Two new national champions were crowned this weekend, with both Ben Keys and Tara Smith winning their maiden titles at the 2022 NZ Ocean Racing Nationals in Nelson.
After a fast start off Kaiteriteri Beach, no doubt instigated by the presence of 2 sprint kayak specialists, Ben Keys made his move about 5km into the race. In the surprisingly fast and surfable side-on conditions, Ben was in his element over the 26km course and held off reigning champ Tupu King who was making a fast run up the inside line. Ben crossed the finish line at Mapua Wharf in 1:43:35, just over 2minutes ahead of Tupu (1.45.54) followed by Tim Waller in third (1.49.25).
Ben has been a dominating figure in surfski racing for a few years, winning the NZ Ocean Racing series 2 years in a row, however this was his first win at the National Championships.
“Pretty stoked to finally put it together for the nationals this time around.” said Ben. “This is one of my favourite events to race, and it was great to have the kayak guys racing skis and paddlers coming from all over the country to compete. We are starting to build some real depth in the men’s field, which is awesome to see.”
Ben McCallum, in his first ski race, won the under-23 title, finishing fourth overall after a 2hour battle with Tim Waller. Garth Spencer won the over-40 division with a 5th place overall, only 5 seconds ahead of the multisport legend Richard Usher.
Ben, fresh off winning the MK1 500m at the CRNZ Super Sprint event the previous weekend, was effusive after his first foray into ocean racing. “Ocean ski nationals was an amazing race. It exceeded all expectations, from the atmosphere and culture to the great conditions. It was something I’ve never witnessed before, and I will definitely be doing more ski races in the future. I would recommend everyone giving it a try.”
There was tight racing in the womens race but local Tara Smith came out on top in a similar style to Ben, making her move about 5km into the race and holding strong to become the first new female national champion in 10years.
“This was completely unexpected; I was aiming for a top 3!” laughed Tara following the race. “It was such a fun race, typical Nelson downwind conditions which suited me well as it is similar to where I paddle in Marlborough”.
Aucklander Danika Mowlem was 90seconds behind 2nd place, with Anne Cairns rounding out the female podium.
“It was great to have such a strong and even womens field.” said Danika. “We knew going in, it could be anyone’s race, but Tara paddled so well. I was watching her the whole time and went a bit wider to try get an advantage from the runs into the finish but frustratingly couldn’t pull her back. It was wicked to have a close race, and catch up with everyone again.”
Former world champion Rachel Clarke has held the national title for the previous 10years.
There was a large mixed double ski field, showcasing the strength of the Nelson surfski club. Locals Dan Bremner and Amber Bonny won the event and Dan hopes to see double ski racing continue to grow.
“Doubles are a great way to get new people into racing in a less intimidating way, especially women who are definitely the minority in this sport. Women can put them in a boat with a more experienced man (or woman), so they can build up skills and confidence with the support of someone one else. There are plenty of women who paddle but many are not confident to go and join an ocean race, so mixed doubles are a great solution to get them into it.”
To top off the weekend, a special race inside the Abel Tasman Park was organised for the Sunday. It felt like paradise on the gold sands on Awaroa Beach where the race started but reality soon set in as paddlers rounded the headland to be faced with strong headwinds and decent-sized waves for the remainder of the 25km course back to Kaiteriteri.
Danika Mowlem took out the women's race, with Carly Keys in 2nd and Tara Smith in 3rd. Ben Keys continued where he left off on Saturday winning by over 6minutes. Tupu King and Tim Waller were in 2nd and 3rd, replicating the podium from the day before. It was true ocean adventure for all paddlers and a unique experience to race along such spectacular coastline.
Race organiser Nathan Fa'avae was happy with a successful weekend, proud to have seen his event grow in size and stature since he first ran it 14 years ago.
“On behalf of the Nelson Surfski Club, and the organising team, I can say we are thrilled with how the event went. Hosting the National Championships was a step up for the event but one that we took seriously, and worked hard to create an event worthy of a Championship. We are very grateful for all the paddlers who made the effort to attend and support the event. During these times people are taking a risk travelling around the country so we want to acknowledge that.”
Thanks to Nathan and his team for organising a spectacular weekend of paddling, Nelson Surfski Club, Kayak HQ and all the sponsors for supporting these events.
The Queen and King of the Bay race dates are dictated by the tides at Port Māpua, the 15th edition and 2023 event is being planned for January 28th & 29.