Canoe Racing New Zealand CEO Tom Ashley admits it’s a little “unorthodox” to run a National Championships online – but we are certainly living in unorthodox times.

Rather than admit defeat when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of their showpiece event, organisers got creative.

They had seen other sports use GPS tracking to run virtual events before, but in terms of deciding a national title, this is uncharted waters.

And in the four days that the event window has already been open, the response has been strong.

“The first few days have been great,” Ashley says.

We have had interest from all over the world and competitors from as far away as Denmark have already completed and uploaded their first 12 kilometre challenge.

“We’re really encouraged by the enthusiasm we’re seeing for the concept and grateful to paddlers everywhere for jumping on board and supporting this initiative.”

The rules are straight-forward.

Paddlers have until June 14 to complete a 12 kilometre course that starts and finishes at the same location – designed to nullify the effects of wind and currents – while wearing a GPS watch or tracker.

The data then needs to be uploaded to the New Zealand Surfski Championships website, where it is collated into the leaderboard.

Participants can make as many attempts as they like.

“You can paddle in groups and that sort of thing, but ultimately you have to come up with a strategy that is fastest for you,” 2015 ICF World Champion Teneale Hatton says.

“It will be interesting to see everyone’s approaches.”

Andrew Mowlem, who like Hatton is also a member of CRNZ’s Long Distance Paddling Committee, agrees.

“It will be fascinating to see the varying courses and conditions chosen around New Zealand and overseas,” he says.

“It seems like a great way to connect paddlers in all regions to participate and compete in a flexible way on their home waters.

“And if successful, there is consideration of making it a regular fixture in years to come.

That’s the aim for Hatton too.

“I’m hoping it engages a few more people than what we may have had from our normal National champs, just making it more accessible for people,” she says. 

“With a bit of interaction, hopefully people see we are coming up with some exciting ideas and have a super cool community here.

“Hopefully people just want to get involved for that vibe, rather than just necessarily the racing side of things.”

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It’s an exciting time for surfski paddling in New Zealand – and one with huge growth potential.

Hatton and Mowlem are both well-known around the globe, but the last 12 months has also seen the meteoric rise of now World Champion Danielle McKenzie as well as a host of junior paddlers.

The country has also been awarded the 2022 World Championships hosting rights, while last week CRNZ CEO Tom Ashley explained to The Paddler how the organisation is nurturing the rise of surfski through strategic planning.

“When it comes to New Zealand, we’ve always done our own thing a little bit,” Hatton says.

“But we’ve never had an organisation take the reigns to try and increase involvement.

“It’s a big change but I think it’s really nice.

“And it’s nice that more people are getting involved too, especially younger paddlers, which we haven’t seen for a long time.”

They’re hoping with the Virtual Championships, that involvement extends overseas.

The surfski community is built on a shared experience and love of paddling, and given that there’s few races on offer to bring people together during this time, it’s hoped the event will fill the void.

“We [athletes] had our years planned out with all of these races coming up, now everyone is left in the unknown at the moment,” Hatton explains.

“It’s nice to have something to at least put a little bit of focus on, a bit of motivation to get back in the boat and connect with those paddlers you may not see in person, but you can still share that sense of competition with.”