The revival edition of the popular Illovo Suncoast Wall and Back Surfski Series got underway in fittingly dramatic fashion on Friday 18 October as Mother Nature served up a cruel combination of testing surf, lumpy seas, cold temperatures, strong winds and persistent drizzle however not even the weather god’s harsh blend could put a dampener on proceeding for Hank McGregor and Nikki Russell as they claimed race one victories in the men’s and women’s categories respectively.
With the unpredictable shore break, large mid-break and testing backline combo of surf conditions countless paddlers took some time to come to terms with the conditions on their way out with many getting entangled with their fellow paddlers in the process, McGregor and eventual third place finisher van der Walt being two on the receiving end of some early race carnage.
Despite taking a nasty unexpected knock to the back of the head by another ski, resulting in him being some way off eventual second place finisher Matt Bouman early on, McGregor set off after the early race leader like a scud missile and used the lumpy yet workable conditions as best he could to irk out any bit of advantage he could and close the gap as quickly as possible.
“It was pretty messy on the way out and I had to punch a couple of waves as we headed out through the pretty tricky surf,” explained McGregor afterwards.
“Having not paddled in these sorts of conditions for quite a while they really were quite a shock to the system!” added the recently crowned 2013 Flatwater Marathon World Champion and 2013 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon victor.
“Matt had between 80 and 100 meters on me after we turned around the first can shortly after the start so I really had to work hard to catch him. Fortunately I managed to close the gap halfway down to the harbor wall turning buoy and then it was just about trying to find any little run and bump out there to try help you get home.
“The conditions certainly weren’t easy but that is typical of the great series the Wall and Back is. You know it’s probably going to be pretty tough paddling most weeks of the series but it’s still always such great fun and it’s great that the series is back again this year!”
Despite having been ill in recent weeks Bouman dug deep to utilize his early advantage as best he could however McGregor’s class and Bouman’s search for fitness soon ended any close-finish prospects and the powerful Umhlanga-based unit had to settle for the second step on the podium.
“Once I got away I definitely gave it my all and tried to make my lead stick but I just don’t have enough to give. But that (the testing conditions), that is what surfski paddling is all about for me!” beamed Bouman.
“Coming from a surf lifesaving background that was just so much fun. Its short and sharp so nutrition and all those sorts of things don’t come into the equation, the east blows and the sea is all lumpy and bumpy which is great fun. It was just awesome fun out there tonight!
“I’ve been paddling this series since I was 15 years old so this year, given the series didn’t happen last year, is my twenty-first year I’m taking part. It’s a huge part of my paddling career so it really is fantastic to see the series is back again this year and I really hope it grows hugely!”
After battling a flooding boat for the duration of the 8km course after another ski crashed into his on the start line, van der Walt eventually limped home a fair way off the pace to claim third place whilst the evergreen seadog Brett Bartho and the head-turning under 23 talent Brandon van der Walt rounded out the top five in fourth and fifth place respectively whilst young Tristan Wilson claimed the junior category’s spoils.
On the women’s front Russell was one of only a handful of female paddlers to bravely front up to the conditions and, even despite paddling well past the finish line due to the dark and gloomy conditions, claimed the early advantage in the women’s series log with her opening race victory.
“That was the most insane paddle!” enthused Russell afterwards. “I absolutely loved it!”
“I got in and out through the surf cleanly, it was bumpy with a few runs in both directions, it was just amazing and I’m so glad to be back in my ski again!
“I overshot the mark and just quietly did an extra kilometer at the end there and then had to coming running back along the beach to the finish,” she described amidst a sheepish chuckle. “But even so it was just fantastic!”
For the Eastern Cape raised, now Durban adopted Russell, this was her first ever experience of the wall and Back Surfski Series and one which she will remember fondly.
“This is only my second year in Durban and with last year’s series not happening this was first ever Wall and Back race so I really was coming in blindly!” said Russell.
“I loved it though and hats off to all the girls that were out there giving it a go. The surf really was not easy tonight but I really hope to see even more ladies on the line next week!”
The doubles race was won by Wayne Wilson and Lance Howarth with Butch Murray and Julie Cornelius claiming the mixed doubles category and river aces Abby Adie and Hilary Bruss (neé Pitchford) claiming the ladies doubles’ spoils.
As they sought to get some much needed time in the boat together ahead of Sunday’s Dusi Canoe Marathon qualifier – NCC Development race – Adie and Bruss were made to work exceptionally hard as countless swims in the testing surf conditions sent them back to the beach over and over again.
Showing their true character and digging deep the pair eventually conquered the surf and were out however, being the last boat to do so, were a long way off the pace and really had to work hard to work their way through the field into third place overall in the doubles category.
As if their ordeal wasn’t tough enough already, Adie and Bruss were then on the receiving end of some more misfortune as they made their way back in through the surf and, after a proper working over, eventually carried their mangled double surfski across the line to complete their epic Wall and Back encounter.
Race two of the Illovo Suncoast Wall and Back Surfski Series takes place at 17h15 on Friday 25 November at Suncoast Pirates Surf Lifesaving Club at battery beach. More info can be found at www.wallandback.co.za