Chasing the crown for the 8th time

Of all the paddlers lining up for the second edition of the 2019 Vaikobi King and Queen of the Harbour race on Saturday (Nov 30) none boast quite the same outstanding race record as Rachel Clarke.

The winner of the past seven editions of a race regarded as New Zealand’s premier surfski event, and which this year doubles as the ICF Oceania Championships, the Aucklander has proved invincible since winning on her debut in 2013.

Since then she has owned the event, proving the indisputable queen of a race, which takes on a range of different race routes in the Waitemata Harbour dependent on the weather conditions.

“My first King and Queen of the Harbour seems so long ago,” recalls Rachel, who is currently preparing for the prestigious The Doctor race in Perth this weekend.

“It was my first national ocean ski race. I had done a few other races of that sort of distance, so I knew what I was in for. If I can recall, it was reasonably flat and a wash riding festival.”

Rachel has also achieved sustained success on the international surfski circuit. She is a two-time winner of the prestigious 52km Molokai Crossing, the 2017 World Series champion and in 2015 scooped a bronze medal at the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in Taihiti.

Yet for domestic paddlers, she is perhaps best known for her dominance of the Queen of the Harbour race – and it is a race which means so much to the 29-year-old surfski specialist.

“Because the race is in my hometown, and I’m racing on the same water that I train on every day, it is pretty special,” she says. “My favourite memory was four years ago when we went from Gulf Harbour to Royal Akaranga Yacht Club. The downwind conditions were awesome and a lot of fun.”

Working anywhere from 40 to 60 hours per week for the police National Protection Service – in which her role is to shield leading New Zealand dignitaries such as the Prime Minister and the Governor General – is unquestionably demanding. And squeezing in an additional 14 hours of training per week can be “hectic.”

Chatting weekly to her coach, Gavin Elmiger, to work out a training plan, she more often than not carries out the necessary training while allowing time for her body and mind to recover.

Yet time in the surfski is not always possible. A recent month-long training course in Wellington – after returning home from placing eighth in September’s ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in France – badly compromised her time in the boat.

“The training course was full on and I struggled to fit in any paddling (during the month in Wellington),” she explains. “I managed to get in some runs and a couple of gym sessions late at night but that’s pretty much it. Post the work course, I’ve had about four weeks solid training, so I guess we’ll see how we pull up (in Auckland).”

Understandably, given her lack of training, Rachel was short of her best at the Hong Kong Dragon Run earlier this month, placing fourth behind her fellow Kiwis Danielle McKenzie and Teneale Hatton who finished first and third, repeating their finishing positions from September’s ICF Ocean Racing World Championships

New Zealand – thanks to the exploits of Danielle, Teneale and Rachel – currently boast an embarrassment of riches in women’s surfski paddling, but does Rachel have any theories why it is currently thriving?

“I think we all started out paddling in the lifesaving environment and grew up racing nationally and international against each other,” she says. “It’s so great to have three Kiwis racing at a high level and it would be great to see more.”

One of those Kiwis – Teneale Hatton, a former world sprint champion and Olympian – will be standing in opposition in Auckland later this month.

However, Rachel has proved both the irresistible force and immovable object for the previous seven editions of the race and is no mood to relinquish her crown without a fight.

“To win an eighth title would be the icing on the cake,” she explains. “I just want to make sure I execute a good race and concentrate on making as few mistakes as I can during the race.”

Article by Steve Landells