RELATED CONTENT: Epic voyage 220 years ago inspired race
The George Bass Marathon is the longest and toughest surfboat race in the world.
Setting off from Batemans Bay on December 31, entrants will compete in seven legs, over seven days, heading south, rowing 190 kilometres of Australia’s best coastline, to finish in Eden on January 6.
Organisers said they were thrilled by the number of crews signing up to race the iconic event starting on New Year’s Eve.
“This year is shaping up to be one of the largest in the 42 year history of the event,” event director Andrew Edmunds said.
Thirteen ski rowers and 25 separate surfboat crews will embark teams comprising up to eight rowers and a sweep each totalling around 400 entrants..
The masters men is the strongest field of the lot with 11 crews representing areas spanning South Australia to Noosa in Queensland.
There are also surf crews visiting from Victoria and even a masters women outfit travelling all the way from Darwin in the Northern Territory.
Now in it’s 42nd year, officials hailed the George Bass as an experience for those willing to have a go.
“It is a truly unique experience for competitors, support crews and organisers,” a spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said a number of entrants would have been “gently persuaded by their ‘mates’ to enter”, but completing the George Bass was also a thing of dreams and included some of Australia’s best coastline.
It was Bega District News editor Curly Anabel who launched the surfboat race 42 years ago in 1975 and the Tathra surf crew still race in a boat named after him today.
Each of the seven race legs will run from 9am daily, but organisers said each leg is a standing start offshore and beach launches are not part of the timed events.
Spectators are more than welcome to visit the beaches and cheer on the teams as they launch each day and you can even track the boats online.
You can also live track the progress of each crew during the legs at this link – www.georgebassmarathon.com.au/live-tracking.
For complete race info, launch points and more, download the complete race briefing here.
There is much more to the George Bass Marathon ‘than just rowing’ if you ask 26-year vet of the event Buff Britten.
“It’s hugely social,” Britten says, with about 400 rowers finishing each leg around noon its “back to the club or pub for a debrief and you’re mixing with the other clubs.”
“Camp is a lot of fun pranking each other and telling a few yarns, there’s also calendar events – we do a ‘Red Faces’ skit and we always try and come up with something funny for a laugh,” Britten said.
He said the Tathra crew also hosted the ever-popular “pick a bum” routine, which provided plenty of laughs.
The rowers swap mid-water and can often be kilometres offshore, so some crews have taken to affectionately dubbing their swaps “shark bait”.
Pambula veteran Andrew Holt – in his 22nd year in the boat – said crews kept things light and enjoyed a bit of banter. “Practicing water changes one of the lads started singing the Jaws theme song – it was a good gee up,” Holt said with a laugh.
A bonus for the local clubs is also the joy of rowing into their home beach.
“That’s easily the most emotion for me,” Says Pambula competitor Kirsty Byrne. “You have lots of family and support there. “The finish is good too, but it’s very hard to match the joy of rowing into your home club like that.”
For Britten, it’s the end of day one where you can take measure of the competition.
“I’ll be looking forward to the end of that first leg,” he said. “If you can finish in first or second you can see how the crew is shaping up”.
Getting out to depths where you can barely make out the shoreline, the crews are often greeted by an abundance of wildlife with regular visits from pods of dolphins, seals and even families of whales showing some interest in the activity.
There is always talk of shark-sightings too, but many veterans said much of that was rumour.
Huge swells, icy waters, howling winds and blisters are part of the package in the George Bass depending on the year.
“The last couple of bass’ have been pretty wild, it is a grueling race – you generally lose a bit of skin and get blisters in places you don’t really want them,” Holt says.
But both he and Britten agree 1997 was one of the legs you’d like to forget. Crews were met with 40-knot southerlies in five-metre seas and icy conditions.
“Boats were pulling out of the race, others were getting towed by support boats – it was that bad,” Holt said.. “It took us over five hours to do that leg of the race when it should have taken less than two – it was horrendous.”
“The course record [from Narooma to Bermagui] is a bit over an hour, but it took four or five hours to get in and most of the crews suffered hypothermia,” Britten added.
“Hypothermia is always a worry – if they stop talking or eating the cold is already gripping them.”
He recalls one time his rowing partner went down from the biting cold and said it can be hard to notice the signs – and imperative to warm up quickly if someone is struck by hypothermia.
But the heat too, can be just as hurtful with rowers in the past “breaking down with fatigue”.
Britten said being soaked for three-to-five hours daily on the boat meant it was pretty easy “to tear yourself up”, but the blisters were part and parcel of finishing the world’s toughest surfboat race.
And Holt said it wasn’t just your hands and feet that suffered, but rowers got blisters in “some pretty uncomfortable places”.
Scott Meaker says the iconic surf event becomes part of your life. “I suppose it does become your life and your rowers are your best mates,” Meaker said.
“I think part of the reason we keep doing it is you want to turn up for those guys and being there.”
The teams practice weekly, even through the winter and even during off years from the biennial event. In the four-month lead up teams have been training daily.
Defending veteran women’s rower Kirsty Byrne from Pambula agrees that “You stand up and do it because you want to be there for your team”.
“It takes almost a year of preparation – it’s certainly something you can’t just jump in and learn the technique,” she said, adding that most of the Pambula women’s crew had been together for.
“We do take a good long break from the boat after the Bass – you’re almost sick of the sight of it by then,” Meaker said with a laugh.
“But it almost becomes part of your life, you’re just maintaining your rowing and your fitness,”
“It’s a bit of everything when you finish, exhilaration, excitment, relief, and depending where you’ve come there can be a little disappointment,” Meaker said.
After finishing is a time of quiet and reflection for Meaker’s Tathra outfit.
“We find a bit of shade and have a few beers; these are guys you’ve spent many hours training and everyone giving their all – it’s a big thing.”
Information courtesy of Angela George – Dubbed the longest, toughest surf boat race in the world, 2017-18 will mark 42 years since the first George Bass Marathon event.
It was back in the early 1970s that Bega District News editor W. B. “Curly” Annabel turned his mind to developing a way to highlight the Far South Coast region and all it had to offer.
Having been involved in the surfboat movement, he hit upon the idea of re-tracing part of the epic 1797 voyage of discovery down the East Coast by colonial explorer George Bass.
Although many thought the idea crazy, NSW State Surf Life Saving Association (SLSA) Secretary Nick Dixon threw his weight behind the idea and an organising committee that included Rod Chesher, Fergus Thomson, Graham Nicholson, Max Hogno, Jim Eadie and Curly Annabel brought planning to fruition when the inaugural George Bass hit the ocean in 1975.
With only one official entry received a week before the start of that first marathon, there must have been more than a few sleepless nights for Curly and his crew.
However, with less than three days to go, surfboats began rolling into Batemans Bay, and 11 crews ultimately lined up for the start of the inaugural George Bass Surf Marathon.
One other, Atlantic College (Wales), had registered, but the crew didn’t end up competing.
Cronulla took out first place that year, followed by Bulli, Point Lonsdale, Burning Palms, Long Reef, Moruya, Seaspray, Portsea, Tathra, Maroubra and Mona Vale.
Since that first Bass, teams from around 100 surf clubs from every state in Australia have competed, as well as international crews hailing from many other countries as well.
However, it is believed that only local club Tathra and Bulli have maintained an unbroken participation record, competing in every Bass since 1975.
Long Reef, NSW
Reigning champions – Bulli NSW
Broulee Canberra Capitals, ACT/NSW
North Cronulla, NSW
Reigning champions Moruya/Long Reef NSW
Broulee Canberra Capitals, ACT/NSW
North Cronulla, NSW
Wollongong City, NSW
Reigning Champions, Narooma NSW
Avalon Beach, NSW
Reigning Champions Pambula NSW
Gavin Granger, Pambula SLSC, NSW
Nathan Vipond, Maroochydore SLSC, QLD
Paul Buttel, Wanda SLSC, NSW
Stephen Bunney, Bermagui SLSC, NSW
John Patison, Austinmer SLSC, NSW
Josie Pike, Metropolitan Caloundra SLSC, QLD
David Schofield, Shoalhaven Heads SLSC, NSW
Nicholas Kirby, North Cronulla SLSC, NSW
Craig Vipond, Maroochydore SLSC QLD
Nick Ziviani, Narooma SLSC, NSW
Brendan Cowled, Mollymook SLSC, NSW
Joseph Hasley, Narooma SLSC, NSW
Anthony Ireland, Mollymook SLSC, NSW
Reigning Champion Stew O’Regan
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