Wild Downwind in Cape Town – At Last!

Thursday, 12 November 2009 01:27 | Written by 
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The day before the Discovery Downwind Race, Pete Cole and a group of highly experienced paddlers set off for a "Reverse Buffels" run - the same route that the race would follow the next day.  About 8km from the finish at Buffels Bay, they were suddenly hit by 35-40kt gusts blowing directly offshore.  Cole and two others aborted the run, turning shore-wards to grind head on into the sheets of spray being blasted off the surface of the sea. 

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Understand that Cole is one of the most experienced downwind paddlers in the world - and know that the conditions must have been truly radical for him to make the decision to seek safety on shore.

Now imagine how Billy Harker felt when he heard what had happened.  As the organiser of the Discovery Men's Health Series, he had the responsibility for deciding how to run next day's race.  On the one hand, the wind was forecast to swing to the NNW - the ideal direction for a Buffels run.  On the other hand, he was responsible for the 300+ paddlers who'd entered the series.  And the average wind speed was forecast to be 32kt for the morning, with gusts of up to 38kt...

Early on the morning of race day, Harker drove along the coast, checking out the conditions.  Although the wind wasn't quite as strong as forecast, there were squalls ripping along the surface of the water.  But crucially, the direction of the wind was right - along the critical second half of the course, it was blowing directly along the shore, straight towards the finish at Buffels Bay.

Race Briefing

"Guys, you will carry cellphones AND flares. You will be leashed to your craft. No exceptions.  The race is open to experienced downwind paddlers ONLY," he said.

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In the cold grey overcast morning, many of the paddlers were looking grim.  But, "Ag, the wind is perfect - Hurricane Alley won't be working today," was the consensus.

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Looking out to sea, I could see that a wind generated swell was coming from the north - for the first section of the race, we'd have two sets of waves to contend with: one from the side and another building from behind us as we paddled further offshore.

Double Start

The hackers (C-grade and below) were sent off first, followed 15min later by the B, A and Elite paddlers.  A number of the B-graders elected to join the first start for safety reasons.

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The field spread out rapidly and soon I could see only two or three other skis - one of which was being paddled by (arguably) the world's best female surfski paddler, Michele Eray.  For a while I kept up with her - but as we drew near the lighthouse out in the bay, she disappeared off to my right.

At this stage the wind was blowing a relatively gentle 15kts or so and we were working hard to ride the small wind bumps, accelerating and turning right onto the bigger waves coming down from the north...  My tactics were to try to work left out towards the lighthouse to get a better line down to the half way mark at Millers Point.

The next 10km saw the wind and waves start to grow - and we were soon riding absolutely classic downwind conditions.  Couple of strokes to get onto the run; look for the next dip, accelerate towards it, stop paddling, ride it, ride it, nose of the ski digs in, pops up and the ski accelerates again.  The noise is terrific - the wind howling, the waves crashing, spray everywhere.  Sheer exhilaration!

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On the inside, closer to shore I spotted a white ski - and recognised Rebecca ‘Nuisance' Newson, who was trying out my Mako Elite...  a few minutes later  I was alongside her...  and in the distance we could see a ski moving slowly towards shore, across the wind and waves.  As we closed it, we could see that it was Paul Wilson - he had his legs over the side and was moving slowly with a broken paddle - one blade snapped right off.

I paused briefly to yell, "Need any help?"  "No, I'm fine, I'll just paddle in here and call in!"  He looked fine, the shore was only a couple of hundred metres off and I carried on.

At that point one of my regular paddling buddies, Chris Grinton appeared next to me.  A moment later he'd caught a run and had gained 50m.He seldom beats me downwind - this was not good! Putting my head down, I concentrated on putting some sequences together and he dropped behind again.

By this time we were crossing Smitswinkel Bay and I headed slightly offshore again, hoping to find bigger swells.  I could see a number of skis close inshore, up against the cliffs.

Hurricane Alley

Past Smits, we were heading along "Hurricane Alley". 

This section is notorious for violent offshore squalls caused by the wind ricocheting off the sheer cliffs, but today the wind was blowing from the ideal direction - NNW - and although we were blasted by gusts that lifted sheets of spray off the water, at least it was in the right direction!

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Just ahead I spotted a paddler clearly intimidated by the blasts of wind - he was putting his paddle down every time a gust came through.  I'd almost caught him when we emerged, past the cliffs.  The wind seemed almost calm for the last 2-3km down to the finish although it was still blowing at around 25kt and for some reason I found it difficult to catch the smaller runs in the sloppy water.

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As I reached the ramp, I found Paul Marais who'd started 15min behind us - he'd come in third and the fact that he'd made up that amount  of time bode badly for my chances of being promoted from my currentC-grade.

Race winner Dawid Mocke had arrived nearly three minutes earlier in a time of 1:19:13. The only paddler to come close to Mocke was his brother, Jasper who came second in a time of 1:19:25.

Women's Race

Michele Eray romped home in a time of 1:32:51.  Nikki Mocke, although out of training, made full use of her downwind skills and came second in 1:35:03.  Third woman home, Rebecca Newson, arrived at 1:38:50.

Safety

 "All competitors were required to carry cell phones on their person during the race and this proved once again to be a very effective tool in managing the safety backup system for a race staged in extreme conditions," said race director Billy Harker afterwards.

"Five paddlers pulled out during race and all called their status in immediately," he said.

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As for me - I didn't make B-Grade...  Hardly surprising given that race winner Dawid Mocke had beaten his own record by over eight minutes (in fact the top ten finishers all broke the old record). My time was 1:36:58.  But it was the most fun I've had in race for years!


Pics by Didi Lippstreu

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Pics by Mike Tippett

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Summary Results

For full results, see www.surfski.co.za

DISCOVERY DOWNWIND - DISCOVERY MEN'S HEALTHSURF SKI SERIES LEG FOUR

22kmSingle Ski Race

  1. Dawid Mocke 1:19:13
  2. Jasper Mocke 1:19:25
  3. Paul Marais 1:22:13
  4. Graeme Solomon 1:23:14
  5. Peter Cole 1:23:37
  6. Sean Rice 1:24:03
  7. Steve Farrell 1:24:08
  8. Ian Trautmann 1:25:45
  9. Rory Cole 1:26:08
  10. Ian Black 1:26:52

Ladies22km Single Ski Race

  1. Michéle Eray 1:32:51 [85.53%]
  2. Nikki Mocke 1:35:03
  3. Rebecca Newson 1:38:50
  4. Bianca Beavitt 1:41:40
  5. Abbey Miedema 1:47:07

MensDouble 22km Ski Race

  1. Ernest van Riet/Heinrich Schloms 1:21:55
  2. Andrew Hardie/Mark Preen 1:31:01
  3. Nick Pickard/Mark Torrington 1:36:23
Mixed Double 22km Ski Race
  1. Neels von Delft/Andrea Hugo 1:35:12

VeteranMen 22km Single Race

  1. Peter Cole 1:23:37
  2. Ian Trautman 1:25:45
  3. Gary Shaw 1:31:01

MastersMen 22km Single Ski Race

  1. Garth Watters 1:40:23
  2. Dale Lippstreu 1:40:25
  3. Paul Lange 1:40:53

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