The Challenge has had many names over the years, The Red Heart Rum, The Hardy’s, The Texan etc. Regardless of the sponsor title, the real name of the event has always been whispered among the seriously hardcore paddling fraternity as “The Challenge”. My first exposure to the event was when my 17 year old brother took part, in a life saving style “spec ski”. Yip, the guy paddled 250km in a Hammerhead ski! Respect! I seconded some friends as well as one of my current sponsors (New Balance MD and super athlete Gary v Rooyen) back in 2000, and the bug bit. I turned up in Bluewater Bay to attempt to become one of the first females to finish in a single ski in 2002.
250km over 4 days, along some of South Africa’s toughest and testing coastline made for an epic journey, both out on the sea, and for me personally. I learned a lot about myself over those 4 days, some of which I still use today. This event is quite honestly one of the toughest things I have done, and I rate it as the most challenging ultra endurance surf ski race in the world. I haven’t been back.
This year, 3 guys from my local paddling club made the trip. Here is their story in the words of Neal “Steel” Stephenson:
Wow, what an adventure.
The few days leading up to ‘The Challenge”, the paddlers were keeping an eye on Windguru. The forecast still two days out was showing some 3m swell with a proper westerly. I think the chance of paddling day 1, the longest of the four day event as a downwind, numbed the thought of what had to be done at the end of Day 1, that was coming in and conquering the surfline at the notorious Woody Cape.
This would be my 3rd PE to East London Surfski challenge and it turned out to be the Challenge of all challenges (well in the new millennium that is. There were rumours that it was almost as big as ’84)
At race briefing it was made clear that this was the “Rebel Tour” almost unsupported apart from two little racing ducks. So we were to look after each other.
Race day dawned, and the promised SW was meager. Blue Water Bay was delivering a fresh 4ft backline that caught a few of the earlier batches out. One double damaged their rudder and we offered our spare boat to them, as having coming this far and then ending the race before having a chance to start would have been heart breaking for them.
My partner in crime was the all round athlete and long time friend Steph le Roux. This would be his second Challenge.
The start was a non event for us. We got to the mid break comfortably. With a set looming we stayed in the “gutter” in the midbreak and paddled with the current down the beach for about 500metres till the set had passed and eased out to the backline.
We had to go around the land side of St Croix island which was about 18km away. As we got closer the runs slowly built until we were surfing some nice sized runners. Could easily do this for 80km was my thoughts. We rounded the island and into the lee to check in with one of the boats. After a quick break, we set off again.
The wind started dying and the sea became a big rolling mess with big swells passing under us. Some paddlers started suffering from sea sickness from the choppiness that was left on the surface.
Without a breeze to smooth it out, it was hard trying to stay in rhythm.
With the size backline at Blue Water Bay, everyone was aware that Woody Cape was going to be solid, but with Windguru only predicting a smallish 3,1metre ocean swell, how big could it be?
Well we got there and it was pumping. Having spent three Winters on the North Shore in my younger days, I have had my fair share of solid poundings in proper size surf. Some of the photo’s don’t do it justice, it was heaving. Stormy and wild with big rips pulling out. Steph and I decide on a line in, although 400m short of the finish, if we swam, we would wash up on the beach and not get recycled by a rip back to the backline and into some dredging pits of sand.
We waited for the set to pass (up to 8 waves per sets) and pulled hard to catch a few bumps to get through the impact zone. In the mid break there was a big bowl peak which we threw our legs out to avoid catching as it was super steep. A double came screaming past us, only to nose dive at the bottom of the peak, broach and get hammered. We coolly paddled past them, and caught a small foamie all the way up the beach. Probably one of the few boats to get in unscathed.
There were War Stories galore, around the camp fires that night, with lots of anticipation about what awaited the next morning.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of thunder. Windguru was saying dropping swell, only 2,9metres. Well we know their prediction for the day before was wrong, so how much had it dropped? As we walked over the top of the dune from the camp site what lay before us was jaw dropping.
The Surf was much cleaner, with a light land breeze on it. The waves instead of crumbling were now open pits of glory… if you a surfer that is. Not a paddler trying to get to the backline.
The first batch was off, some started walking down the beach. A few trying to get through the shorebreak. The Shorebreak was a huge challenge. Wedging peaks all over the place, washing up the beach, then draining right back again.
Fanta Gous, got through quickly and then sat in the midbreak channel waiting for a gap to appear at the backline. The current in the midbreak was washing down the beach, in the opposite direction to which we need to be paddling for the day. Within a few minutes he was easy 2km down the beach and eventually just got thumped and spat out!
In the mean time after trying a few times Bianca managed to get through the shorebreak and paddle into the midbreak channel, as she paddled through the mid break, the backline went flat and she eased out to sea, making it look ever so easy. She was on her way… The Beach erupted with clapping and whistling.
A face can tell a thousand words.
With Bianca out, it was race on and the fast batch lined up. The fast singles and doubles, ready to tackle one of the biggest starts to Day 2 in the past don’t know how many Challenges.
Steph and I had taken a calculated decision that the chances of getting out would be slim. Just massive white water pushing from backline with very few lulls between sets of sometimes up to 8 waves.
It seemed pointless to waste time trying to get out, possibly breaking the boat, and then still end up trying to get out further down the coast. We were going to run/ walk along the beach, till the coastline bends hopefully giving us a chance to negotiate the surf.
We stripped our lifejackets and tops, tied them into our boat and Steph set off down the beach dragging the double by the tail handle in the shallow water. I was just trying to keep up.
We were told it was about 5km to where we would be able to paddle out. I thought it must be more like 8. I had done lots of paddle training but not run training. We left the beach as the coast bent and went into the dune fields. Over and over till suddenly we were standing on top of this massive dune with the coast below. A small bay with a slight channel although there were still some solid waves at the back.
We started making our way along the inside until the channel and started making our way slowly out.
Suddenly we were confronted with a solid 4-6ft peak, that broke right on top of us. When I popped up and looked around Stef was next to me. He said that he thought I was going to land on top of him, that’s how hard the wave hit us. Our boat was floating next to us. We climbed back on and I noticed a small crack on the top deck in front of the cockpit. We started paddling again. The boat was feeling heavy. We decided to turn and head back to the beach. The boat had two big cracks underneath. We had no option but to keep dragging along the beach till we could reach our seconds and some much needed duct tape to seal the cracks on the bottom.
At cannon rocks we met up with my Dad and sister who were seconding us. We taped the boat, had some food and something to drink. We were at the 17km mark of 52km for the day and 4 hours in. We still had a solid paddle ahead of us, if we could get out! We were adamant to give it another go.
Canon rocks had a bit of a channel with some rocks and I was sure there was a way to weave through the peaks and get to the backline.
Well we made it out and stayed well out. The organizers had canned the normally compulsory stop at Kenton as the surf was just silly big. Every now and then an outside reef would just break and fade out in the middle of nowhere. How far out was far enough.
Eventually we got to Port Alfred. We were already passed the 7 hour mark on what is normally the shortest day and should have only taken about 4 hours. The back reef at Port Alfred was breaking big and far out. We had to come round it to line up with the finish. After about 10-15 minutes trying to decide what line to take into the solid shorebreak and counting sets we decided it was now or never.
We got our pipes cleaned in the shorebreak, but we were home at last.
Quiet a few paddlers after walking along the beach forever, did not make it to the end of Day 2.
Only one other paddler from the fast batch, Justin McClauglin got out at the Woody Cape start, others at the end of the beach, some at the 8km mark where we first tried. Some others at Cannon Rocks after us.
That evening lots of tired bodies and camp fire stories…
Day 3 started and the sea was behaving itself. The surf had dropped dramatically and there was hardly any wind.
Our start was sweet and none eventful. Just one little number to negotiate and then turn up the coast for a monster 72km day.
The halfway stop at Fish River mouth was canned to avoid anymore drama, so straight on to Hamburg.
Besides a proper 2km head current that we could not avoid as much as we tried we plodded on till the finish.
Day 4 was even more mellow with a nice group of the 4 fast singles working with the two top doubles all the way to the halfway stop at Kidds beach for a check in/ quick leg stretch.
The singles were away quickly, wasting no time. Steph and I had a quick sandwhich and something to drink and then slowly got back in our ski for the last 30km home.
We had a solid second half paddle and felt really good. I told Steph after the first 3 days we must have gotten fitter!
We came in over Nahoon Reef on a nice wave to see a massive reception waiting for us at Nahoon beach. It was spectacular to see so many people waiting to greet us and wish us well.
All I can say is this was my most Challenging PE to EL. The surf made the race what it was meant to be and put it back on the pedestal of the toughest surfski race in the world.
The Challenge is not only in the distance, but also handling everything that Mother Nature throws at you whether it the wind or the surf. This race has a lot of hardcore history, and being apart of that is just amazing…
You make friends for life on this race. You suffer together, you triumph together and this year, we survived together.