I could think of better things to do with my Sunday morning than planting my butt into a needle-shaped missile the width of my hips. And that's without even trying to stay upright on the water. Drowning before breakfast isn't usually on my to-do list. But tell that to the 22 aficionados of these exhilaratingly-fast projectiles called Surfskis who lined up on the start line in St. Barths in October for the 6th Soualiga Challenge – a 25K sprint from Gustavia to Oyster Pond, St. Maarten.
They sing the praises of this high performance craft and will tell you it's about balance, technique, upper body strength, cadence, and some hi-tech carbon blades.
The race, the first of a three-part series taking in Antigua and Guadeloupe, took off in a blaze of paddles and bonhomie at 9:17am, with St. Barths looking resplendent in the early morning light; a glassy turquoise sea in the harbour completing an idyllic scene.
The passage between Oyster Pond and St. Barths upwind can be notoriously stomach-churning, but Sunday's downwind run to Oyster Pond offered an unusually flat sea, but one not necessarily conducive to a fast crossing. Surfski paddlers depend on surfing down steep swells for optimum speed.
From the start a breakaway group of six international paddlers carved out a lead of over 200 metres from the rest of the field, later whittled down to four paddlers.
It was this group comprising Guadeloupe-based French champion Franck Fifils, Portugal's Henrique Silva, Spain's Antonio Giorion, and Sweden's Tommy Karls, that led the field, treating observer boats and press to a master class in technique.
The intriguing duel saw the lead change frequently between these four. The rest of the fleet were sprinkled liberally over the ocean with many of the tail-enders out of sight.
Karls, the 1984 Olympic Silver medallist in the K4, was first to arrive at the Ile Fourche checkpoint to win the $200 hot spot prize, but in the end it was Henrique Silva who prevailed completing the distance in 2:00:34 to win the first leg and the Under 35 age category.
Previous two-time winner of the event Fifils finished second overall (first in veteran category) in 2:00:11. He dropped off the pace midway but found another gear at the 1:26:00 mark.
"Very hard, and very hot," Fifils commented afterwards. "I couldn't find the power."
Tommy Karls was third overall (2:04:16) and second in Veterans. Spain's Antonio Giorion finished fourth in 2:08:25(third veteran).
"The pace was fine but it was the heat that got to me, that extreme variation in temperature in 24 hours from Sweden to here," said Karls.
Vacationing Australian couple Angus and Narelle Urquhart piloted the only double surfski in the race finishing a respectable fifth overall in 2:11:49. "We hit the wall at Table Rock, our speed dropping from 12 to 10kph," reported Angus. "Then when the runs started popping up, we didn't have enough juice left to get on them. But it was beautiful paddling and scenery."
Winner of the ladies event went to Antigua's Shelly Chadburn (2:55:00), second place to Trinidad's Nina Chavez (2:52:21), and third to St. Maarten's Terry De Witt (3:24:05).
First at the finish line from the local contingent was St. Maarten's Stuart Knaggs, doubling as competitor and organiser, finishing in 2:19:43 (seventh overall). But the loudest cheers went up for talented 15-year-old Jolyon Ferron from St. Maarten who finished in 2: 23:07. He led the fleet of local paddlers most of the way until he was caught by the more experienced Knaggs.
The Soualiga Challenge was sponsored by Captain Oliver's Marina and Restaurant, Perrier, The Moorings, and many other generous supporters and contributors.
Custom Kayaks offered a Surfski as a lucky dip prize to any paddler completing in all three legs of the tour. Surfski manufacturer Nelo sponsored the hot spot prize. www.caribbeansurfski.com
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.