Race Report: Sean Rice wins Irish Coast Paddling Champs

Thursday, 27 September 2018 12:12 | Written by 
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Sean Rice in classic pose, winning the Irish Coast Paddling Championships Sean Rice in classic pose, winning the Irish Coast Paddling Championships Credits: White Hot Media

With eight km to go, Sean Rice decided to accelerate.  “There were three of us at that point and I felt I could do a burn to get rid of one of them,” he said.  To his surprise, both Cory Hill and Gordan Harbrecht dropped back.  But the race wasn’t over yet…

Massive Prize Pool

With a €55,000 total prize pool (and an individual €10,000 - €8,000 first prize plus €2,000 hotspot prize) thanks to sponsors China Silver Asset Management, the race was one of the richest in surfski history and had attracted a stellar group of the world’s best ocean paddlers including the current men’s and women’s Ocean Racing World Champions.  (For those who want to know: the 2008 Dubai Shamaal had $130,000 in prize money.)

It wasn’t only the draw of the big bucks; the race venue is set on one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, with wind and waves almost guaranteed.  Almost…

At the beginning of the week before the race, South Africa (and current ICF Ocean Racing Women’s World Champion) Hayley Nixon managed two reconnaissance paddles over the course before Storm Ali came roaring in from the Atlantic bringing with it gale-force winds and shutting down paddling until late on Friday. 

Course Map

Women’s Race

“To say the race was brutal is an understatement,” said Hayley Nixon. “We thought last year's World Champs in Hong Kong was flat; that was a downwind compared to race day conditions on Saturday!

“But that's Mother Nature and that's surfski racing, you can only play the cards you've been dealt.”


The start was unusual; the beach shelves away so steeply that the paddlers were unable to stand in the water next to their boats.  At the gun, they charged down and launched themselves into the water, surf lifesaving-style.

Nixon knew that New Zealander Teneale Hatton, with her surf lifesaving background, would be quick into the water.

Women's race start

Teneale Hatton springs away

“I had a good start, for me, but Teneale was already a boat length clear by the time I took my first stroke,” said Nixon.

As the group sprinted away from the beach, Nixon slotted in behind Hatton.  “Bridgitte was on her side wave and I was on her tail wave and tried to hang on,” she said.  “Teneale was so strong, I wouldn’t have been able to take it.”

Rounding the hotspot buoy in first place, Hatton headed north, Hartley and Nixon in line ahead behind her.

“Full credit to Teneale,” said Nixon. “she was pulling hard and the pace didn’t drop at all.”

Deeper Line

Eventually Nixon decided that being uncomfortable on the tail of the bunch was less efficient than finding her own way further out to sea, and she took a gamble, looking for bumps on a deeper line.

“I could just imagine the girls behind thinking, ‘what is Hayley doing?’”, she laughed.  And for a while it seemed as though the gambit hadn’t paid off.

“But at Bray Head,” Nixon said, “whether I was imagining it or not, it felt as though I found a few bumps and pulled level with them.”

An interval or two, and a couple of runs later, and Nixon surged ahead. 

“The other two then steered out, closer to my line,” said Nixon.  “I knew I had to stay ahead, but I thought they might work together; I’ve never looked over my shoulder so often in a race!”

Teneale Hatton and Bridgitte Hartley

Teneale Hatton (Think) and Bridgitte Hartley (Nelo)

With 12km to go, there was plenty of time for the other two to hunt Nixon down.  As she neared Dalkey Island, she had to decide whether to take a deep line near the island, or to stay nearer the mainland.  Earlier in the week, surging tidal currents had flowed strongly through the channel and the wrong choice could be decisive.


At that point the leading doubles came past and Nixon followed Dawid Mocke’s lead, taking a line close to shore.

“Someone on shore shouted that I had a good gap,” said Nixon, “but by the end of the channel, Teneale was level on a much deeper line – so something good must have been going on near the island.”

For the next 2km, the two women raced neck and neck.  “It was a difficult, short chop,” Nixon said, “but we were maintaining 14.5kph, so it must have been helping.”

Hayley Nixon

Hayley Nixon, on her own, heads for Dun Laoghaire harbour and the finish

But then…  as she turned into the harbour, she saw a red buoy 100m from the wall.  She frantically thought back to the briefing but couldn’t remember whether a red buoy had been mentioned.  Reassured by race officials on an escort boat and a bystander on the harbour wall who said the doubles hadn’t gone around the buoy, Nixon sprinted for the finish.

Flat Water

“600m of lake-like flat water!” she laughed.  “I was counting strokes, looking for a ripple to ride.  I kept glancing back and I couldn’t see Teneale…”

But then - a heart attack moment as a black-nosed ski appeared in the corner of her eye.  “I couldn’t believe it,” Nixon said, “but I did 15 of the best strokes ever to the finish line and then looked up to see…  Sean Rice!” 

“Although they hadn’t handicapped the race like in the Nelo Summer Challenge, it was really exciting to have the sprint finish with Sean,” said Nixon.  “We’re working to bring the handicapping system to other races; it really adds interest to have the women racing against the men.

“It’s been a long trip, but I couldn’t be any happier,” she said.  But her year hasn’t ended yet…  “Home for a month, then off to the Pete Marlin, then to Hong Kong, followed by a six-week tour to Australia to do the West Coast Downwinder, the Twenty Beaches and the Doctor…”

Womens Podium

Women's podium: 1. Hayley Nixon (RSA) 2. Teneale Hatton (NZ) 3. Bridgitte Hartley (RSA)


Men’s Race

Having won the Nelo Summer Challenge convincingly, just two weeks before, Sean Rice was in a confident mood.

“Portugal was a test of fitness,” he said.  “So, I was really happy with the win there.”

His preparation for the Irish race included travelling to the venue half a dozen times over the last few months to paddle and familiarise himself with the course.  Two weeks of focussed paddle training back in London put the finishing touches on his preparation.

Jasper Mocke and Hank McGregorJasper Mocke and Hank McGregor, before the start

Here we go...

When he saw the conditions on Saturday morning, current ICF Ocean Racing World Champion Cory Hill thought, “Here we go…

“We knew what we were in for,” he said.  “We had pretty much the who’s who of surfski racing on the line at the start.”

The weather had thrown a curve-ball at the race; after the previous two days of howling gale-force winds, Storm Ali had moved on, leaving an almost unnatural calm in her wake. 

The conditions for race?  2-4kt of breeze, a predicted swell of 10cm, sea temperature 14C and air temperature 11C!  It was going to be a 22km grind…


The €2,000 hotspot prize meant that the pace was frantic from the start.

Sean Rice lead the way off the beach, Hank McGregor and Sean’s brother Kenny on either wave, with Cory Hill, Gordan Harbrecht and Jasper Mocke one wave back.  200m from the buoy, McGregor accelerated with Cory Hill, but Rice responded, even opening a small gap to take the €2,000 bounty.

Men's Race Start

Drone's view of the start of the Men's Race



Sean Rice takes the hotspot prize

For a brief period after the turn, the seven paddlers looked set for a marathon-style wash-riding contest.

“After the turn, I did a hard km,” said Rice.  “But when I looked back, everyone was still close.

“Then we went through a fleet of racing yachts and I kicked on a wave and put my head down.” 

Front bunch

L-R: Jasper Mocke, Cory Hill and Austin Kieffer, just after the hotspot


The group fractured, leaving McGregor, Rice, Hill and Harbrecht in the front bunch. 

A few km later, Hill took up the pull.  “Hank was looking comfortable, but 6km in, he left the bunch and moved further out to sea,” said Rice. 

“Cory did a burn and we were moving really fast,” said Rice.  McGregor dropped back and then there were three in the front bunch.

With eight kilometres to go, Rice decided to accelerate again to see if he could force one of the others to drop off the wave.  To his surprise both Hill and Harbrecht dropped back.

Hank McGregor, Austin Kieffer

One of the stand-out performances was that of Austin Kieffer who finished in 5th, just behind Hank McGregor

When he reached the channel on the inside of Dalkey Island, Rice steered close to shore to avoid the tidal currents that he’d experienced previously on his practise runs.  “But the tide was just on the turn,” he said. “I could see that Cory was keeping up, so I moved out to the middle of the channel.

“There was never a paddles-down moment,” said Rice.  “But it was never totally flat either.”

The finish was inside Dun Laoghaire harbour, 500m of flat, sheltered water from the entrance.

“I wanted to get to the entrance with a slight lead,” said Rice.  “I’d invested energy at the start so the last thing I wanted was a sprint finish.” 

Sean Rice

Sean Rice

In fact, Rice finished in 1:29:26, 57 seconds in front of Cory Hill; a convincing margin in the conditions.

“It’s funny that Sean was talking about doing intervals,” said Hill.  “It was a sprint from the start!  It’s almost embarrassing; he’s in a league of his own right now.”

Fantastic Year

“It’s been a fantastic year,” said Rice.  “We had a great summer, so training has been easy and my motivation high.”

Deliberately choosing not to burn himself out at Molokai (which he won in 2017) or by doing marathon worlds this year, Rice is also enjoying living in London.  “It’s been a real advantage to be back home within a couple of hours of each race,” he said. 

Sean Rice

At 29, Rice feels as though he’s “just beginning to mature.

“I’ve developed a really good instinct on my feelings and what’s happening with the boat,” he added.  “Even when I lose, I know why.  I train very hard, but I don’t kill myself the way I used to.  I do feel that I can do this for a while longer,” he added.

In spite of being well prepared for the Irish Coast race, however, Rice said, “I was really, really nervous, to the point where I was almost feeling that the nerves and anxiety wasn’t worth it! 

“Having finished the race, today I felt really cool!  I got a bit of a smack at the Gorge, felt I had to change and did the change.

“I’m enjoying the ups; the downs are still mendable,” he said.  “I’d go crazy if I couldn’t race in some capacity!”

He was full of praise for “Flash” Gordan Harbrecht, who came in third.  “Gordan’s result isn’t a surprise,” Rice said.  “But this weekend he beat some really big names – a huge result.  And he’s done the hard yards, including visiting Cape Town to train…” 

Doubles Race

The doubles race was dominated by the three crews of Mocke/Smith, Medina/Viloria (Spain) and the Henot brothers (France). 

“We got there a few days early,” said Dawid Mocke, “and did the course on the Tuesday before the race.

“It’s a really nice downwind course,” he said.  “You can see exactly where you’re going and there are no reefs.  If the surf is big, you can start from a harbour (at either end).”

On race day, five doubles turned the hotspot buoy together, but after 2km, Mocke/Smith put in an interval and split the group, leaving the top three crews working together.


Really Strong

“The other crews were really strong,” said Mocke.  “We were outgunned in terms of speed; on the intervals we were just hanging on and if it had come to a sprint finish, we’d have been third.”

But the wily Mocke was ready when the opportunity came. 

“2km from the harbour, near a little bay, there was an area of refracted chop coming offshore,” he said.  “I told Phil we had to go now.

“We caught a sneaky side-swell and went wide off the group,” said Mocke.  The move took the others by surprise and by the time they realised what had happened, Mocke and Smith were several boat lengths ahead, and blasting for the finish.


Taking the other crews by surprise, Mocke/Smith surge into the lead

“This race is definitely one for the bucket list,” said Mocke.  “It’s so beautiful, it’s easy to get to the west coast, it’s full of history, the scenery is incredible…”

Amazing Event

“From a South African perspective, this is an amazing event,” said Hayley Nixon.  “The video is going to be amazing, it’s one of the most picturesque races ever.

“Irish hospitality is second to none,” she added. “Incredibly generous.”

Dun Laoghaire

Dun Laoghaire Harbour

Dawid Mocke, paddling doubles with compatriot Phil Smith, was equally enthusiastic.  “It’s a great course,” he said.  “Straightforward; you can see where you’re going the whole time, there are no reefs or other surprises.

“It’s a beautiful country to visit,” he added.  “The distances to the west and south coasts are relatively small so it’s very practical to tour.  And South Africans don’t need a visa!  Bonus!”


(Click here for the full results)

Singles (men)

  1. Sean Rice (RSA)1:29:26
  2. Cory 'Chill' Hill (AUS) 1:30:23
  3. "Flash" Gordan Harbrecht (GER) 1:32:12
  4. Hank McGregor (RSA)1:32:43
  5. Austin Kieffer (USA) 1:32:50
  6. Jasper Mocke (RSA) 1:33:43

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Singles (women)

  1. Hayley Nixon (RSA) 1:44:22
  2. Teneale Hatton (NZ) 1:44:59
  3. Bridgitte Hartley (RSA) 1:46:35
  4. Jenna Ward (RSA) 1:48:55
  5. Angie Le Roux (FRA) 1:49:30
  6. Rebecca Newson (GBR) 1:50:41
  7. Chloë Bunnett (ESP) 1:51:04

Shaw and Partners


  1. Dawid Mocke/ Phil Smith (RSA) 1:28:59
  2. Esteban Medina/ Daniel Sanchez Viloria (ESP) 1:29:10
  3. Valentin Henot/Hector Henot (FRA) 1:29:20


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Click here for Austin Kieffer's excellent blog post on the race

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