THE SURFSKI SECRET BEHIND AUSSIE SAILOR’S OLYMPIC WIN
If you weren’t paying attention, you would have missed it.
Australian sailor Will Ryan had just become an Olympic champion, winning the 470 class in Tokyo with teammate Matt Belcher.
The gold medal now hanging around his neck was the product of a lifetime of dedication and sacrifice – particularly over the past five years, after claiming silver in 2016.
Front of mind were the family and friends, coaches and peers who helped lift him toward that ultimate achievement.
But in the same breath, Will singled out another more unassuming pillar of support.
His surfski squad back at home.
“Those guys who helped us through 2020 with paddling, it played a huge part in me becoming the best person I could be and using my time as best I could.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Will harder than most.
He had been racing at sailing’s highest level for more than a decade – and had plenty of success to show for it.
Five World Championships to go with that Olympic silver medal, that he was training so hard to turn into gold.
But in what felt like the blink of an eye, the world shut down. His career built on racing and working on waters around the globe ground to a sudden halt.
The uncertainty around whether the 2020 Olympics would go ahead – along with the uncertainty around society itself – took a toll on his competitive ambition.
Thankfully, stuck at home on the western shores of Lake Macquarie north of Sydney, two of his mates Joel Castles and Joel Skelton had the answer.
“They’re both builders and had gotten into paddling,” Ryan tells The Paddler. “With more time in Australia than I ever expected, I managed to hook up with them.”
“With the questions around whether the Games would be on, the delays, things like that… it was a pretty tough time for us having devoted 10 plus years of our life towards that goal.
“In fact, it was really tough to swallow at first, but finding another sport and developing a passion for it was really, really rewarding.”
“It started with a couple of paddles out the front of our house in flatwater and it’s evolved from there.
“I absolutely love it… I don’t know why more people aren’t out there.”
Instantly, that empty feeling had been filled.
Will and the two Joel’s, often joined by 2016 Olympic laser sailing champion Tom Burton, began training six times a week.
On the water at 5am, their newfound passion for paddling spurred each other on.
“I think we’re all quite competitive, restless individuals… that’s probably a good summary, we’re always keen for some sport.
“I was just looking for something to cross-train, ideally. I’ve always rode bikes and ran and swam and things like that.
“The opportunity to paddle was perfect, because a lot of it is that upper-body strength that we use in our specific sailing boat.”
“The balance and the ability to isolate and catch the right waves to chase and things like that certainly appeals.
“It all cross-trains really well, but just that opportunity to do something with your friends was brilliant, and through last year it was a fantastic way to get through the year.”
That’s not to say it came easily.
A master of sailing, Will started from square one in the surfski.
“I bought my very first ski and had absolutely no idea,” he laughs. “Not that I have much idea now, but I certainly had zero idea at the time.”
“It just looked like a cool colour and it looked fast, so I bought it.
“I chose some flatter days but was fortunate that my balance is OK, but I had a lot to learn in terms of the paddling technique.
“We were doing these races at Cockle Creek [a nearby river] and trying to paddle against these regulars, and we were just getting flogged, to be honest.
“They were some of the hardest cardio workouts I’ve ever done in my life! I remember sitting in the car after my first race and I couldn’t even hold the steering wheel.”
“Even that was a learning experience understanding that in a kayak it’s not the same principles as I was used to.
“Usually in sailing, you go to the shallows to get the current relief, whereas in the ski it actually paid to be in the centre of the channel where it felt lighter on your paddle.
“That was pretty enlightening for us.”
As their abilities grew, so too did their imaginations.
The two Joel’s had already been paddling for some time and were experienced in open water.
Having spent his lifetime in wind and swell on his sailing boats, that’s something Will was keen to explore.
And once he did, he says it opened up a “whole new world.”
“It’s something I didn’t expect when I bought my first ski… I thought it was a flatwater sport.
“I love the challenge of picking the right lines to be efficient and using of your power at the right times to keep your flow.
“When you get it right, it’s really rewarding… you feel the ski jumping from one run to the next. But equally when you get it wrong, you know.”
“You get reminded when you’re not fit enough that you need to step it up.
The group would frequent the Swansea Channel where Lake Macquarie meets the ocean – the breeding ground for some of Australia’s greatest ever surfski paddlers.
It’s the perfect training environment for any conditions.
Paddlers can stay in the flat, catch waves for hundreds of metres at the opening, or head in whatever direction the wind blows out at sea.
But for Will, there was a catch.
From his home on the other side of the Lake, it’s almost an hour’s drive. So instead, they paddled.
“It’s like a 30 kilometre round trip to do that, so it was a bigger day.” He laughs.
“Even longer when you time the tide direction wrong.”
For the closely-knit paddling community of Swansea, word spread fast.
The mystery of two small inflatable boats stacked with surfskis whizzing up the Swansea Channel in the shadows of pre-dawn light, anchoring in a protected corner before unloading and launching into the waves.
No one quite knew the identities of these hardcore paddlers – there were whispers they were coming from the other side of the lake – but it was clear to all that they were committed.
Yes, Will and the gang had found a solution to their long slog into the surf.
“We’ve optimized the system, it’s brilliant.” He explains. “The boats that we use are sailing coaching boats… We both managed to find quite similar boats, so it almost looks like a team.
“They’re quite similar in colour, have black tubes and are about six metres long and very slick. The skis themselves are even longer than the boat, so they look quite funny perched up on top of these ribs.
“We’re set up pretty nicely to have two kayaks in each boat and we can duck across the lake at a decent speed, about 25 to 30 knots in the morning in the dark with our nav-lights on going past all of the fisherman.
“It takes 15 minutes to get across there and we can have a fantastic morning with the sunrise, then we can head back home so the other guys can go to work and I can get into my other training. It’s really, really cool.”
“Now we can go almost every day… some days we go twice when the waves are good. We feel so spoilt to be able to do that.”
When the Tokyo Games were confirmed to run in 2021, Will’s sailing ramped back up – but the paddling didn’t stop.
In fact, he still trains four times a week in the surfski and discovered that it’s actually helped to take his sailing to another level, crediting the sport for helping him to claim sport’s ultimate prize – an Olympic gold medal.
“I think just mentally through COVID in 2020, that was the first step that really helped my sailing.” He reveals. Just to get out there with likeminded individuals, keep the motivation up and stay active and keep pushing myself.
“Then over time the way it’s developed, the physicality, the upper-body strength, the way you drive through your legs and use technique to activate everything in your body, it’s taught me something to apply to sailing.”
“In terms of the ability to catch waves and line up one to the next, you’re always developing that skill… the more time you put into it, the better you get at it.
“It’s really interesting how I look at conditions now different to the past, particularly with beach breaks,
“We’ve had some really challenging venues to train out of this past year. With my partner interstate, we’ve had to use a lot of beaches along the coast to train.
“The ski paddling has really helped me a lot to pick the right moments to go in and out of the break.
“It’s been great to develop those skills in the ski then apply it back to the sailing boat when we can.”
For an Olympic champion sailor, Will Ryan makes a pretty good surfski paddler.
Although now, that may actually read the other way around.
“I go to places in my sailing boat now and look at the conditions and think, ‘Wow, I wish I had my ski.’”
Ryan will race on to the 2024 Paris Olympics, but he won’t be defending his title in the 470 class, which will become a mixed-teams event instead.
That change in schedule means he no longer has to be as conscious of his body weight – and that’s only a good thing for his paddling.
“I have a bit of time to get in the gym and hopefully get a bit bigger so I can hopefully keep up with my mates and hopefully beat them a bit more,” he laughs.
It also presents him with the freedom to enter a few surfski races.
“My mates have always put out the calendar dates and said they’d love to get over and do The Doctor and go to Hawaii.
“It’s something I’ve looked at for many, many years… whether that was just to sail across that water, or ultimately now, try and do it in a surfski.
“Definitely long term, I’m really keen to get into some of those big races overseas.
And it’s likely he won’t be alone.
Like every passionate paddler, Will has been spreading the good word of paddling.
What started as a hobby to keep fit during downtime, surfski is now forming a key part his of life.
“My sister has been out there, my girlfriend has been out there and some of my other sailing mates are into skis now.”
“Everyone is buying them with the plan that we can paddle offshore together a bit more.
“It’s been great cross-training for sailing, but I’m just really enjoying the sport and its community… it’s been awesome.”