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2005 Men's Health Scottburgh to Brighton

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 11:37 | Written by 
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Background: my paddling goal for 2005 was to take part in the Cape Point Challenge, a long distance (56km) surf ski race that takes place every other December here in Cape Town. Not having paddled many long distance races before - one only and that a mere 31km - I mounted a year-long campaign and started training in February. First goal in the campaign was to take part in the annual Men's Health Scottburgh to Brighton race off the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast.

The 46km distance of the race didn't worry me; by race day I'd have done nearly 1000km of training including a number of 30km+ paddles. No, what worried me was the notorious Durban surf.

 

Durban Surf

The race starts at Scottburgh, there's a checkpoint after 30km at Amanzimtoti where you have to come into the beach and go out again through the surf and the race finishes at Brighton beach. At each beach the surf presents a formidable obstacle - and in this race you have to cross it no fewer than four times.

Every time I spoke to anyone in Cape Town about my plans to do the S-B race, they'd mention the Durban surf. They'd first check whether I had paddled the KZN coast before. No, I'd reply. Then they'd launch into the horror stories, taking a malicious pleasure in my rapidly developing anxiety...

The waves off Durban beaches are very different to anything served up by the Cape Waters... there's always a smallish shore break and then the "backline" where the ocean swells break on sandbank or reef.

You paddle out through the shore break and literally wait in the channel while the enormous backline waves break in front of you; you go over plenty of little "foamies" but these are not the problem. The energy of the backline waves dissipates on the sand and the foamies are relatively benign.

No, the problem is to time a lull in the breakers and to go hell for leather out to sea before the next wave comes in.

The day before - checking out the beaches 

We planned on visiting the beaches with our coaches Dawid & Nikki Mocke the day before the race to experience the waves and to view the various landmarks from out at sea.

We arrived at Scottburgh at 07h00 the day before the race just as the sun rose over the eastern horizon. The break looked awesome to me as we got into the water. "Patience," said Dawid, "there's all the time in the world. Just get out, sit patiently and wait until the lull comes. Then go like hell. Remember, there's always a gap, just be patient. Twenty strokes is all it takes."

Between my nervousness (read "naked fear") and Dawid and Nikki yelling sometimes contradictory instructions at me, I timed it wrong many, many times. My mind recorded a blur of images: suddenly rearing waves, smashing thumps, washing machine churning and plenty of swimming. Terror, frustration, despair and a singular inability (brought on by panic?) to stay on my ski even in relatively calm water.

Doing everything wrong 

Of course I was doing almost everything wrong. For example: twice I held my paddle up & sat upright to meet waves breaking on top of me. Twice I exited the ski over the stern, quite literally blown away. You just don't do that when a wave breaks on top of you.

Waves at BrightonAt more than one stage I was on verge of giving up but I knew that I'd been even more desperate on race day if I hadn't even been able to get out from Scottburgh. The looks on my companions' faces and the muttered conversations they were having added to my unhappiness. (I could imagine: "Has this guy done much paddling? Is that ski not too unstable for him? He's not going to make it!")

Getting out 

Eventually I did manage to get out, much to the relief of the anxious watchers; but it took me over an hour of bashing & swimming to make it. Having done it once I didn't try again. From Scottburgh we went to Amanzimtoti, the half way point where we'd have to come in to the checkpoint and then go out again. On the way down to the beach the waves were looking awesome again, but in the event they were not nearly as daunting as at Scottburgh. Although there were what seemed to be truly massive waves breaking (in fact probably only 4ft+), the break zone didn't seem as wide & there was more time between sets. I only fell off twice on the way out - and by now I was getting a lot quicker at getting back onto the ski. Part of the problem is that Cape-based paddlers just don't get the same amount of practice at getting back onto their skis - I was being impossibly slow. But I got better at it as time went on.

We paddled up and down the coast to view the landmarks, came in through the surf and went out again just to prove it wasn't a fluke.

I have scars to show for it: my glasses were smashed so hard into my face that the bridge of my nose was cut & bruised; the foot-straps cut my foot; I have bruises & scrapes on my left forearm, a lump on my right forearm & a grazed right knee! Welcome to Kwa-Zulu Natal! Step up to the plate or slink back to Cape Town with your tail between your legs!

Confidence? 

We had a much needed breakfast and Dawid told me that my newly acquired confidence would see me through on the morrow. "Thanks for pointing that out," said I, "I had no idea I had any!" But I was feeling a little better.

We went on to Brighton which looked very nasty - rocks on either side of a narrow entrance and the same dumpers crashing out to sea.

This Cape Town boy knew he wasn't going to be sleeping well... But it would have been much worse to arrive at the start without having had this experience. The hand-holding and guidance of the Mockes would pay dividends the next day.

The night before the race...

As we prepared our kit & filled the drink bladders, we could hear the wind in the trees & the ominous distant pounding of the surf. I was feeling nervous & out of sorts having been so very incompetent at the practice that morning. I knew I wasn't going to sleep well - apart from anything else we had to get up at 03h45 to eat & set off for the venue.

Try as I might as I tossed & turned, I could not stop imagining going out through the surf - the palms of hands & my feet were sweaty at the thought of it. How would it feel to scuttle back to Cape Town having failed utterly even to start the race? I was awake long before the alarm sounded - but soon enough we were on our way, huddled in the back of a pickup, listening to a garrulous fellow competitor telling war stories about previous races.

When we arrived at Scottburgh, still in the dark, we piled out and went to look at the sea. There was a universal lightning of spirits as we realised that the surf had indeed dropped in the night. "Perhaps it will have dropped at 'Toti too," I remarked hopefully. "Oh," said a fellow paddler happily, "not necessarily, you can't judge conditions up the coast by what's happening here." "What makes you so bloody happy then?" I thought bleakly as I went to sign in.

Final preparation 

Having registered we went outside to find our skis - there wasn't much time & I still had to apply the sponsors' stickers to my ski. Time seemed to accelerate as I battled to get the damn things to stick to the dew-damp deck; I hastened back to the pickup to get changed into my still clammy kit, ran back to the ski and carried it down to the beach. The pre-dawn light was getting brighter and we could see occasional sets of bigger waves coming in - you could still be taken out if you weren't careful.

Scottburgh to Brighton 2005 startThe A-grade paddlers were sent off in a flurry of spray & paddles, and the B-graders lined up. My paddling buddy Damian and I had agreed to take it easy getting into the water - let the others sprint out, we would take our time and make sure of the gap in the waves.

The siren sounded and we set off. The pack got through unscathed. A paddler in front of me fell off - and then I was off too. No problem though; my remounting technique was much better by now and before I knew it I was out in the calm rolling swells behind the backline. Great!

I'd lost time and the main pack of B-grade paddlers was already some distance off. No worries though, this was expected and part of the game plan. After all, what does a minute count when you've 46km to paddle?

Scottburgh to Amanzimtoti 

We settled down to the three hour grind to Amanzimtoti. The conditions varied a little but most of the time we had a 10kph or so breeze blowing from the land out to sea. It kicked up enough of a ripple to make my paddling unsettled. I'd get into a good rhythm only to be knocked slightly off balance; not enough to cause me to brace, but just enough to disrupt my stroke. Frustrating.

There were groups of skis heading out to sea; others were following close to the backline. We followed a group that initially took an inshore line but then angled out to sea, chasing some small runs on the wind chop. But we worked hard not to over-expend energy. "Your race starts at 'Toti," we'd been instructed. "Don't chase, don't lead, just cruise."

Already after an hour my shoulders and back were beginning to burn. I knew that I was stiff from the pounding I'd taken the day before; the lactic acid already in my muscles was not helping. But I was feeling pretty good and was able to keep my mind off the inevitable battle against the surf at Amanzimtoti. Subconsciously however I was becoming ever more aware that the ocean swells were big and the surf pounding the beaches was huge. Finally we passed a beach where some surfers were yelling & shrieking, presumably with delight and Damian said, "I think 'Toti's going to be big." "Thanks," I muttered, sinking into gloom, "I really needed that!"

'Toti

The next hour was the worst for me. My morale was rock bottom, I was thinking again of failure and how it would feel if I couldn't get out at 'Toti. But when we got there, I found myself having to focus hard on the job at hand. 'Toti WAS big - it was huge. The tide had gone out and the waves were 6ft+ and skis were being broken. The one thing that I knew I could do was get in - getting out was the problem. A small group of us sat there waiting for a smaller wave to come. Damian took his chance and got in. Two of us caught the next wave in. My companion wasn't able to pull out of the wave and went over the falls, his ski twisting and turning in the air as he tumbled in the spray. I was luckier, pulled in behind the wave and paddled for my life to get across the break zone. "Twenty strokes, that's all it takes." I was through and on my way to the beach. I couldn't control the ski in the foam, came off and swam the last few metres to the shore.

I dumped my ski on the sand and ran to the check point. Having checked in I found Damian and our second. I tore off my lifejacket, found that I had ample juice left and put it on again. Our second, an experienced paddler offered advice. "Look at those guys," he said, "they're making a mess of it - you've got to go out in the channel right there - you can see the channel where the waves aren't breaking so big. Go there, wait for the lull. Patience, there will be a gap!" Back to ski, out on a sandbar and back into the welter of foam & water.

Despite the chaos, the floating skis and swimming paddlers, it wasn't so bad - I watched the other paddlers around me as we went out and took my cue from them. Stop. Wait. Crash! Here comes the foamy, paddle into it, up and over. Slow down, wait for it. Crash! Paddle into it, damn, over into the water, get back on, quick, quick. Here's a foamy, settle down, paddle into it, over again. Come on, get with it, get on, there's the lull, paddle, go, go, go...

Vision in the waves 

And through and the amazing vision of a pretty young girl on the next ski (what's a girl doing in this lot?) laughing - probably at the expression on my face.

And we're out - and spirits are just soaring, off we go, the home straight now. Just 18km to go, less than two hours. I meet up with Damian behind the backline and we agree to split up. He's feeling strong, I'm feeling somewhat less so. He latches onto a group and I settle down to the grind, trying to keep up a slightly stronger stroke than before. I latch onto a couple of doubles and reel in the next group of singles. I can't keep up though and resign myself to going it alone. I'm not doing too badly though; I take two more singles, one of which rides my slip for while before dropping back. I catch one more single and the same thing happens - he rides my slip for a while and drops off. It was worth taking it easy before 'Toti.

I eat an energy bar. A little while later I suck some corn syrup - neither appears to have any effect, but how would I have felt had I not eaten them? I don't know. All I do know is that my shoulders, stomach and back are getting stiffer and more painful.

The Cutting 

I try not to watch the GPS. But it helps when I glance down every few minutes to see the distance racking up. The landmarks pass slowly. The notorious Cutting (a road cutting through the cliffs) passes by. I now understand the legend of the "Cutting Sea Monster" - it really does feel as though he's swum out and tied a plastic bag around my rudder - every stroke is an effort. Especially as the wind has swung around - it's now meeting us head on and it's freshening.

The finish - Brighton 

Finally the buildings at Brighton Beach loom slowly into view through the sea mist. Whoa - it is huge here too (turns out to some 6-8ft breaking on banks exposed by the ultra low tide). The organisation, though, is tremendous. There are lifeguards with flags on the beach showing the safe area between the rocks. There's another lifeguard on a rescue board stationed to show where the turning point is to get the safe line to the beach. "Watch out," he says to me, "there's a strong rip to the left if you fall off." There's a rescue boat - a rubber duck - buzzing around.

I pick my wave, let it roll under me and I chase it. Suddenly I have all the energy in the world and I sprint to beat the monster hissing in behind me. Through! Yes! Whoops, a cross chop in the shore break sweeps the ski from under me and takes it into the rocks where it's caught by one of the beach crew. I throw my paddle shore-wards and swim as hard as I can. My feet touch bottom and I scramble out across the rocks. Yes, I'm done, I've finished and a wave of elation passes over me. I collect my ski and run across the finish line, punching the air as I go. More helpers relieve me of the ski as Damian (who finished some ten minutes ahead of me) and coach Dawid welcome me.

 

Broken ski at BrightonAs we sit on the beach and watch the skis arrive I realise that I've been  lucky: many skis - somewhere between 10 and 20 - have been broken in the surf here and at 'Toti. As I watch, the crew of a double mis-time their wave. They get dumped and the ski snaps in two like a matchstick. The crew is left in the break zone. They disappear under a massive wave. The rescue boat darts in but has to pull away as yet another breaker begins to curl. As I watch, one of the crew is sucked up the face of the wave, drops over the lip and is pounded as the wave lands on top of her. The rescue boat tries again; again it has to abort and the crew eventually make their own way in, no doubt battered and bruised. Rough stuff.

Respect! 

But I realise too that my fear of the waves has been significantly reduced - plenty of respect, oh yes, but not the raw paralysing fear that I first felt on Friday morning.

This was a deeply satisfying experience. I'll be back - and next time I'll be better prepared. Paddlers of Kwa-Zulu Natal - I salute you!


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