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Monstered at Makai: The events of 8 February 2020 or Hard Times Down South

By Jeremy Spear and B2.5111

Photo credits: Mark SUNDIN

What could possibly go wrong? About 15 dedicated SIP reps had been training hard for the best surfski paddling race event on the east coast of Australia.  And whilst Accommodation was booked, and rides organised, watchful eyes were on a dreaded East Coast Low giving form to thoughts of big waves, crashing winds and driving rain in each paddler’s prophetic glass.  All those fires and that long long drought were about to be broken.  And when I say broken I mean smashed beyond recognition, leaving all and sundry wondering how the hell it could be so dangerously on fire one moment and vision splendid Dorothy Mackellar style with flooding rains the next.

Nonetheless, SIP paddler’s girded their loins ‘and snuffed the battle with delight’ as the event is set in stone, it is always on the second weekend in February and paddlers were coming from as far as Tasmania and Qld. Whilst the race has always been a 25km downwind hoot paralleling the coast, this year was set to be different with that East Coast Low giving forth to very strong and building Easterly winds, coupled with a big fetch over a long period pushing up some pretty decent swell.

Well they do say Makai like it tough, and over 200 paddlers were in the starting blocks competing to qualify for the World Championships in Portugal later this year of our Lord 2020.  And as such Paddle Australia had turned up to observe the best of the best in action and to see how big Ocean races are run.

The final race Course was set on the morning of the event, according to prevailing conditions and local knowledge. The 10km Mini Makai, usually 5km out and back was reduced to 7 x 1km laps to a mark barely 100m from the shelter of Ulladulla Harbour.  The formidable swell growing by the hour was making the event a serious challenge.  Nonetheless star SIP paddler Darren Keen worked the Mini-Makai swell magnificently and achieved a First place in his category and a very respectable 4th place overall. A fine ocean paddler, DK did SIP proud, managing some tough conditions very well.  Our own Julie Wilcsek who had done a lot of training and prep for this event was seen beaming as she doggedly charged around the Mini Makai course in great form, bringing home a terrific result of 7th woman overall and 1st in her category and even more important quite possibly a PB.

Midday brought close to 200 paddlers out for the main event in Ocean Racing Skis, Doubles, OC1’s, and Sea Kayaks, despite torrential rain squalls reducing visibility to 50m at times. The start line was just inside the harbour, which meant pretty much immediate gridlock, on a lee breakwater, in a heaving and breaking 3 metre+ and building swell. It was a loud and furious start, with the surface of the water already rougher than a Belfast out-house, churned white with the grand sweep of blades furious and determined.

The big guns got straight out hard, heading for the first mark about 1km SE into the building swell.  SIP paddlers Tommy Woodriff and Bruce Hopkins started well and clean and charged with the lead pack. Both had been training hard and performing well and were not there to make up numbers - both were clearly in the top five early. The first mark was pretty hectic with a lot of close quarters action, with blades and boats clashing and many fell in the heavy swiftly moving water. 

White water grew thickly upon the ocean and any slip was death…well…okay it wasn’t as bad as that but a lot of people lost skis and were tossed as corks upon the ocean giving test to their leg leashes.  A kink to the left, heading NE for another km saw the fleet round the top sea mark and launch downwind on the first of what was intended to be 6 x 2.5km laps, to make up 15km.

Unfortunately the wind had swung further S and the top mark was near some shallow ground, pushing up some steep 4m breaking waves. The size of the swell made paddlers disappear from view in silent troughs hidden from all but the savage beating of their own secret hearts. On the crests of those same waves paddlers were dizzy and feeling a bit like Edmund Hillary…no no - not confused like our dear Kiwi Brothers, I mean up very very high.

It was busy and still chaotic for the mid-packers which pushed some into the danger zone. The left hand side was milder, and safer - if you didn’t get pushed north by the inexperienced or out of control skis in the chaos and maelstrom. With a 25 knot tailwind and 3-4 metre building swell at 8 - 10 secs, paddlers find out whether they were hero or zero pretty damn fast. Some took off downwind on fast swells at speeds of over 25kph. Some tombstoned, rolled, bailed out or just got totalled.  

The video records ski upturned like tooth picks, held momentarily white and frozen against a grey horizon before smashing back down unto an unforgiving ocean.  Any whose leg leashes parted or failed lost their boats and faced a 500m swim. Several were separated from their craft which were then projected rapidly downwind. A procession of expensive pieces of Carbon were dispatched at speeds recorded by GPS of over 40kph - onto the bricks. Some craft shattered. Some managed pretty well and were recoverable. Some went straight into the skip in several pieces. Some were abandoned, MIA, presumed sunk. That was just the first lap. Well they do say Makai like it tough.

The race proceeded with the tough and strong and those still upright fighting it out for further ensuing laps, whilst the weather and conditions abated somewhat. The timekeepers had their hands full recording completed laps for each of the continuing boats. 200 boats being recorded for each of intended 6 laps makes for a lot of fast data entry. Exhaustion, collateral damage and carnage taking their toll, it was decided to abandon the race when some had completed 3 or 4 of the intended 6 laps.

The results were posted but unfortunately are somewhat inconsistent and unreliable. Some paddlers who withdrew due to capsize and boat damage were awarded places. Regardless, it was the AUS Worlds selection race so podiums had to be derived and awarded. The timers are pretty happy with the first three in each category – however there was strong discussion in respect to paddlers with 3 laps completed being put ahead of four completed laps.  As it was the selection race, the competitors were racing in age divisions of 5yrs. This left some pretty small divisions.  But that’s how selection races work and some can now book in to Portugal, and a tracksuit fitting.  It was a hard race – a very hard race. Some elected not to go down upon examining the building Met prior - perhaps a wise (and cheaper) move. Those that went enjoyed the hospitality of the event, brought some much needed income to the recently devastated south coast and took home Esky’s full of beautiful local produce. Driving down through the starkly devastated forest of the region was profound enough. Driving home in a teeming downpour, through starkly fire ravaged country was indeed a strange counterpoint.

SIP did well. Many had a brilliant race which went to plan. Some were disappointed in the result but gained much in experience and from the cameraderie of the Shark Island team. SIP paddlers who competed included Bruce Moller, David Jepsen, Graham Dadd, Stew O’Regan, Greg Dolgopolov, Alastair Grant, Rob Conroy, Jai de Tomasso, Tommy and Hoppo, DK and Julie. Tommy’s looks like he has an opportunity to once again represent Australia at the Worlds, coming 4th overall and First in his division.  For his sake lets hope the weather is again wild at the world champs … for everyone else we wish you 10 – 15 knots downwind and waves of just on one metre, perhaps 1.2 metres.

Stew, from Think Kayaks and Skis has offered to help anyone out who has any damaged skis - contact Stew at Think if you need assistance with ski repairs or replacement.

And so - training has already started for next year’s Makai Cup, whilst perhaps more importantly right now, all focus is on the next big event, our own Tingira Cup, hosted by Shark Island Paddlers at Rose Bay on 28th March.

Makai Cup 2020 lived up to its mantra – it was big, hard, and fast, and to some very very expensive.  It certainly was “More than a race”.

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