Revival of Wall & Back Series 2013

Words & Photos: Anthony Grote

The Illovo Suncoast Wall & Back Surfski Series is one of the oldest surfski races in the region. Starting at Suncoast Pirates Lifesaving Club, competitors paddle south to the harbour wall and back again, covering a distance of 8 km. However, due to dwindling numbers and poor sponsorship in the past, the series all but disappeared off the calendar. Thanks to Anton Fouche and some keen sponsors, the series has been revived and is creating great excitement in surfski circles, as it will now fill the void at the end of the year.

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Photo credit: Anthony Grote

The six-race series took place over six consecutive weeks on Friday nights from 18 October to 22 November 2013, on an 8 km course. Paddlers could participate in either the Singles or Doubles categories. Hosting the series at Pirates also served to raise the stakes because it is notorious for its tricky surf conditions. If the wind is blowing, the prevailing winds are either NE or SW, resulting in a headwind either on the outward-bound leg or inward-bound leg, thus giving paddlers a serious workout on the day.

Race 1 (18 October)

True to form at this time of the year, the weather gods dealt up something different each week, and on majority of the races, the conditions were extremely testing. Race one greeted the paddlers with an unpredictable shore break, large mid breaks, and a testing backline combo of surf conditions with bumpy seas all the way to the wall and back. Even the likes of Hank McGregor, the current World Marathon Champion, found the conditions a challenge and had to punch through the waves on the way out. He prevailed to take line honours in the first race of the series. Nikki Russell, despite overshooting the finish, managed to take the win in the women’s race.

Despite the hectic conditions, not everyone was put off. Matt Bouman, a seasoned lifesaver and extreme paddler, seemed excited about the conditions when asked about the race afterwards. “Coming from a surf lifesaving background that was just so much fun! When the east blows and the sea is all lumpy and bumpy it is great fun,” commented Matt. Nikki Russel, one of the few woman paddlers to take on the conditions, also showed pure glee when recalling the race afterwards. “That was the most insane paddle, I absolutely loved it,” she said. With glowing comments like these, it seems that in spite of the conditions and a couple of broken boats, the revived series is going to be a hit once again.

Race 2 (25 October)

The next couple of races saw similar conditions, although Race 2 proved to be a bit more challenging than Race 1. In fact, the weather became so unpredictable that even Hank McGregor and Matt Bouman fell victim to rogue waves. Hank was the first to be caught side-on by a wave just off Limestone reef and knocked off his ski. This resulted in him having to swim for several minutes to retrieve his ski before being able to continue, and this pretty much put an end to his race. This left Matt Bouman to take the lead, only for him to fall victim to the extreme surf conditions on the way in to the shore at the finish when he was knocked off his ski in the tricky backline surf. Matt explains his error, “As I came around the final buoy, I probably didn’t need to rush things as much as I did. I could have sat and picked my time a little better. So at the end of the day, it was pretty unlucky, but entirely my fault. It was a stupid mistake to have made!” This opened the door for Brett Bartho to take line honours. Once again, NicoleRussell managed to claim back-to-back wins despite the tricky surf conditions, saying her experience from lifesaving allowed her to negotiate the large surf conditions safely on the night.

Not many paddlers made it to shore that evening without taking a dip in the surf, showing the level of skill required to navigate the surf zone off Pirates.

Race 3 (1 December)

The final races in Race 3 saw average to tricky surf conditions dominate, which attracted a greater number of paddlers to take on the early Friday evening dice. Competition, however, was still rife amongst the paddlers, with Hank McGregor across the line first,
while Michelle Burn took the win in the women's race..

Race 4 (8 December)

Race 4 saw a world-class field turnout, which included all the local favourites and Jasper Mocke from Cape Town, who were getting in their last bit of training before heading to either Hong Kong for the Dragon Race or East London for the Pete Marlin race. Hank McGregor had to dig deep on the night to stay ahead of the extremely talented field, pipping Matt Bouman to the line by four seconds. In the ladies, Michelle Burn once again proved what a classy paddler she is when she comfortably claimed yet another win.

Race 5 (15 December)

Race 5 saw a small field turnout for the race due to poor weather conditions. A gale-force SW wind meant the outward-bound leg was going to be a tough headwind for the paddlers. Brandon van derWalt negotiated the headwind conditions the best, working together with the double’s team of Derek Hauptfleisch and Anton Fouche. Once they turned and started back for the finish line, Brandon put in some hard sets to build up a lead over second placed Oliver Burn. Brandon took his first win of the series, giving him a perfect send-off as he prepares to relocate to Cape Town. Michelle Burn continued to solidify her lead in the series with her third win of the series, making her the woman paddler to beat in local waters.

Race 6 (22 November)

Once again, Mother Nature played her role in the proceedings as she dished up a howling NW wind, which meant that the homeward-bound leg would be a cruel headwind. The surf conditions caused trouble for some paddlers, who took a number of attempts to get out. The majority of the paddlers commented on the poor conditions, claiming that it was very choppy and tough going. However, it was Hank McGregor who secured the final race win, despite the rough conditions. Danica Bartho secured first place in the women’s competition, in spite of having just conquered the 162 km surfski race from Richard’s Bay to Durban.

The strong competition and strenuous conditions that the paddlers had experienced throughout the series paid dividends, as Hank McGregor went on to win the Dragon Race in Hong Kong, while Grant van der Walt went on to bag the win in the Pete Marlin surfski race in East London.

Most paddlers that took part in the series had exciting stories to regale about their paddle to the wall and back, and said they would most certainly return to complete the series again next year. Mother Nature 0 : Paddlers 1.

So keep your Friday evenings open this time next year for some awesome paddling East Coast style!

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Photo credit: Anthony Grote

Overall results


1. Matt Bouman
2. Grant van der Walt
3. Brandon van der Walt
4. Hank McGregor
5. Barry Lewin


1. Michelle Burn
2. Nicole Russell

For full race results and more information on the series, visit