I had the opportunity to participate in the World Ocean Racing Champs in Tahiti. While reluctant at first, I embraced my new mantra that, “we only have one go-around at life, and we might as well make the most of it.”
I joined my buddies Rob Hansen, Warren Bruce, and Daryl Remmler. Arriving in Tahiti was surreal, lots of palm trees, and tropical beauty all around. It had been 20+ years since I had a tropical experience. I felt a bit guilty about leaving Morgan, my wife, but schedules didn’t allow her to come and she was gracious enough to let me go without inflicting too much guilt. Thanks for all the offers from friends who said they’d be happy come along to carry my baggage for me.
Our first training runs exceeded expectations with plenty of marine mammal encounters; humpbacks, and pods of dolphins, quickly became common place.
The sport of paddling in Tahiti is a big deal! Outrigger Canoe is the national sport and there are plenty of canoes to be seen around town, in people’s yards and littering the beaches. One tell tale sign is the number of roof rack cradles you see with spacing to accommodate the narrow hulls. One day we hitch-hiked into town and were picked up by a guy with a canoe paddle in the passenger seat, a ukulele and a large bunch or ripe bananas in the back seat.
The women’s race was the day before the men’s, so we got to witness the spectacle of the event. National TV coverage, commentators on chase boats, cameras on several chase boats to catch the action, GPS tracking of the top competitors, 20 traditional Tahitian dancers and 3 drum groups to greet the finisher. New Zealander and Think Team paddler, Teneale Hatton, took the day. After chasing veteran South African paddler, Michele Eray, for the entire race, Teneale managed to out pace Michele in the final 3 km. Sea conditions were big, but forecasts for the men’s race were promising bigger.
The staging area for the start of the men’s race was windy. It was situated inside a barrier reef onto which massive waves were breaking. I couldn’t help think about the few complaints I had fielded about the start of the Canadian Surfski Champs, where we had a 1.5 km paddle with side-on 2 ft waves to the turn buoy. Here we had a 3 km paddle with 2 – 3 meter side swell and wind chop. In comparison to our regular races where there may be 10 people in front of me, here there were 100, and after paddling for 10 minutes the turn buoy was still not visible, just a long line of charging paddlers.
Once turning the buoy, 30km of downwind lay ahead. I had received a tidbit of info from Clint Robinson that while the waves looked bigger further from shore this was as a result of wind against current, so it was best to stay inside. Who was I to argue with the Aussie paddling god, and he had got the info from Tahitian paddling legend Lewis Laughlin. So inside I stayed.
While I had paddled in some big conditions in The Gorge, The Ambleside Tide Rip and off-shore of Vancouver Island this was a whole other kettle of fish. Things I knew but had never really actualized were coming into play, like you can’t rarely catch the big swell, you need to work your speed up on the smaller waves and then jump onto a screamer, and hold on. On the smaller waves I was running about 14 km/hr and hitting 19 – 20 on the big ones. But every once and a while I would swamp and slow to sub -10kph. This was happening way too much.
The cool thing about ocean racing is that experience is paramount, reading and riding waves plays a huge part of the sport, but being fit and strong with good stroke technique is simply not enough. One competitor remarked that the Tahitian paddlers never seemed to be paddling, and yet were still going remarkably fast! I was often stumped after catching a great wave and trying to figure out how to make it last, I would get swamped and stalled. 43 year old Clint Robinson finished second, besting many top level athletes half his age. 25 racers abandoned the race!
Rounding the final corner for 3 km of flat to the finish you could hear the drums pounding. It was something else!! But the awards ceremonies were a whole lot of fun. The best I have ever seen and have raised the bar to a whole other level. We at the Canadian Surfski Champs need to pull up our socks. After calling up the top 3 paddlers for a category, awards would be handed out, and then the winners would be swarmed by Tahitian dancers while the drums pounded. This happened for every category. Everybody was grinning from ear to ear.
Somehow I got onto the podium for the 55-59 category, 3rd. Truth be known I think there were only 3 competitors in my category, but I’ll take it. Warren Bruce was 2nd in 60 – 65. His second World Cup Podium, legendary!! Daryl Remmler was fastest Canadian followed by Rob Hansen.
Initially there was some grumbling about the race organization, but it had no basis and in the end, everything ran on time and went off without a hitch. There was huge support from the local community and all competitors were made to feel very special. Thanks to Charles and the organizing committee.
Next week is the local classic race, Maraamu where we race 40 km from the island of Tahaa, to Bora Bora.