A group of Sharks football staff members are about to tackle the Molokai Hoe Canoe Race in Hawaii, a 68- kilometre outrigger event from Molokai to Oahu in Hawaii.
The St George and Sutherland Shire Leader Sports Editor Andrew Parkinson caught up with the group before they took off on their journey, with his article republished below.
The group would like to thank it sponsors, Chobani, H2COCO and TALIS CREW (**See below their Core Brand Statement), for their support.
by Andrew Parkinson/The Leader
While the backroom staff of most NRL clubs are preparing to enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation after another hectic season, a number of Cronulla's coaching group are preparing for one of the toughest physical challenges of their lives.
A group of 11 will represent the Sharks at the 66th annual Molokai Hoe Canoe Race in Hawaii on Sunday.
More than 1000 paddlers will attempt the arduous 68-kilometre journey from Molokai to Oahu. Many are professional paddlers, most are vastly experienced.
Not so the Sharks team.
Cronulla's physical performance manager Andrew Gray has been involved in outrigger canoeing for the last 20 years. He was one of the founders of the Cronulla Outrigger Canoe Club and will pilot the Sharks boat.
But other than Gray, who has completed the anywhere from five to eight-hour race twice, most of the Sharks team were novice paddlers when they started training in January.
Cronulla welcomed a number of new staff members to the club this season. The group were looking for a physical challenge that would help bring them together and help their ability to work together under pressure.
It's safe to say they found one.
"I think when they're putting their heads on pillows and if they hear the winds blowing hard, the palm trees bending outside, a few guys might be getting very little sleep," Gray said.
"The mind can play a few games with you out in the middle of that channel. For the really competitive crews that last hour is where the race really begins.
"What am I doing here, I don't think I can do this. Definitely some of those thoughts can happen. Especially for us considering the fact some of our crew still haven't done any race of any sort. I'm sure there'll be testing times out in the middle of the channel with guys wondering why they're doing this and if we're ever going to finish.
"But that's what makes it so memorable. To push your body and mind to the limit to overcome the challenge. And it's a massive challenge."
Gray will be joined by Sharks staff Daniel Holdsworth, Jim Dymock, Paul O'Brien, Dan Lawson, Dave Gentle, Mark Noakes, John Morris, Matt Jay and John Davey on the water as well as NRL lead photographer Grant Trouville.
The crew have also lost a couple of members. First grade coach Shane Flanagan had to withdraw due to a conflict of dates with a family holiday. While senior physiotherapist Sam Madden has received a call-up to work with the Kangaroos ahead of their Tests against New Zealand and Tonga.
The group includes a crew of nine paddlers with the six-man team interchanging during the race.
The group have come a long way from a paddling stand point in nine months. Training on Port Hacking in front of Cronulla Beach and up and down the coast line in front of the Royal National Park, they spent most of their time simply trying to master the stroke.
A number of members of the Cronulla Outrigger Canoe Club also popped in to lend their experience, with the club's masters team returning to Hawaii to defend their title won last year.
The majority of the team were already good athletes in their own right. But as Gray points out, paddling an outrigger canoe was alien to many. Let alone across the Ka'iwi Channel, the 'channel of bones', which has the reputation as one of the world's most treacherous bodies of water.
"The channel can be really big, huge," Gray said.
"The wind and the waves come at you in multiple directions. There's really strong currents. The water will be our biggest challenge.
"The ocean can throw anything at you. We've watched a lot of video of past races. They've seen how big it can be. I'm sure there'll be some nerves going into the race with blokes not knowing what to expect.
"The biggest part of the challenge is mental. We've been out in some big water but not nearly enough to prepare us for this event.
"Getting through the winter on Port Hacking can be pretty cold. But we found as a group it kept us going as a football department through winter. The winter in NRL season can be a long grind.
"We don't know what the conditions will be like. Some years the channel can be kind, other years really ugly. Either way 68kms is a pretty big challenge. We'll have our families waiting for us on Waikiki Beach."
Not all has been smooth sailing in the preparation. But the main goal of challenging their department, bringing them closer together and providing plenty of laughs has undoubtedly been achieved.
"We had one well-documented blow up between Jim Dymock and Mark Noakes. They nearly had to be separated at sea. Someone ended up in the water. And it wasn't Jimmy," Gray said with a laugh.
"Noakesy is probably happy to get the event out of the way given some of the verbal abuse [he copped]. He took a little longer to catch on than some others in the group. He had trouble counting to 12.
"The players know. Some of the boys it gives them a good laugh every now and then. We're trying to recruit Luke Lewis now he's retired for next year. He watches us paddle past his house all the time, hopefully we've got him on the hook."
In terms of achievement, Gray was adamant the group were not there simply to make up the numbers despite their inexperience.
Gray was eyeing a top half finish in the team's first attempt. They have some idea of their skills, with the club having access to their own GPS tracking devices to offer critical performance data.
"I feel like a good result for us would be if we can maybe get up among those teams that have obviously been doing it a lot longer than nine months," Gray said.
"We have access to a lot of good technology at the Sharks these days. We've been tracking all our training. We can record total distance, average speed, even stroke rate. We've been able to see our paddling improving throughout the whole year. As far as paddling goes we've made good improvements.
"I'm really happy with what we've been able to achieve so far in training. We're looking forward to the challenge. As far as having a target where we finish, it's so different to anything most of them have ever done before. I'm suggesting we're just doing it to finish the race but teams we're competing against, especially the Tahitian crews, are professional paddlers. It will be a great experience."
The club had their annual Monty Porter Medal night at The Star on Tuesday night. The group planned to use the evening to celebrate another wonderful season for the club on the field which included one premiership, two preliminary finals and two other grand finals.
But from when they leave on Thursday their game faces will well and truly be on.
"We feel so lucky to have a job that enables us to do something like this. We're lucky to be able to do this," Gray said.
"We want to continue to do things like this to challenge our football department. It won't be the last sort of thing we do together."
The crew have also been raising money for the Surfrider Foundation Australia, a not for profit sea-roots organisation dedicated to the protection of Australia's waves and beaches through conservation, activism, research and education.
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