World Series - Small steps to the big time...

Saturday, 10 December 2011 13:44 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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World Series - Small steps to the big time...

Warning: This article features no feats of paddling prowess, no storied rivalries or snippets of macho trash-talking. There's nothing here about shark attacks or boat-breaking surf, nor do I speculate about the return of double Olympic medalist Nathan Baggaley, the brilliant ski paddler released from prison last month.

Instead, brace yourself for a highly informative, minimally exciting article on the OceanPaddler World Surf Ski Series 2012 -- 16 races in 13 countries over 12 months -- that is likely to have a potent impact on the world of ocean kayak racing. If that isn’t enough to keep you reading, know that by the end of the article I will confirm the rumor that Dean Gardiner, Fenn dealer and driving force behind this ambitious new series, will paddle the next dozen events wearing Epic’s multi-colored, form-fitting, package-revealing unitard.

History

First, a bit of history. Over the past dozen years I've been privy to countless conversations about what it would take to establish a world-wide professional surf ski series. The key components, we all agreed, was a title sponsor with deep pockets, dynamic downwind events in scenic spots, a crack film crew to highlight how freakin' cool the sport was.  Put it all together and before you could say Kelly Slater might be 40 and bald but he's still bad as, our humble sport would follow the path of pro surfing and -- triumphant music, please – move higher on the sporting food chain.

A fine plan, especially after the third round of beers, but years passed and no tour materialized. There were still the iconic races like 20 Beaches, Cape Point Challenge and Molokai, but nothing like the pro surfing tour or the Ocean Ironman Series in Australia. Then, in 2006 Rob Mousley, the administrator of this site, spearheaded a five-race Surfski.info World Series. Those events, which featured a points system intricate enough to stymie Herman Chalupsky's Jewish accountant, was a welcomed start that created a palpable buzz on line. Oscar won the inaugural series and repeated in 2008. And in 2009 and '10, Dawid Mocke topped the list.

Last year, Dean Gardiner, the nine-time Molokai Champ known in my neighborhood as "Fish Bagel Breath," grabbed the reins of a series he felt had lost its way. Working with a race committee that consisted of Oscar, Tim Jacobs, Mocke and himself -- a grizzled mob with thinning hair and approximately 300 years of racing experience (give or take a century) -- they established criteria for points, prize structure, course requirements and schedule.

Dean Gardiner

Dean Gardiner (paddling the Molokai Challenge in 2008)

Non-aligned

Gardiner didn't want the series to be aligned with any one manufacturer and, consequently, enlisted the financial participation of the four leading ski manufacturers: Epic, Fenn, Nelo and Think. Daryl Remmler, the man behind Think Kayaks, was bully on Deano's plan: "There is no financial commitment required to be a part of each event. Only a fee to support the series. Each event is looked at independently, and we can work with the events that make the best use of our sponsorship dollars. For example, I'm very tied to San Fran and Hong Kong, but I could also work with three or four other events, as dollars allow."

The 2011 OceanPaddler Series featured six events: The Doctor in Perth (Jan); Molokai (May); Durban (June); Mauritius (July), US Ski Champs in San Fran (Aug.) and Hong Kong's Dragon Run (Nov.). For the third consecutive year, Mocke, who stood on the podium in all five events he participated in, edged fellow Cape Townian Tom Schilperoort, to top the men; Michelle Eray took the women's series handily, winning all three races she entered.

2012 

Gardiner has a far more ambitious plan for 2012. He expanded the series to 16 races (to win, a paddler must finish five [15 Dec: updated - Dean and the race committee decided that eight was too many] races). By staging the events in 13 countries, paddlers who found the cost and logistics prohibitive have a wider variety of events to chose from. This year, for example, there are five races in Europe. "Grouping events makes it easier for competitors to do more than one event per trip," says Gardiner, "which gives race organizers a better chance of getting more people to their event." Addressing his pet peeve -- lazy race directors -- he's made strides to insure that race directors remain flexible about changing their start time and course to best take advantage of the wind.

In short, Gardiner's paddling aesthetic and race philosophy are as in tune with what paddlers want as his singing is off-key: Create well-run, downwind, point-to-point events -- uniformly timed and scored -- that are fun and accessible. "Some paddlers don't mind smashing into the wind," he said, "but the majority of the mob wants to race downwind."

Take, for example, the U.S. Surf Ski Champs in San Francisco. Instead of bashing into a chilling headwind wind for the first 8K, the race will start further up the coast and run entirely downhill. "I'm looking at it purely selfishly," Dean says, who at the age of 47 remains one of the best downwind paddlers in the game, "but I think doing it this way is the best way for the sport to grow."

Click here for the current 2012 Calendar

Click here for the Rules & Regulations

Dawid Mocke

Three-time Series Champion Dawid Mocke plans to do nine of the 16 events in 2012.  His take is typically upbeat: "No question about it. This is the launch pad we have been waiting for." Nelo rep Andre Santos agrees. "The formalization and ruling of the racing part of this sport is essential for its credibility. The combination of great locations and different kind of conditions will keep it unpredictable and fun for the paddlers."

Dawid Mocke

Dawid Mocke wins the 2007 Dubai Shamaal

Downwind or Die? 

While Remmler applauds Gardiner's energy and direction he did mention that if he has a weakness it's his "downwind or die" mantra, as it's "not always going to mesh with some great races in great spots around the world. That said, the sport needs a statesman to take this on and Dean has the experience, knowledge and connections to do it."

Still, as Remmler says, for Gardiner's series to gain traction, it needs the media to make it grow. "Otherwise it's just another race series. It's all about the media. From the manufacturers’ perspective, working the entry level side of our sport is what will get more bums in boats, and grow the base."

Gardiner's critics, and there are more than a few, insist that he's mostly out to sell boats. It's a charge he doesn't deny. "Oceanpaddler isn't an events company; we're in the business of selling skis," he says, but his larger aim is to improve the popularity of the sport. 

And, he insists, if a neutral title sponsor comes along and wants to put its name to the series, he's happy to relinquish it. "Of course, I want to sell more boats," he says, "all the manufacturers do, but I'm also doing this because I think the sport deserves it and I'm willing to put in the time and effort that it takes to make it work. This series is being built not so much for now but for people in the future. But we have to start somewhere."

But is he willing to do it in Epic’s bumblebee-esque, paunch-hugging onesie? "I would," he said, when he stopped laughing, "if you sleep with Oscar with a condom made by Fenn."

While negotiations have broken down, I plan to fly to Perth for the Doctor next month so stay tuned.


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