Southern Shamaal - roughest toughest race in the world

Thursday, 09 December 2010 07:40 | Written by 
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Southern Shamaal! Southern Shamaal! Credits: Owen Middleton

As I write this, over 160 paddlers have already started the toughest four-day surfski event in the world – the 250km Southern Shamaal Port Elizabeth to East London Challenge.

“Solo” Event

The iconic event has been run biennially for the past thirty years and has seen many of the world’s top surfski paddlers attempt (and not always complete) the grueling course.

For the last three years, the race, which had been ailing due to lack of funding, has been supported by the Shamaal Series – hence the Southern Shamaal moniker.  In 2008 a team race was introduced for the first time and a rampant Australian squad took first place.  Following the success of the team race, it was decided to run the Challenge every year but to split the team and solo versions.  2010 is a “solo” event.

Southern Shamaal

The course

Day 1

Blue Water Bay Surf Lifesaving Club to Woody Cape Beach

Paddle distance: 75 km

Paddle Time for winners: 5 1/2 hours

Woody Cape is notorious for its huge surf…  It hasn’t fired for the last three years but it features at the forefront of the paddlers’ thoughts – imagine paddling 75km only to smash your ski on the way in to the beach.  And worse – you lie in your tent listening to the boom of the waves, knowing that next morning you have to go out through it…

Day 2

Woody Cape Beach to Port Alfred

Paddle distance: 53 km

Paddle Time for winners: 4 hours

The last 5km of this day sees rogue breakers that rear up unexpectedly well out to sea – catch the waves and you’re flying; get it wrong and you’re swimming, potentially with a broken boat.  And you still have to negotiate a substantial shore break and rip currents to get to the finish.

Day 3

Port Alfred to Hamburg

Paddle distance: 68 km

Paddle Time for winners: 5 ½ hours

This is the toughest day in the race.  Both physically – the paddlers are all tired, no matter who they are – and the end is not yet in sight.  Day 4 is much easier – it’s shorter and the end is just around the corner…  Day 3 is a mind bender.

And there’s surf!  A point break can provide a ride all the way into the beach – sometimes though, it closes out from the right and drives you onto the rocks.

Day 4

Hamburg to East London (Orient Beach)

Paddle distance: approx 62 km

Paddle Time for winners: 4 to 5 hours

Getting out at Hamburg can be fun; just when you think you’ve got over the back line, a rogue set can come through to take you back to the start…  Start over, do not pass Go.

244km of hell?

Hmm… rumor and GPS tracks indicate that the race is usually somewhat over 244km – closer to 250!

At the pointy end of the race the tactics usually dictate preservation of energy for most of the day – with a break away from the group towards the end of the leg.  Put a two or three minute lead in and then keep by sticking with the bunch the next day.

For the majority of the paddlers, camaraderie is the name of the game – you’ve been training up to 15hrs a week with the same group and it’s all about grinding out the kilometers.  Form a diamond, stick with it, take your turn.  Every couple of hours stop and have a picnic.  Wait on the beach until the last man is in...  The traditions are many and well ingrained.

Everything of course depends on the weather.  Most years there's a mixture of everything: flat calm, headwinds and, with any luck, some downwind.  This year the weather gods looked down, grimaced and spat out four days of easterly winds.  

windguru PE 20101209

Windguru forecast

Race Favorites

With perennial favorite Paul Marais not competing this year (addition to the family imminent), the top seed is Australian Hayden Smith.  Smith resides in Dubai and has been training flat out in the desert heat.  If he wins, he’ll be the first non-South African ever to take the title.

Hayden Smith

Hayden Smith - looking relaxed and confident at the race briefing last night

Scott Rutherfoord (Durban) is local favorite, followed by Bevan Manson.  Manson recently won the Breizh Ocean Race in France.

This year the doubles race looks to be a closely fought affair with Brendan Thompson and Alan Schuddingh being the top seeds.

Race Update

With an easterly wind seeming set for the duration, the route for today’s leg has been changed to an out and back – Blue Water Bay to the mouth of the Sundays River and back – a distance of some 50km.

Southern Shamaal

"The course has changed..." - race briefing in Port Elizabeth last night

Pics by Owen Middleton (


Live Tracking

Ten of the skis have tracking devices.  Click here to check it out...

Username: shamaal; password: surfski

Set the filter to shamaal and "Show on Map" to Users in order to the see the names.

Note that top seed double Thompson/Schuddingh do not have a tracker today.

Look out for up to date positions and more photos this afternoon.

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