PADDLE AUSTRALIA EXPLAINS NEW APPROACH TO SURFSKI
Phil Jones says it was something he noticed when he first took over as CEO of Paddle Australia back in 2017.
For all of its success and Olympic gold medals in canoe sprint and slalom, and for all of its passionate canoe marathon members travelling the country for competition, something was missing – and it couldn’t be ignored.
Jones knew the nation’s canoeing federation lacked a meaningful relationship with its most-participated discipline, surfski paddling.
It took some six years to achieve, but with the announcement that the Australian Ocean Racing Series had sealed a partnership with Paddle Australia back in April, Jones believes Paddle Australia is now headed in the right direction.
“We’ve been looking at this for a long time,” he told The Paddler. “My discussions with Dean [Gardiner] go back pretty much since I started in the role.”
“The work that Dean had done, in some ways, meant that we didn’t need to rush to ‘worry’ about ocean paddling, because of the great position it was in.
“From our point of view, we have a responsibility to the discipline, both short and long term.
“We know we need to help secure the future of the discipline. And this step is very much about becoming more engaged in the discipline.”
“We’re grateful for the work Dean has done, and now we’re keen to work alongside him and ensure the future is secured.”
The partnership brings some immediate changes for paddlers.
All competitors on the Australian Ocean Racing Series must now either be members of Paddle Australia or pay a single-event fee, in order to be covered by the organisation’s insurance policy.
The AORS will be used as Paddle Australia’s national championships, and form the selection basis for all future teams competing at the ICF World Championships.
The 2023 World Championships, to be held in Perth after the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week, are open entry.
Paddle Queensland’s ‘14 Beaches’ event on the Gold Coast has also now been added to the national series, meaning the surfski hotspot is again represented on the AORS, after a hiatus.
Jones says the outcomes are all examples of Paddle Australia’s concerted effort to support the growth of the sport – rather than serve to simply drive PA membership numbers.
“I’m not sure that membership is the major issue here,” he says.
“There’s a membership element to it, but the main motivation from our point of view, is to engage with that community to try and deliver whatever services and support is needs to make sure it’s thriving.
“That might be in events or it might be in education and safety, for example. If we’re not careful as a community, there could be limits placed on paddlers because of a perceived risk – and a real risk – that those elements aren’t being managed.
“Paddle Australia has a responsibility to make sure education programs are in place to ensure overarching legislation isn’t introduced, for example, that limits the community in some way.
“There is evidence of that happening in other areas, clearly. We have a responsibility to ensure things like that are in place.”
The partnership is being celebrated as a positive one by Dean Gardiner.
His AORS had been used as the national titles in the past, but the arrangement ended when Paddle Australia opted to cut ties, later partnering with the Australia Outrigger Canoe Racing Association in 2021.
“To be quite honest, I’d never understood why we hadn’t [worked in partnership].” Gardiner says. “It is good that it’s finally happened, and we’ll try hard to make it work.”
“It definitely means that we’re walking together, rather than seperate roads. That’s positive, and it takes confusion out of the events as well.
“When there’s two separate organisations going at it, it confuses people and also splits the numbers. Having people together, the two groups united, is definitely beneficial.”
Jones says unity is at the forefront of Paddle Australia’s intentions as well.
“There’s a sense sometimes in ocean paddling that isn’t necessarily in place,” he says. “We’ve all got a responsibility to make sure everybody is enjoying such a great activity like paddling.”
It’s a principal he feels can be applied to the racing scene, firstly, for those beginning their racing journey.
“The younger athletes often come from a SLS background, but there’s also a whole community that have touched paddling for the first time through ocean paddling,” he explains.
“That’s really interesting for us. That demographic is very much the ‘cycling group’ that emerged 10 or 15 years ago. A lot of people took up paddling for health and fitness, but are now moving towards competition.
“From our point if view, one of the things we need to do is reflect on is how we can develop the depth that sits under things like the AORS, to make sure everybody is catered for, everybody feels safe, and everybody feels a pathway all the way through to competition.”
And also for those at the elite end of the sport.
Australia will host the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships for the very first time in 2023, and it’s an opportunity Jones says Paddle Australia isn’t taking lightly.
“It’s an important step, given the strength of ocean ski racing here. It’s probably past due that we had a World Championships, as well.
“We’re so excited to present the opportunity for our athletes to compete at a world-level at home. It will be great to see so many international paddlers here.
“And I think the timing of it presents a unique opportunity for paddlers to also support the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week as well.
“We hope that will play a role in encouraging people to come back for the Doctor on a regular basis, because it’s such an iconic event globally.
“I think it will all combine really well to get the international surfski community to Australia.”