Keys secures maiden Auckland win

The 2020 Vaikobi King and Queen of the Harbour witnessed a maiden men’s surf ski title for Ben Keys and a superlative ninth women’s crown for Rachel Clarke in Auckland today.

Some 93 paddlers took to the water for the iconic surfski event, which took place from Te Atatu Peninsula to Takapuna Beach in relatively benign conditions and light winds of around 10-12 knots.

The men’s race was expected to serve up a hugely competitive battle, and so it proved as just over half-a-minute separated the top three paddlers in a compelling scrap for glory over the 24km distance.

The decisive break was made in the run up to North Heads when Keys (Ocean Ski Canterbury) unlocked the door to victory by pulling clear of his nearest pursuer, the teenage talent Kalani Gilbertson.

Keys 35, the 2019-20 Darcy Price Series winner, managed to open up a 100m advantage from his nearest rivals and held on to claim a memorable victory in 1:48:13.

In a titanic battle for second, Gilbertson, 17, produced a late burst of acceleration to power clear of Sam Newlands (Bay of Plenty) and grab a noteworthy runner-up spot – by a two-second margin in 1:48:43.

Toby Brooke (Kupe-Wellington), who was in the fight for second until the latter stages, placed fourth in 1:49:53.

Waka Ama star Tupu King made an impressive surf ski debut to place seventh in 1:52:55. 

An elated Ben Keys said of winning his first King of the Harbour title: “It is a race I’ve done a few times over the years and I’ve finished anywhere from 20th to sixth. It is a race I never really thought I would win, so to finish first is cool; it is nice to get my name on the trophy.

“I was in the lead group of five or six and we kept changing the lead coming out of the river into the harbour. The group then thinned out and it was Kalani and I at the front. It then changed into a run chase rather than a wash riding race and that’s where I got my advantage from the Harbour Bridge to the North Heads. 

“I was aware I had a 100m lead but I’ve lost a couple of race from that kind of lead, where the paddlers have come from different angles. I had to keep tabs on where the other paddlers were. It was good to win.”

Gilbertson, who is less than half the age of race winner Keys, is better known as a flatwater paddler but he did have some specski surf lifesaving experience and managed to put in four sessions on the surf ski prior to the race.

Keen to try his hand at as many paddling activities as possible, the Aucklander added: “I honestly just wanted to have fun, meet lots of top people and gain extra knowledge of the sport. I had no real expectations coming in.

“It was a great battle for second. Sam (Newlands) pulled me along in his wash, but I still had a little more left in the tank. I thought; why not give it a crack and use my kayaking power.

“I’m really happy (with my performance),” he adds. “It is not the easiest thing in the world, I have a lot of respect for surf ski racers. It is definitely a hard sport.”

Rachel Clarke has proved a master of this event for so long, and she claimed her ninth Queen of the Harbour title with a dominant display. 

The former World surf ski bronze medallist, retired from international competition earlier this year but the 30-year-old Aucklander still had too much for her opposition as she clinched victory in 1:56:06.

Race director Danika Mowlem took time off from her official duties to enjoy an impressive outing to place second in 2:01:55 with Aucklander Elise Legarth edging a tight tussle for third by just over half-a-minute from Carly Tyler, wife of men’s winner Ben Keys, in a time of 2:06:59.

Race victor Rachel Clarke said: “It was a tough slog out there and it is good to get another race in the bag. We were going with the tide and it was fast, and I just tried to stay with the guys as best I could. 

“I’ve not done any specific training for the race as I’ve been focusing on surf lifesaving. But I didn’t worry about my fitness (from the surf lifesaving) and I treated the race as a good training session.”

On whether Clarke would come back to complete the perfect ten next year she simple remarked: “We’ll see.”

In the doubleski event, the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medal-winning duo of Tom Ashley (Boardsailing) and Tim Brabants (K1 1000m) claimed victory in a time of 1:52:30.

For full results go here 

Images: Georgia Schofield