Surfski School - Fun on the ocean waves
Words Fiona McIntosh, pics John Hishin
‘Attack the wave,’ Dawid Mocke had drummed into us in the briefing. ‘Don’t faff around. Point your ski head-on into the foamie and keep paddling. The impact zone, where the waves are breaking, is barely 30 metres, a maximum of 40 strokes. So pick your moment and go for it. Once you’re beyond the back line you can relax a bit.’
It all sounded very straightforward as we sat on the grass outside Fish Hoek Yacht Club listening to South Africa’s top surfskier explain the ABC of his sport. The Mocke family is legendary. Nikki Mocke, who, with husband Dawid, founded the Surfski School in 2002, is world class, recently storming to victory in the Cape Town Downwind. Dawid now vies with his younger brother Jasper for podium spots the big events (with Jasper’s top honours at the recent Perth Doctor Surfski race taking him to poll position in the World Series) and flies all over the world to coach, so we knew we were in the best hands. But, as first-timers, we were all a tad apprehensive.
We’d signed up for Surfski School for a wide range of reasons. I make a point of trying out a new sport every year. For 2014 I thought I’d step out of my box a bit and try surfski paddling. One of the other women in the group had signed up for the gruelling Expedition Africa 500km adventure race on the Wild Coast and needed to get her paddling skills up to speed quickly, while the sole guy in our party had surfski racing in mind.
As Mocke ran through the basics our eyes glazed over. There was so much to take in. But the essential safety rules were straightforward: be aware of the wind and wave conditions and those around you; never let your ski get side-on to the waves or wind; oh, and of course, try not to fall off, but if you do, make sure you know how to get back on!
‘Look at the front of your ski,’ he insisted. And most importantly, whatever you do, keep paddling. You are much more stable when the boat is moving. And if things do start going pear-shaped remember former Dusi champion Hank Mcgregor’s immortal line: 'When in doubt, legs out.'
Equipped with PFD’s (personal flotation devices – we’d gently been weaned off the inappropriate term, 'lifejacket'), and having learnt elementary paddling strokes, and, most importantly, how to hold the paddle the right way up – we headed for the beach. Ah ha, an offshore wind, I observed, noticing the gentle rolling waves. ‘Offshore winds make the water look smooth but are actually dangerous for novices as they blow away from the land,’ Mocke had lectured. ‘It’s really important to assess the wind and waves before heading out.’ Not that we needed to worry too much on this occasion. Our first attempt would involve paddling out through the impact zone, round a couple of buoys, where an eager young man was patrolling on a stable craft just in case any of us bottled or got into trouble, and then attempting to catch a wave back in to the beach.
Amazingly I made it through to him without mishap. The next challenge was choosing the moment to return to base. ‘You must decide whether you’re going to catch a wave or not,’ Mocke had insisted, ‘otherwise the wave will decide for you and you’ll probably capsize.’ I watched the approaching set with misgivings. It was a calm day and the waves were all of a foot high. Enormous when it’s your inaugural ride. ‘Press down with your heels to keep the ski straight,’ I heard Mocke say in my mind. ‘The back of the boat will lift up, then you have paddle as hard as you can to stay ahead of the wave.’ Success. I shot down the wave and rode the foamie in until the ski began to skew. ‘When in doubt, legs out,’ I recalled. ‘And if you are going to fall, then fall onto the wave not onto the beach side where the ski could hit you.’
Miraculously I was still on the ski as the wave’s energy dissipated. One of the young instructors raced forward to congratulate me and to help me steady the boat. I felt like punching my paddle in the air. One run and I was hooked. Next week I want to try a downwind paddle!
Mocke Paddling run introductory Ocean ABC courses at Fish Hoek every Saturday morning and have surfski schools in Durban and PE. The sessions cover the entire spectrum of paddler from Beginner to Advanced.