East London – Gauteng is not an area that springs to mind when thinking about offshore surfski paddling, but a strong contingent of inland paddlers will be making their annual trip to East London to take part in the Biogen Pete Marlin Surfski Race on November 4-5.
One of the regular visitors to the race, which this year also doubles as the South African Surfski Championships for both singles and doubles, is grand-master Gary Ralph.
The 69-year-old from Dabulamanzi Canoe Club will be aiming for his fifth visit to the podium, and he will be joined on the trip to the coast by at least 20 more of his team-mates.
“Most of the guys will fly down, but we’ve got two of our guys driving a trailer down with the skis,” said Ralph as he prepared for next week’s visit to the coast. “Although we fly down separately, we do tend to operate as a group when we gete there. We meet at the life saving club in the evening and do things together.”
So how did somebody who lives 500km away from the ocean get into a sea sport, and in particular make the Pete Marlin race a regular event?
“I am originally from Durban, but left there 30 to 35 years ago. When I was there I was into surfing and the sea and all that sort of stuff, but I actually only started paddling surfskis about 15 years ago.
“Surfski paddling is good for technique and fitness, but obviously you need a lot of time on the sea to get good at sea paddling, so over the last 15 years we’ve done a lot of trips to Durban and the coast.
“This will be my fifth or sixth Pete Marlin. It is two days of racing so it’s good value. I mean, if you are going to the coast and you can get two days of racing instead of one, it is a good option.
“Secondly, the Dabs team have got a couple of guys with East London origins, so there’s a bit of a connection there, but mainly the reason we go is because it is the best and biggest surfski race annually. It is a race where all the surfski paddlers from all around the country get together … so it’s really brilliant from that point of view.
“It is also very well organised. The East London life saving club down there are very welcoming and very nice people to get on with. So, it’s just a really good weekend, and if you’re going to travel to the coast it is probably the best value you are going to get.”
However, Ralph is not going just for some fun in the surf. There is a serious side to his trip to East London each year.
“I’ve got four gold medals in our age group over the last few years, and “Tex” (his partner Graham Holm) has got three. I think it would be really nice to make it a fifth for me, but this year I think we’re going to be lucky if we get a podium in our age group … there are some really strong teams in the grand masters age category.
“I see six doubles entered in the grand masters, of which four are really experienced and tough paddlers. So we’ll give it a go and we’ll see how we do, but if we get a podium, I think we’ll be doing well.”
Paddlers in the Biogen Pete Marlin will do two races over the weekend, with the South African Singles Championships on Saturday and the SA Doubles Champs on Sunday.