2008 US SURFSKI CHAMPS: Repeat, Three-pete & McPete! (Joe Glickman's Race Preview)

Friday, 12 September 2008 07:54 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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Heading into the sixth edition of the US Surf Ski Champs, just three men have won the coveted title in the City by the Bay: Greg Barton, Dawid Mocke, and Lewis Laughlin.

Lewis Laughlin, US Champs 07
The gate (Lewis Laughlin on right) (Pic: John Gunter)

Radical Conditions

Given that the race features roughly 2K of flat (or flattish) water, plenty of wind, strong currents, raucous chop, and a long downwind section that tends to be as organized as Brittney Spears' personal life, it's no coincidence that the winners have been paddlers defined by strength, speed, focus and versatility.

Barton dominated the inaugural event in 2003, finishing nearly two-and-a-half minutes up on Dean ("I Won't Return until there's more Downwind") Gardiner. In '04 the four-time Olympic medalist bested lanky marathoner extraordinaire Robert Clegg, a transplanted Springbok now living in South Carolina. Clegg, who has placed as high as seventh at the World Marathon Champs, also has two third-place finishes here.

Dawid Mocke

In 2005 Cape Town's Dawid Mocke came to town. For the first half of the race, he and Barton bashed into the wind as if lashed together. On the downwind leg, however, Mocke surged ahead, finishing nearly 90 seconds clear.  In ‘06 Mocke was far less sociable: only Barry Lewin was able to hang with him off the line. Early in the game he dispatched Lewin beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and sailed solo to his second straight title. Lewin, Laughlin and Barton were second, third and fourth, in that order.

Dawid Mocke - US Champs 2005
Dawid Mocke - US Champs 2005

2007 Edition

Last year, a flat day by San Francisco Bay standards, Lewis Laughlin hung with an impatient mob from Durban -- Oscar Chalupsky, Lewin, Daryl Bartho and Bevan Manson - and Barton, who's logged enough time with Chalupsky, his business partner, to be an honorary Durbanite. Three months earlier, Laughlin had notched his first Molokai win, besting McGregor, Mocke, Chalupsky and Manson. In June Oscar returned the favor at the World Cup in Durban. After that race, Laughlin continued training in Tahiti and Oscar began traveling like a man with a fleet of kayaks to sell. While his training time dropped way off, his beer consumption remained impressively consistent.

For much of the first half of the race last year, Oscar sat patiently with the front bunch, zigzagging along the cliffs to minimize the wind. But in the brackish water hay stacking around Point Bonita, he sniffed out some runs and surged to the lead. As he rounded the clanging green bell buoy halfway through and headed back downwind, most anyone in the know would have bet a tube of complimentary sun cream that the lone task left for the 11-time Molokai Champ was composing his victory speech. San Francisco Bay, however, is nothing if not capricious. While there were runs, there was precious little wind and an outgoing tide that made finding the right lines a vexing game of craps. Laughlin, who is nothing if not tough, strong and resolute, matched Chalupsky move for move until he powered on by to claim his first win here in two tries.  

Oscar Chalupsky dicing with Lewis Laughlin - US Champs 07
Oscar Chalupsky dicing with Lewis Laughlin - US Champs 07 (Pic: Patrick Hemmens)

Conspicuous by his absence was Mocke. Looking for his third straight US title, after the race the pro paddler with the serious coffee Jones had planned on driving from San Francisco to New York City to do the Mayor's Cup -- connecting paddling venues and java joints all along the way. Instead, a few weeks before the event, he wrenched his back on a jujitsu mat - a novel cross-training experiment that lasted one session - and was forced to recuperate at home.

But, as they say in the cliché department, that was then, this is now.

Hot Competition 

For the first time since the race began six years ago, all three winners will be on the line together. Barton and Mocke each looking for a third US title while Laughlin, the two-time Molokai winner, hoping to repeat. Picking anyone of them to win would be a safe bet, except (Jaws theme music please) Hank McGregor has decided to throw his PFD in the ring.

Let's take a look at the leading contenders and speculate how they're likely to divide the $10,500 purse. (First pays $3,000, 2nd $1,500, 3rd, $1000 for the men; $1000, 500, 250 for the women.) 

Rami Zur. Born in the United States and adopted by a family in Israel, Zur learned to kayak on the Sea of Galilee at the age of 10. Four years ago in Athens, his second Olympics, Zur missed out on the K1 500M finals by less than one-tenth of a second. Zur had planned on retiring afterwards, but just days after his race he dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and suffered a serious spinal injury. Four months after surgery, he began paddling as rehab. What started as physical therapy led him to Beijing and his third Olympic Games.

Rami Zur, US Champs 07
Rami Zur sprints at the start of the 2007 race (Pic: John Gunter)

Fifth, seventh and 10th at the US Champs the last three years, Rami is a likely candidate to win the Fenn Hotspot 1K into the race. Though he's less skilled downwind than the other paddlers on the list, he's fit, fast and motivated after getting eliminated in the semis in the K1 500m in Beijing.

Steve Woods: The least-decorated paddler on the list, Woods finished 11th at the 2007 World Cup in Durban. He was 13th in Dubai last year and, after winning the Maui to Molokai race a month before Molokai, finished 11th in his first crack at the channel. For the past months, the 26-year-old Springbok has been logging lots of kilometers in an Olympic K1 at the Newport Aquatic Center in southern California. In July, he finished second at the US Paddleboard Champs, losing in a sprint up the beach. A skilled paddler in all conditions, especially downwind, if the wind is blowing and course turns wild, look for the Woodman to feature.

Steve Woods
Steve Woods in Hawaii 2008 (Pic: Steve Woods)

Greg Barton:  At 49 -- the oldest of the top dogs -- Barton is my sentimental favorite to make the podium. Last year Barton edged out Daryl Bartho, Rami Zur and a handful of other speed burners to win the Fenn Hot Spot, showing that he still has the right stuff when he's able to train with any regularity. This year, however, Barton's work at home and in China has stretched him thin. If the pace is frantic early on, and that's likely the case given the Hot Spot, Barton will likely to back off and try to pick guys off late in the race.

Greg Barton
Greg Barton, Dubai '07 (Pic: Wouter Kingma)

Bevan Manson:  A relative newcomer to the sport, the former Springbok water polo player made a big splash last year in his first full season of international competition. Last year, the spiky-haired oke in the inverted red visor finished 6th here behind Bartho, Lewin, Barton, and Chalupsky. Intensely competitive, strong and as fast on flat water as any one in the world, Manson has resumed hard training after a solid break at the end of last year. According to his training mates, the 2007 winner of the Scottburgh to Brighton Classic has upped his game and has a legit chance to make the podium. Given Chalupsky's absence, look to the B-dog as the top boozer in the field after the race.

Bevan Manson
Bevan Manson winning the 2007 Scottburgh to Brighton race (Pic: Mike Tippet)

Lewis Laughlin: Laughlin was a paddling legend before he won here last year. Along with Dean Gardiner and Grant Kenny, he is one of only three men to win the six-man (OC6) Molokai title and the solo ski. Given the quality of the opposition and depth of the field in San Francisco, winning last year cemented his status. Though he dislikes paddling in cold water and favors longer, hotter races, Laughlin's drive and mental toughness are what set him apart. Count him out, as I have at several big international races, and he's likely to win it all.


Lewis Laughlin, US Champs 07
Lewis wins the 2007 US Champs (Pic: Craig Tanner)

Dawid Mocke: Given his two wins at the New Zealand King of the Harbour - an all-terrain course similar in length to San Francisco - and spectacular comeback after his disastrous start in Dubai last year, few would be surprised if the 31-year-old from Cape Town become the first man to three-pete in San Francisco. When I e-mailed Barry Lewin, who is sitting it out this year but finished second and fourth the last two years, and asked him to handicap this years race, he wrote: "Daw has been in China watching [his wife] Nikki at the Olympics so he is an unknown. He wants it bad, so you can never write him off. And he's got the staying power when it gets tough."

Dawid Mocke, US Champs 2006
Dawid Mocke under the Golden Gate Bridge. (Pic: John Brownlee/Ocean Paddlesports)

Hank McGregor: If there's a better all-around paddler on the planet, I've not heard of him. The former junior and senior World Marathon Champ, McGregor's record in any boat he paddles is staggering: Though he finished second at Molokai (to Laughlin) and Dubai (to Mocke), in June he won the Durban World Cup for the second time. More recently, he won the grueling Fish River Marathon (K1) and has teamed with Mocke to win the SA Double Ski Champ (Scottburgh to Brighton), and, again with Mocke, the SA Double K2 Champs (Breede River Marathon). As Barry Lewin told me via e-mail: "Been training with Hank. The boy is focused, training hard and pretty much a freak of nature. He will win in San Fran! It's his type of race!!! The current suits him."

Hank McGregor
Hank McGregor in action in Durban - June '08 (Pic: www.anthonygrote.com)

For the women, the question to ask is not will Nikki Mocke win against women like former US Olympian DeAnne Hemmens, who won here in 2003, 2005 and 2007. It's more interesting to speculate how many talented men she will eclipse given that she's great at riding slip, skilful in the rough stuff and just back from Beijing where she competed as a member of the South African K4. My guess is that late in the race she'll be sniffing the top 10.

Nikki Mocke
Nikki Mocke 2005 Cape Point Challenge

Live Coverage

To follow the action live, check out www.surfski.info on September 20. [Editor: We'll be doing live text commentary throughout the race.]

Downwind 2 Dubai! 

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