on the rib boat. I later learned that several flares were pulled and numerous rescues were made because of inexperienced paddlers coming to grief in the dangerous conditions.

The most amazing and scary rescue story of the day went to a man who was rescued because of a nearby navy submarine. He fell off his ski about fifteen kilometres into the race and in the process; his leg leash was snapped by the wind pulling the boat away. He was now left more than fifteen kilometres from shore in the open sea with only a paddle and a PFD. He then tried to deploy his flare which failed to ignite due to the wet powder. After both of his safety devices had failed, he decided to try and swim to an oil rig in the distance against the roaring sea. After ten minutes, he was exhausted and had gained no ground. Things were looking pretty grim for the older paddler until he spotted something large and black pop up in the water nearby. It was a surfacing submarine. He was then picked up a few minutes later by a powerboat which had been called to his position by the sub after they’d seen him waving his paddle in the air. He was very lucky to be rescued and certainly had some stories to tell.

Ray and I make it to Sorrento. Photo credit: Terry Bolland.

It was a very challenging race in conditions certainly not suited to beginner ocean paddlers. There were a total of 23 DNF’s and 345 finishers, all paddling craft of different shapes and sizes from different positions. I was glad to have paddled the double ski with Ray as we had a ball throughout nearly the entire race. It also turned out to be a great opportunity to better my own paddling as I learnt many invaluable down winding skills, especially during our practice runs. The most important of those skills was learning to conserve energy and catching as many waves as possible, all the while remembering there’s almost always another wave right behind you which is often more beneficial to wait for. The whole experience was eye opening from start to finish and I look forward to putting more similar experiences into practice.

Winner of the 2017 Murchison Dash, Brendan Rice finishes the Doctor 6th overall. Photo credit: Terry Bolland.

Luke Dooley