Throwback to PE2EL 2008, Sexy time or hard paddle?
By Jamie Hamlin edited by Amanzi Magazine
The Lucky Strike Challenge, the Texan Challenge, the Plascon Challenge, the Sunshine Coast Challenge, the Southern Shamaal of yesteryears, are still referred to by paddlers as “The Challenge” or “PE2EL”.
Spurred along by a bet between lifesaver John Woods and runner John Ball, the toughest surfski race in the world was pioneered. The race saw them start at 3am on the 7th January
1972 at the Port Elizabeth City Hall and race each other to finish at Orient Beach in East London.
Whilst the inaugural contest was meant to be a relay event, for 3 days Woods battled in rough seas suffering severe sea sickness & easterly headwinds. On terra firma, Ball was chaffed by the sand burnt by the sun and only won by a mere 90mins.
Since that day, no runner has succeeded to continue this duel, but “The Challenge” has seen many paddlers who have undertaken to finish this sea marathon.
It is simply The Challenge
Be warned if you are an around-the-cans type sprinter or a gym cut wannabe playboy with a tendency to enjoy the surfski summer series sizzle with gel spikes, the PE2EL Challenge is not for you.
The Challenge has not lost its essence as a grueling ultra distance event. Even before considering the duel against another competitor you are pitted against the merciless sea and the forces of wind on this life changing odyssey.
This race offers no frills or pampering. Only the prospect of being shipwrecked by Neptune’s worst onto a stretch of white sand albeit a pristine stretch of coast. It takes a tough biltong mentality to tackle the head winds and calloused hands.
It’s simply a challenge that attracts a unique group of souls with a quest for adventure with a generous twist of adversity just to keep you focused.
If you are brave enough then this is one to savour as the well-earned reward of gratification is greater than sharing a few bubbly Zulu Blondes with a bunch of mates.
244km in 4 Days (with a spare date for “unplayable conditions, or where the safety of paddlers is compromised)
The PE2EL Challenge is scheduled to take place over 4 days from 4 to 8 December 2014 (one spare day) along the spectacular Eastern Cape coast, from Blue Water Bay, Port Elizabeth to Nahoon, East London. This race is the world’s longest and toughest ocean paddle race, and has been run every two years since 1972. The 2014 Event, in line with early tradition will be a singles & doubles event only with no relay teams.
Jamiii’s snapshots of his 3rd Challenge, which in mild conditions was the super enjoyable making it my easiest one to date. Despite the favorable weather or the obvious fact of getting your head around the sheer distance and the long hours, each paddler will have two inevitable questions they have to answer.
My first one came in the 7th hour of my first day and the second at 44km on day three.
Day 1 stats.
Conditions. Little swell, mist with 12-15 knot headwind expected.
Start time 5:50am Route, Blue Water Bay – Woody Cape
Distance paddled 78,73 km Time 8h21 (rest & repairs 35min)
Percentage of winners time 78%
Day position 30th Overall position 30th
Speed average @ 9.9kmh max 17,4kmh
Heart average @ 131bpm max 195bpm
Calories used 6467
Day 1 was humbling…Not so much because the inaugural relay event that saw the Aussie relay team bend the Saffa flag pole shamefully over and exposed our rear end, but a so journo two clicks short of 80km at sea gives one a stark naked frontal of the demons or angels in your soul.
Highlight package 1: Absorbing the magic moments
Each day yields a pendulum of highlight and lows and today’s came early when at 17 km near disaster struck.
I had started well with the fast batch, tapping along comfortably with Wotjek Orzechowski, Steph le Roux, Keith Theron and co when my right side footplate slipped its notch and sponged back & forth with each stroke.
Gently slipping off the wave I faded from the pack to modify my technique into a one-legged pump action as the right leg stretch out for 60km of tanning the left got used as a push and pull piston.
Solo in the void of no-mans-land the day blossomed with the passing of the stout NSRI boat that pushed a series large bow wakes that provided top runs with max speed of the day as dolphins popped and played beside me.
Highlight package 2: Meeting the visitors
When a strange brew of conversation bubbled up behind me I slowed for help. The relay trio of a lone Slummies team member tailing the Team USA with the Brooklyn Espresso of Joe Glickman and 24hour distance world record holder Carter Johnson came steaming up. With no result Carter tried to aid my broken plate but he did a superb job of taking the pull till the Sundays River relay change. They peeled left and I tapped on alone right into the glassy glare of the pancake sea.
Highlight package 3: Greeting the challenge
The warm Benguela current flows down from Durban and its local knowledge that the Algoa Bay creates a slight eddie current that pushes back along the bays shoreline. Heading straight out into the deep for a shorter line across the bay is a risky option especially with a forecast headwind.
After another hour of solitude, I caught the double of Dean Wolmarans and Martin Smith. Aided by the strength of numbers & their Garmin programmed with a way point straight for Woody Cape, we slipped into the mist and the depth of the sea for a shorter line home.
In the haze at four & a half hours a big splash broke the quiet harmony; it did so again yet still closer to the skis as a Humpback whale surfed by 30 m right.
By the 5th hour stop I lifted my legs out to cool off, chaffed raw by the pull strap my left foots spoon size blister had burst.
Engulfed by the mist and with land obscured from sight I assertively questioned the lifting breeze. Thinking that we were heading too deep, I bade farewell to db ski No 227 to risk a solo plight in search of land. Twenty five minutes later I relaxed with the mushroom sight of sand dunes through the dissolving mist.
Five hours fifty. I stopped for a stretch with a syrupy treat to celebrate the 60km mark. With the mist gone and the cliffs where in reach the mirrored water sparked around me as I could see the DWASOPE tail gunners ahead on the left. Two clicks later I had past them and was barely at the cliffs when the smooth sea smooth morphed by a gale into a fluffy rough texture. I shorten my blade length, headed closer to the shore and readied myself for battle.
Highlight package 4:The smoking engine.
Fatigued by the over exertion of the failed footplate the left leg pistons rings where worn with a tendonitis lump on my ankle whilst the right side are having a picnic.
Spluttering along, I was now siphoning on the Herculean strength of Mike de Villiers pulling the DWASOPE flotilla. I offered a few times to take the tow but the proud Fish Hoek Boys were not going to be seen drifting behind a Strand Downwind Junkie being smoked by the testing but manageable headwind.
Only an hour earlier of my 7th, I believe Hank had also reached this turning point when I asked myself the inevitably question, “What the )f%#@^& am I doing this slog for?”
The answer is a simple one for an elite few who aspire for gold medal validation and prize money, others like myself just settle for the afterglow of the journey with a cold one & the handshake of camaraderie honor.
Highlight package 5: The graveyard shift
Being burying alive brings a grim realization of despair and wish for mercy. Digging in hard and barley crawling at 6.5kmh for the finish our little fleet of began to splinter, some wobbled with sea sickness, some swam and others simply were numbed with fatigue and slowed by exhaustion.
Seeing the anchored escort boat gives one reasonable hope that the finish is near. Time steadily keeps moving yet the end stays frozen and suspended in the smudge of distance.
Highline package 6: Creamed by humble pie.
Woody Cape is infamous for large surf & is a perilous encounter for most. 500 meters ahead are the SDJ dbs crew of Johan van Rooyen & Fouché ’Chuck Norris’ Whitehead who take the line in and end up swimming in the rip.
When I surf inward they are still enduring the regurgitating spin cycle of the torrent. Clumsy with fatigue I get to join them with a ‘klap’ from a midget shorey that claims my hat, sunnies and to breaks my juice bladders tie downs. Hardly 15m from the beach I struggle to remount my ski with the water bladder slung over the side to counter all my attempts to stay upright.
After my 8th go, I pushed my ski out of the rips harm and swim humiliated to the beach. Johan & Chuck follow shortly as their unmanned ski eerily see-saws back and forth in the rip for another 20 minutes before being released to get a wave in.
Had day one proposed cut off time of 8h30 been upheld, I would have made it with just 8mins to spare, humbled and an hour behind my ETA I collapsed under the umbrellas shade.
Day 2 stats:
Conditions. Slight swell with wind morning headwind breeze strengthening to 10-12 knots.
Start time 4:30 am Route Woody Cape – Port Alfred
Distance paddled 53.6 km Time 5h17.44
Percentage of winner time 86%
Day position 19th Overall position 25th
Speed average @ 10.1kmh max speed 14.0 kmh
Heart average @ 126 bpm max 154 bpm
Calories used 4402
Day 2 I nearly sank.
Having epoxyed my footplate into place and reseeded into the first batch I was now set for a recovery day. Race director Anton Erasmus had briefed us before the start to caution us that the head wind would grow and we should crack on before it intensified. Adding with some encouragement that day 3 may become a downwind.
The strategy was to make a clean start as the swell had increased slightly over night and with the low tide the waves were hitting the outside line with reasonable authority. Using the menacing rip in the dark line up I popped out easily except for one shorey that flushed the gills. Tagging ‘Steel Neal’ Stevenson, shark attack survivor and right leg amputee, we made good time behind the stronger doubles snaking chain as we paddled wearily into the choppiness.
An hour later Richard von Wilderman slipped off the front bunch and settled in behind me to yell, “Whooa, Jamii your bung is about to come out!”
Stopping, he screwed it tight and then like a goodwill angel vanished to retire with a recurring shoulder injury.
Highlight package 7: Hanging on.
By the time I made Kenton our bunched had whittled down to Keith Theron & myself tailing mixed dbs winner Richard Kolher & Kim Rew.
-Kim a recent member of the SA Beijing Olympic Yangling Team and is also the first individual women to complete the PE2EL along with K4 & K2 Olympian Michele Eray being the second to finish in 2002.-
Alternating the pull is the DWASOPE ring leader Dave Williams- Ashman and Paul Neil.
I beach with them, hoping to hang onto behind them along the fateful stretch that four years earlier had forced a 3 hour portage into a screaming easterly with Tony Scott, Neil Henderson & Clive Bandenese to make port safely.
With help from my second Kate Sotheby, I checked my ski for water yet strangely nothing came out. Walking down to the water after the compulsory 10minute stop my ski felt very heavy, I figured I was just weak or had put to much juice on.
We were making good progress into the wind but I had a problem tailing Keith who was on the sweet spot behind Rich & Kim tail. Each time I was on slip my nose would run too far forward, slowing slightly I would fall behind the wave to only struggle to get over it again. Thinking it was the extra juice I drank & spat it out so to lighten the load. Still the strenuous roller coaster ride continued.
Highlight package 8: Watching the hunting pack
Finally with 10km to go at the Ford Farm beacon I slipped of into the doldrums of man-alone in the head-chop. By this stage the current from Durban rips down the coast and one needs to stay as inshore as possible, yet rouge waves flush across turbulent reefs that makes a tricky passage. Hank & co had caught the fast db’s taking the outside line and then realized the quicker line was inshore, cutting hard left he redirected the attack and disappeared from sight.
With 5.5km to go Bevan Manson came past tagging a double. He questioned how I was doing to he replied ditto tired.
A kilometer on Pete Cole is slouching behind a db, leaning to the left his posture and technique looks troubling. I manage to hang on behind them, until the db stops for a gel. Pete straightens up to miraculously f%*#$ off.
With just less than 3km to go Trautmann passes. Focused he ignores my cheer as on the right Justin Maddock is grinding hard in pursuit.
Under a 1.5km remaining Christian Callebaut, Alexis Lyon, Craig Powell come flicking by. Bewildered how much faster they are I don’t care any more as the finish is within sight. Surf into the beach, hit up the sand, stumble over the line.
My chassis feels buckled and my disfigured hands with horrid blisters belong to somebody else. The hard earned satisfaction of two days remaing gets lighten when I go collect my ski. It filled with 7 or 8 liters of water; I drain it and go in search of a Zulu Blond and a massage.
Highlight package 9: Sexy time or what?
Paddle mate Christie Augustine, Kate and I are based in Bushman’s River whilst 3-time winner Paul Marais and Votjek were due to stay with us the lure of cold Zulu Blond liquid saw them camp an arms length from the beer wagon.
So within our trio we needed to recuperate and create our own entertainment. Cribbing our mantra from a Saffa adventure racing team that had endured a 49*C beach run with propositions from the local vendors offering sex or happy massages. They alternated the second offer with clean socks, cold drinks or easier conditions; we just tweaked it with paddling jargon but never gave into the sexy time offer.
Day 3 stats:
Conditions. Slight swell, choppy sea becoming glassy with expected return wind assistance.
Start time 6am Route Port Alfred – Fish River & return
Distance paddled 52.65 km Time 4h44.35
Percentage of winner time 86%
Day Position 17th Overall position 24th
Speed average @ 11.1kmh max speed 18.4 kmh
Heart average rate @ 132 bpm max 168 bpm
Calories burnt 4307
Day 3 felt Herculean.
The revised Fish River and back format with the prospect of a return downwind had the paddlers in a buoyant mood. Standing at the start chatting to Anton Erasmus, I mentioned Paul Marais comments the previous day between refilling his 3rd or 4th helping of cold Zulu about how deceptive the morning shore break would be.
With the Deep Purple “Smoke on the Water” blaring over the beach PA, we were off. I punch over the greeting shorey and sprint hard for the horizon.
As every other ski made several more attempts to get out I realized that with amusement I am the only one at the backline. I waited for the reinforcements before rounding the pier to settle down behind the sparring doubles who are racing hard.
Highlight package 10: Remembering the pain.
Having had the stuffing knocked out of me in the ‘04 portage & nearly retired in ‘06 on this same stretch when reaching Mpekweni with a partially torn bicep day 3 is always a test of your physical condition over ones mental pedigree as this section can become living hell.
Previously had it not been for encouragement from Donia Kamstra co-seconding her fiancé Craig Tilsley and the boiling nemesis rivalry with another paddler who had already retired injured and too wanting me to quit. I would not be able to claim the smug chant,
“Two paddlers in one challenge. Two injuries and only one survivor!”
Highline package 11: Playing the patience game.
The remaining 5km to the expected downwind turn were glassy, not a murmur of any return wind. So whilst the doubles pushed ahead in two rivaling groups, sparring for the lead, I merely kept my eyes focused on the slip in-front and made sure that under no circumstances got left behind.
Reaching the compulsory stop was a bun fight of skis criss-crossing the lively reef break.
I cautiously took a late wave to avoid becoming a broken statistic and reached the beach looking for Kate. She is nowhere to be seen, George from George, the Aussies chaperone had driven up with us and came to help my find the food bag amongst the umbrellas.
Highlight package 12: Scented for a kill.
Refueled, I pushed out and joined the DWASOPE ring leader db paddling abreast of Challenge legend Robbie Bester teamed up with Fish Hoek stalwart Ant Pearce.
Before the ‘08 Challenge many people asked me what my expectations were.
Not wanting to tempt fate I simply stated a strong finish, but in all honesty I was wishing for a top 15- 20.
Fanta Gous is a great mate in equal match & we always share a competitive duel. He’s on the DWASOPE slip holding an elusive top 20 position, I ‘m tagging the on other lying 25th and still 30mins adrift of his berth.
Between holding a tail, we chat about his move back to the Eastern Cape and recent engagement. When Mark Torrington & Janet Voster catch up, DWASOPE chief calls for a picnic and we stop for a breather 18km from the finish.
An errand double passes by and Fanta hooks their slip. I’m caught talking to Dave about his pending prize giving speech. Wiggling off to claw Fanta down I feel a tinge of guilt for leaving the others behind.
I felt revived by the freedom of working the slight runs and cracking a good pace.
Ten minutes later I reel in Fanta, slowing to the maverick’s pace I feel cramped.
Move out wide, drop the hammer for another interval and see if they bite.
Easing off they close in on me, again I push. This time only Fanta is up for the game and hangs in my peripheral vision. I have a goal and push harder in the helpful runs to slowly edge away.
Highlight package 13:The other question?
Each paddler has two questions to answer during the Challenge. One could debate about the merits of the relay team participation in the Challenge, but the real question needs a simple yes or no reply. Are you coming back?
Whilst the relay race brings added attraction and notably there is enormous value in retaining this innovation that would hopefully grow the co-participation of those not up for the entire distance. Another option would be to rekindle the prospects of including a running race.
Individually I hope that it will not dictate a change in the bi-annual format as this unique Challenge that should see paddlers depart in Port Elizabeth & reach East London in individual merit or as a pair pitted against grueling distance in the given conditions for this Everest accolade.
At 44km I’m watching the speedo…..11,3…12,5…13,7….10,9..11,1…12,7……14,4…16,7
I feel Herculean, the structured training program from K4 Olympian Nikki Mocke has paid off and the moment of truth has arrived.
Yes, I am coming back!
Eight km later I hit the beach stoked with the day and several minutes ahead of Fanta.
Day 4 stats:
Conditions. Light swell, glassy & baking hot.
Start time 6am Route Hamburg – Orient beach EL
Distance paddled 52.89 km Time 4h44.45
Percentage of winner time 90%
Day Position 18th Final position 21st
Speed average 11.1 kmh max speed 15.8kmh
Heart average @ 119 bpm max 160 bpm
Calories burnt 4339
Day 4 was euphoria!
Whilst the mist delayed the start by 90mins the competitors milled about the beach relaxed in knowledge that apart from bad luck, everyone is going to complete The Challenge.
Highlight package 14:The new hero’s
I catch up with Mike Baker and sign his Shamaal top as a memento of his pending achievement. A year ago he had started paddling, despite his adventure racing background many guys mocked his ability to endure The Challenge, yet to understand his tenacity the Monday before the start he phones from the hospital to announce that even the minor operation on his ringer won’t stop him. Respect dude!
The Dubai Team’s made up of Saffa’s is lined up next to me at the start. I congratulate them on rejuvenating The Challenge as the Southern Shamaal.
Asking what their motive & thoughts was Wayne, Ian and Gavin mention that due to the surplus success of the Dubai Shamaal the DKSC wanted to promote the sports growth to reach each corner of the globe and hopefully see the dawn of an elite pro tour.
Highlight package 15:The final stretch home.
In the shallow water shore break I made a flying start, but the 3 dbs ahead of me were quicker and rocketing away. Chasing for 3km I was clearly recovered & revived by the previous evening ‘dop & chop’ with my speedo hovered at 12-13.5 kmh, yet nearly a boat length in reach I faded.
Fumbling with my pinched juice pipe it was the fourth db’s bunch that I velcroed behind for survival. Fanta was aside me working hard with high tempo on the tail in front.
“Hey Fanta, how you doing?” I ask, wondering if I can claw in the top 20 deficit.
“Ja, good!” he replies. Some minutes later he’s splashing water on his face and vanishes from the pack.
All the time our bunch pursues the main pack. Nine clicks from Kidd’s Beach a 20m gap remains, then a rouge wave jacks on a reef to splinter the hard work to a 250m retreat.
Two kilo’s on the lead bunch wobbled and imploded as everyone raced for a better line to the mid way, leaving some castaways
Highlight package16: Even crocodiles cry.
Leaving Kidd’s I stealth out on the Bartho bros slip. Their cruise speed is above my comfort, so I tact right for the straighter line to Cove Bay, taking ‘Biltong & Bokkoms’ the senior SDJ duo of Tienie van Schoor / Adie de Kock follow as another db & a single tag along in hostage.
This is the final assault of The Challenge. With just one tenth of the enduro remaining even seasoned Rambo finishers can’t ignore the hardship of pain, brimmed with a pool of emotion it starts to surface in fulfilling a rite of passage.
Suppressing the sentimental feelings, I reflect on my technique, training and equipment choices for next time. Barring the blister, I’m free of injuries and I feel stronger today than when I started. Realizing that there is little to add or change, maybe tweak my technique and use a carbon ski so to maximize a better power to weight ratio.
Reaching Cove Rock, the field begins to converge passing the point and then scatter again in finding a current free line for the finish. We stay wide and start to close in on ‘Steel Neal’ along with another single and a double when the small NSRI duckie pulls up to trawl next to us. It idles along for a minute before firing up and nudges a few runs to give us a little usher in closing the last little gap.
Highlight package17: Reaching for the stars.
With 6km remaining, taking a straightest line for the harbor, I pull wide of the procession and begin the last hard pull for the finish. No one finch’s to follow, I’m high on endorphins and bleeding every run to get home.
With a km of the wall I heard voices behind and push harder for the final turn.
Orient Beach finish is in view and a quarter down the 2nd, 3rd & 4th placed doubles Rob Walsh / Gary Butlion, dice Strand DW Junkies Daantjie ‘My Bra’ / PV Basson with ski No 217 are co-gunning for the line.
I catch a wave to punch the air with 3 fingers up and cross the line with a handshake from Johnnie Woods. In a tradition of waiting for the last paddler in, we stand about the beach clapping with jubilant ambience and congratulating each finisher on his completed quest. Some are cramped and bent with fatigue, others teary eyed with pride.
The last seven paddlers near the beach as the worlds toughest sea paddle race closes when Anton Erasmus calls an equal finishing time and the lomu yellow T-shirt DWASOPE tail gunners wash in on a unified wave.
Highlight 18: The rematch has begun.
Prize giving is ceremonial. Acknowledge his legacy inducting to a paddling hall of fame John Woods accepts a portrait of himself in Springbok Blazer. He proudly reminisces that after 35 years for the PE2EL Challenge has finally included a relay format and his thought for its future.
Saffa team Clint ‘Lightee’ Pretorius was hardly magnanimous when congratulating the Aussies on their inaugural victory stating, “If we didn’t let them win, then they wouldn’t come back!”
Hank McGregor the real Challenge victor was ready to spar again, warning the Aussies, “Enjoy it whilst it lasts, we‘ll see you in Perth!”
Highlight 19: Let the celebrations start.
The Zulu jugs are emptied as the Strand Downwind Junkies and others pose for commemorative pictures. The post prize giving party dispatches itself to Blue Lagoon for copious refills of pudding, Saffa’s 2nd favourite drink being Captain’nCoke and to witness the DWASOPE team limber up for their own prize giving with their own C’nC concoction.
Fanta & I reconcile with our own venom, to salute each others performance & happily toast our good health. I’m hardly bitter that I was 9 minute short of passing him. As I narrowed the 45min day one margin with a strong finish in day 3 & 4, this was of greater consolation than finishing totally broken or injured.
Highlight 20: May Sporty RIP
In honour of Keith ‘Sporty’ Anderson camaraderie and friendship, the 2002 winner of the PE2EL, a large silver wine bucket serves as the symbolic trophy of his memory. It’s filled with Cytomax and watered down with cane.
Dave Williams- Ashman School of Paddling Excellence awards Mike de Villiers the author of the DWASOPE Diary’s as the custodian of the silver chalice for his episode on contribution or sacrifices by members build up to The Challenge.
Then the schools spiritual leader calls upon each clan member to partake in the ceremony with a glass or two of C’nC. Midway through the ceremony DWA embracing the sports pioneers reframes from any slander to have kind words for the ‘Great O’ and to invites distinguished guest Paul Chalupsky to accept one for being Oscars father!
Highlight 21: Driving home slowly.
Happily blistered, burnt and dehydrated we retrace our sea voyage via land and head home for Cape Town. Cheerleading Kate makes the mantra call, “Sexy time or paddle?”
It’s a no brainer, paddle of course!
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