With the next installment of the RPM this June long week end we look back at where it all began.

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Published 2017

RPM: How it began, is a story that hasn’t been told before.

The Murray 200 Race was the early days of the Marathon Canoe Club and will be included in this story, because the two are very much entwined. The Marathon Canoe Club, is perhaps an unusual club in as much that they don’t have club rooms, hence there are no working bees or fund raising etc. They just paddle the long distance races and organise the next event. As a club they have keep their race fees very low due mainly to the income revenue generated by the Murray 200 events, and they financially help the charities of St John Riverland and the Scouts SA Radio Activities Group who in turn of course assist us in running a very professional event.

“The Murray 200 is now considered to be second premier long distance canoe races in Australia with paddlers coming from all over the country.”

It wasn’t always so rosy with the club’s finances, as one year we went to bed with MS – Multiple Sclerosis, a worthy charity, but unfortunately they took all the profits from the race and left the club with a debt of $2000. The club almost folded, but with selling lots of raffle tickets, plus a generous donation from two anonymous club members,  the proceeds of the next one or perhaps two Murray 200 events, we cleared our debts. Since this we have gone from strength to strength. The Murray 200 is now considered to be second premier long distance canoe races in Australia with paddlers coming from all over the country. The Murray 100 is now the most popular of the three events. The Marathon Canoe Club has two important assets, the Murray 200 events with its cash flow and the members of the club itself; a better bunch of guys and gals you wouldn’t find anywhere.

We would like to take you back a few years before the Murray 200 started and indeed before we had a club. A group of paddlers would go to the River Murray on week-ends and paddle sections of the River or its back waters. Chambers Creek was a typical location where they would paddle as a group, stop occasionally on a nice sand bar, eat some nibbles or have lunch. These were very much social occasions. Some of the people in this group will be known to people reading this article. Robyn and Ian Pope, Laurie and Anthea Shem, Ron Bath, Kevin Lockwood, Ted Miciwicz and Ron Blum. And there were others, their names we have long forgotten.

Ron Bath in our group had made a name for himself in the canoeing world by paddling the length of the Mississippi. A film documentary made of this , made the trip all the more remarkable because Ron was a paraplegic. On land he gets around on two crutches but on water he wielded a mean paddle. Ron also regularly did the annual Red Cross Murray Marathon, a 400 km race conducted in Victoria just after Christmas and before the New Year.

It didn’t take long to decide as a social paddling group that they should form a club, and so the Marathon Canoe Club of SA was formed largely due to the efforts of Ron Bath. Ron became Chairman and we held meetings in his home at Blair Athol. Trish Liddell (better known these days as Trish Gomer) was our Secretary and Race Time keeper. The club conducted races on the Murray, Katarapko Creek, Chambers Creek, Murtho Forest to Renmark, Paringa to Berri and many others mostly on the Murray. As I recall in those early days, the only city race we did was the West Lakes Race; four laps around Delphin Island. At 28 km this was our shortest race. The River Murray was their scene and long distance races (35 to 45 km) their theme, and preparedness for the Red Cross Murray Marathon was their goal.

“The River Murray was their scene and long distance races (35 to 45 km) their theme, and preparedness for the Red Cross Murray Marathon was their goal.”

Race weekends, mostly on the Murray, were conducted once a month except in January, with a race conducted on each day of the weekend. Typically they did the Morgan to Blanchetown on the Saturday (44 km) and Blanchetown to Swan Reach (29 km) or to Punyerlroo (36 km).. Or perhaps the Katarapko Creek Race (48 km) on the Saturday then Loxton to New Residence (27 km) the following day. Paddling weekends of 70 to 80 km was the norm and so it was in this climate of long distance that the Murray 200 was born. Today things have changed and, apart from the M200 events, we now only do the Blanchetown to Swan Reach Race on the Murray.

During the early days of our club, Ron Bath went off on a new marathon adventure called the “Yarrum Challenge” in which he paddled the length of the River Murray going upstream instead of the normal downstream. In case some of you haven’t twigged “Yarrum”, in the name of the challenge, is “Murray” spelt backwards. Ron Blum could remember escorting Ron with Peter Carter and others from Goolwa to Point Sturt, then part way to Narrung on Lake Alexandrina before returning to Ron’s late wife Karen who was waiting on the shore at Point Sturt with the car.

It was not long after this adventure that “Bathy” (as Ron was affectionately called), was preparing for a new trip. This was called the “European Challenge” in which he planned to paddle the Danube, paddling through several countries. He was fund raising, and I found myself in a hall in Gepps Cross where some dignitary gave a speech about Ron’s forthcoming adventure. Ron & I were talking at the rear of the hall about our races when I said that we should conduct a race in length half way between the Red Cross 400km race and what we were now doing. He said that it was a good idea. That’s all he said! I was probably naïve enough to think at the time that half the distance was half the effort. How wrong I was! I did not appreciate at the time those cold early morning starts and the lack of river flow in South Australia. The “European Challenge” did not eventuate because of problems with visas. Instead, it would seem Ron then put all his efforts into preparing a new race called the “Murray 200”.

“I was probably naïve enough to think at the time that half the distance was half the effort. How wrong I was!”

So it was in June 1988, 30 years ago that the Murray 200 was conducted for the first time, due almost entirely to the efforts of Ron Bath. 46 paddlers in 32 boats started in this inaugural event. We did not have a Murray 100 in this first year. Instead, we offered two short courses; a 66 km and a 40 km course. Only one person paddled the former, and eight the 40 km course. What got our race off to a good start was the fact that Ron Bath roped in David Rizolli and Gerry Brayne as Race Starter and Commentator, roles they were accustomed to in the Red Cross Murray Marathon. Their professionalism and wit were a tremendous success which continues to this day.

“The following year 1989 was the beginning of the Murray 100 as we know it today, and the Relay a year or two later.”

Looking at the first two years race results for the first Murray 200, we see some familiar names still well known in canoeing today. Ted Jackson (deceased), Robyn & Ian Pope, Rob Wight, Derrick Stevens, Graham Mitchell, Don Gomer, Jim Murphy, John Hales and, of course, Ron Blum. Ron paddled in a single that first year as John Hales & latter joined with John to become a doubles combination. In that first year, 1988, four paddlers from this event decided to team up and do the big Red Cross marathon in a K4 in the vet 50 class. It had never been done before in the Vet 40, let alone Vet 50. Crazy! This was Ron’s first Red Cross marathon. From memory, there were six K4 teams that year with five teams of crack paddlers. In the start and finish race commentary each day, we became known as the “awesome foursome”. It’s not that we filled everyone with awe but simply we were “awe-full”.

“We came in last (very much so) every day, but we finished. The K4 had a sign on the back spelling out that we had 220 years of paddle power on board. The four paddlers in this K4 (in order of seating) were Bill Bennie, Don Gomer, Ron Blum and John Hales paddling in the rear.”

Martin Finn has been Race Director of the RPM for 20 years. Over that time he has seen the event develop from a smallish state based paddling marathon to the diverse National event we see today. The introduction of M50, Mini Marathon & Single Day Events has increased the participation by not only those competitive M200/M100 Paddlers, but a larger number of Recreational Paddlers. The MCC has over the years diversified with the Communications being provided by the Amateur Radio Experimental Group, including the Riverland Radio Group, and support of the Canoe Medics who are also Riverland Based. – The RPM Event Risk Management Plan has assisted us with the application to DPTI Marine Operations, which has agreed to River Closure each Day from the M100 Starts.

Bill Robinson, who is now paddling his 23th  RPM, is known to most marathon paddlers in Australia. Bill has a very long history of ultramarathon flat water paddling, and has been quoted as saying that the Murray 200 is the toughest event he has ever done.

A retired veterinarian of long standing in country Victoria, Bill is a passionate sea kayaker and marathon paddler. A member of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club, Bill is possibly best known for ensuring the Murray400 survived as an event after the Red Cross organisation withdrew after 40 continuous years.

As mentioned Bill has a long history of sea and recreational kayaking particularly the Murray 400, Hawkesbury and Murray 200. His training regime is uncomplicated, simple and obviously enjoyable, “I just make sure that I am paddling long distance on a regular basis”.

Bill paddled the entire length of the Murray in 2005. He has also crossed Bass Strait in a kayak and has completed more than 20 Murray 400 events. When he is not paddling he likes to travel.

Bill’s sporting philosophy is much like his training regime, uncomplicated – “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.”