West Coast Express - Race Report

Monday, 28 October 2019 16:01 | Written by 
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Hayley Nixon on her way to win the 2019 West Coast Express Hayley Nixon on her way to win the 2019 West Coast Express Credits: Cape Town Sport Photography

The start whistle for the women’s race coincided with the arrival of a set, a breaking wave smashing into the surfskis, sending their noses rocketing skyward before they plunged down the other side… One, two, four skis flying backwards without their paddlers as the surf played havoc with the field...

 It was the start of the inaugural West Coast Express surfski race in Cape Town, the third leg of the World Surfski League - and the paddlers were competing both for WSSL series points and a US$20,000 prize pool.

New Course

In what turned out to be a great call, race director Russell Sadler set a course from Melkbos to Milnerton – the opposite direction to that most familiar to the Cape Town paddlers.

“We were hoping for the famous Cape southeaster to give us a downwind,” he said. “But we had to work with the forecast westerly and hope for a few bumps.”

In the event, the wind was almost negligible, but for most of the course there were small waves to give a lift to the paddlers’ efforts. And with the glorious clear skies and the magnificent backdrop of Table Mountain, there were few complaints.

Pleasantly Surprised

“After yesterday’s weather,” said Hayley Nixon, “we didn’t know what to expect!” (The previous day, Cape Town had been lashed by gale-force winds, over 70mm of rain and massive ocean swells.)

“I was pleasantly surprised,” continued Nixon. “While it’s never ideal to have a flat race, we knew there would be some bumps – and we’ve done the training for the flat.

“And I was so impressed with the women’s line-up,” she added. “We had a group photo before the start, and it was great to see the depth of women paddlers.”

At the start Nixon’s goal was simply to get through the surf zone cleanly. “I’ve raced (Australian) Wendy Reyntjes before and I know how good she is in surf,” Nixon said, “and I didn’t want to let her get too far ahead.”

Nixon rounded the turn buoy in the front bunch but took a line slightly further out to sea. “I wanted to be on a slightly wider line, so that I’d have the option of bowing back into the finish,” she said.

JRH 8968

What a backdrop for the race: the magnificent vista of Table Mountain 

Unfamiliar

On a brand new, completely unfamiliar course, Nixon said she found it quite intimidating. “I had the coordinates of the finish on my GPS and I knew that I’d be able to see the lighthouse at Milnerton

“But you don’t want to make a fool of yourself and go the wrong way,” she laughed.

“It worked well,” she said. “I followed the coordinates and I could see the lighthouse from a long way out.”

For most of the race, three women dominated: Reyntjes on the inside, Nixon and Nicole Leigh Birkett on a line further out to sea.

As the paddlers passed Blouberg, the half-way point was marked by a set of jagged rocks, and Nixon accelerated, opening up a gap. “I worked the small reflected bumps,” she said. “I thought of it as a 20km time trial and went for it.”

Michelle Burn also chose that point to put the hammer down, and forced her way past Birkett to take second place.

Michelle Burn

Durban's Michelle Burn pips Nicole Birkett to take second position in the open women's race

“It couldn’t have gone better,” Nixon said afterwards. “The surf was there, but it wasn’t massive. There was plenty of wildlife, the beautiful backdrop. It wasn’t even cold!

“If you weren’t here, bad luck, you missed a goodie!”

While the surf wasn’t brutal, both start and finish saw their share of swimmers.

Men’s Race

The men’s race was “pretty uneventful,” said Kenny Rice. At the turn can, a group of four lead the way comprising Sean Rice, Kenny, Nicholas Notten and Jasper Mocke.

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Sean Rice, Kenny Rice and Nicholas Notten

“After about eight km Jasper dropped off,” said Kenny Rice. “And with about 5km to go, Sean put in an interval and created a gap.”

Kenny Rice responded, catching up to his brother, but in the process blew off Notten and the brothers continued, nose to tail to the finish.

“It was fun race,” said Rice. “It wasn't a raging downwind, but those glassy bumps definitely helped, as you can see from the average speeds.”

Sean Rice, who flew in from his home in the UK specially to compete, said, “I’m very happy to have had the win at this brand-new race.

HK 3000

Sean Rice, winning the inaugural West Coast Express in front of a crowd of family and friends 

“Absolutely iconic place and so special to be able to do a race of this level in front of family and friends,” he added.

It’s far from the first time that the Rice brothers have shared the podium in a race. “We went 1, 2 at the World Champs this year, at EuroChallenge in 2015 and 2018 and at the Breizh race in France in 2017,” said Kenny.

“The Breizh race was the only one where I was 1 and he was 2,” he laughed.

“It was so awesome being on home turf with the family and friends to support us,” he added.

My Race?

I usually look for a mid-pack result but this inaugural race was stacked with elite level paddlers, so I knew that I’d be near the back of the field.

But I had a ball. Not being surrounded by my usual paddling peers, I could relax and take my time getting out through the surf at Melkbos. The waves weren’t bone-crunching and all it needed was a few punches through foamies and then a sprint through the break zone and we were away.

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The surf for the men's start was relatively gentle

As I approached the turn buoy, I was surprised (and amused) to hear a familiar voice: that of surfski race organizing legend Billy Harker. “Well that was a good start!” he said ruefully. Ironically the maestro of the Durban surf had been worked over by the relatively mild Cape waves. Welcome to Cape Town!

Light wind, small waves

I tagged along briefly behind a bunch, but they were going too fast for me and I dropped off, to paddle almost the whole way on my own. I found a rhythm, surging onto some small but workable runs and, for a while, kept pace with the group in front who’d chosen to paddle just behind the backline.

What a day! The sky was cloudless, the sea wasn’t too cold, the breeze was enough to keep us cool. The iconic view of Table Mountain kept taking my breath away. I’d never paddled this route in this direction before – and what a treat it was.

At the half-way point, I saw the bunch heading for the gap inside the rocks at Big Bay. Then the horizon behind turned white as a big set closed it out, and the group abruptly veered out to sea to go around.

The last few km were a bit of a grind as the breeze turned more side-on and the sea worked up a confused chop. Despite my keeping my heart rate up, my speed was dropping.

Surf to the finish

I arrived at the final turn-point and the last barrier to the finish: a fair dinkum little surf break. Before the race I’d spent a few minutes watching the waves and I’d noticed that the surfers were clustered just to the north of the finish line and that there appeared to be a slight flattening out of the waves to the south of them.

The first wave that came in didn’t seem too big and scary and I hopped onto it, intending to pull out if it jacked up. Glancing to my left, it started to curl, but to my right it wasn’t breaking… I was on exactly the right line. A couple of strokes and I continued the ride towards the sand; now it started to jack up but it didn’t seem to be dumping too hard and I waited, waited, and then legs out to slow the boat and the wave dissipated on the sand, I hopped out (and fell over), leapt up, picked the boat up and trotted across the finish.

Yeeeeeeha!  (Thanks Sharon Armstrong for the video!)

Rob arrival

That's the way to finish a race - a ride in all the way from backline...  coming in HOT!

For me, that was by far the most satisfying part of the race – to fashion a decent landing through the surf, in front of a crowd of discerning paddlers made me feel awesome... Skill? Luck? I’d like to think it was a little of both!

But what an event! It really couldn’t have gone much better: a world class bunch of competitors, the highest proportion of women to men in any South African race ever, a stunning day in an incredibly beautiful location. I had a ball and I’ll be back next time (hopefully to paddle a gale-force downwind in the opposite direction!).

World Surfski League

The WSSL, sponsored by China Silver Asset Management, comprises six races the West Coast Express being the 3rd in the series.

The previous two races, the Gorge Downwind Championships (USA) and the Irish Coast Paddling Championships (Ireland) were won by Kenny Rice and Sean Rice respectively.

The West Coast Downwind had a prize pool of US$20,000.

“I can’t extend my thanks enough to the Cape Town paddling and race organizing community for the way they helped out and welcomed the race on the circuit,” said Sadler, who is also Operations Director for the WSSL. “Looking forward to many more and making it bigger and better!”

The remaining races in the 2019 series comprise:

  • Steelcase Dragon Run: 9 Nov 2019 – Hong Kong
  • Perth Doctor: 23 Nov 2019 – Perth, AUS
  • 20 Beaches Classic: 7 Dec 2019 – Sydney AUS

For more information

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Summary Results 

Click here for the full results

Open Men

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Sean Rice 30 1:21:10.4 - -
2 Kenny Rice 24 1:21:34.6 +0:24.2 +0.50%
3 Nicholas Notten 23 1:21:49.2 +0:38.8 +0.80%
4 Simon Van Gysen 34 1:23:51.4 +2:41.0 +3.31%
5 Joshua Fenn 20 1:26:16.7 +5:06.3 +6.29%

Open Women

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Hayley Nixon 36 1:34:40.2 - -
2 Michelle Burn 34 1:36:30.0 +1:49.8 +1.93%
3 Nicole Leigh Birkett 31 1:36:59.5 +2:19.3 +2.45%
4 Wendy Reyntjes 47 1:39:24.0 +4:43.8 +5.00%
5 Melanie Van Niekerk 26 1:40:56.7 +6:16.5 +6.63%

Over 55 Men

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Michael Schwan 58 1:38:09.2 - -
2 Rob Mousley 56 1:47:30.7 +9:21.5 +9.53%
3 Nigel Harvey 64 1:52:46.2 +14:37.0 +14.89%
4 Simon Woods 41 1:53:26.0 +15:16.8 +15.57%
5 Brian Wilson 59 2:01:54.7 +13:45.5  

Over 35 Men

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Bevan Manson 41 1:26:44.9 - -
2 Peter Cole 50 1:36:41.9 +9:57.0 +11.47%
3 Crispin Thompson 46 1:37:00.1 +10:15.2 +11.82%
4 Richard Allen 50 1:37:09.0 +10:24.1 +11.99%
5 Robin Tindall 45 1:41:59.6 +15:14.7 +17.57%

Over 35 Women

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Tricia Gilbert 49 1:54:10.2 - -

Under 18 Men

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Uli Hart 18 1:26:58.0 - -
2 Jordy Malherbe 17 1:32:01.0 +5:03.0 +5.81%
3 Jake Schoeman 18 1:34:38.9 +7:40.9 +8.83%
4 James Matthews 17 1:35:18.5 +8:20.5 +9.59%
5 Conrad Kriel 17 1:42:28.0 +15:30.0 +17.82%

Under 18 Women

PlaceNameAgeTimeDifference% Back
1 Christy Shrimpton 17 1:48:48.6 - -
2 Jade Wilson 16 2:04:48.9 +16:00.3 +14.71%

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