The Port Elizabeth to East London Challenge holds iconic status among South African paddlers as an ultra distance event where simply finishing is a victory.
For 35 years now, off the East Coast of Southern Africa, men of the South African Surf Lifesaving community have been taking on a monumental challenge every 24 Months. Known as “The Maker of Men”, “The Blood, guts & glory race”, “4 days of hell at sea” or simply “The Challenge” it has captivated the minds of the public through the sheer toughness and bravery of the competitors and the paddling community who offer deep respect to those who can say “I have done it”.
History Early route map
Competitors in the Surf Ski Challenge are true masters of stamina, strength and courage – and they keep coming back for more!
The Surf Ski challenge is the ultimate contest between man and the elements of nature, a reputation that has enticed competitors back every time it has been staged.
“The real Challenge is pitting your fitness and skill against Mother Nature – a fickle lady – Currents, surf, heat, wind and Blue Bottles all pose potential threats. The race (held for the last 40 years) takes the paddlers 250km over 4 days from Port Elizabeth to East London in South Africa along some of the most beautiful, but harshest coastline in the world.
Blue Water Bay Surf Lifesaving Club to Woody Cape Beach
Paddle distance: 75 km
Paddle Time for winners: 5 1/2 hours
The first day of the race is the longest: nearly 75km from Blue Water Bay to the notorious Woody Cape. Woody Cape is notorious for its huge surf and over the years has been the graveyard of many a surfski, it features at the forefront of the paddlers’ thoughts – imagine paddling 75km only to smash your ski on the way in to the beach.
And worse – you lie in your tent listening to the boom of the waves, knowing that next morning you have to go out through it…
Woody Cape Beach to Port Alfred
Paddle distance: 53 km
Paddle Time for winners: 4 hours
The last 5km of this day sees rogue breakers that rear up unexpectedly well out to sea – catch the waves and you’re flying; get it wrong and you’re swimming, potentially with a broken boat. And you still have to negotiate a substantial shore break and rip currents to get to the finish.
Port Alfred to Hamburg
Paddle distance: 68 km
Paddle Time for winners: 5 ½ hours
This is the toughest day in the race. Both physically – the paddlers are all tired, no matter who they are – and the end is not yet in sight. Day 4 is much easier – it’s shorter and the end is just around the corner… Day 3 is a mind bender.
And there’s surf! A point break can provide a ride all the way into the beach – sometimes though, it closes out from the right and drives you onto the rocks.
Hamburg to East London (Orient Beach)
Paddle distance: approx 62 km
Paddle Time for winners: 4 to 5 hours
Getting out at Hamburg can be fun; just when you think you’ve got over the back line, a rogue set can come through to take you back to the start… Start over, do not pass Go.
Rob Wilmot and I finish 14th in the 2000 edition of the PE to EL Challenge
The challenge of this ultra ocean marathon lies in paddling yourself around Cape Point, the South Western most tip of the African Continent.
The 50km race starts at Scarborough and follows this beautiful stretch of coastline around the point to Fish Hoek. From Scarborough the paddlers enter the waters of the Cape Point Nature Reserve, past Olifantsbos, Platboom, The Cape of Good Hope and the dreaded Southwestern Reefs before reaching the point. At the point, rugged rocks and sheers cliffs tower more than 200m above the sea, cutting deep into the ocean, providing a spectacular backdrop.
Once around the point paddlers enter the quieter waters of False Bay (past the old stop at Buffels Bay) and on to Millers Point. From here it’s the last long tiring stretch along the famous Millers Run, past the Roman Rock Lighthouse (built between 1861 and 1865) in Simons Town Bay before finally heading to the finish line at Fish Hoek Surf Lifesaving Club.
Cape Point Race Map (courtesy of mockepaddling.com)
Big swell and glassy conditions greeted the 2014 edition of the event. It was an epic day out with two paddlers being rescued off Olifantsbos – the wrong line got them onto the reef instead of in the gully, the sea jacked up and that was the end of their paddle. Fortunately the NSRI was on hand to pluck them from the 9 degree Atlantic water.
… nearing Cape Point
Entering False Bay for the long final stretch
Feeling the distance in False Bay
Glassy conditions at Roman Rock Lighthouse
The finish… Fish Hoek… Broken!!