One of the single toughest physical events anywhere in the world is approaching - the longest, most gruelling surfski race anywhere. You guessed it, the Surf Ski Challenge, Port Elizabeth to East London. It's nothing but pure hardcore racing over four days between two famous coastal cities: 244km's over one of the world's most treacherous coastlines.
Team Australia’s chances of making up lost ground on South Africa were dealt a cruel blow on Monday when day three of the Southern Shamaal International Surfski Challenge was cancelled due to the prevailing misty conditions.
A young Team South Africa believe they have a fighting chance to turn the tables on Australia in the annual Southern Shamaal International Surfski Challenge that will take place over 240 kilometres between Port Elizabeth and East London from December 5 to 8.
The Southern Shamaal relay event from PE to
EL is to be held from the 5th December to the 8th December 2009 and will be an
international competition and is being billed as the World Relay Championships.
A team will comprise of 3 paddlers, one single and one double. The double will
hand over to the single and vice versa at the designated change over points.
Paddlers may change partners after each day to suit weather or surf conditions.
Who knew what would happen when a team element was introduced into this grand old race? Tested in the solo race of 2008 with positive feedback from the paddlers, it was decided to try a race in 2009 that consisted of teams only. On race day no fewer than 28 teams including national teams from South Africa, Australia, USA & the UAE were there to give it a go.
Jonathan Crowe gets airborne at Hamburg
Why the Change?
But why the change? Why even try to introduce teams into what has been a solo event for more than 30 years?
The solo race has struggled for sponsorship for years - the 2006 race was ‘rescued’ by The Old Mutual a few days prior to the start, but it was never a long term commitment. The race had to find a revenue source.
The entry base was not growing and was ageing. A core group of guys commit to the race and do it every two years but many try it and do not return due to the hardship endured. Others stay away and never even contemplate doing the race. The sport is growing – the PE2EL solo race is not.
It is a very expensive race to run. The distances are vast, the danger unlimited and the paddlers all tired. The entrants used to be sourced from Surf Lifesaving backgrounds and were very strong in surf conditions. Today’s younger paddlers come from all kinds of athletic backgrounds and many otherwise proficient paddlers have no business being in a 6ft Woody Cape beach break after paddling 80km to get there. With this in mind the safety both on the sea and on shore needs to be top rate; that costs a lot of money in time and petrol.
As the sport grows some paddlers are tempted into trying the race and possibly are really are not good enough to be trying 250km in 4 Days. Their boat speed is simply not fast enough relative to the front bunch and that translates into a higher safety cost. To many this event is not a race – it’s their personal challenge and mountain to climb so speed is not part of the equation. Fair enough - but somebody has to pay for the safety cover required. The longer the paddler is on the water the more likely he will need safety. Near home is not home!
The sport of surfski is pushing harder and harder into its core of races that are less than 30km and are downwind with the winner being the best Ocean Surfer. The Pro surfski riders do not and cannot understand paddling into a headwind for 60km. They refuse to participate, the media coverage drops and it gets harder to find the sponsor to cover the safety you need when you have a racing fleet drawn out over 5km of deserted coastline.
So the Downwind Team Challenge was launched and I was fascinated to participate and to observe how the event would unfold:
Who would participate? What age, sex, ability?
Would it in any way be a challenge of any sort?
What would be the skills needed and what conditions would the surf throw up?
Would it have any chance of working and becoming a more long term fixture?
The ability and quality of the International paddling teams speak for themselves so it was the balance of competitors that was of interest.
The Hard Men
There were the traditional hard men from the solo race. They had seen it, done it and they joined hands and formed teams to try the new format.
Johhny Woods & Buskits De Smit share a laugh on the sand in Port Alfred
Families were represented in complete teams like Team Boyd: Father, son and daughter-in-law. There were several father and son combinations racing in different teams like veteran PE-EL racer Keith Theron whose son paddled in the only junior team entered.
The youngsters were a huge hit and it was so good to see young men on the race.
Keith Theron and son
Mixed teams were entered made up of friends, boy friends, girlfriends. Bulla Wood & Helen Weldrick made up a strong mixed double combination.
Bulla Wood and Helen Weldrick - 1st Mixed Team
Was it a challenge?
This depends on how you view your “challenge”. Some were racing and really pushing themselves hard to finish in the prize money.
The A batch racers. Going hard!
Some were simply focused on getting through the surf without swimming; others had never ridden big downwind swell while some had never paddled a four day race on a remote coastline. Some competitors were there to meet new people and get to know their own people better – something a ‘tour’ like this offers.
There wasn’t the drama or pure exhaustion of the solo race, but there was a real sense of competitors meeting their own challenge. And when you ride down wind it’s usually with a smile…
Team USA try to read the surf
Just through, just!
Team USA punch through
Team UAE’s Crow takes on the Hamburg break (and gets munched!)
Surf Rescue NSRI – always ready to help
Meeting your Challenge
Two examples of people who met their own challenges stand out particularly for me:
Danie Loots (Joubert) entered with two friends. She is the middle daughter of the famed East London surfer Bobby Joubert. She has not been paddling long – and was faced with a wild Woody Cape on Day One. It was gale force. She did it in the back of a double and it was one of the biggest accomplishments this Mother of 3 has had. She was proud, her team were proud, her husband and kids were there to support her into the finish. Team Bobby Joubert had a great race.
Danie gets a hug from Anton at Woody Cape – you made it!
Team Time. We made it!
Team support – we all go home together!
Ian Boyd is a past champion paddler. He is a past winner of multiple races in South Africa. He is now 64 and back into paddling after a 10 year break. He faced the surf at Hamburg and was worried about making it out. He started, almost got out but was dumped 500m from the beach. He went again and got smashed at least 5 times and had a long, long swim. His Son ran down the beach to get his ski, steady him and set him off again. After 20min Ian reached the backline to cheers from the beach.
He never gave up – he finished and offered a lesson in persistence and completing the job!
Got the ski, where's the old boy?
We try again and again until we make it.
What Skills were needed?
It is a team race - so you have to pull as a team. You have to lift your weakest person and remind them that they have value in the mission and matter. You have to face up to the surf. There is no hiding from it. You have to be able to ride proper downwind swell.
Each day the race is only started once the wind is really pushing the water and it can be hectic. You have to get on with people both in your team and out of it as the ‘tour’ moves up the coast. You have to have gas for 4 days of 30km +.
Of course a taste for a cold Zulu helps as well as you listen to the war stories as the sun dips.
Which ever way you look at it you will race about 25 km per day. It is not easy.
The Red Doctor helps
Can it work long term?
This is an absolute certainty. The race had 28 teams and they were almost all Eastern Cape Teams. Once the bug bites in the provinces and clubs this format can run 100 teams with ease. This is an opportunity to race a wild coastline with your mates according to your measure of success. You enter, you have your challenge to meet and enjoy it with like minded people in downwind conditions that can stand up to any race in the World.
Who knows where this great race will go next but what is certain is that it has just got a massive shot of adrenaline.