Tupu and Rachel snare national surf ski titles

In his third ever surf ski race, Tupu King captured the New Zealand men’s surf ski title while Rachel Clarke claimed her tenth successive national women’s title at the Manuka Performance Heads to Harbour Paddle Festival in Whakatane today.

A late change by organisers to extend the race – which started at Port Ohope Wharf and finished at Whakatane Yacht Club – from a 23km to a 30km challenge to gain more downwind conditions unquestionably tested the endurance of all paddlers who set out to compete in bright blue skies.

In a closely fought men’s race, Tupu King and 2020 King of the Harbour winner Ben Keys quickly gained an ascendency on the field, opening up a clear gap at around 4km.

Little was to separate the pair for much of the remainder of the race until the final 5km, when Tupu, a multiple-winning waka ama national champion, slowly inched clear of Christchurch-based Ben.

Tupu could not be caught in the latter stages and stopped the clock in 2:20:36.7 with Ben taking silver just over a minute further back in 2:21:45.1. 

Aucklander Garth Spencer produced a great paddle to win bronze in 2:26:03.8 and also bank victory in the masters +40 event.

Whakatane local Tim Waller – better known as a K1 paddler -placed a highly respectable fourth in 2:28:00.2.

Tupu, who only made his surf ski debut last December when placing sixth in the King of the Harbour and who in February revealed more of his hugely exciting potential when winning the Bhutty Moore event, said: “We started out in a pack for the first 4km until we came out the ocean in quite a white channel. Some guys went to the left and some guys to the right but I decided to go straight because the waves did not look as if they were breaking or that shallow. The only guy who followed me was Ben and it paid off as we put a gap on the field.”

The lead pair then headed East to the buoy before enjoying the benefit of some downwind conditions for the remainder of the race. It was a close tussle between the pair until Tupu made his winning strike in the final 5km.

“It wasn’t easy, for sure, but I managed to get two waves in front and then three, and I managed to accumulate a little bit of a lead. By the time we reached the Whakatane inlet it was a relief because I didn’t have too much left in the tank.

“If it hadn’t been for the downwind I might have struggled a bit more. Downwind paddling gives me more stability.”

Tupu is set for a big month of action and next weekend hopes to compete the New Zealand Kayak Marathon Championships in Bay of Plenty before taking on the Waka Ama long distance nationals in Picton. However, today he was simply elated with his efforts.

“It means so much to win this title, especially as I only starting surf ski paddling no more than six months ago,” he adds. “It’s pretty awesome. I’m excited for this new journey and it only make me hungrier for more. My favourite thing about this is it shows the level of waka paddling. The biggest thing for me is it shows that crossover is possible and hopefully a younger generation will follow suit.”

Rachel Clarke cruised to tenth consecutive national title success as the nine-time Queen of the Harbour winner clocked a time of 2:32:46.8 to place tenth overall. 

The 30-year-old Aucklander has retired from international racing but once again showed her class and ability to lead from the outset and rack up a dominant win.

In a tight scrap for the minor medals, Anne Cairns, who will be competing for Samoa in the K1 at the Tokyo Olympics, caught and passed Danika Mowlem (Auckland) at 29km to take silver and top spot in the masters division in 2:40:05.6. Danika was rewarded with a bronze in 2:41:23.8.

Rachel, who admits she had been training hard for the surf lifesaving nationals which were cancelled two weeks ago and had done no long paddles in preparation for today, said: “I didn’t really have any expectations and I just went into the race trying to have a good training session – anything else was a bonus.

“The course had a great mixture of conditions but it was mighty long (at 30km), so I think a lot of people were in the hurt locker. Well done to all the paddlers who got out there. It was a tough race. 

“I just wanted to have a good start, staying in control and to get in a good bunch. From there it was just to get into the zone and maintain good nutrition and fluid intake. I noticed the runners were slightly better out wide, so I stayed quite wide down the coast. Once my GPS hit 24kms and we were a long way from the finish, I dug deep and hung in there until the end. 

“It’s great to win another title in a such a beautiful place in New Zealand.”

Elsewhere, Kalani Gilbertson of Auckland took sixth overall in 2:31:04.4 and claimed victory in the men’s U23 division. 

Daniel Brown (Hawkes Bay) took out the men’s U18 race in 2:59:27.4. Whakatane local Caitlyn Esterhuizen secured victory in the women’s U18 race in 3:51:52.6.

The race also represented the final round of the 2020-21 Darcy Price Series. Overall victory in the men’s series went to Ben Keys (Ocean Ski Canterbury), who retained his crown from the 2019-20 season. Danika Mowlem was rewarded for a consistent season by taking out the women’s series. 

For the full results of the New Zealand Surf Ski Championships visit here 

We will supply an article on the final Darcy Price Series standings in due course.

Images supplied by Georgia Schofield and Bruce Belcher