What is a surfski?
A surf ski is a long, narrow and lightweight craft similar to a kayak but with an open "sit-on-top" cockpit and a self-bailer to eliminate water instead of the enclosed kayak-style cockpit which can be sealed against the elements with a sprayskirt or tuliq. Surfskis are primarily designed for speed, including fast runs on the open seas, and have a powerful, pedal-operated rudder to control the boat while surfing on wave fronts.
What is ocean paddle racing?
Canoe Ocean Racing consists of long distance surfski, sea kayak and sea touring races. A surfski is the fastest boat over long distances on ocean swells, with the only flatwater boat able to go faster being an Olympic-standard canoe sprint boat.
The challenges canoe ocean racing can face include large waves driven by the wind, hurricane generated ground swells and paddling in wind speeds of more than 20 knots.
Surfskis originated in Australia in the 1900s when two brothers, Harry and Jack McLaren, used them around their family’s oyster beds on Lake Innes in New South Wales. They would also use their custom-made boats to surf the beaches at nearby Port Macquarie.
The speed and versatility of the boats made them ideal for lifesaving, and in 1946 surfski became a part of the lifesaving competition programme.
Surfskis were initially similar to surfboards, laminated in light wood and sometimes covered in fabric, but modern, lighter versions can be made from composite layers of epoxy or polyester resin-bonded cloth such as fibreglass, Kevlar, carbon fibre or a mixture.
As races have got longer, boats have become longer with sharply pointed bows and under stern foot pedal controlled rudders. They are usually five to six-and-a-half metres long and only 40 to 50 centimetres wide.
Canoe ocean racing initially started with short races of about 700m, but as these boat designs developed races would begin to go further out to sea. The first canoe ocean racing event took place in South Africa in 1958, with the 46km Scottburgh to Brighton race. Other famous events include the Southern Shamaal, also in South Africa, a 240km race from Port Elizabeth to East London that began in 1972, and four years later the inaugural Molokai Race was held in Hawaii.
Canoe ocean racing was the most recent discipline to be recognised by the International Canoe Federation (ICF) and a surfski world series began in 2010.
Canoe ocean racing can vary from 10km to multi-day races over large distances. Races are contested in single and double surfskis, sea kayaks, and in single or six-person outriggers.
The most recent world championships were held in Saint-Pierre Quiberon, France, in 2019, and featured single surfski events in men’s and women’s senior and U23, and men’s juniors. The senior men’s race was dominated by South Africa and Australia, who occupied 10 of the top 11 places, with South Africa's Sean Rice winning his second title. In the women's event, New Zealand filled the gold and bronze medal positions, with Danielle McKenzie taking the gold. Canoe ocean racing often features athletes from canoe sprint and canoe marathon.
Famous Molokai ocean race:
Kanaka Ikaika Racing Association is Hawaii’s oldest organized kayak association. Each May, the world’s best surfski paddlers enter the ocean at Molokai’s Papohaku Roadstead to compete in the Molokai Challenge: A race to Oahu. Because of the large international field this race attracts it is considered the World Championship of Open Ocean Surfski and Solo Canoe Racing.
1976 was the first crossing by Dale “Doc” Adams in an ocean going kayak. His solo effort took him 7 hours and 30 minutes. Doc Adams called his crossing “the challenge of the day,” but it has since
developed into the premier long-distance, open ocean, solo crossing in the world.
In 1977 Adams consulted Hawaiian linguist Pilahi Paki who described the effort as “Kanaka Ikaika,” which literally translated means: Mankind’s respectful challenge of the great, mighty ocean. Paki’s name for the crossing became the name of the paddling club. 1977 was the first official race, organized by newly formed Kanaka Ikaika Racing Association with Doc Adams at the helm.
The Molokai Challenge, originally named Kanaka Ikaika, is the ultimate Ironman and final test of paddling skill, endurance and knowledge of ocean surfing. It tests a paddler’s ability to maneuver against unpredictable weather conditions in the Kaiwi Channel. The Kaiwi Channel, more often called the “Molokai Channel” is an expanse of ocean between the island of Molokai and Oahu. It is considered one of the roughest ocean channels in the world when Mother Nature is angry. The start is off the west end of Molokai near Kaluakoi, and traditionally finishes 32 miles away in the Marina off Hawaii Kai.
In 2007 the race finished in Waikiki as a test to see if the extra 8 miles would be accepted by the paddlers. There was no wind, 44 entrants pulled out, and the winning time was 5 hours and 20 minutes. The course returned to Hawaii Kai the following year and has not changed since.
Traditionally the Molokai Challenge was a solo invitational event for surfskis only. However, as the one person canoe (OC-1) emerged in the 1990s, Kanaka Ikaika embraced the new craft and had a combined event. However, in 2007 Kanaka Ikaika gave the race away, and within a few years, there was a dedicated OC-1 Molokai channel race and the Molokai Challenge was back to only the Surfski division.