After six years of running the Shaw and Partners 20 Beaches, the team behind the iconic Sydney race sat down at the end of last to begin throwing around ideas to make the 30th edition one of the biggest yet.

And immediately, Dean Gardiner had a big idea.

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

Returning to the original course covering the Northern Beaches between Palm Beach and Manly.

“Even though we call it the 20 Beaches, it’s been a bit less than 20 beaches for the last few years,” laughs Justin Ryan, one of the event’s organisers.

“This course is something different and exciting, and for the anniversary, it brings it back to its namesake.

“The more seasoned paddlers will enjoy the challenge of the longer course, while we’re also introducing a relay division that allows us to include those who want to take on a shorter distance.

“It’s bold, but you have to keep trying things.”

The 2019 Shaw and Partners 20 Beaches field flying around Barrenjoey Headland, bound for Long Reef.

It’s a significant announcement from one of Australia’s biggest races.

Launched in 1990 by the Manly Warringah Kayak Club, 20 Beaches placed surfski paddling in the spotlight. At the time of its first running, it was the longest surfski race in Australia. Today, it stands as its oldest. 

“I remember how big the race was in the early 90’s,” Dean Gardiner, winner of the inaugural 20 Beaches recalls. 

“It was on the back page of The Herald, and things like that. It was a pretty unique event and definitely a really special event. And it was the first of its kind in Australia. 

“Even though we were all on surf lifesaving skis, it was an ocean race and it has now stood the test of time. I think it’s a real success story.”

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

With a knowledge of the Northern Beaches like no other, Gardiner says the course is a big win for paddlers.

Depending on the conditions, the race will run either north or south between the two famous beaches, at a distance of around 25 kilometres.

A mid-race marker buoy will be placed at Long Reef, which is where relay teams will also make their change.

Gardiner believes the line of that course will pay dividends. 

“You essentially stay in the runs for longer,” Gardiner, who’s also the race director, says. “It’s more of an ocean course.”

“Adding Long Reef to the fray brings a whole new feature into it that people have to consider. It becomes a real ocean race again.

“Both are good locations to finish an event, too. I would love to paddle back into Manly and finish the race there, because when we first started doing this, that was the whole idea. To cover the whole Northern Beaches… and I think that’s really important.”

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

The history of 20 Beaches has been on Justin Ryan’s mind, too.

The race spent 23 years under the governance of the Manly Warringah Kayak Club, before Surf Life Saving Sydney Northern Beaches took over for the next nine.

A successful period for the race followed, but after a controversial running in 2015, that saw no winners awarded, 20 Beaches disappeared from the calendar until Ryan, Vaikobi’s Pat Langley, Mark Kehoe and a committed team of volunteers took control in 2018.

Celebrating the significance of 30 editions is a major focus in 2024.

“There’s a lot of history here, and there’s been some great winners in the past,” Ryan says. “Deano, Clint Robinson, Cory Hill, Tim Jacobs, a lot of times… they’re big names.

“In a world where a lot of these events come and go, 20 Beaches has endured.”

“It can be a tough race, the conditions can be tough, it’s long and it’s not that predictable. But in the sport, it’s one of our most celebrated races. I’m very proud and excited that we’ve got to this point.”

Tim Jacobs claiming victory at the 20 Beaches in 2003 – one of his record six titles.

While there’s one eye on the past, this year will also see the event taken forward, too.

In partnership with the Australian Ocean Racing Series, which will also use the Shaw and Partner 20 Beaches as its 2024 National Championships, $10,000 in prizes will be awarded to the most successful ‘club’ in the race.

Further details of the club championship are to come from the AORS, however it is not limited to formalised institutions – training groups will also be permitted to enter.

“We’ve been trying to get more women into the sport, with equal prize money since 2018, and we’ve been trying to get younger paddlers in the sport, with the Add-Style Cup,” Ryan says. “Now we’re trying to bring more clubs into the sport.

“This is a community-based event… a not-for-profit race. And as you go through life, it’s a sweet thing to be able to be involved in something at the centre of a community, give back and contribute.

“And it’s even more sweet when you see people so enthusiastic about it. We can’t wait.”