The Soualiga Challenge surfski race is all about 25km of ocean conditions and all the related variables. In 2007 we were faced with sweltering conditions, a light tailwind and small swell that had to be worked hard. This year at the end of September, we had 18 knots of wind and 1.5 to 2m swell from the side that was an absolute blast if you had the skill and strength to use it.
The paddlers got a taste of things to come during the trip from Oyster Pond to the start at Gustavia, with all the paddlers and their skis loaded on two charter catamarans. There were 33 paddlers from seven different countries on board, along with 28 single skis, two doubles and an outrigger.
There was a slight change to the procedures at the start this year. We were asked to participate in an event held on St Barths to raise awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. Apart from collecting a healthy donation to the cause, we also joined in with events planned in St Barths and started the 2008 Soualiga Challenge at the main town pier in Gustavia, which added about 700m to the course. The atmosphere at the start was great, with a good sized crowd, speeches by dignitaries and all the accompanying pomp and ceremony.
As expected, there was a split in the field from the start. At the signal, the top paddlers from France, Guadeloupe and USA sprinted off in a close bunch, with the more conservative paddlers following at a more reserved pace. The first 3.5km to the hotspot was in protected, flat water in the lee of St Barths and there was no letup in the sprint to be there first. Benoit LeRoux pipped the other paddlers, taking the $125 prize. JP Piscione followed shortly after, taking the first local paddler prize and Grace Spencer took the Ladies hotspot prize.
The real race began immediately after the hotspot, with the paddlers going straight into a mess of reflected chop and ocean swell. There was not much help to be had first, but after passing through the lee of Isle Fourche – note a surprising little break over the reef – paddlers following a good line headed north on the side runs before hammering down to the Finish.
Benoit LeRoux was never seriously threatened during the race and finished first in 1:57:00, a comfortable six and a half minutes up on second placed Stephane Roudalt. Two times winner Franck Fifils finished some 10 minutes adrift in sixth place. Abi Allder, a newcomer to surfski paddling surprised the field by taking the women’s race, beating far more experienced paddlers in the process. Her surfing skills paid off at the end of the race, helping her come in from behind. JP Piscione was the first local single home and is the first Downwind 2 Dubai Local Hero in the history of the Soualiga Challenge.
The after race lunch and drinks at Iguana Bar went down well, with a giant paella, sangria, Carib beer, Marie Galante rum, live music and plenty of fun. After the lunch, the awards were handed out, with finisher’s medals, gold silver and bronze for the four categories and $5000 cash – $1500, $1000 and $750 for the men and $750, $500 and $375 for the ladies, with Benoit taking the $125 hotspot as well.
But the action didn’t end there, as the hardy paddlers carried on to BooBooJam on the beach at Orient Bay where the partying carried on until the silly hours.
Report submitted by Stuart Knaggs