Top quality field set for Heads to Harbour

The cream of kiwi surf ski talent will descend on Whakatane on Saturday to feature in the Manuka Performance Heads to Harbour Paddle Festival and New Zealand Surf Ski Championships.

Originally set to take place over Anzac Weekend in 2020 – the championships were, unfortunately, postponed because of Covid restrictions. However, the eagerly awaited event – which forms the concluding round of the 2020-21 Darcy Price Series – will finally be staged in the beautiful Eastern Bay of Plenty region and has attracted a stellar field.

The 23km race route, which will start at 10am from Port Ohope Wharf and finish at the Whakatane Yacht Club, promises to be a cracker with event organiser Fiona Cleghorn looking forward to a special day.

“It was frustrating that the initial event was postponed because it would have been the first time we have organised the event, it was the nationals and a big deal,” explains Fiona Cleghorn.

“But we just had to accept the decision. We have had great support from Canoe Racing New Zealand to move the event to 2021 and in some ways it makes Saturday even more exciting because we have had to wait so long for the event.

“The Heads to Harbour takes place along in a stunning piece of coastline and I’m sure it will be an unforgettable experience for all the paddlers.”

Leading the challengers in a strong open men’s field is Ben Keys, who goes into Saturday’s race buoyed by his single ski success at the New Zealand Virtual Paddling Championships, which concluded on Wednesday. 

It was a performance which strengthened his grip on top spot in the Darcy Price Series and given his victory in December’s King and Queen of the Harbour and second place finishes in the Bhutty Moore and King of the Bay events, the Ocean Ski Canterbury athlete will be among the favourites for victory.

“I’m just trying to put a good race together,” adds Ben of his hopes for Saturday’s race. “Tupu (King) raced well in February and I’ll probably be up against a similar set of paddlers as the King of the Harbour.

“It has been a long season. I largely trained through the February races but I’ve tapered a bit more (for Heads to Harbour). The body is a bit fresher and I’m looking forward to it.”     

The Cantabrian paddler will not have things all his own way and leading the opposition is the talented U23 Auckland paddler Kalani Gilbertson, who finished second at the King and Queen of the Harbour. Also in action is Christchurch-based paddler Sam Newlands, who secured third place in a closely-fought battle with Kalani at Waitemata Harbour in December.

Arguably, the most intriguing entrant is waka ama star Tupu King, who will be gunning for a podium in what is only his third surf ski race. Tupu, a multiple winning waka ama champion, only made his surf ski debut in December placing sixth at the King and Queen of the Harbour.

The Papamoa-based athlete then backed this up with a stunning victory at the Bhutty Moore and two days ago secured fourth spot at the Virtual Paddling Champs with a solo effort of 53:57.

In a high-class women’s race, defending champion Rachel Clarke will take all the beating as the Aucklander seeks to bank another national title.

A former World Championship surf ski bronze medallist, Rachel has since retired from international competition but as her emphatic ninth victory in the Queen of the Harbour showed in December, expect her to have a major say in the destination of the 2021 national title.

Her fellow Aucklander Danika Mowlem has also enjoyed a consistent campaign, winning the Bhutty Moore, taking second in the Queen of the Harbour and more recently registering third in the Virtual Paddling Championships.

Carly Keys, an impressive winner of the women’s single ski at those Virtual Champs, is also expected to mount a strong challenge and the Christchurch-based paddler is looking forward to the challenge on Saturday,

“I’ve only really paddled in a surf canoe in Ohope, so I have no clue what it will be like in a surf ski,” adds Carley. “But on the few occasions I’ve competed at Surf Live Saving Nationals I’ve loved Ohope. It will be really interesting to see how it goes.” 

Also entered is Samoan paddler and Tokyo-bound Olympic K1 paddler Anne Cairns, 40, who placed second in the Bhutty Moore and Queen of the Bay, and the winner of the latter race, Blenheim-based Tara Smith.

The men’s masters (+40) division will be no less competitive with in-form Garth Spencer leading the challengers. The versatile 2019 World K2 marathon champion finished fifth overall at Bhutty Moore and also impressed at the Virtual Paddling Champs, claiming third in the K1 division and top spot in the K2 alongside regular crew-mate Vaughan Reed.

Standing in opposition will be fellow Aucklander Jeremy Kuggeleijn and New Plymouth-based Carl Barnes – both top ten finishers in the King and Queen of the Harbour. Ian Mercer (Auckland) is another with good credentials.

There will be double points available in the final round of the Darcy Price Series. For the latest series standings go here.