British-born Sarah Davis moved to Australia in 2003, found surf sports (and the podium!) and never looked back. With a successful racing CV, including coming third at the notoriously tough Molokai Challenge 2017 and taking age group gold at the 2017 Ocean Racing World Championships, the 44-year old is now gearing up for a world-first to kayak the length of the River Nile.
In this interview Sarah chats about her plans to paddle the 6583km distance, kayaking in shark-infested waters and being on expedition for up to 8 months.
Had you ever kayaked before you joined the local surf lifesaving club in Australia?
No – I’d never kayaked before. I had tried heaps of sports over the years, including some water-based ones such as water-skiing, ocean swimming, board paddling and windsurfing but never kayaking.
Did you take to kayaking and ocean paddling straight away?
Surf skis, the type [of kayak] used in competition in surf lifesaving, are pretty tippy and tricky to stay upright on. So I started off spending a fair bit of time in the water rather than on it! Before too long I started to get the hang of it and loved it. Being out on the water, particularly when the sun is coming up, is incredible. On top of that I get dolphins swimming round me from time to time and have seen whales while I’m out – and a couple of sharks! I’m incredibly lucky where I live in Bondi, Sydney to have some spectacular places to paddle.
It also came to me at the perfect time. Not too long after I started paddling I was diagnosed with osteo-arthritis in the hip (from falling off too many nutty horses as a kid) and then blew my meniscus (cartilage in the knee joint). Up until then distance running was my love. Having ski paddling gave me a new sport to pursue and compete in and I loved it.
You’ve competed very successfully in ocean racing – can you explain what’s involved?
In ocean racing you’re in a sit-on kayak with a rudder operated by your feet. The dimensions vary in these surf skis but they’re around 21ft long and 18in wide, weighing 10-12kg. In other words they are long, light and narrow. The ocean races vary in length. In the World Series they’re between about 20 to 53km. Locally, there are shorter courses as well. What we all love is when the wind is up, it’s behind us and we’ve got swell to chase and surf on. Most of the time the races are point-to-point, one way.
One of your events included the 53km Molokai Challenge, where you came third – can you tell us a bit about this?
This was a big stretch target! The race takes you from Molokai Island to Oahu across a body of water affectionately known as the ‘Channel of Bones’. It’s a notorious stretch of water and the swell can be massive. The race itself is steeped in history and prestige so it was amazing to get to race in it.
The logistics for it are full-on – you have to get an escort boat, hire your ski, get it to the start, get yourself, your crew, your kit and all the food and drink for the race across to Molokai Island for the start (because there’s nothing on the island), plus attend the all-important race briefings. The week leading up to it is fairly full-on.
When I raced it the ocean was flat, with minimal help from wind or swell. In fact, at one point I had the current working against me. It was also hot and humid. All up, it was a bloody long, hard slog. Over 5.5 hours in total. By the half-way point my hands were blistered up and then started bleeding. Come the finish they were a mess!
The area is also known for a fair few tiger sharks. As I said, every paddler has an escort boat with them. I said to my mate with me on mine, if he saw a shark, I didn’t want to know about it until after the race or if he thought I was in danger. He didn’t see any.
Saying all that, it’s a truly spectacular place to paddle – the colour of the water is the most amazing blue. I love being part of this incredible race in such a stunning location.
What kind of fitness do you need to paddle this kind of distance?
I was paddling four times a week – three times with a squad for a mix of mostly interval training, and then my long paddle at the weekend. Slowly building up to the distance. I’ve done a couple of marathons as well as a half-ironman triathlon and never done the full distance per-race, which I think is the standard. For this race I wanted to do the distance before, particularly as you don’t know what conditions you’ll get on the day. I needed that confidence.
As well as the paddling I was hitting the gym three times a week focusing on upper body and abs strength. Two days were volume (higher reps/lower weight) and one day strength (low reps/higher weight).
When it gets tough during an event do you have any strategies to help you keep going?
For Molokai my coach gave me a race plan to paddle 20-25mins and then rest 1 minute. It made such a difference because it broke the race down into manageable chunks. And knowing that it might be the only chance I had to do this race made me so determined to finish.
Towards the end I was slowing down, really not giving it my all. So I started shouting at myself. Strangely it works! I did the same at the World Championships.
Any tough races spring to mind where you had to dig deep?
A race I did a few years back really tested me. It was Coolangatta Gold, which is the iconic endurance lifesaving ironman event consisting of 23km surf ski paddle, 3.5km ocean swim, 6km prone board paddle (kneeling or lying down on a board and paddling with your arms) with a 7km run along the beach to finish. The year I did it we had over 20 knots of headwind for the board paddle and cold water to swim in. A lot of people pulled out. The board paddle was supposed to take me about an hour. With the wind, it took over 2 hours. So many times I wanted to give up. Then I kept reminding myself that I’d have to come back and do all this again, and the months of training. That kept me going. (Sarah is too modest to mention she won this event in the Masters category!).
For these long races I break it down. Focus on the section in hand, and then the next and the next. And keep thinking about all the hard work and training you’ve put in.
You’ve set yourself a huge challenge to be the first woman to paddle the Nile – where did the idea come from?
I was at a point when life was pretty rosy – great job, living the dream in Bondi, but there was a lack of fulfilment. I saw and read about a couple of people who’d done firsts and that triggered something in me – that’s what I wanted to do. That set me on the path to this expedition. The other thing that really struck me was that these were ordinary people with big dreams and a lot of determination. They weren’t your classic explorers or with any kind of military background. They gave me the confidence to believe I could do it.
I knew I wanted my first to be kayaking based. When I saw the Nile hadn’t been paddled by a woman, I knew that was it. It was like the ultimate lightbulb moment and I got goosebumps.
What will your Nile kayak involve?
The Nile flows for around 6,850km starting in Rwanda before dipping into Tanzania, then up to Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt where it ends as it meets the Mediterranean Sea. It’s expected to take around 7-9 months and will be a mix of rafting and kayaking. At the start there are a lot of big rapids, so I will raft through those. Then it’ll be kayaking.
I’ll have people all the way with me. This will include fellow kayakers/rafters, security where needed, and guides. Then there’ll be an assistance team at the end of the phone who’ll be monitoring my progress and who I’ll be checking in with me each day and will help manage any situations that come up.
What will be the major challenges you’ll face during your Nile paddle?
Wow, so many. The big rapids and big scary crocs accompanied by lots of hippos. There’s the heat to contend with, potentially hostile situations. Topped off with the risk of illness and disease.
Physically keeping going for such a long period of time will be tough. Overall, I think the biggest challenge will be mental. It’s going to be so hard and a massive test – dealing with all the challenges and the stress they bring. Being out of my comfort zone so much, facing many fears and being in such a different environment for so long. It’s going to be ridiculously tough!
What distance do you hope to cover each day on average?
I’m hoping to cover around 35 to 40kms per day. The plan has rest days and contingency.
Will you be wild camping?
Yep, there’s going to be plenty of remote camping. I’m currently going to bed every night so grateful for a comfortable bed, along with my hot showers and running water, knowing I’m going really miss them when I’m gone!
Is your training mostly on water or does it include strength sessions and other work in the gym?
I’ve actually cut back a bit on the paddling. Despite my gym work I lost a fair bit of muscle with all the long-distance training. I want to put that back on before I go. I’ve spoken to people who’ve done long-distance paddle expeditions and they recommend building up the paddling endurance gradually on the trip rather than before. Plus that avoids risking overtraining and being over it before even starting!
What does a typical week of training look like for you right now?
As I mentioned, I’m focused on building muscle and then maintaining a good paddling base. So it’s four sessions in the gym and three on the water. My gym sessions vary, but each one kicks off with at least 30 minutes of mobility, stretching and pre-hab exercises generally focused on glute activation and rotator cuff.
MONDAY: GYM – front squat, kettlebell swings, pull-ups, push-press, EZ bar bicep curls, dumbbell shoulder press, double crunch (with a 10kg bar and straight legs)
TUESDAY: PADDLE – 60min with the squad – session set by the coach, Jim Walker
WEDNESDAY: GYM – Banded deadlift (powerband round hips, anchored behind, to work the glutes more), step-up with load, push-ups, inverted row on rings, tricep extension (split rope), dumbbell hammer curl, cable crunch
THURSDAY: PADDLE 60min with the squad – session set by the coach, Jim Walker
FRIDAY: GYM – leg press, reverse lunge with load, picking up and throwing 20kg slosh ball over the shoulder (for time), lat pull down, toes to bar, cable press, ab rollout
SATURDAY: PADDLE- either a 60-90 min session on my own or a time trial with a local group, the Shark Island Paddlers. Then a GYM session: racked deadlift, squat/squat jump alternate (for time), bench, bench pull, cable flies, reverse prone flies, hip bridge on swiss ball
How will you be fuelling your expedition – what will you be eating?
It will be a mix. Some dried expedition food, other local foods, rice etc sourced en route.
Anything you’ll definitely be packing for your Nile paddle?
A pad to sit on! I haven’t used one before, but given the amount of time I’ll be paddling I’ll be packing one of those. I love my paddle – Braca-Sport. I’ll have that and spares. There’s a fair bit of kit required for this expedition as you can imagine and all of it vital. From water purifiers to sat phones, GPS, solar chargers, camping gear, medical suppliers and first aid kit. Emergency gear. Back-ups of all the key items. Cameras, phone, the list goes on and on!
What sponsors are supporting your Nile expedition?
I have a few sponsors to date – Shaw and Partners Wealth Management, Kathmandu, Braca-Paddles and Bennett Paddles, Vaikobi, Mayo Hardware, John Nurmi Accountants, plus I’ve had some generous personal donations. Then there are a few more conversations happening in the background…
And you’re raising money for charity during your paddle?
I’m raising $100k for CARE Australia, part of CARE, the global humanitarian aid organisation focused on ending poverty. What I love about them and my key reason for choosing them is that they put women and girls at the centre of all their initiatives because they know we cannot overcome poverty without equal rights and opportunities.
I plan to visit some of the projects underway and raise awareness for the incredible work they do.
Anyone who’d like to donate can just jump on my website where you’ll be taken to a donation portal with the funds going directly to CARE Australia.
When do you anticipate your Nile paddle expedition will begin?
It will be this year – I just need to raise more funds before I can set the date! If anyone would like to contribute or if you know of any organisations that might be interested in a sponsorship arrangement, please do get in touch.
To keep up-to-date with the progress and when it kicks off jump on my website and sign up of the newsletter. I promise you won’t get spammed!