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GARRY van Dijk has competed in 15 Sydney to Hobart races, but the wildest and most fraught voyage the sailor has ever undertaken is the journey through cancer.
In May 2018, his wife noticed a mole on his back change, so Mr van Dijk had it checked. The doctor detected a melanoma, and Garry van Dijk vividly recalled being given a grim warning.
"You could die from this."
The cancer was removed in an operation, and Garry van Dijk gradually resumed life as he knew it, including his passion for sailing.
Heaven could wait for Garry van Dijk.
The cancer journey has left a deep scar on his back, and a deeper desire to help others confronting the disease.
So this weekend, Mr van Dijk will be skippering his catamaran, Tasha, in the 24-hour endurance race that is a highlight of the annual Heaven Can Wait charity sailing regatta on Lake Macquarie.
The regatta is run by the Royal Motor Yacht Club Toronto to raise funds for local organisations, primarily for the Hunter branch of Cancer Council NSW.
In the 15 years Heaven Can Wait has been held, the regattas have raised more than $300,000, with a lot of that money directed to home-help programs for cancer patients.
"Everybody knows somebody who has had some form of cancer," said Mr van Dijk. "Everyone is touched by cancer."
Another competitor in this year's 24-hour race is Chris Laughlan, skipper of the yacht, Trim. He carries the memory of a business partner, Peter Lucas, with him out onto the water.
"I think of Pete a lot," Mr Laughlan said. "He passed away from melanoma at 49."
This year six boats are competing in the endurance race, which sees sailors doing laps of a 30-nautical mile course around the lake.
According to regatta director and vice commodore of the RMYC Toronto, Mel Steiner, competitor numbers are down this year. He attributes that to not just the impact of COVID-19 but also a perilously shallow Swansea Channel.
He said some of the bigger boats who had participated in previous races couldn't negotiate the channel at the moment, with sand build-up having reduced the depth.
Renowned sailor Peter Hewson has been a regular Heaven Can Wait participant, securing a string of places in the endurance race. The skipper of Wallop said the 24-hour race was not only a great charity event but provided valuable training for his crew.
However, Wallop won't be competing this year. The yacht is currently berthed in Newcastle, unable to sail home to Toronto.
"We can't get in and do events like this until the channel is fixed," Mr Hewson said, explaining that Wallop drew about 2.8 metres, and at low tide, the channel was only about a metre deep in places.
Wallop wasn't alone in being shut out from the lake.
"We've people from Newcastle, Port Stephens, Gosford and Sydney who want to get in, but they've been held back by the channel," Mr Hewson said.
As a result of the smaller number of boats, the funds raised would most likely be down as well.
For instance, the crew of Wallop usually raise about $5000 each year. So Peter Hewson found it "extremely frustrating" that his yacht couldn't be part of this year's fund-raising effort.
According to RMYC Toronto's Mel Steiner, Heaven Can Wait raised about $50,000 last year, with $45,000 going to the Cancer Council and $5000 to Marine Rescue NSW. This year, Mr Steiner was expecting the regatta to raise about $30,000 "based on the number of boats".
Compared with some years when up to 70 boats participate in Heaven Can Wait, this year 45 had registered.
"It's lower than we would like, but considering what we've been through in the past 12 months, it's pretty good," Mr Steiner said.
Mel Steiner also has a cancer connection. His wife, Robyn, is a breast cancer survivor.
He has competed in five of the 24-hour races, but these days keeps his feet dry while still depriving himself of sleep by running the regatta.
So Mel Steiner knows how tough the endurance race is.
"You're up for 24 hours, and you're continually changing sails," he said.
Peter Hewson, an experienced competitive sailor, said the Heaven Can Wait endurance race was "harder than Hobart".
"It's really hard, and you never stop," Mr Hewson said.
Apart from the desire to raise money for a good cause, what drives these sailors to return time and again?
For Garry van Dijk, this is his fourth endurance race. Two years ago, he won it.
As much as the possibility of victory was a driving force, Mr van Dijk said what tempted him back each year was "the challenge of doing it, and being with my mates".
"I'm a little bit crazy," he said. "I just love it.
"Sailing around the lake at night time, it's hard to relax. There are so many obstacles, like fishing boats out there, markers, everything you could possibly run into.
"The lake is a busy place, even at night time."
As a result, sleep was hard to come by in the race.
"Realistically, I maybe get an hour's sleep, that would be it," Mr van Dijk said, adding that some of his five crew mates may be a little luckier, grabbing a couple of hours' rest.
"Adrenaline keeps you awake. And coffee."
Chris Laughlan estimated this was his seventh Heaven Can Wait endurance race.
"The sailing thing is a real obsession," he explained.
But conditions - and fortunes - can change out on the lake very quickly.
Chris Laughlan said his thoughts were with the sailor who died off Wangi Point last weekend after being knocked overboard from his yacht by a swinging boom. Mr Laughlan recalled an incident during one endurance race, when a crew mate was knocked unconscious by a boom.
"It can all turn bad pretty quickly," he said.
Two years ago, when his boat won the race, Garry van Dijk said Mother Nature was in a sour mood, as she poured scorn, rain and 30-knot winds onto the fleet.
"It was probably at the limit of the conditions you would sail in," he said.
The sailors are hoping for kinder weather this weekend. The forecast is for showers, with south to south-easterly winds to 20km/h after the race begins, and the chance of a thunderstorm.
These days, the Heaven Can Wait regatta is a centrepiece of the annual Lakefest boating celebrations.
"We don't know of any other event on the lake like this," Mel Steiner said.
The regatta was the brain child of Shaun Lewicki, a cancer survivor and sailor. Mel Steiner said Mr Lewicki would be at the race's start at 11am, watching the resilient souls set off from a stretch between Valentine and Bolton Point on their long voyage through the day and night.
As he prepared Tasha for the race, Garry van Dijk said he hoped to win again this year. Not that a place was that important. For Mr van Dijk, after his cancer experience, Heaven Can Wait was about celebrating life.
"Win or lose, I'll go out and have some fun," he said.
"And this is close to my heart. It means something."
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