Massive Durban Surf Sparks Controversy
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 email@example.com .
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.