Dave Alley had only 18 months of paddling experience when he climbed into his sleek and slender kayak on the Murray River last November and set out to challenge a 30-year-old speed record for paddling Australia’s longest waterway. Securing a new record would require Alley to paddle the 2,278-kilometer river that’s been compared to North America’s Mississippi in less than 16 days, six hours and 58 minutes. Thankfully, the 47-year-old paddler from Pottsville, New South Wales was no stranger to pushing his body to the limits.
You don’t have to be an expert kayaker to break a world record
“I’m drawn to leaving my comfort zone and challenging myself to try and achieve what otherwise seems impossible,” says Alley, who previously set and still holds speed records for cycling and running Australia’s full 13,383-kilometer perimeter in 2011 and 2015, respectively. “I thought I was happily retired from the ultra endurance game but was seeking a different form of training to mix things up with my general fitness program.”
Alley’s plans to paddle the Murray River originated with a suggestion from his wife.
“I had bought an expedition kayak and had hardly used it,” he says. “I live in a beautiful seaside village and my house is approximately 1.5 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean and a creek. I took the advice of my wife and took the kayak down to the creek with no set agenda other than to use the kayak as a form of training.”
Casual outings quickly turned into an obsession for Alley. “I quickly fell in love with kayaking, the feeling of being in the boat and the time on my own,” he says. “This turned into thoughts of another epic adventure and what I could do. I did some research and the idea of tackling Australia’s and one of the world’s longest rivers was born.”
Alley acknowledged his lack of paddling experience and sought to become “like a sponge” in fast-tracking his skills progression on the water, while also drawing from his previous endurance challenges.
“At 47 years of age, no prior kayaking experience and having never been on the river was deemed by most as laughable,” he admits. “This record had been held for 30 years and all those who had previously attempted such a feat were seasoned, highly skilled and trained kayakers. I was effectively self-taught and it was a real process of trial and error.
“I used the same principles and process that were successful for me on the cycle and run. Essentially building distance over time while giving great thought preparation to the mountain of logistical work required. But it was a much shorter preparation for the kayak adventure. My thinking here was that I’m 47 years old and it’s now or never.”
The record attempt begins
On November 1, 2023, after driving three days to the Murray’s headwaters, Alley launched his custom-made, six-meter-long Fusion LR6 TK1 sea kayak and began his speed record attempt.
The epic started inauspiciously when Alley knocked his phone into the river. “I had downloaded audiobooks, podcasts, and music to keep me entertained and as a distraction only to have it gone,” he recalls. “It actually didn’t phase me. I just smiled and thought, this is what it is all about. Adapt and overcome.”
Greater concerns on day one of the trip included subzero temperatures, thick fog, low water and “a tough, technical section of river with multiple hazards,” Alley says. “In total, I capsized six or seven times throughout the record attempt due to fatigue, fallen trees and submerged objects.”
Low water levels throughout the trip meant he’d need to push extra hard to attain the record; especially considering when David Armytage made the fastest-known descent in 1993, he did so during a major flood. Add to this steady headwinds and temperatures ranging from minus three to 41 degrees Celcius, and it was clear Alley had his work cut out for him.
Alley’s six-man support team was integral to the expedition, allowing him to paddle up to 23 hours per day.
“I had hallucinations and my expected pace was reduced significantly due to the low water and headwinds, which meant only one thing: if I wanted the record I had to forego sleep and keep paddling,” he says. “It was tough, but I knew it was possible. I only had to look at my crew members and what they were pushing themselves through to see me do the job to know quitting wasn’t an option. They motivated and inspired me.”
Through the hardships, a sense of satisfaction
Alley admits he missed the opportunity to take in the stark contrasts of plains and long stretches of sheer cliffs that make the Murray a world-class waterway. But when he finally reached the river mouth, just south of Adelaide, Alley succeeded in shaving nearly 20 hours off the previous record, with a final time of 15 days, 11 hours and 33 minutes.
“The cycle, run and kayak were obviously different experiences due to being completely different sports,” says Alley. “However, dealing with the pain, sleep deprivation and having to get up day after day after day were similar experiences. Once you get through this and achieve your goal against all odds, you’re filled with a sense of deep satisfaction, pride and memories that I can’t put into words. I don’t do it for fame or fortune. I do it to prove an ordinary Aussie bloke can achieve big things through mental toughness.”
Dave Alley paddles the Murray River, setting a new speed record on Australia’s longest waterway. | Feature photo: Courtesy Dave Alley