The best surfski crews in the country will square up against one another at the Freedom Paddle race around Robben Island on Saturday 27 April, in what is being widely billed as the most competitive double ski race in the world.
The record-setting field of 320 paddlers breaks the mark set for a surfski race in the Western Cape and overshadows the big field of 106 doubles that entered the seminal 2004 Surfski World Cup race, and is laced with some of the very best exponents of surfski racing in the world.
Jasper Mocké and Nicky Notten front the field as defending champions, but they know that there are at least a dozen crews that will be within earshot of them throughout the race.
Defending SA S2 champions Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett, both marathon world champions, are chomping at the bit to prove a point over the 27 kilometre circumnavigation of the island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.
The Euro Steel/Fenn Kayaks pairing hasn’t been tested in the heat of battle since their win at the Pete Marlin race last year, and with Birkett settling in East London, they have not been training together.
Jasper Mocké’s older brother Dawid will partner the potent East London-raised youngster Josh Fenn in a double ski pairing that poses a serious threat to the CSA gold medals. Fenn’s young brother Matthew Fenn has teamed up with the rising star Uli Hart in an equally dangerous combination.
The well-drilled crew of Stu MacLaren and Kenny Rice bring an imposing pedigree into the race, while the Eastern Cape brothers Ryan and Greg Louw showed their current form at the recent General Tire SA Lifesaving Champs in their hometown of Port Elizabeth last month.
Steve Woods and Tyrone Maher come into the event somewhat under the radar, but insiders believe they are set to rattle the cages of the podium pretenders.
A big contingent of KwaZulu-Natal surfski paddlers will be making the trip to the Western Cape for the weekend of races, with the SA S2 title being decided at the Freedom Paddle and the SA single ski title at race at the Strand the following day.
Barry Lewin, who won the single ski title last year, and East Londoner Bevan Manson have been focussed on their event for some time and out to bark with the big dogs, while much is expected from Matt Bouman and his Eastern Cape St Francis-based partner Phillip Smith, after their podium finish last year.
Add to that mix the class of crews like Anders Hart and Dom Notten, Jason Ekstrand and Hamish Lovemore, Shanti Stewart and Zordan Zeelie, Red Bull’s Dusi star Sbonelo Khwela and Crispin Thompson, Ernest van Riet and Gavin White, and the dark horses Shaun Rubenstein and Lance Kime, and the men’s double title arm-wrestle is a mouth-watering prospect.
The women’s race is equally intriguing, but somewhat easier to draw up a short-list of podium finishers, as the reigning world champion Hayley Nixon has settled on surfski stalwart Michelle Burn as a partner for the race, and her 2018 winning partner Sabina Lawrie wasted little time in signing up the Olympic medallist Bridgitte Hartley, while the local challenge will be fronted by the nuggety West Coast star Bianca Beavitt, who will partner the impressive Melanie van Niekerk.
There is a big entry of mixed doubles crews in the 112 double skis registered for the race so far, with a further 70 single ski paddlers ready to take on the 27km of open ocean.