SA Leads in Surfski Paddling

Words: Nikki Mocke, Surfski World Series & SA Champion 2012 | Photos: John Hishin | Video: Dawid Mocke


Did you know that when it comes to surfski paddling, including design, development, manufacturing and, most importantly, winning races in the World Series, South Africans have taken the lead? This is a significant achievement when one considers how dynamic and well represented this sport is around the world.

SA Leads in Surfski Paddling

Says Dawid Mocke, four-time consecutive World Open Ocean Surfski Series Champion, "I am so proud to be a South African paddler as we really have top-class equipment and the best Open Ocean paddlers in the world living in our country. The gene pool is very deep, especially in Durban, with Hank McGregor, Matt Bouman and Grant van der Walt to name and few. From Fish Hoek, there is Sean Rice, Tom Schilperoort, Simon van Gysen, my brother Jasper and I. So, most of the time, when we have a South African Championship event, it could double as a World Championship event."


Growing appeal

The origins of this sport date back to 1912, but it was only in 1946 when surf lifesaving associations started including surfskis in lifesaving competitions and championships. Over the last 15 years, there has been a huge growth in ocean surfski racing in South Africa, as well as mainland USA, Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries, because it is limitless. All you need is a beach or span of water, it can be social or competitive and as it’s a non-weight bearing sport, it can be practiced for an entire lifetime. Proof is two paddlers from our club in Fish Hoek, who are in their late 70s and still training and competing. Surfski paddling is also not weather dependent. On a calm, flat day you can do a coastal paddle along the rocks, backline or wherever your boat takes you. For the more adventurous, there's playing in the big waves, but downwind is the ultimate for adrenaline-seeking paddlers.



For our more competitive paddlers, there's open ocean surfski racing. A typical race is around 20 km, with the competitors starting in the water and then making their way out and around a series of buoys before returning to the beach. The shortest leg of the race is into the headwind section, as paddling into the wind is the least fun part of surfski racing. But once you reach the turn marker and are into the open ocean swells, it all changes. Paddling downwind is a skill that is developed through hours on the water and practice, practice, practice. It’s all about chasing ocean swells and riding them for as long as possible. Sounds easy, until you try it. Imagine being on a 6.8 m long boat that is just a bit wider than a ruler (40 cm) and catching a massive ocean swell as high as a two-story building, shooting forward and reaching speeds of over 40 km per hour. On a windy training day, a top paddler can do 12 km in 37minutes; that’s an average of more than 19km per hour.


Each race has a grading, which is dependent on the prize purse, amount of international paddlers attending and the number of downwind stretches the race has. The higher the race grading, the more points you score towards the World Series points.



South Africans, be it 'professional working' or 'studying' paddlers, are spoilt for choice as there's basically a race every weekend throughout the year to keep you fit and your skills honed. The main selection factors are the costs to get to the event, how the conditions suit your padding ability and the prize-money up for grabs. Currently there are three or four paddlers from South Africa on the world circuit that make a living racing surfskis.


Locally, paddlers can participate in the KwaZulu-Natal and Cape surfski seasons. The KwaZulu-Natal season is divided into three distinct series. The first runs from January to April. The second, which attracts the world’s largest fields, is from April through winter. The final series starts in autumn and ends in November. The Cape season is as dynamic and runs from October all the way to March, with a short break in December splitting the series in two halves.


Big events include the Surfski Series in Cape Town and Durban, the Dunlop Durban Surfski World Cup, the Fenn Cape Point Challenge in Cape Town, the Southern Shamaal between PE and East London and the Varsity College Marine Surfski Series in Durban. One event that is attracting countless local and international paddlers is Cape Town's Millers Run. Heading out from Rumbly Bay, Cape Point, you paddle to a rock that's about one kilometre out to sea, then you turn your ski towards the Roman Rock Lighthouse and start your watch, ‘hooking’ the first ocean swell there is. What makes this paddle so awesome is that the wind- and ground swell usually run in the same direction, making conditions perfect for going downwind with the ocean swells.


Says Dawid Mocke, "My favourite race in South Africa has to be the Cape Point Challenge. It’s a tough race, 50 km from Scarborough to Fish Hoek, it's always a challenge and it's in my back garden.


“I also get a kick out of looking up from the water to the top of the tip of the southern Peninsula. I don’t think there are many people who get to see this view from that angle. It's breathtaking.”


Adds Jasper Mocke, who placed second in the 2012 Ocean Paddler World Surfski Series, "Locally, I would say that The Peter Creese Lighthouse Challenge, in Fish Hoek, stands out for me because of the history associated with the race. It's relatively short at 10 km, but has the same course regardless of the conditions, normally pumping south east winds, so it stays true to the adventure and hardness of surfski paddling. The Cape Point Challenge is the pinnacle of surfski racing everywhere. The distance, conditions and sights make it stand alone."


On the international front, World Series events are staged in Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius, Guadalupe, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Italy, USA, Hong Kong, Dubai and Hawaii throughout the year. South Africa hosted the final stage in the World Surfski Series in mid December 2012.


Dawid says, "My favourite race internationally is probably the US Surfski Championship in San Francisco. I just love the thrill of paddling under the famous Golden Gate Bridge. The conditions are great there. It’s not just a flat race, as there are loads of currents, tankers, tides and so on, so the race is tactical, fast and fun all the way."


Comments Jasper, "I enjoy racing The Doctor in Perth the most. It's a true downwind-only race and sees you competing against the best paddlers in the world. Lots of races have one of these elements, but not always both. The Mauritius Ocean Classic must be the best all-round package as far as a racing holiday is concerned. The race, which sports a good chance of runs and waves, is only a fraction of the trip. The resorts, surfing, diving and camaraderie make up the rest."


Try it

Recently, there have been some great developments in surfski paddling, with manufacturers developing SUPER stable yet competitive skis. So if you've tried surfski paddling before and found it too twitchy, give it another bash. With the new designs, adjustable leg lengths and range of choices, surfski paddling can suite anyone.



If you're keen to try surfski paddling, there are tried and tested surfski schools based in Fish Hoek, Cape Town, Durban and PE, which are owned by Dawid and Nikki Mocke. The five-lesson course will get you through all the ABCs of paddling and have you looking like a pro in no time. Visit for more information.


See video
Issue 26 Jun '13