Troubles at 20 Beaches---Michael Booth



What Happened?


In this letter I will outline what I think happened on Saturday and why I think paddlers need an explanation. I will also give you my thoughts, ideas and potential outcomes to rectify what happened. Please read below and give the paddling community an answer by 6pm on Wednesday.


“What am I doing this for?” That was the first thing that went through my head Saturday morning. In hindsight I wished I just turned over and went back to sleep. My gut was telling me not to go and I should have listened!


The night before the race after deliberation with many past champions of the event I decided to book my flights. Flights were booked in on Friday at 7:30pm and $100 entry in, just before the cut off at 8pm. Like most paddlers, I was looking forward to travelling away with my mates and participating in a well-run event. It’s been a huge year for me and I have raced most weekends but at the end of the day I wanted to support Australia’s longest running surf ski race. I couldn’t resist.


20 Beaches hasn’t been an event I’ve attended over the years, despite it having great prestige among Australian paddlers (or used to?). After attending in 2012 it left a bitter taste in my mouth after poor management damaged my impression of the event. Growing up in Newcastle each year, many of the paddlers would drive down the F3 to attend what used to be the biggest race in the country. I looked up to all those paddlers from my local surf club and couldn’t wait till I got a shot at it. It was something I really wanted to win, as I got older.


After the event this year many paddlers including myself, were left angry, confused, disillusioned as to what the event has become. We just had to laugh! It was a joke! We all just want answers as to what happened over the weekend and why? I’ve said some things over the past few days that have been very critical of the organisation and management of the event, some constructive and some not. But now 48hrs after the debacle of an event, I have spoken, read and digested what I think happened and we all need to create positives out of this. The biggest thing that irked me after the event was when I was told by you, ‘the organisers’ that “its not our fault” and what I was saying “wasn’t helping”. Well I’m sorry but that kind of response is just plain and simply unacceptable. I just laughed and walked away. Who were you kidding?


I have had numerous conversations with people asking what happened? I really don’t think anyone knows? This is my recollection of events:


Leading into the event everything seemed great. It was well organised with check in, safety, registration and briefing all being very clear about start times and processes. However once we got near or on the water the shit hit the fan. So basically the thing that everyone went there for wasn’t organised aka the start and finish! I was told a paddler alerted you to the fact there was some surf at Freshwater the morning of the event? I also was told the Northern Beaches Lifeguard Service didn’t even know the event was on? And a lady set off her flare and was picked up by a roving lifeguard jet ski’s, as there wasn’t sufficient water safety? Let me know if I am wrong.


After the briefing the paddlers were advised to make their way out, about an hour from the start time of 1pm. The women, sups and OCs would go at this time with the rest 10 minutes later. There would be two pink cans behind the break that would constitute the start area and a beach finish at Palm Beach? Neither of these were the case.


I waited a bit on the grass and went down to Freshwater Beach in the northern corner about half an hour after the briefing. About 50 paddlers were making their way through the 3ft surf. A few paddlers were coming off but it didn’t seem like anyone was in any real danger. If you waited for the sets to come through there were large lulls in between. After about 100 paddlers got out, then everything seemed to go pear shaped. One paddler got swept into the flags in the middle of the beach and the lifeguard tried to stop everyone going out. This was ok, as he seemed to have control. This is when the clubby patrol got involved and all hell broke loose after that.


They launched about 6 IRBs and were yelling at people on the beach. They were zooming in and out of the break creating havoc. It became a circus! After a ten-minute break they would only let 10 people out at a time for the remaining 100 still on the beach. You can only imagine how long that would take… At this time as there were no pink cans out the back, like you advised, and ultimately paddlers had nowhere to hover around. There was also no communication between the organisers on the beach to the pack out the back. So they just started paddling out what could only be assumed to be 3-4km with a media boat following.


Once people start paddling they just go. I’ve seen a few posts about the culture of paddlers breaking the start. And yes it is an issue, however despite me not being in that group this time, I think this race is an exception to that call. I do know for a fact that many of the elite paddlers stopped the pack multiple times telling everyone to stop and go in. However many other paddlers refused to listen. But how can you blame the paddlers out the back? They had no idea what was going on? There was no communication whatsoever? I was probably a kilometre behind them… but how was I to tell them what was going on? I shouldn’t have to! I assumed the organisers would have told them? What about safety? Paddlers being that far out to sea with no water safety is downright dangerous! What’s the point of enforcing safety on the shore if there is no safety once paddlers are on the water? Is it mismanagement? Or was there just no water safety?


I had paddlers asking me what was going on. I had no idea. I was in two minds, do I just hang around or do I just paddle off with the mob down the coast? Do they know something I don’t? I nearly just paddled to the beach and went straight to the airport. There was so much confusion and I’m sure everyone has their own story! But who is to blame? I just floated down the course angry at my decision to go down to compete. But by the end, I was over it. I refused to cross the ‘deep water’ finish line. We were told it was a beach finish?


I believe something constructive needs to come out of this. Otherwise an event steeped in tradition will be lost forever. After this weekend I do not think the current organisers can handle that many people racing or the task of organising such an event. And that’s fine, event management isn’t for everyone but they need to hand it over to someone that can do it properly.


You said you won’t be giving refunds and all prize money will be pushed to next year. Who does that help? No one will be there next year anyway at this rate! Paddlers should be either getting a refund for an event that basically didn’t happen or at a minimum free entry if the event goes ahead next year! Think about the Kiwi’s they would have spent up to $1200 bucks to do the event, or the guys from Perth, $800. What about the QLD & Tasmanians $600? This isn’t just going to go away! Everyone has a bitter taste in their mouth. They all expected to come to a well – run event.


Something constructive needs to come out of this. Whether you as the management of the event sack yourselves or a new event is created? But the paddling community needs some kind of explanation! The sport needs to move forward not backward. The elites, punters and paddlers of all levels need an answer. It was one of the most expensive events to enter and essentially it just became a disorganised training paddle. It’s just not good enough.


The biggest problem coming out in the wash of this event is the lack of communication once paddlers went in the water at the start and after the event. I just can’t understand how an event can be stuffed up so badly? It’s not that hard! The paddling community needs answers. There are no results, don’t bother with that. Tell us why what occurred, happened? And how you are going to rectify your mistakes? Who is to blame? Why there wasn’t a contingency plan? This should all be detailed in an apology to the 250 paddlers who paid money for a service that wasn’t provided. I hope something constructive can come out of this.


We all deserve a response and outcome by Wednesday 6pm.


I look forward to your response,


Kind Regards,


Michael Booth