EAST LONDON – A strong field of the country’s strongest paddlers have converged on East London to fight for South African titles at the popular Biogen Pete Marlin Surfski Race on Saturday and Sunday.
The strength of the entry list can be judged by the list of World Champions who will line up for Saturday’s singles race and Sunday’s doubles race, with both events also designated as the respective national surfski championships for 2023.
Heading the field is the world’s most successful male kayaker, Hank McGregor, whose 11 World Marathon titles elevate him to an almost god-like status in the South African canoeing and surfski community.
However, the star of South African canoeing is playing down his chances for the Pete Marlin as he chases another world title that has so far eluded him on his glittering career. The Durban paddler will be heading overseas next week on a journey that he is hoping culminates in his first win at the Surfski World Championships in Australia early next month.
While McGregor may not be single-mindedly focussing on victory on Saturday, he is the defending champion and even on a bad day in the midst of a heavy training block, he is certainly going to be in contention.
However, he will face a potent line-up that includes the trio of Eastern Cape stars, brothers Joshua and Matthew Fenn – who will both be joining McGregor in the SA team to the World Champs next month, and another multiple world canoeing champion, Andy Birkett, who is coming off victory in the SA K2 River Champs at the Fish River Marathon a month ago.
The Western Cape challenge will be led by Uli Hart, Mark Keeling and Daniel Jacobs, with KZN’s former U23 World Canoeing Champion, Hamish Lovemore, looking for some flat sea conditions to be able to impose himself.
In the women’s race, it seems likely defending champion and 2021 Junior World Surfski, Champion Saskia Hockly will be the paddler to beat. The 19 year old may be a relative youngster, but with five World Marathon medals as an U23 and junior, she is looking certain to be a future star of South African paddling, and she proved that with her surprise win in this event 12 months ago while still a junior.
The young KZN star’s challenges will come from paddlers on a spectrum of experience. Leading the quest from the older hands are likely to be sub veterans Pippa McGregor from KZN and Nix Birkett from the Eastern Cape. Two U23s who could take the title are Birkett’s provincial teammate, Jade Wilson, while Kira Bester will lead the Western Cape challenge, with backup from a pair of recently crowned Junior World Champions, Georgia Singe and Holly Smith.
The doubles race on Sunday is wide open with Hart and Lovemore; Birkett and Matthew Fenn; Joshua Fenn and Bevan Manson; Keeling and Jeremy Maher; Jacobs and Clint Cook; and Brad Boulle and Luke Le Roux the main contenders.
In the women’s doubles race, Nix Birkett and Jade Wilson are probably the crew to beat, but face a stiff challenge from 2022 doubles winner and former South African Chloe Bunnett, who is now living in Spain and has teamed up with last year’s mixed double runner up, Tracey van der Walt. Two other young crews to watch closely are the Junior World K2 Champions Georgia Singe and Holly Smith, and Hockly with UK’s Rosie Edwards.
While the racing up front will be fascinating and exciting, the event weekend is about much more than titles and gold medals, and this is probably best summed up by Hockly, who is attracted to the race for more than just the racing.
“I like doing the Pete Marlin because the vibe of the race is cool,” she said this week. “I love that stretch of coastline and the paddling because it’s so out in the open. It’s wild and it’s unprotected, but for me the major reason is the vibe. Everyone comes down and it’s always such an enjoyable weekend. I mean, everyone is always in such good spirits all the time and I just feel like it brings everyone together.”