The economic recession certainly had an impact on the entry list for the 2011 Caribbean Surfski Tour that began October 16th with the normally 40 or so regional and international paddlers whittled down to 18 for the 7th Soualiga Challenge in St. Maarten. This was the first leg of a two-part series that included the Karukera Challenge in Guadeloupe on October 30th.
But if numbers were disappointing, paddling conditions were excellent and most competitors found themselves able to pull onto the inviting swells for the 25K open-ocean paddle from the port of Gustavia in St. Barths to Captain Olivers’s Marina in Oyster Pond, St. Maarten.
With an absence of other big names, Guadeloupe’s Franck Fifils was odds on favourite and he duly won the first leg with relative ease to add a third Soualiga Challenge victory to his rÃ©sumÃ©.
Franck won in 2005, again in 2006, and powered into the finish at Captain Oliver’s Marina in a time of 2:02:00, a minute or so over his 2010 time and well short of his best 2006 time of 1:54:18. The record time for the distance is 1:54:06 set by South Africa’s Barry Lewin in 2007.
Second placed Olivier Tanton from Guadeloupe, six minutes adrift, crossed the finish line second in 2:08:03 while St. Maarten’s Stuart Knaggs led the local paddlers to finish third in 2:12:45.Â David Baptise from Guadeloupe was fourth, Jolyon Ferron fifth, and Juan Pablo Piscione sixth.
“We had good swells to surf down and conditions were really perfect,” said Fifils who finished fourth overall on the Caribbean tour last year, and 20th out of 310 paddlers in the 2010 Durban Ocean Kayaking World Cup.
Fifils and Olivier Tanton were both in hot contention for the 250 euro hot spot prize for first paddler to reach the end of St. Barths.
“I started very fast with Franck but the exertion took it out of me for about half an hour,” Tanton recalled. “After Ile Fourche I recovered and the rest of the race went well.”
The hot spot prize went to Franck Fifils while St. Maarten’s 16-year-old Jolyon Ferron won the local hotspot of an air ticket to Guadeloupe.
Organiser and competitor Stuart Knaggs described the conditions as “romping.”
“It was definitely one of the nicest races I’ve done and with one of my best times for a long distance,” he said, adding that he caught some good runs between Flat Rock and Oyster Pond after a typically slow start.
“It was quite different from two years ago when waves were swamping over you. That was just a hard slog but anyone doing the race today would definitely want to do it again,” he added.
Fifth placed Jolyon Ferron improved on his ninth place in 2010 but was unlucky to get weed wrapped around his skeg during the last stretch into the finish during a duel with David Baptiste who finished first Junior.
“I was faced with a decision to capsize and get the weed off or stay in the boat. I made the wrong decision and stayed on board,” lamented Jolyon. “Too bad, but overall I was faster this year and conditions were better.”
Prizes for the winners came in the form of pottery mugs sponsored by Cecile Petreluzzi and L’Esplanade Hotel, and medals. Â EDF sponsored the $1,000 in cash prizes. The only female paddler in the race, Ellie den Hartog, finished fifteenth. She won a $120 gift certificate from Zdenka West Indies Jewellery.
Previous winners of the Soualiga Challenge have included world champion Dawid Mocke from South Africa, French champion Benoit Le Roux, and the 2010 winner from Portugal, Henrique Silva.
The overall winner of the 2011 Caribbean Surfski Tour stands to win 3,000 euros.
Robert Luckock is a British journalist and freelance writer residing in St. Maarten since 1984. He is currently The Daily Herald’s correspondent for French St. Martin and was one of All at Sea’s very first contributors.