Everything going for it
As a venue for an international surfski race, it really has everything going for it: the exotic alien feel of China; a first rate, first world infrastructure (over 90% of the population use inexpensive public transport); extraordinary opportunities for shopping; friendly locals (including the paddlers!); an outstanding race venue; great race organization and finally, a race course that for five years has consistently offered exciting, challenging conditions.
The exotic - massive floating restaurant in Aberdeen
It’s no wonder that the race has grown year by year from 46 paddlers in 2007 to 146 in 2011 (comprising 92 single skis, 2 doubles, 38 OC-1s and 6 OC-2s). Not bad when you consider that only 65 of the crews were local – all the rest flew in from 16 countries around the world. Oh, and there's a short course from Stanley out to the Kissing Whales and back: another 14 paddlers tackled the “Chicken Run”.
Visiting Hong Kong
Huge crowds and massive high rises in a concrete jungle. Oh, and throw in a hefty mix of pollution and heat and humidity. That was my impression before I arrived in this most fascinating of places.
The crowds are there and the huge apartment and office blocks – but only in the city itself. Pollution? Well, it was pretty hazy and apparently when the north wind blows, it does bring pollution from the industrial south of Mainland China. But the streets were strikingly clean and it’s relatively cool at this time of year.
And what really blew me away was just how much lush vegetation there is – both on the main islands, which are too hilly in many places for building, and on the tiny islands that surround Hong Kong – over 120 of them.
The view from the finish back along the course. The headland is about 3km away and the Kissing Whales are beyond to the left.
The view from the top of the double decker bus as it winds along the narrow road is outstanding: on the left, apartment blocks cling to the hillsides; on the right cliff-encircled islands surround tiny bays, each with its sandy beach. Unique aspects of China abound. Example: the huge apartment block in Repulse Bay that features a gaping hole in the building – a Feng Shui requirement to allow the dragon which resides in the mountain to have an open view and access to the sea.
Don't mess with the Dragon!
Race Venue – Hong Kong Sea School
Each morning the paddlers congregated at the Hong Kong Sea School to paddle out along the race course. Highlights:
- Bill Hutchinson, principal of the school – who tears around making people welcome and making sure that the Sea School runs like clockwork. Bill has worked at the sea school for twenty years.
- Pacific Coffees – great coffee shop just up the road from the Sea School where everyone congregates after paddling. Coffee’s good and if you go upstairs you can find an unsecured wifi connection!
- The Stanley Restaurant, just inside the Stanley Market. The food and beer are great and inexpensive (HK$80 for a meal and a 750ml beer). There are sometimes a few translation issues on the menu - I had something called “Grilled Pork Fillet with Charcoal” which was delicious. I didn't do the "chicken's claws salad".
- The paddling – even when it’s “flat”, it’s not. The waves ricochet off the steep-sided islands, and there’s always some sort of chop. The sea upwind of the Kissing Whales was a maelstrom on the first two days.
- Meeting the most famous mustache in surfski – Rambo! And Graham Uden, race photographer every year and whose work I admire enormously.
Race day logistics
How do you get nearly 150 craft – and paddlers from the race venue to the start some 20km away? The answer: hire a fleet of lorries and buses.
The race organisers have been doing this for a few years of course, so they know what they’re doing and it all swings into gear like a well-oiled machine. When we arrived at 07h00, the lorries were already there. It’s a simple drill: remove the skis from a rack; lift the rack onto the flat-bed of the truck using the truck’s own mini-crane; put the skis back onto the rack and strap down.
First the rack...
...and then the skis! Easy!
The Dragon Run is unique in that it comprises three legs, each with distinct characteristics.
At this time of year, the wind almost always blows a steady 10-15kt and from the northeast; last Saturday it blew more north than northeast, starting light but increasing towards the end.
Clearwater Bay to Nine Pins
The start in Clearwater Bay is on flat, sheltered water, but as we emerged from the bay, the chop started to make itself felt, running from left to right. I had just hooked onto someone’s slip when an OC1 paddler drifted aimlessly across and rammed my paddle with his ama, nearly knocking me off. Not once but twice. “Keep your line, you silly paddler,” said I – or words to that effect – as my slip disappeared into the distance.
Heading out of Clearwater Bay
This was my least favorite part of the race and I battled to get onto the small diagonal runs, the chop swirling the boat around and frustrating my attempts to maintain a steady rhythm.
Nine Pins to Kissing Whales (aka Cape D’Aguilar)
The 10km section down to Kissing Whales (a pair of distinctive rocks that look just like a pair of whales head to head) was great fun – the waves were bigger and although the wind was still at a diagonal over my right shoulder, I found it much easier to work the runs.
I made my way right, trying to find a good line around the group in front. It seemed to work and I overtook a bunch who’d surged past me on the way to Nine Pins.
I was a little nervous about crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – but the only vessel I saw was a smallish freighter which came up behind us as we approached the Kissing Whales. He sounded a long blast on his horn which spiked my heart rate and then let loose a tirade of blasts, apparently aimed at one of the paddlers in front. I tried to catch his wake, but it was barely discernable in the chop.
Kissing Whales to Stanley Bay
I cut a tight line around the Kissing Whales, catching a run through the chop and overtaking some paddlers who’d taken it wide. Having taken an energy gel before the turn, I felt strong as we headed back into the side wind on the flatter water. I overtook a couple of OC1s and had a dice (which I lost) with Arjan Bloem to the finish.
The race at the front
So how did it go at the pointy end of the race?
In a nutshell:
South African Tom Schilperoort went out like a rocket, leading at Nine Pins by about 90m from the following pack of Dawid Mocke, Hank McGregor, Shannon Eckstein and Tim Jacobs.
Tom Schilperoort leads at Nine Pins followed by (L to R) Shannon Eckstein, Hank McGregor, Dawid Mocke, Tim Jacobs)
The pack then split up with Mocke, Jacobs and McGregor quickly moving into the lead. Once again, the choice of line was key: Mocke was furthest out, Jacobs was in the middle and McGregor had chosen the line furthest inshore.
“I had the perfect line,” said Jacobs afterwards. “I wanted to get to Nine Pins ahead of Dawid and put an interval in just before we got there.”
Dawid Mocke cuts through the Nine Pins
Mocke got to the turn about 50m behind Jacobs.
McGregor’s line had destroyed his chances of a victory. “As we went down the course,” he said, “Dawid, Tim and I were in a line. But as we got closer to the turn, I just seemed to stop.”
McGregor, coming past the Kissing Whales
Once into Stanley Bay, the race was Jacobs’ to lose. “My equipment was good,” he said, “and I knew I’d only lose if I stuffed it up.”
By now the wind had strengthened and the paddlers had to contend with some fierce side-wind gusts. “To be honest,” said TJ, “I was thinking about just not falling out the boat!” Yeah, right!
Putting his head down, Jacobs accelerated and pulled away from Mocke, winning by 52 seconds in 1:32:36.
Jasper Mocke and Cory Hill dice around the Kissing Whales - in 3rd and 4th place. Hank McGregor came storming through to take 3rd.
McGregor, turning in fifth place, sprinted past Jasper Mocke and Cory Hill, who’d also been on an outside line and finished 33 seconds behind Mocke.
An indication of just how tight the racing was is that the time between 2nd and 10th places was under two minutes.
TJ crosses the line, the 2011 Steelcase Dragon Run Champion
South African Alexa Cole was never challenged and she finished in 26th place overall in 1:50:51, nine minutes ahead of her nearest rival, Hong Kong based Camille de Carmejane.
“The event was fantastically run,” said Cole afterwards. “The effort the organisers went to was radical…
“As for the race itself, I think everyone was expecting it to be flat,” she said,“but what we got was some pretty strange conditions! I don’t think you get these conditions in too many places. It was fun and different,” she added.
Alexa did an impressive clean and jerk to get that trophy above her head!
Sea School Students
For the first time, some sea school kids took part in the race – Li Yin paddling behind Rene Appel in the new Epic V10 double and five other students tackling the Chicken Run. Go boys!
Rene Appel and Li Yin pass Nine Pins in the Epic V10 Double
When we arrived at the finish our skis were instantly whisked away by the boys to be rinsed and stored safely on the racks. Luxury!
Epic Kayaks shipped two of their new V10 Doubles to Hong Kong for the race. According to Oscar Chalupsky, they’re 10% faster and 100% better than any other double on the market! (I went for a brief blast at the race finish in one with Epic Kayaks CEO Greg Barton… Initial impressions? Remarkably stable – and very comfortable. The extraordinary speed with which we came back to the beach was no doubt due to the Olympian in the back seat – not necessarily the ski!)
Seen for the first time...
Think Kayaks had their new entry-level ski at the race too. They’d run a competition to name the boat and it was christened the Think Eze at race briefing. I paddled it too for all of a couple of minutes. My impressions? Beautifully made – and truly, very stable. Daryl Remmler thrashed me by some distance too – so it can’t be that slow!
The Think Eze on display at the race briefing
Thanks – and I’ll be back
Thanks to the organisers – you put on a fabulous event! Four days was far too short to explore what Hong Kong has to offer and I’ll definitely be back…
Rambo's done a great job of this one...