Waka Ama star adapts to surf ski life

Tupu King is a Waka Ama superstar. A multiple winning New Zealand champion and World Championship medallist, there is very little the Papamoa-based paddler has not achieved in the sport. However, last weekend he moved out of his comfort zone to try his first surf ski race and finished a highly respectable sixth. We find out more about how he has adapted to surf ski racing. 

Why did you opt to give surf ski a go?

Tupu King: For the past seven years I’ve been busy traveling the world with waka. However, after Covid hit this suddenly limited the international races, so I thought it was a good time to try something different. I’d always admired surf ski paddling and sprint kayaking and about two months ago I sat in a surf ski for the first time. At first I really struggled in the rough conditions into a headwind, but downwind I felt more comfortable. I enjoyed the feeling of travelling at speed; that really excited me and that also gave me the incentive to go out and buy a K1. Now I have a bit more time, I’m definitely looking at improving my skills in both craft. 

Where do you carry out your paddling?

TK: Well, I was living in Broadwood in the far North but about five weeks ago I moved down to Papamoa, where my partner lives. I’ve got a good combination of options down here of open ocean paddling and flatwater river paddling. I most commonly train on the Kaituna River. 

What are the main challenges of adapting to a surf ski?

TK: Initially, it is getting used to the stability and balance. I didn’t realise how different paddling in a surf ski was. I used to rate myself as having good balance but the waka boat has an outrigger on the left side. I immediately felt how weak my muscles were, particularly down the left side. I didn’t feel I had much flexibility and I did not feel the stabilising muscles were that strong and this made the first two weeks of surf ski training very painful. But to build flexibility I’ve done a lot of core work in the gym to improve. Now when I go out in the surf ski or in the K1 my balance feels so much better. 

How do you carve up your training week?

TK: When I first got my hands in a surf ski I trained solely in that for two weeks. However, I had a waka event on the horizon, so I have since also started  training for waka. I now have to find that balance between waka, surf ski and K1. But most weeks I go out twice a week in the surf ski, even if it only for a light session in the afternoon to work on technique and balance. 

How often are you going out in the K1 and what are your future K1 aspirations?

TK: Once or twice a week. I’d love to compete in the future. I’m not the strongest or most powerful waka paddler, so if I do race in sprint kayaking I feel like I’d be better suited to the 1000m rather than the 500m or 200m. Sprint kayaking is impressive to watch. I just want to get to the level where I can compete at a local or regional race.

Why did you target King and Queen of the Harbour for your surf ski debut?

TK: Every opportunity I’ve had to race the King and Queen of the Harbour in a waka, I’ve really enjoyed it. It was the perfect time to give it a go and see where my base level was.

What were your pre-race expectations?

TK: My goal is to finish the race in a faster time than I can in a waka! I’m not too familiar with a lot of the top surf ski names but at the Poor Knights Crossing in September I finished second overall in the waka (with only one surf ski paddler in front).

You finished sixth in the oceanski race – just under three-and-a-half minutes behind the winner at the 2020 King and Queen of the Harbour. How would you assess your  performance?

TK: I was very pleased. Going into my first surfski race with only two months training behind me, I never knew what to expect. I knew what speed I was capable of but it was definitely good to put that to the test against other surf ski racers; I was happy with where I finished.

What did you learn from the experience?

TK: The physical and mental aspects are similar to Waka Ama and perhaps the only area I was lacking in was skill and competence in the surf ski. My open ocean experience and knowledge helped get me through the race. The main difference between waka and surf ski was in the surf ski from the get go it is like a sprint event. The biggest struggle for me was keeping up with the top pack without popping. I was right on my threshold for a while and it wasn’t until I calmed down and paddled the race at my own pace did I settle down.

Do you plan any more surf ski races?

TK: Definitely. I have Waka Ama sprint nationals in six weeks and that is my main priority. However, I plan to do the Bhutty Moore-Morial Race in Tauranga on February 6. My next task is to find a surf ski of my own because I’ve been borrowing a surf ski.

What do you most enjoy about surf ski racing?

TK: It is that ability to take the speed to another level. Since hopping into a surf ski I realise the importance of taking that extra stroke, especially on the downwind. I feel I can now more easily jump the waves than on a waka. The most exciting element is finding that extra speed which will hopefully help me find more speed in the waka.

Why would you encourage Waka Ama paddlers to give surf ski or K1 a go?

TK: If I could tell my 16 or 18 year-old self I would tell myself to give it a go. It doesn’t have to be your sole focus but having the skills across various paddling disciplines will give you more options to compete overseas and across New Zealand. Overall, it will help you become a much better paddler. 

Words: Steve Landells

Images: Georgia Schofield