Virtual Champs In Review

Now the chequered flag has been waved on the 2021 New Zealand Virtual Paddling Championships we take a look back on some of the themes that have emerged during the successful month-long competition.

Find your Spot X

The winners of the men’s single ski (Ben Keys) women’s single ski (Carly Keys) and double ski (Jimmy Feathery and Fiona Dowling) are connected by all paddling what they termed “Spot X” – a race route on the Christchurch Estuary which can best be described as like riding on a magic carpet when the tides are right.

Ben posted his winning time of 51:19 relatively early in the competition. His wife, Carly, made her winning strike a little later on ‘Spot X’ with a blistering 57:11 run while Jimmy and Fiona left it until the final day of competition to post an eye-popping 50:52 to coincidentally surpass Carly and Ben in the double ski standings.

“If I had to make one comment on the virtual series it is to take the time to find those good local spots that work for you,” adds Ben. 

“It requires a change in mindset from a normal race. But that it is what I like about the virtual series. You have the time to explore the local area, approach the challenge scientifically and do the number crunching on the tides. 

“Our Spot X was on the estuary, where we tried to get the timing of the tide right and then followed the channel. There is a bit of a trick to it, and it took us a few goes to get it right.

“The funny thing was in the end, was Jimmy and Fiona managed to ‘Spot X’ us to get ahead of us in the double ski competition.”

Class is permanent

Husband and wife combo Rob and Julie Jenkinson were both victorious in the Salty Sea Dog (+55) age division at the 2020 New Zealand Virtual Surf Ski Championships and were similarly dominant at the 2021 New Virtual Paddling Championships.

The Perth-based Kiwis stormed to a 57:46 clocking in the double ski with Rob, 60, who represented New Zealand in canoe sprint at the 1984 Olympic Games, winning the single ski in his age group in a time of 57:59. 

Julie, 56, a former international flatwater paddler for both New Zealand and Australia, secured victory in the women’s single ski Salty Sea Dog division in a time of 1:05:07.

“I would encourage anyone to enter,” adds Julie of the Virtual concept. “It’s a fun and motivating way to keep up paddling and training.” 

A crafty move

Having been run purely as a virtual surf ski event in 2020, CRNZ decided to open up the event up to all paddle craft for the 2021 competition. Entries were strongest in the surf ski category but also attracted participants in a range of other boats including; SLS Ski, K1, K2, Waka Ama, Multisport and SUP.

Greg Jones posted a couple of times in a waka single and the 52-year-old from Whangarei was a huge devotee of the concept.

“It is nice to be in a competition mixing with other craft”, he adds. “Often we go to events and it is a ‘thou shall not mix attitude’ between say ski paddlers and waka but it is nice to be in a competition where we can acknowledge all paddle craft.”

International opportunity

The virtual competition was first introduced by Canoe Racing NZ and open to everyone in the world during the early stages of a global pandemic – and the concept has proved just as relevant today.

With many countries around the world in a grip of a third wave of Covid, the 2021 New Zealand Virtual Paddling Championships attracted paddlers from seven countries; New Zealand, Australia, USA (pictured above American Aaron Small who placed second in the K1 division), South Africa, UK, Germany and Denmark.

American Aaron Small (see image above), who finished second overall in the K1 division, said: “It is a fantastic method to increase motivation among athletes, and encourage competitive spirit in a time when in-person races are limited, which is why I would encourage other paddlers to enter.”

Be versatile

A number of athletes fully embraced the opportunity to paddle in several different types of paddle crafts. This was perhaps best illustrated by the efforts of 2019 World Junior surf ski champion Ana Swetish, who made quite a mark on the 2021 event. 

The 19-year-old American, who last year finished third in the single ski at the New Zealand Virtual Surf Ski Champs, was back for more in this year’s event. Ana placed second overall in the women’s single ski (58:16) before she went on to win the women’s K1 in a time of 59:08. She also claimed overall victory by two seconds, recording 22:47 for the 3km in the SUP division.

“Everyone should try it because it is a fun way to see where you stand against other people in the world and it is a great benchmark to see personal progress,” adds Ana of the virtual concept.

Use it as preparation

Many of the Kiwi surf ski paddlers used the New Zealand Virtual Paddling Championships as a method of preparing for Saturday’s New Zealand Surf Ski Champs in Whakatane while others competed in the virtual competition to fine-tune their preparations for the 2021 New Zealand Kayak Marathon Champs in Bay of Plenty (April 10-11). One such paddler preparing for marathon champs was masters world champion Garth Spencer who made quite a splash; finishing third overall in the K1 division with a time of 54:21 and claiming K2 victory in (50:12) alongside regular crew-mate Vaughan Reed. 

Rookies can excel

A major attraction of the 2021 Virtual Paddling Champs, is it is open to anyone of all standards with the likes of novice paddlers Jay Marlowe and Mandy Heim (see image above) using the event to gain vital experience.

Auckland-based, Jay, 42, completed a the 12km distance in a time of 1:22:44 in the single ski on what was only the ninth occasion he had ever sat in a surf ski. 

Meanwhile, another Aucklander Mandy Heim, 55, only took up surf skiing two-and-a-half and fully embraced the virtual champs to post a best time of 1:13:44.

“The beauty of the virtual champs is you have the option to compete in manageable conditions,” she says. “On a calm day the less experienced paddlers will be surprised with what they are capable of achieving. My story just goes to prove you can learn a very complex and complicated skill as a later age in life.”

For full results from the 2021 New Zealand Virtual Paddling Champs go here