McGregor heads strong field in Durban for national surfski champs

Widely regarded as one of the most competitive and best supported surfski hubs in the world, Durban will play host this weekend to the FENN SA Surfski Champs’ single and double title deciders with the likely weather set to offer the ocean racers excellent, manageable conditions to enjoy the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.

With the final call set to be made by the race organising trio late on Friday afternoon, it seems clear that the moderate weather will offer a Saturday afternoon race from the race base at Durban Underwater Club to Amanzimtoti, with Sunday morning’s double ski race taking the field north from DUC to Mdloti.

Saturdays forecasted wind and swell is a moderate North Easter, making the 28km single ski race to Toti and excellent platform to decide national titles across the various age groups and to start the process of pencilling in names for the national team to the world championships later in the year, should those go ahead as planned.

The small surf expected and manageable ocean conditions will make for excellent racing conditions, and remove any advantage from locals waiting to capitalise on a big downwind south of the city.

Euro Steel/Fenn racer Hank McGregor looms large on the horizon as the man to beat in both events as he comes into his hometown races as the defending champion, having won the national double ski title with Hamish Lovemore last year at the Bay Union King of the Bay before blitzing the field on the canals of St Francis to take the single ski crown.

McGregor is a consummately skilled ski paddler, at home in any deep ocean conditions, and while he has a string of major international surfski title on his CV, he makes no bones about his desire to add a surfski world crown to that lengthy list before his elite racing days are over.

However the field is substantial, both in terms of volume of entries and the quality of the elite contenders, and McGregor will be hounded by Euro Steel team mate Andy Birkett, now resident in East London, and the ominously strong Cape contingent that includes 2019 world champs silver medallist Kenny Rice, Stu MacLaren, brothers Dom and Nicky Notten, the on-form Hart siblings Uli and Anders and a talented group of juniors.

The Eastern Cape challenge will be equally imposing with the family attack of Matt, Josh and Jordan Fenn, and the traditionally strong PE challenge.

Locally the thriving Durban surfski community has just completed the six leg Marine Summer Series, which showcased strong podium challengers like Hamish Lovemore and Brandon van der Walt, while the series winner Matt Bouman’s name is conspicuously absent from the SA title entry lists.

In the women’s ranks Durban’s traditional depth of elite female pacesetters will not include Jenna Ward, who is the defending champion, as she is getting married, but all eyes will be on classy downwinder Michelle Burn, Kyeta Purchase, Bridgitte Hartley and the Hockly teenagers Saskia and Valmajean, who will all have to mark the inbound talent that includes Melanie Van Niekerk and Candice Murray.

The single ski race on Saturday will also double as the SA Schools Championships, pitting the best of the Under 18 and Under 16 talent that has entered against one another for the coveted junior titles.

Ever competitive, McGregor will be eyeing the possibility of a repeat of his 2020 double, but for Sundays double ski race he has secured the services of star East Londoner Josh Fenn for the race, which looks set to finish his backyard training ground off Ballito.

Andy Birkett has scooped the services of Josh Fenn’s brother Matt for the SA S2 title decider, and as training partners in East London they will be comfortable with each other in the boats and will be a force to be reckoned with, particularly as Birkett comes off his imperious performance at the recent MyLife Dusi Canoe Marathon.

Capetonain Kenny Rice will team up with the rising star Uli Hart, keen to spoil the KZN party by scooping the top award on Sunday for the travelling ORCA squad.

Canoeing South Africa will be running a close eye over the event as it is slated as the national trials for the ICF Ocean Racing World Champs due to be held later in the year in Europe.

With small surf anticipated and manageable deep ocean conditions, the CSA surfski committee will run both races from a deepwater start off DUC as planned and will judge finish times at the beach finish at either Amanzimtoti or Mdloti beach, scrapping the contingency plan to end the trial at a buoy behind the backline to obviate the risk of a mishap returning through the surf from affecting the outcome of the trials.