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Riding the crest of surfskiing wave

Saturday, 10 December 2005 08:33 | Written by 
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Cape Argus, 9 Dec 2005 

One man's passion and drive for his sport made it so popular that his concept is now being copied in several countries, reports Staff Writer Murray Williams.

It's only 6am on a Saturday and my cellphone starts beeping. "Wake Up Williams!" says the SMS. And across greater Cape Town and the winelands almost 1 000 others are being woken too.

"The Race is on! Get your butt out of bed Williams!"
It's Billy Harker.


Until 1997, surfskiing was only a lifesavers' discipline. Eight short years later it's one of Cape Town's hottest sports.

How?

One man in particular: Harker - organiser of the Discovery Men's Health Surf Ski Series.

Billy Harker (Photo: Rob Mousley)

Armed with a boatload of charisma and the latest communications technology, Harker turned surfskiing into a mini-society - with a religious following of thousands. And his own life has become a fabled "endless summer".

"I was working as sales manager for a computer component distributor in Durban, when I was transferred to Cape Town," this Camps Bay resident explained.

"I tried all the sports - the running thing, the Argus Tour - but the only thing that really stuck was paddling. At the time there were no races on Sundays, which had just started in KZN.

"I approached the owner of Brian's Kayak Centre and asked about organising races. I thought if we got 15 paddlers it'd be good. We got 44 at our first race.

"I thought I'd do it for fun for a year."

But Harker then did two extremely clever things.

First, he harnessed the latest communications technology, which was then in its infancy in South Africa.

"I realised very early on how incredibly personal SMSes and e-mail can be," he explained. "You can speak to people in the first person - in a colloquial, friendly, personal fashion." Hence the personal Saturday morning SMS.

Second, he put together focus groups to find out exactly what paddlers wanted. How far did they want to race? On what day of the week? What time did they want to start? And, after 35 questions, the most important: "What do you enjoy most about paddling?"

"And 100% of them said 'It's the vibe, the people, the parties!' "

Harker since then has sparked an entire social scene. In most sports, an annual launch would involve filling in forms and paying subscription fees. By contrast, the start of the 2005/2006 surfski season was at Cape Town's hottest beach bar, La Med at Maiden's Cove.

Harker now runs a winter surf ski series in KwaZulu-Natal and his Cape Town series from October till March.

Between the provinces he has built a network of paddlers thousands strong, and he keeps this burgeoning group of ocean addicts together with his unique brand of communication.

He is the ultimate mbongi (praise-singer) for life along the Cape coast - as in this report from a recent race in Knysna: "Aaauuuaa Murray, we are soo blessed living in South Africa. Oysters and champagne are obligatory at the Oyster Bar so we crumpled under the peer pressure and slid a few of those back.

"Then an evening braai on the roof of the Plettenberg Life Saving Club rounded off a perfect day."

The next day: "Sitting in your ski you look out to sea through the Knysna Heads and you cannot really make out what awaits you. It's quite daunting but packed with coolness. Make no error, you feel alive dot com.

"Bang goes the starter gun and you are off like a long dog.

"The sea is still on its head and you're thinking, 'Haibo, I hope this calms down or this 35k's gonna be a big ask, my bru.' At the Buffels Bay point you start catching runs straight as the coast drops away to the right with the wind all the way. All-Time Classic runs china. The best ever!"

Of surfskiing, Harker says: "Around 99% of paddlers are successful people. They understand the basic work ethic. They're physically fit, that leads to a healthy lifestyle, which leads to a positive outlook. So they're happy, healthy and motivated.

"And in surfskiing, you can't give up. You can't just stop in the middle of the sea! You have to paddle to the end. Paddlers have staying power, tenacity - and then experience that euphoria of finishing." Not to mention the "unbelievable natural beauty" and paddling alongside dolphins, seals and penguins.

Harker lives in Camps Bay, where his PC is his little ops centre - sending e-mails and SMSing, designing safety plans for each race, designing courses using his GPS and surfing the web for long-range weather forecasts - wind, waves and swell.

"When I set this up my ambition was to set up the world's best surfski series'," Harker said.

This he has undoubtedly done. Which is why his series has now been copied in New Zealand, Australia, Dubai, the US and Canada.

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