INSIDE THE LUNCH THAT LEAD TO SOUTH AFRICA’S DOMINATION OF THE DOCTOR
Sitting around their hotel room at the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week, four of South Africa’s best surfski paddlers decided enough was enough.
It was Friday afternoon, the day before arguably the biggest and most revered downwind race in the world – the Doctor.
After dominating the World Championships just last month, the South Africans had found little to celebrate in Australia.
Kenny Rice, Hank McGregor, Josh Fenn and Uli Hart had so far fallen short of their lofty ambitions across the week of racing, as the hosts dominated the dais.
The Saffas’ only male podium had come courtesy of Mark Keeling in the relative lottery of the Dash for Cash sprint eliminator.
So, as they ate their lunch, the group laid down a plan to turn things around.
“We spent the day together pep-talking each other,” Rice told The Paddler.
“It was like, ‘OK guys, how are we going to change this? We can’t keep getting flogged.’”
“Even if only one person could break into the results and what was proving to be a whole other level than what we were producing.
“It was quite nice because, although we aren’t in a team sport, we were all on the same page about what we needed to do.”
24 hours later, having fulfilled a lifelong dream by winning the Doctor, Rice reflected that the conversation helped spark a staggering turnaround in form.
South Africa claimed five of the top six positions, with Keeling (second), Hart (third), Fenn (fifth) and McGregor (sixth) roaring up the results.
“It was unifying,” Rice says. “Especially to have someone like Hank, who has been around for so long. And someone like Uli, who is at his first proper downwind race overseas.
“We all sat down and said, ‘Let’s pull it out of the bag.’
“We could feel the pressure from home. Everyone was saying, ‘What the hell is happening? What are you guys doing?’
“I’m stoked we had that confidence in each other. It wasn’t like we were asking each other, ‘How are we going to turn this around?’, it was more like, ‘Guys we can do it, we should be doing it, why is it not happening?’”
The all-South African podium: Uli Hart (left), Kenny Rice (centre) and Mark Keeling (right). PHOTOGRAPH: Shane Myers / @monkeymyers
That intent was clear from the very start of the race.
After a blistering – and at times physical – sprint off the line, Australian powerhouse Noah Havard emerged from the pack to claim the $2,500 Race One Hot Spot just ahead of Hart.
But that was when the South Africans kicked into gear.
While defending champion Cory Hill paddled further east on a wider line, joined by Tom Norton in search of earlier assistance from the 20 knot SSW winds, Rice ran it straight towards the cardinal marker with his countrymen in pursuit.
The conditions meant Rice couldn’t keep an eye on his rivals, but when he hit the marker in front with five kilometres to go, he was confident he wouldn’t be caught.
“I didn’t think I would get to the pin first, but I backed my line, believed in it and I went for it,” he says.
“It’s so good to back up my Worlds win here at the Doctor, especially after a pretty dismal week.
“The World Championships felt a little bit underwhelming, so coming into that last 500 metres – and being pretty confident that it was mine – it was such a special feeling to run up the beach in front of a big crowd and grab that ribbon.”
Kenny Rice soaking up every second of his victorious run up the beach at the Doctor. PHOTOGRAPH: Shane Myers / @monkeymyers
Although Rice was at the front for essentially the whole race, it was still a really tight tussle.
Kenny crossing the line in a time of 1 hour, 35 minutes and 26 seconds – outside of the $10,000 record bonus – just seconds ahead of Keeling (1:35:33) and Hart (1:35:35) who slogged it out in a thrilling sprint finish.
Mark Keeling flying across the line, just two seconds ahead of Uli Hart. PHOTOGRAPH: Shane Myers / @monkeymyers
“A few kilometres in I saw Kenny in front of me and no one else was around, so I knew I had to stick with him the whole way and just try to make this happen,” Keeling says.
“I won’t lie, it’s been a pretty hard week. I haven’t been happy with my own results, personally.
“Knowing this would be a downwind race, I just wanted to focus on catching as many runs as possible and it worked out for me.
“I’m so flipping happy to have had these conditions… actually I’m just so happy.”
Hart was equally as rapt, with the Under 23 World Champion competing in Australia for the very first time.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in,” he laughs.
“It’s pretty cool… and really special that it’s three South Africans, three guys from Fish Hoek on top.
“My K2 partner Kenny getting the win, that’s awesome. I know he has wanted this title for a long time.”
“That was pretty unreal. Hank told me before the race not to go to the hot spot because it can stuff your race… but I did actually go for it and, just as he said, I was sucking gas afterwards.
“I had a bad few kilometres then found my rhythm and just started cranking.”
Noah Havard beating out Uli Hart for the Race One Hot Spot. PHOTOGRAPH: John O’Sullivan Photography.
Hill (1:36:30) finished in fourth and was quick to embrace the new titleholder at the finish line.
That placing was still enough to see him take out the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week point score, netting him $15,000.
Cory Hill on top of a stacked podium after winning the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week. PHOTOGRAPH: Shane Myers / @monkeymyers
After fighting neck-and-neck with Jemma Smith all week, Danielle McKenzie claimed a commanding victory in the women’s race to defend both her Doctor and Shaw and Partners WA Race Week titles.
To read about what that meant, as well as all of the details of the women’s race, click here.