US Champs - Race Report

Friday, 05 October 2007 04:00 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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[Editor: Well known New York based adventurer and writer Joe Glickman put this piece together about the 2007 US Surfski Championships.  Joe came 28th in the race.]

US Surfski Champs 2007 Doubles - sprint start
Barry Lewin, Rami Zur & Zsolt Szadovszki sprint at the start (Photo: John Gunter)

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US Surfski Champs 2007 - Race Report 

Five hundred meters into the 2007 US Surf Ski Championships Greg Barton powered through a gap in the pack and hammered like he always does: body erect, eyes wide, his cheeks blown out with each stroke like a trumpeter reaching for High C. When Barton was winning Olympic medals and World 10K Championships, he sought open water the way a prospector would the mother lode. But at the age of 48, the two-time U.S. ski champ had precious little time to train, and while he still had the chops to take the lead, he knew he would pay a price for it.

Greg Barton in the slop - 2007 US Surfski Champs
Greg Barton in chop near the Golden Gate Bridge (Photo: John Gunter)

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Fenn Hotspot 

He’d chosen a perfect line through the current and ferried ahead of the fractured chase pack. All that stood between him and the $1,000 prize as the first to the yellow buoy designated as the Fenn Hot Spot was Daryl Bartho, the former South African sprint team member, poised on his slip. “I knew it was way too early to go so hard,” Barton said afterwards. “My heart rate was in the red zone, but when Daryl tried to come by it was impossible not to go for it.”

Greg Barton and Daryl Bartho duel at the 2007 US Surf Ski Champs
Greg Barton and Daryl Bartho duel up front (Photo: John Gunter)

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Safely around the buoy, the money his, Barton and Bartho settled into a decorated mob: Eleven-time Molokai winner Oscar Chalupsky; Bevan Manson, winner of the Scottburgh to Brighton Classic; Lewis Laughlin, the reigning Molokai Champ; and Zsolt Szadovszki, a former member of the Hungarian National Sprint Team. Chasing hard was Durban’s Barry Lewin. Fresh off wins at the Liffey Descent in Ireland and the Soualiga Challenge in the Caribbean, he was second to Dawid Mocke at the US Surf Ski Champs last year. Just behind was a trio of U.S. Olympians: Patrick Dolan, Brandon Woods and Rami Zur, followed by Ian Gray, a former rugby player from Durban, as well as Ian MacKenzie and Robert Clegg, sixth and seventh, respectively, at the World Marathon Champs in Hungary three weeks earlier.

US Surf Ski Champs - under the Golden Gate a strung out conga line (Photo: Craig Tanner)

The leaders moved along the rocks like a strung out conga line through the squirrelly water under the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate is the signature landmark in the City by the Bay, a mile long and 220 feet high, the towers at each end three times that height. On sunny days the vast expanse of the bridge gleams as it lords over the bay. But paddle under it in a little narrow boat and it seems more nasty than noble. San Francisco bay is the only sea-level gap in the California Coastal Range for 400 miles. The cool marine air is sucked toward the hot dry valley and wind speeds more than 30 mph are common late in the afternoon. Last year, two days before the Champs, a paddler from Bellingham, Washington dumped and lost his ski around Point Bonita. He had no leash and before you could say Zsolt Szadovszki three times fast his ski vanished. He swam for nearly an hour before crawling out onto an inaccessible beach where he shivered alone until a Coast Guard helicopter retrieved him.

Calmest US Champs 

This was the fifth edition of the US Champs. When the gun sounded at 12:30 p.m., the wind was less than 10 mph. While this was the calmest of the four races I’ve done here -- Hawaiian Mark Sandvold, no stranger to rough water, called the conditions around Point Bonita in 2004 “nuking” -- it was anything but flat.

Heading towards Point Bonita, a rocky point that arches away from the sheltered water along the undulating cliffs, I spied an incongruously huge wall of water 500 meters ahead. In an instant it leapt up like a cobra from a basket, heading between two rocks just off the point where a couple of paddlers were making their way though the gap. Said Ian MacKenzie, a flat water paddler from Victoria, British Columbia: “I scratched over the top moments before it crashed on my head.” He was keenly aware that his race nearly came to an abrupt end.

Just ahead of MacKenzie, the lead pack of Oscar, Barton, Manson, Bartho, Laughlin and a fast-closing Barry Lewin rounded the Point Bonita buoy within ear shot of each other. Up to now Oscar have been content to cover while the other four had taken turns doing the hard yards up front. However, just past the buoy they turned right, heading further out to sea into the current, and found little runs reflecting off the cliffs. Oscar seized the opportunity and surged to the front.

Lewis Laughlin pulls - 2007 US Champs
Lewis Laughlin pulling the pack (Photo: John Brownlee)

Oscar Moves 

“I’d planned to wait until we rounded the far buoy and then make my move in the downwind section,” he said. “But I connected a bunch of bumps and took the lead.”

Throughout the race Laughlin felt strong. “I was in the zone,” he said, able to counter each time someone made a move. In May he’d won Molokai, fulfilling a long-standing dream. But he’d been stung by the subsequent accusation that he’d deliberately hung back and rode the leaders’ boat wash. It was hard not to think that such comments spurred him on in San Francisco.

Regardless, heading to the turn around buoy Oscar assumed a 30-meter lead. “Oscar had been controlling the race,” Lewis said afterwards. “I thought, if I’m going to win he’s the guy I have to beat. So when he surged ahead I chased hard and the rest of the guys fell back a bit.” When Oscar turned the last buoy, Laughlin was just behind. A few minutes later they were side by side. Just behind, the foursome of Manson, Bartho, Barton and Lewin were now fighting for third.

Lewis Laughlin and Oscar Chalupsky - 2007 US Surfski Champs
Oscar leads Lewis on the way back towards San Francisco Bay (Photo: Lesley Brown)

Typically, the wind blows off the ocean into the bay. With an incoming tide it should have been a fast downwind track. But with little wind it was all but impossible to catch the swells rolling towards the bridge into the bay. When there are runs there are few paddlers not named Dean Gardiner able to out-surf Oscar, whether he’s fit or not. But on this windless day in the bay the last 8K would come down to conditioning, resolve, and, as it played out, a little bit of luck.

In the months leading up to Molokai this May, Oscar and Bevan Manson trained in Durban like they were getting paid by the hour, often logging three sessions a day. After his disappointing fourth-place finish in Hawaii, his worst ever, Oscar amped it up even more and in June won the World Cup in Durban. Over the past three months he’d been traveling virtually non-stop, training far less and maintaining his beer consumption. By his own estimation, Oscar felt he had an honest 1 hour and 45 minute effort in him. His problem wasn’t the lack of wind as much as that the course was a tad too long.

A terrific all-round paddler 

A terrific all-round paddler, Laughlin’s strength is his strength. Paddling side-by-side in the lumpy sea, he was content to cover. “Oscar is a champion,” he said afterwards in the typically gracious way that defines his speech. “He’s as fast as he’s ever been and he never races for second. I was just hoping to stay with him.”

Oscar Chalupsky and Lewis Laughlin - 2007 US Surf Ski Champs
Oscar Chalupsky and Lewis Laughlin going head to head before the turn back into the bay (Photo: John Brownlee)

As they neared the Golden Gate, Laughlin headed for the middle of the span; Oscar moved further inside. The choice was pivotal. Laughlin found faster water and quickly moved ahead by five boat lengths. “Oscar got stuck in the current and I took the opportunity,” Laughlin said. Said Oscar: “I looked up and it was as if I’d been going backwards.”

For the next 10 to 15 minutes Laughlin paddled with a vengeance and broke clear. Hours after the race, we were several (many) beers into a post-race analysis when Bevan Manson told me that even early on Laughlin was doing interval after interval. “He just carried on sprinting the whole (bleepin’) race.” Oscar crossed the line 16 seconds ahead of his business partner Greg Barton, who’d slipped by Barry Lewin just under the bridge.

Barry Lewin and Greg Barton - 2007 US Surfski Champs
Greg Barton overtakes Barry Lewin (Photo: Mireille Miller-Young)

“I blew,” Lewin said afterwards, the disappointment obvious in his voice. “I got a poor start and spent too much energy moving up.”

Bartho, who edged out Manson, his San Francisco roommate, was sixth. Zsolt was seventh with Patrick Dolan, Brandon Woods and Rami Zur rounding out the top 10. The final two money positions were Ian Gray (a paddler to watch) and Australian Mark Nicholson.

The most competitive US Champs to date 

I was struck by several things. It was the most competitive US Champs to date. In the top 15, there were just three American-born paddlers, and one was named Barton. For the record: the average age of the top three was 43. Six of the top15 hailed from South Africa. Robert Clegg, a former winner of the Fish Marathon, who’d never finished worse than fifth here, was 15th. Mark Sandvold, 9th year last year, was 21st; Dave Jensen, 12th last year, 22nd. In other words, the US Surf Ski Champs have arrived. [The only down side was the scarcity of women – there were only four in the field. DeAnne Hemmens, a former U.S. Olympian (and one of the driving forces in starting the U.S. Champs), won for the third time by five minutes over Megan Quale. DeAnne, who gave birth to her third child just six months ago, was 52nd overall; Quale 59th.]

Daryl Bartho - 2007 US Surfski Champs
Daryl Bartho - too long in the current (Photo: Mireille Miller-Young)

After the awards, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. But the boys lingered; each of us, it seemed, had our own little drama that we needed to get off our chests. Daryl Bartho felt he’d spent too much time in the current in the first half of the course. Robert Clegg had spent too much training time in his Olympic canoe and “couldn’t get going” in his ski. Dorian Wolter, a former member of the German Wild water Team who finished one place out of the money, had a wad of kelp on his rudder. Zsolt was bemoaning the fact that he didn’t have the surfing skills to keep up with the downwind studs. “I’m going to go to Hawaii for a few months and figure it out,” he said.

Oscar - 2007 US Surfski Champs
Oscar Chalupsky - chose the wrong line in the currents (Photo: Mireille Miller-Young)

Zsolt and I chatted about the upcoming Mayor’s Cup (a race around Manhattan on October 14) and the next two World Cup races this November in Hong Kong and Dubai. His face was sun burnt and streaked with sea salt. You could hear the fatigue in his voice but he was grinning so much it was clear that he was psyched about improving and racing around the world. Here was a former world class sprinter from Hungry who just a few years ago had an ailing back and a broken heart after losing his chance to go to the Olympics by coming second to a K2 team that went on the win the gold. Now he lives with his wife on a houseboat in nearby Sausalito and feels reborn as a surf ski paddler. This weekend I was in his hometown; in two weeks he’d be paddling around New York in mine.

Lewis Laughlin - winner 2007 US Surf Ski champs
Lewis Laughlin wins the 2007 US Champs (Photo: Craig Tanner)

As I made the rounds from Ian MacKenzie, a physician who flies to remote villages in the Arctic for weeks at a time, to Lewis Laughlin, who worked as a pearl farmer in Tahiti, to Daryl Bartho, a spear fisherman from Durban, it was good to know that the sport that brought this diverse group of salty, sweaty, paddling dirt bags together is big, getting bigger, and better. ------


See also:

The event website:


Photo Albums: 

Dorian Wolter's photos 

John Gunter's photos

Craig Tanner's photos 

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