I was quoted last week as saying “to win once is hard”, “to win consistently is just plain tough”.
Life is cyclical and throws many curve balls at us when we least expect them.
In Olympic sports, athletes peak mentally and physically in a four year cycle, allowing a period of recovery at the end of each cycle before gathering themselves towards the next olympiad.
When you compete in non-Olympic sports which don’t operate on a four cycle, we don’t have the same space to recover and recharge. Everything is condensed and the expectation of delivering year upon year is real and it’s tough.
This past week was my fifth trip to the island of Wrightsville Beach on the coast of North Carolina.
For the past 5 years every Easter has signalled the end of the kiwi summer and flying half way around the world on countless flights bound to kick off my international season at the Carolina Cup.
How this small outpost on the Atlantic Coast came to be home to the largest annual gathering of stand up paddling is testimony to a small group of passionate locals who decided to invite the world to their waters to test them on what is possibly the toughest and most technically demanding course of the year.
The end of April signals the start of Spring in the northern hemisphere, but if the north winds are blowing the winds are chilling and the waters still frigid. If the south winds have been prominent the weather is considerable more temperate.
In my five trips to North Carolina, I think I’ve now experienced every possible mood of weather and as such come prepared for anything and everything.
If it’s your first year at ‘the Cup’, you have next to know idea what to expect other than the stories you’ve been told, the footage you’ve seen and what you’ve read, but nothing really prepares you for that first experience.
The waters of Wrightsville Beach are notorious – especially navigating the challenges of tidal flows and Masonborough Inlet
Unless you’re a local who boats, surfs and paddles these waters year round it’s nigh on impossible to truly understand the course and the affects of the weather in this part of the world.
The wind is fickle, Masonborough Inlet is notorious, the currents are strong and well….let’s just say that you’re going to quickly love to hate the grind of Intra Coastal Waterways (ICWW).
In all five editions that I’ve done, each year has been different. The first two years went South first meaning that we had to punch out through an incoming inlet to get the open ocean, the past three years we’ve gone north and surfed our way through.
But if I’m to make a call on what year the conditions have been the hardest, it would likely be 2017.
Saturday morning greeted us with a howling southerly blowing up the beach. As is the case with this race, they will send you in the direction that the wind is blowing on the ocean side to maximise a downwind portion of the race. While this might seem fun, the stronger the wind blows, the stronger that wind is to bash into up the back waters of the ICWW.
The conditions of Carolina Cup are not to be taken lightly and are a true test of all your skills
It’s the type of course that the conditions dictate how your going to play out your race. Regardless of if you’re starting to finish, to starting with the aim of finishing at the pointy end, the conditions will dictate how the race will play out. And this year, as I suspected, that is exactly what happened.
Coming into a race, I don’t think I’ve ever been so relaxed. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I was overcome with a sense of calm.
I’d arrived a couple of days early to catch up with good friends, to share laughter and reminisce. I had little expectation other than to have funned to enjoy.
When in Rome….Team America was out in full force
As the first major of the international season this event comes with a lot of external expectations for many from supporters, sponsors and an industry.
Having paid my way, I felt significantly lightened from some of the burden of expectations to deliver what has become an expected result in previous years.
Walking the beach early on Saturday morning, I could feel the wind building and the intensity of the weather increasing.
The years may roll on, but the need to focus on the task at hand is always the same – maybe more
No one could ever call a year at Carolina Cup ‘normal’, but these conditions were definitely the most extreme that I’d experienced and I knew that this would play a significant factor into how the race played out.
As the outriggers and surf skis, prone paddlers and elite men tore downwind, I quickly changed my position on the start line sighting what I saw was a more direct route to the turning buoy sitting just past the breakers.
If there was a day that playing your game to the conditions would reign, this year was it.
The end of the outgoing tide made getting in through the inlet far slower than previous years and based on my calculations, I knew that we were going to get slammed head on against the incoming tide as we made our way up the ICWW.
Against an incoming tide and straight into 20-25 knots of headwind 2017’s conditions were no joke
20-25 knots on the nose against the tide for the best part of 7-8 miles is probably not your idea of weekend fun. Judging by the failing form of the draft trains of guys I made ground on and passed, they weren’t finding it much fun either (as girls we paddle a shorter board than the men).
Making my way through the trains of men who had splintered off the front packs in the brutal head winds and currents up the Intra Coastal Water Way
There was the odd moment of reprieve from the wind as the course wound around the waterways, but never from the incoming tide.
If the first part of the ICWW broke people, the second half destroyed them. Making our way past the Sound side of the Blocade Runner Hotel and past the welcome cheers of everyone watching from bridges and docks the wind and currents intensified.
Being shown the footage of what it looked like from a drone, it looked like we were creeping against an escalator moving in the opposite direction.
Having towed talented young hitter Fiona Wylde past trains of men for over an hour with a couple of moments of reprieve, I knew that I wanted to keep the pace on as I didn’t have a time gap as to where the next girls were behind us.
Having bided my time, just past the crowds I decided it was time to go. Within moments I’d broken, blown past the men in front and put daylight on them.
But this is where this race gets interesting and likely acquired it’s name ‘The Graveyard’. This is a race which breaks people in ways which they least expect it. People cramp, they drop their gels, the run out of water. It will usually happen when you get into the later stages of this race. From that point on, it’s no longer a race, but a battle of survival to make it to the finish as many of the pre-race favourites in the men’s event will attest to.
Coming into the 2017 edition of Carolina Cup, I had little idea of where my form was. It’s been a pretty disrupted off season, particularly in the past couple of months. A couple of nasty stacks landing on my shoulder racing my mountain bike, some badly banged up ribs and the most horrific summer weather on record my pre-season preparation on the water was limited and life on a day to day basis was summed up as being ‘suck-it-up-buttercup’ painful. To be able to do what I wanted to when I wanted to was extremely satisfying.
I’m not lying when I say that my pursuits were without a paddle. It was a case of making the most of what I had on my doorstep and kicking some life goals in the process.
While the post event headlines have been about five-in-a-row, this past weekend signifies so much more.
When you round the final can and make your way into the beach it doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your fifth, if you won or brought up the rear – the elation of finishing is exactly the same. You came, and you survived The Graveyard
I’ve been challenged in many ways the past few months, but I still turned up and still did what I knew I was capable of.
It’s been unconventional and far from ideal, but it’s dealing with the curve balls that keeps you on your toes while building tenacity and resilience. It’s not about delivering when the times are easy, it’s being able to get it done when currents of life get a bit turbulent.
What I do know is that I had a truck load of fun this past week and that the fun train will be in full force and rolling for the months to come.
Five consecutive wins at Carolina Cup is no accident and a lot of people have been a part of helping make this happen.
Number 5 is for you, thank you for your continued support.
Thank you for your support – it means the world 
To those that helped this weekend – thank you. Without your help, this would have been considerably harder
A few to mention:
  • Mahiku Activewear – I’ve worn my Black Mamba tights religiously at this event since 2014
  • Betty Designs – for always channelling one’s inner bad ass
  • Running Skirts – the most epic long sleeve crops to keep the sun off and chafing at bay
  • CamelBak – always ensuring I have fail safe hydration systems that stand up to the task
  • Brian Szymanski – creating boards that are more works of art than pieces of foam and fibre glass
  • ZRE – the paddles I’ve used since the very beginning
  • NSP – for making me welcome and part of your posse all weekend long, it was a lot of fun!
  • The Blocade Runner Hotel – incredible hospitality
  • Katie  & Patty – it just wouldn’t be the Carolina Cup with out you two!
  • On It Pro – always ensuring that my boards make it to the line in ship shape and looking pristine
  • Chris from Carolina Paddleboard Co – thank you so much for your help with logistics
  • Spencer, SUP ATX – coordinating shipping and making sure everything arrived on time
  • Greg Panas – always there to capture the shot and shoot the shit on the problems of the world
  • Countless others no doubt.
I swear that Christmas feels like it was a couple of weeks ago. Blink a couple of times and Easter is upon us already.
While most people look forward to the leisurely days of this Autumn vacation, for the past 7 years it has always signalled the change of the seasons, that my time at home is coming to an end and the climax of my annual pack down.
Garage floors become littered with a paraphernalia of sporting equipment and piles of kit forms in like for like piles. One day I’ll learn to stick to singular activities which don’t involve copious amounts of gear. But that would be like asking the Pope if he is Catholic (it’s Easter after all).
Less is more and while I advocate a such an approach when it comes to possessions and consumerism, it still takes time to go through all your worldly possessions and evaluate if they stay or if they go.
So every Easter instead of battling the holiday motorway gridlock, I stay local and organise…then re-organise my life over and over again until I have it down to the final edit. Once the final edit is festooned into packing cells, it makes it to the bags and boxes ready for takeoff.
Given a 23kg weight limit per bag, packing for multiple pursuits and multiple locations and attempting to avoid all unnecessary baggage fees this is a cryptic jigsaw in itself.
I refer to it as therapy, and there’s some weird kind of satisfaction that comes with the art of ‘precision packing’ as I #kondo the crap out of anything and everything that has made the final piles.
It’s the same kind of satisfaction you get from closing in on the final few pieces of a 1000 piece jigsaw while the mind wanders on the happenings of another summer; the highs, the lows and the challenges.
And trust me, this past summer had plenty of all of them.
Red Bull Defiance in the Wanaka, NZ on January 22, 2017
Red Bull Defiance in the Wanaka, NZ on January 22, 2017
If you’re from New Zealand – especially the South Island, you’ll be well aware that summer forgot to turn up. Instead of baking in searing dry heat in the Southern Lakes District, December and January will be remembered for their precipitation, snow and unseasonal wearing of down. If you bought bikinis in the hope of a tan, you won’t need to buy any next summer as these ones are yet to see the light of day.
In search of summer, I jettisoned north to the warmer isle in search of sun, surf, sand and warmth. Instead I arrived to relentless torrential rain and a forecast that bore the rain symbol for the next ten days straight.
I got wet, and have pretty much stayed wet or somewhat damp for the past two months.
Many a training session turned into ‘victory-at-sea’.
Countless rides got rain checked and a couple of stacks off my bike plus a miss-timed ejection from a wave meant a painful couple of months nursing a semi-destroyed shoulder and banged up ribs. Oh the fun of it all.
Like every year, you’ll always be challenged by something and this year is was definitely the weather and having to eat concrete for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As each storm has torn it’s path, it would be easy to forget that there were some moments that fell into the monumental category and worthy of a mention.
Arriving home at the end of October, I went into lock down in an attempt to get my house build finally underway. After the months delays of courtesy of the Queenstown Lakes District Council Easier this was easier said than done. But come late November contracts were signed and the heavy machinery ensure that it was acton stations and all systems go pre-Christmas.
I’m not going to lie, I had a vision….and I had a budget, both of which don’t easily match in the same sentence. Project House was mildly all consuming but like anything, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do the best job of it.
Now that is two thirds completed, I’ve being rewarded with seeing the fruits of that effort as the structure takes shape and my vision comes to life (courtesy of pics from Mum and Dad). It’s not trying to be anything fancy, but as anyone in the land of milk and honey knows, this kind of project is now nigh on impossible with the influx of people also wanting to move and live in paradise inflating owning a house to official Paradise Tax status.
On the physical side, nothing really resembled ‘training’ per se and followed a protocol of ‘dates with mates’ on bikes, boards, up hills, down dales, through snow storms, across lakes, staying in back country huts, camping atop mountains, paragliding and putting my hand in the ring to tackle masochistic sporting events with little idea of what I was getting myself into. Anyone up for 2 days of running around the hills for 14hrs in the biggest summer snow storm anyone can remember? You get the picture of how the dates-with-mates programme rolls.
You can train the body or you can train the mind. It’s my time in the deep south that has a habit of doing both by default. In fact you’ll be hard pressed to find me even mentioning the word training. It’s about getting out amongst the landscape and disappearing for hours at a time in search of mind blowing vistas and the thrill of feeling like you’re standing on top of the world or shrouded by towering mountain ranges. Often times it was also a case of hanging on for dear life to avoid being blown off ridges, remaining upright and making it home in one piece.
Missions are the things I live for and if the phone goes at a moments notice, there’s only ever one answer…yes and it’s all systems go.
Red Bull Defiance in Wanaka, NZ on January 21st, 2017
Red Bull Defiance in Wanaka, NZ on January 21st, 2017
Wanaka is the kind of place where close to everything you do is dictated by the weather and you need an arsenal of toys and ways to play to ensure the extra long days of summer can be enjoyed to their maximum. The byproduct of this environment is that it tends to attract a lot of people who value and live for the same highs and regardless of summer’s dismal behaviour, the memories forged from many a mission are what remains indented in your memory.
It’s this love of doing that will always keep drawing me back and seeking out new places to explore and new ways to interact with the environment. To run, to ride, to paddle, to surf, to coach and to compete.
As I took a break from the final stretch of packing last night to escape for a couple of hours paddling into the sunset of Auckland’s upper harbour, the sun’s rays cast rays shooting in a perfect circle against the harbour bridge.
As I passed Watchman’s Island I turned downwind with the last of the setting sun at my back to be greeted with the lights of the city scape glistening against the night sky. It was  pitch black by the time I made it back to where I’d started, guided by the ambient light twinkling on the water.
It was the calm after the fury of Cyclone Cook and the calm before the next metaphorical turbulence that is the hurricane of six months living out of bags in search of adventure.
One thing is for sure, chapters come and go, the seasons may chance, but the hunger to experience, to adventure and to challenge the status quo is stronger than ever.
Happy Easter & I’ll see you on the flip side.