Potent women field lines up at Prescient Freedom Paddle

A potent lineup at the Prescient Freedom Paddle means the women’s race on Saturday is looking like turning into a fascinating battle for the 2024 title in the annual race around Robben Island.

A field packed with some of South Africa’s top surfski and canoeing stars means this year’s women’s race looks like being an intriguing struggle for victory in the prestigious 27km ocean racing event.

In a women’s field littered with World Championship medals, the crew to beat looks sure to be the defending champion combination of the vastly experienced Michelle Burn and her young rising-star partner, Saskia Hockly.

Burn won the 2021 Ocean Racing World Championships in Spain, while Hockly won the junior title at the same event. The talented 20-year-old “junior” partner in the combination has also won five world championship silver and bronze medals in the junior, U23 and senior paddling World Championships over the past three years.

Last year the Durban pair had to overcome a terrible start which saw them struggle off the line in last place, but, in big headwind conditions to Robben Island, they caught their women’s rivals at the historic landmark, and in the downwind dice back to Oceana eked out a 36-second victory.

Last year’s runners up, Candice Starr and Kira Bester, have split up, but both are now part of two potent combinations that have the pedigree to beat Hockly and Burn in what looks likely to be an intriguing no-holds-barred three-way dice.

Starr (formerly Murray), also the 2021 event champion with Bester, has joined forces with Melanie van Niekerk in a team that is sure to be in contention. Van Niekerk has won four mixed doubles titles at the race and this will be her first venture into the women’s race.

Bester, the current World U23 World Champion after finishing third overall at the World Ocean Racing Champs in Perth late last year, has joined forces with two-time race winner Pippa McGregor. McGregor often falls into the shadow of her illustrious husband Hank, but is a tough competitor in her own right and this pairing is certain to be fighting for victory.

Two other crews who are likely to be near the leading trio, but this year may just find the pace a bit too hot up front, are the Nicole “Nix” Birkett and Jenna Nisbett team, and current junior Canoe Marathon World Champions Geogia Singe and Holly Smith.

Entrants have the option of two distances on Freedom Day. The majority of the field on Saturday will tackle the 27km route, which takes all competitors on the historic route from the Oceana Power Boat Club, around Robben Island and back to the start.

The additional shorter 10km route, introduced in 2023, is sanctioned by Lifesaving SA and caters for those paddlers and lifeguards who are not confident enough for the long, open-water route around Robben Island. That course begins from Oceana but takes paddlers west along the coastline to a turning buoy off Sea Point, before returning to the start/finish area.

The event is open to all human paddle-powered craft that are seaworthy enough to complete the course. This includes surfskis, lifesaving paddle boats, stand-up paddle boards, ocean skulls and ocean kayaks.

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