“Do you mind if I stop for a minute?” Our taxi driver had just pulled over to the side of the road. Through the palms on our left I could see the Indian Ocean. It was in two moods. Calm, with a violet hue, as it rested in the lagoon but dark and menacing out the back where it was being provoked by a stiff easterly breeze.
“Would you like a date?” the taxi driver asked as he reached back and handed us a plastic packet. The sun had just set on our first day in Mauritius. It had also just set on the first day of Ramadan. He could now celebrate the first hint of food to touch his lips all day, a desert palm date. I obliged and within a minute we were back on our way again, winding our way along the narrow coastal roads that are so typical of this island.
We were headed for the Tamassa Resort in Bel Ombre, the race HQ of the Mauritius Ocean Classic. Stop number 5 on the Surfski World Series the race has established itself as one of the world’s most popular surfski events. This, the 6th edition, was shaping up to be the stuff of legend. The windguru was blushing red all week and many of the world’s best ocean paddling exponents were there for a tussle.
Samantha, my girlfriend, and I have both done this race before. I have done all but one of them in fact. It’s the race I look forward to most every year. I’ve seen what the southern coast of Mauritius can offer up in terms of wind and waves, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what it had for us last week.
Opening the door of our apartment on Sunday morning, I was met with a rush of warm humid air and golden sunshine that was so incredibly welcoming. My mind skipped back to a training session I did at home just two weeks prior. I had had to wipe clumps of hail and ice from my lap whilst resting in between intervals. It was windy, cold and dark and I had spent 8 hours in the office beforehand. “Mauritius in two weeks…” I had imagined this day and it was now here.
After setting up our Fenns, Samantha and I hopped on the water and glided out over the reef with a group of about 80 other ocean-riding enthusiasts. The wind was humping and there were runs. Great runs. We rode them along the edge of the reef and slipped in the pass at Baie du Cap. 6km of downwind paddling heaven with flying fish and that deep blue Indian Ocean. Icy Cape Town was now a distant memory. We were in the tropics and it was paradise.
The rest of the week was much of the same. The wind hummed consistently from the East at 20 knots. The water was warm... Wake up. Stroll down to the beach. Check the conditions. Perfect. Breakfast; bacon, eggs, fruit, Cappuccino. Meet at the boathouse for a pre-paddle briefing or clinic. Downwind. Sleep. Eat. Repeat.
After a week of epic conditions race day was on us. The conditions were going to be testing, but not much different from what we had experienced during the week. Wind 21knots East South East. Swell 3.1m East at 9 seconds. The top half of the field was going to relish it but those with less experience would maybe not feel as confident.
Organization for this race is superb, possibly the best. It was decided that there would be two races. The first race would be inside the reef. Less challenging, it was suit those paddlers with less experience. The rest of the diehards would beat each other up in the big stuff on the outside, 22km to Le Morne. It was left to paddlers to decide for themselves whether they would go inside or outside. With a week of consistent conditions and incredible input and coaching from pros Oscar, Dean and Dawid, everyone was well equipped to make the right decisions for themselves.
The outside race starts in an idyllic little cove next to a small island called Ile Sancho. It’s a gap in the reef where you can sneak out past mammoth waves that crunch on coral either side of you. A fair start got things underway with the top 24 seeded paddlers jostling with each other and the massive side chop provided by the easterly wind and swell. We skirted dangerously close to the reef on the right hand side, trying to get the smallest little bit of advantage over each other before we got into the runs. A nose ahead can be a huge advantage at the start of a downwind and guys were putting it on the line. Brendan Rice risked too much and got caught by a bus-sized wave. It dispatched him on the reef, race over.
After about 3 kilometres in the runs it seemed like I was on my own. In a big ocean like that you don’t often see other paddlers. The peaks and toughs force everyone into a game of hide and seek. I caught glimpses of guys every now and again. Otherwise I was alone. It was fantastic.
The infamous Le Morne pass marks the end of one race and the beginning of another. After screaming downwind for 18km the focus goes from linking runs to navigating a treacherous pass and then powering home for 2 kilometres on shallow flat water. I’ve been caught out in the pass before and I was eager to not let it happen again. Being overly cautious can cost you just as much as being overly daring in Le Morne.
I managed to navigate the pass well with a good mix of measure and bravado, only to be caught by a flying Jean Luc Mauvis with about 1km to the finish on the flat. He attacked and tried to pass me numerous times and I managed to hold him off. With a Herculean last gasp, just metres from the finish, he surged one last time. We both stretched ourselves to the limit, crossing the line together. A dead heat for 5th position. Samantha did really well in conditions that she hasn’t really ever been in before on her own to come 6th overall in the ladies race. Well done to Japs and Nikki Mocke for great wins!
I’m sure you’ve read all of the hype around this event before but the truth is you couldn’t dream up a better week of paddling if you tried. Our time spent at the Tamassa resort last we was unreal and I must say a big thank you to Albert from Lux Sports and Dominic from JPH Boat House as well as Anton and the rest of the race committee. You guys put on an event that our sport can be proud of. Thank you to my company Holdfast for supporting my passion of surfski racing and allowing the time off. The biggest thank you I have goes out to my sponsor Fenn Kayaks. Not only do the help me out with travel expenses and a boat but they also have a hundreds of surfskis on the island, which are used exclusively for the race. They have invested in this race because they know it captures the essence of surfski paddling. Book your spot for next one soon. I have a feeling it’s going to fill up fast!