Massive Durban Surf Sparks Controversy

 In Safety

This past weekend saw the staging of the South African Surfski Champs in Durban, in massive surf. The singles event in particular, fell victim to particularly dangerous surf  at the finish.  In excess of 20 surfski’s were broken and a large percentage of the field required rescue by jetski.

The wisdom of staging the event in such conditions has been the subject of much discussion this week. I was approached by several paddlers and asked to use this site as a platform for discussion about the effects of the weekend’s events. Posted below is an open letter written by one of the stalwarts of Durban paddling, Richard Lowe, with his thoughts and comments. We asked Barry Lewin, the organiser of the race, to provide his thoughts and comments, and to respond to Richard’s letter.

I invite you, the reader, to please comment and provide your input on the matter. I have opened up the comments to make it super easy to leave a comment.

It’s a long blog post as both contributors go into detail. But it makes for fascinating reading and I look fwd to reading all your views on the matter.

I pass the Blog over to Richard and Barry.


Richard Lowe Writes:

It’s been a few days since last weekend’s SA Surfski championships and I wanted to address a few issues from the weekend. This is not a personal attack at anyone in particular but rather an attempt to discuss why Saturday’s race ended up the way it did.

The whole week before showed monster 4m+ surf predicted for the Friday and possibly Saturday. No trailing wind was predicted. On Friday mid-morning I received two phone calls from mates who, to quote, said, “I’m driving over the river mouth and it is unplayable! It’s as big as I have ever seen in Durban!” The same day a Facebook posting said that La Mercy beach was a manageable 4 foot, far more so than in previous years.

Suggestions during the week were, seeing as there was monster surf coupled with no trailing wind, why not arrange an out and back. It made sense, no drivers would be needed and it would start and finish at the race venue. There could even be several laps to give spectators a chance to follow the race. Reports were the organizer had said that because it was a national championship and in order to award a national title it had to be a point to point. I have to point out that a couple of years ago the event was hosted by Richards Bay and there too was an unfortunate case of big surf. The event organizers allowed the paddlers to paddle out the harbour mouth out and back. Also, I believe the doubles and singles were swapped around to allow the surf to drop off. So an out and back can be done at a national championship.

On the morning there was some speculation to the size and the finish. It ranged from, “It’s ok, just be patient at backline” to “its 6 foot thick and I’m out!” I feel that the organizers really should have announced that the finish was 5m (look at the pictures showing the skis lying lengthways from top to bottom and the wave was still bigger than the ski) and that although it was SA champs and that although many people that had travelled a long way to come and support the event, that it should have been strongly recommended that if a paddler was not comfortable in big surf or was not willing to risk their ski to consider not starting.

In my opinion, accurate information about the end was held back from the competitors. That meant an informed decision about the true nature of the finish could not be made and this resulted in I believe 24 broken skis causing hundreds of thousands of Rands damage.

Not to mention the possibility of someone drowning. I don’t believe this is an exaggeration. One of the ladies went over the falls and it was at least 2 minutes until Barry Lewin was able to get to her because of the relentless surf rolling in. If she had drowned this would have been the last thing our sport needs. Another point that had to be said. The organizers must have been aware of the surf predicted at the end and yet there was only 1 jet ski. Barry Lewin was a hero and showed incredible skill to rescue those paddlers that had lost their skis. The problem was, the fact that Barry had to perform the way he did meant that he was understaffed and there should have been at least 2 jet skis, maybe even 3.

In future why would visiting paddlers make the effort to come back to Durban? The last 2 events we have hosted were windless and big surf. If it’s competition anyone is looking for, they have come to the right place. However, you might just leave with your carbon ski in 2 pieces. In that case, it would be better to travel to Cape Town. The competition there is just as tough as Durban but there is a good chance you won’t damage your ski. Just watch out for the Great White Johnnys! Look at the Cape Point, for example, last year the waves at Scarborough were unplayable so the organizers made the race an out and back, still 50km and still a super tough race. It bothers me that there may be no good reason to come support any Durban events if we keep breaking visitor’s skis.

Just like any business one would like the numbers to grow. I feel that days like Saturday would be a situation where new paddlers and ladies would not feel confident to get involved and help grow the numbers. Yes, its SA championships but it is possible to have a tough challenging race that caters to all paddlers. The event is not all about the top 5 or 10 racers. It has to be mentioned, Hank McGregor got it wrong coming in, and if he swam what chance do us mortals have? Say what you want, La Mercy was a 50/50 success rate for most paddlers. In my book that’s a low percentage.

I would like to say that I hope that is not seen as a personal attack to the organizers of the event. Without such people, we would not have any events to compete in. Having said that, it is a business and such criticism should be received and considered going forward for future events.

Many thanks to all the sponsors: Mazzers, FNB, Thule and all others who have supported the event. Without their support, the sport we love would be dead. Also many thanks to John Oliver and his team for giving up their weekend to do the timekeeping and issue prompt results.

I look forward to all comments. I just think that we need to discuss this to hopefully avoid future issues at our races.


Barry Lewin, race organizer replies:

Firstly a hi to the Durban Surfski readers and thanks for being so passionate about surfski paddling in my home town, the best place in the world to paddle a surfski.

Richard kindly sent me his post before it was published for me to check and edit. I write a blog and value the integrity of someone’s so I won’t be editing it but rather give another point of view to those of Richard who has some concerns about the finish of the singles race.

My Thoughts and Views on the weekend

When I was told I was up to bat to organize the SA Surfski Champs for this year I had a little freak out as this comes with some pressure. National titles are not to be taken lightly and I came up with 3 goals:

Have a representative champs
Prize Money worth of a champs
Racing in the best conditions for that specific day

In hindsight, I think I achieved this thanks to the help of firstly the paddlers who travelled from around the country to be at the event and secondly to the awesome sponsors who backing the event in a big way.

Over the last 5 years, I run many surfski races but this was the first Downwind I have run. I called in the cavalry and hired a brains trust to help me with the safety of the event that had more experience in years than I have been alive. I have also raced downwind for the last 15 years and know how things should work. We as a team came up with a safety plan, which is very detailed, and not for this platform.

As part of this process, I have to say calling the event a downwind was the worst thing I could do with the current trend being as soon as you mention the word the wind does a disappearing act. It came early leaving a lot of SW swell around in Durban.

As always I was nervous of the surf on the north coast and drove out there on Thursday to check and then again on Friday at the time with the same tide as race day. On Friday there was a 4 to 5 foot wave on the back at La Mercy, which was soft (not hollow) and thought the race was easily runnable with big gaps between the sets so pushed out the messages needed on race times.

My thinking on going early was to make use of the well-going north, this doesn’t help the paddlers much at least the ocean would be going in that direction. Paddling into the swell can be a nightmare in certain conditions an hour later would have been better with the offshore which was a little stronger than expected, especially around the river mouth.

The swell on WindGuru was mean to drop from 18 sec for Friday down to 12 sec. This on our coast means a big drop in swell and specially wave size. This forecast along with the surf check we had done meant we were expecting the following:

4 to 6 feet waves on a full tide.

This is the information we had from personally visiting the site and the forecast I trust the most for Durban. We were a go for race day.

On the day the race briefing was done at 720am and paddlers were given 25min to check in on the beach to make sure we had a list of paddlers that were on the water and this was to be checked at the finish to make sure we knew we had everyone in. This was one of a number of safety measures we had in place for the weekend

Sadly 12 paddlers on the day did not check in at all seriously putting the races safety at risk. If one of those paddlers were lost as sea we would not have come to find them. Realizing this at the finish we had to make a number of phone calls to make sure we had paddlers in and found 2 paddlers offshore thanks to the efforts of the safety team following the plan to a T after some serious challenges with finding out who is actually out there.

At 730am I can a WhatsApp from my land crew who were to set up the finish at La Marcy spot on time. The messages said and quote

‘Surf is 5-6 foot with 4 to 5 wave sets and big gaps between sets.”

A surfski paddler ran my land team who knows the sea well and someone I trust to help me make a call on the surf. To me, this was similar to what I had seen the day before and made the call to run the course on this information a hand.

During the race a run the Yamaha Waverunner ahead of the field to check the surf. When I beached at 840am the beach lifeguards from Umhlanga were in place and the surf was hollow but manageable as it still had big gaps between the sets.

Watching the first half of the field come in we have very little problems. The odd swim in the mid-break at most bar 1 person in the top 20 doing something stupid and tried to get barreled going sideways in the impact zone (worst surf attempt I have ever seen). There is no danger in anyone swimming in the mid-break on as the waves are soft by then and they wash up on the beach with the help of the beach lifeguards. The danger comes in the impact zone, which over the course of the morning changed from manageable to a nightmare.

The pushing tide changed the game. We moved the safety team around and used the rubber duck to backline as they were not dealing with the turbulence in the surf well and placed the waverunner in its place in the surf. The plan was to have waverunner out as see checking people didn’t paddle past the finish and this move was vital at the time. It worked well.

I really feel for the second half of the field as the conditions continued to deteriorate through the morning and a number of rescues had to be made getting paddlers out of the impact zone where the waves had a lot of power.

The situation was managed the best we could at the time and am proud of my team for all the hard work and making sure everyone got in safe.

My comments of Richard’s Mail

Monster 4m Plus Surf Predicted – We did the surf checks and homework needed on the course and believed it was perfectly fine to run. We did not expect 4m surf and at 730am just 30min before the start we had exactly what we had expected.

Course Race – There is no rule from CSA saying what a SA Surfski Champs has to be a point to point race. This was my personal belief, as a paddler that a national champs should not be run on a lap course. My goals leading into this event were to take the national title seriously. We had a course race planned as a back up and if we had run it the national title would have been postposed and run on another date. This national titles were however not a factor in choosing the course on the day. The surf was checked and the call was made to run on it’s merits alone.

Richards Bay SA Champs – The days were swopped round and in the feedback from this event, it was decided to never do this again. We paddled into the wind for 12km, which was no fun. It is because of this event that the rules set out is that the day is set as the race and is not to be moved and the course is to be with the following ocean. A national title will not be given out on a course like that any more. It race was run extremely well by the Zululand Kayak Club but a lot of lessons were leant and applied to the guild line to the current national champs.

Organizers really should have announced that the finish was 5m – I announced exactly the info that I had. The conditions changed drastically from the time of the briefing to the time the back of the field finished.

Why would visiting paddlers make the effort to come back to Durban? – The weather was great and the water warm, value to the paddler (cheap entry) and decent prize money. Durban in winter is a treat and any paddler will have the paddling time of their lives.

The last 2 events we have hosted were windless and big surf – incorrect. This event last year was run by Billy Harker as the KZN Champs (bummed I wasn’t there) in good wind with a SW for the singles and Solid NE for the Doubles.

Hank McGregor got it wrong coming in, and if he swam what chance do us mortals have? – Hank to a little swim in the mid break well out of the impact zone and any danger. This can happen in any surf and his only error was letting go his ski in the shore break or he may have even still won the race, which was really close in the closing stages.

If I knew the surf was going to be that big at the finish the race course would have been changed. I do not promote bringing people in though surf like that and never want to do it again. I have grown up doing lifesaving where prevention is well better than cure and will do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We were completely blind sighted with the conditions, I apologies to those I didn’t brief on the course and the surf effectively.

The race safety plan was followed to a T. It is always easy to put a plan on paper but making sure it gets into practice is not easy and I am proud of my team.

Hind site is a perfect science and brings a great perspective. As I put myself in my shoes of last week I look into what I would have done differently. We have had a debrief as an event team to go through all that happened over the weekend and as a team, we would all have made the exact same decisions with the same information. That is a hard thing to say and shows we all made the right calls on the day.

A note to all the paddlers from a fellow paddler. I pulled a number of people out the sea after making so many mistakes and watched the rest come in with very little issues. I believe there is a very big gap between the level of skills within the sport right now. Even in those hectic conditions, 80% of the field did not get their hair wet.

To the 20% that had problems. There was a lot of water moving across the bank meaning if one tucked in behind a wave it would draw you across the impact zone to safety. Too many paddlers ended up in the impact zone due to a simple lack of knowledge or skill. You as a paddler need to get in and out of the surf every time you go paddling. My lesson to all paddlers is to get in the surf and learn. To shy away from it will do you no good and limit your paddling.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing the comments. I do not see this as a personal threat from Richard but one of positive debate. If anyone would like to chat to me directly please email .


Editors Comments :

I come from a strong sailing back ground where the decision whether to race or not is common place. Ocean racing events are often scheduled years in advance. Often the weather is atrocious on the scheduled date. The way sailing deals with this is to leave it up to the skipper of each boat to decide whether they are up to the conditions or not. I think similar should apply in paddling. For example, I personally withdrew from Saturdays race after learning about the surf conditions at the finish. I was not prepared to risk my boat.

But the question remains, what are the obligations of the race organiser when it comes to safety? I feel the organiser should ensure that he / she has accurate and appropriate data on the conditions. That they should have the ability to interpret and communicate the situation to the entrants and make strong recommendations as to the skill level required to compete safely. But ultimately it is the paddlers decision to compete or not. However, I would give the organiser the power of veto, to prevent a paddler from entering if he or she is being reckless and endangering others by competing. An example maybe a novice paddler who is intent on entering a race run in powerful downwind conditions. The possible resulting rescue efforts could place an excessive burden on rescue resources and endanger the lives of rescue personnel.

In the case of this particular weekend, I think Barry was very well qualified to make the decisions he did. Perhaps the intel he was receiving from the finish was not as accurate as it should have been? Certainly, the reports I received at a similar time told a different story, hence my decision not to race. Information about the likely conditions at the finish, was freely available on the web via services like wind guru and personal observation. So there is no excuse for each paddler not to have taken responsibility in making their own decision as to whether it was safe to race or not.

Lets here from you.

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Showing 10 comments
  • Barry Lewin

    Hi Rob. I like your comments and the relation to sailing. The sport of surfski paddling is small enough that open conversation can happen just like this. I am completely open to depute through it learning, improving and evolving the way we do things. I have to give a high to Julie the girl in the pic you posted. She got a couple big waves on the head but was brave enough to come back the next day and do the doubles. A testament to the spirit in the paddling community I value so highly. Well done Julie! Regards Barry Lewin

    • Matthew Bouman

      The beautiful thing about life and in this case, sport; It’s all about choice.

      You choose to do the race or you choose not to. You choose your source for weather and surf information too.

      In my very limited opinion, bigger swell and bigger wind increases my enjoyment factor. Please don’t try to apply a group mentality or ruling to our sport. There are so few real surfski races left.

      I didn’t particularly enjoy paddling into a headwind for and hour an a half but I am completely satisfied with. Barry’s efforts as race organiser to give us the best chance of paddling as good a “downwind” as the Universe would allow….

  • Brett McDonald

    It’s a fair call to remind organisers that the prospect of damaging your ski does turn paddlers off. Here in Australia we pay far more for our ski’s and I have stopped going to events with a strong shore dumping wave after seeing a steady amount of photos of broken skis in races here. The hardcore element of racers ( who are usually more at home in surf conditions) wont bat an eyelid, and suggesting people train in surf as Barry did is all well and good but some of us don’t have easy access to surf to train in. The other issue is paddlers tackling surf after paddling 27km and being fatigued, decision making and judgement is not as sharp and if you do come out energy reserves to swim in are tested. All food for thought. Organisers/race directors need to balance their experience and risk level they would take on with what type of field they want competing, otherwise if you are catering for other hard core paddlers and tell the rest to “toughen up”, you will find you only have the hardcore paddlers turning up.

  • David Gwynn ( Back of the Packer)

    Most things have been said and said well. I salute all players. Exemplary GENTLEMEN!

    I feel an “ABORT RACE” plan could be drafted and communicated to paddlers. This would only be invoked under very special circumstances DURING a race. Mother Nature is not always a lady and she occasionally burps.

    Paddlers would stop racing and be aided to safety. This aid may be as simple as :
    1. Rest beyond back-line.
    2. Attack impact zone under instruction from someone on a jet-ski.
    3. Be lifted through impact zone by jet-ski.
    or could be more extreme – bring in the ‘choppers’.
    Details are not important here, but it would give race staff an extra weapon to wield when the going got rough.

    People first, boats second.

    When the 10th person hobbles over the finish line with a bit of boat in hand there could be some sort of signal to the weaker paddlers approaching the boat breaking zone. A red flag flown or a signal could be relayed via the safety boat to them to take extra care and possible seek aid.

    The broken boat count should be published with the results! This will help us to stay focused .
    If you don’t measure something it is somehow not there.

    I urge all players to use that stark image of JC, suspended between Mark and friend, as a stimulus for a change and not to wait for the alternative – mass paddle out one very cold mourning.

    We do not have to sacrifice our virgins and pretty boats to the sea dragon to have fun!

  • Nigel Stevens

    As there are quite a few references made to the Richards Bay SA Champs, I feel I need to respond.

    I was the Chairman of the Zululand Kayak Club which organised the SA Champs in 2011, during which we had to make changes to the race course and programme due to huge seas on the Saturday. We swapped the days around and held the doubles on an out and back course on the Saturday, starting and ending in the harbour, and the singles were moved to the Sunday where a good downwind course was held. The swell was still fairly large on the Sunday, so we changed the planned beach start to a deep water one. The result : only one ski broken .on Sunday, and competitive racing was held on both days, despite the weather not playing ball.

    For all eventualities of wind and surf we had a plan B, and decisions were made after extensive consultations with the paddlers themselves. Looking back, even with the benefit of hindsight, I believe we made the right call, and feedback from the paddlers was overwhelmingly positive.

    I think enough comments have already been made about the 2014 champs without me adding any : suffice to say I was entered but chose not to race when I saw what decision had been made regarding the course. I had first hand experience of La Mercy the previous time the SA Champs finished there, and even though I personally got in cleanly, the carnage on that occasion was an eye opener.

  • Johann van Blerck

    Hi I’m Michael de Broglio (Not) of de Broglio Attorneys. If it’s not your fault it shouldn’t be your problem. (Local advert)

    This lot keep me awake at night when I’m involved in race management. If they can prove negligence anyone involved with an event could be liable or at least have to fight their way out of appearing in court. Negligence may be as simple as pointing out in court the Winguru predicted the end result days in advance etc. I could go on and on. Indemnities count for naught when negligence is proven. Paddlers need to take this ‘on board’ when pressurising organisers to “Go for it”. because it suits them.

    Respect to Mark for his frank feedback and all of the hard work by all to stage the event.

  • Carlo Natali

    It seems that the decisions taken by race organisers are often difficult as they have to cater for a wide range of abilities combined with reliable intel irrespective of the course that is going to be tackled. The post race reviews will be subjective and seen or verbalised through the eyes or mouth of the one who made it or didnt. The intel provided back to the start in the case of this race seems to have been a little undercooked.
    Over the years weve seen various conditions in some of the premier races,(various World Cup KZN,Scottburgh to Brighton,Dolphin Coast etc).These races often start or finish in open ocean conditions raising the risk of personal or equipment damage on the out or in leg.Paddlers have the choice of entering or withdrawing if correct information is provided at the race brief.
    One issue that has often crossed my mind is why we do not have more “deep water starts” especially when there is a significant surf running at the Scott-Brighton.Having grown up at Scottburgh and have seen, surfed , paddled the sea in its many moods and witnessed the likes of Scotty’s race finish in the midbreak when his carbon ski had a hole punched through it at 6.30am in the mad rush to clear the backline in a year when conditions were up his street ,then you wonder?
    A Deep Water Start (DWS) is likely to be a little more onerous on the organisers and one acknowledges this.
    A DWS does not take the risk out the game completely but allows one a more calculated and “safer” passage to the start in certain conditions.Give the guys a window to get to the start line facing into the wind between 2 markers(if there is a wind).Any one not making the start will self eliminate probably confirming that they shouldnt be out there anyway and those who do make it will have got to the start with a lower risk of having another ski in their face or through their boat.
    Getting back to the beach at the finish is a combination of surf savvy,some luck and a bit left in the tank when you get there
    Considering the balancing act organisers have of attracting entries,paddler safety,cost of equipment today it may be a more regular consideration for certain races

    • Mike Halliday

      I don’t believe in deep water starts as part of the race is to get out through the surf and back in again. The race starts on the beach and not at backline as part of our skills in surf ski paddling should be to handle the surf. I live and train on the lower south coast and have to negotiate surf whenever I paddle. Barry is correct in saying the guys have to spend more time getting in and out in surf that’s why its called Surf Ski Paddling.

  • Dave Harker

    The problem today is there are a lot of flat water specialists. Most paddlers today in Durban paddle at Marine and DUC. surfski paddling started as a Life Savers event and if I understand the beginnings of surfski races was done by qualified life savers who knew the surf. A high % of surfski paddlers don’t know the surf and hence when they paddled out from a flat DUC start had know idea how to handle large surf at the finish. What should happen like the S2B Dolfin Coast & they mouth to mouth you should start at beach that has the same surf as the finish. If you can’t get out then you should not be there. If you want a flat water race do the King of the bay.

    • Anonymous

      Well said Dave I agree with you.

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