It’s quite the journey from Sydney to Mauritius, with the Team Fat Paddler crew of Nat, Josh and your’s truly arriving after 20 hours of door to door travel. But what a paradise to arrive to – warm sunshine, azure seas and the friendly banter of South African and Aussie paddlers.
With many paddlers arriving late on the Tuesday night, wednesday’s scheduled “Sporty’s Downwind” race was postponed a day and a practice paddle was held instead. I discovered to my horror that my Stellar surfski, which we’d shipped over from Sydney, had been damaged in transit, with a nice big crack through the hull in front of the footwell. Hastily I taped it up, slipped on my PFD and carried the ski down to the waters edge.
Keep in mind that neither Nat nor I have ever really done a true ocean downwind run, so this was a big moment. The swell, at a leisurely 2.8 metres, was jacking up over the reef into giant crashing tubes, sucking up over the rocks and tearing the water up into a frothy maelstrom. The channel through the reef runs on a diagonal so even as you get to it, it appears that everyone is going to get hammered by the house-sized breakers. And then even as we find our way through the surf, the resulting rebound twists our skis left and right as we try to get out ocean-side.
Once reaching the “safety” of the ocean, we turned west for the run. The swell was big and choppy in the wind as we ran at 45 degrees to the waves, trying hard not to surf back into the reef break. The better paddlers zoomed around, giving advice and pointing out the right directions to take as the back markers (i.e. Nat and I) struggled to keep up with the pack. Whilst I hate to admit it, I was terrified, and the tense look on Nat’s face reflected the fear he was also struggling with.
Fortunately other paddlers helped to take our mind off the fear. South African paddler and instructor Barry Lewin darted around the back of the pack and gave us all sorts of advice on our stroke, how best to catch the runners etc, and made sure we thought more about the paddling than about dying.
As we started to put runs together, I could see why the sport is so intoxicating for so many – the feeling of flying across the open sea, the venturi drain sucking dry as the speed cranks up, the nose of the ski slicing through the ocean – all of it bombarding the senses with the feeling of speed. Despite being scared, I was loving the runs on the ocean, and the way catching them would help me gain lots of distance on the paddlers ahead. At one point I even dared a look to my right to take in the breath-taking view of Mauritius itself!
The trip back in through the reef was pretty easy once we found the pass, although Nat took it a bit close to the break and I watched him paddle desperately backwards as a big set jacked up under him before exploding on the reef. Once in safely, we had a 6km return leg inside the reef and into the wind.
It was a great session for Nat and I, as we had a chance to experience the reef crossings, our main areas of concern for the Shamaal. It was also brilliant to have real professional paddlers help us and give advice, something most paddlers rarely get to experience. We were still shaken up of course, but at least we’d paddled the seas off Mauritius without anything going badly wrong. Onwards to tomorrow’s race! Cheers, FP (to be continued)