2019 Freedom Paddle - Done and Dusted

Wednesday, 01 May 2019 08:36 | Written by 
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Hayley Nixon and Michelle Burn dominated the women's race Hayley Nixon and Michelle Burn dominated the women's race Credits: Gameplan Media, Cape Town Sport Photography, Paddle Mag

Woah! They’re in trouble…!” I looked up to see a mountain of a wave racing in towards the northwest tip of Robben Island. A lone double surfski turned to meet it, the crew paddling frantically. Up, up, punch through the feathering crest… Phew, they were safe, but what about us?  

Biggest Cape race ever

In spite of the largest, most highly rated fleet of doubles paddlers ever to take part in a Cape Town race, the favorites stood out: it was Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett’s race to lose. In the women’s race too, no-one expected a serious challenge to current world champion Hayley Nixon, paddling with Michelle Burn.

This year conditions were just about perfect for the 28km race: a very slight offshore breeze that, if anything, would cool us down on the way home, but that would do nothing to help on the way out. A 3m, 14sec swell was forecast, which would make things interesting on the exposed, western side of Robben Island.


Aside from the tension present in any race, two factors made this particular edition, the second running of the Freedom Paddle, truly special: it was Freedom Day (arguably South Africa's most emotional and important public holiday), and we’d be paddling around the iconic island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years – and it was also the South African double ski championships.


And they're off - 126 doubles in front of the Cape Town Waterfront

View from mid-pack

A row back in the starting grid, and way, way back in the rankings, yours truly took a gulp of juice, pressed the Garmin start button and contemplated the long, flat haul out to Robben Island.

We had modest ambitions – to beat the crew of Nikki Mocke and Kim van Gysen. In the 2018 race, we’d been in front on the way out, but they’d smoked us on the downwind section back from the island, surging past on a better line in the challenging, technical runs.

Early Lead

The horn sounded, the fleet of 126 doubles leapt forward in a maelstrom of thrashing paddles, crisscrossed boat wakes and flying spray. At the pointy end of the mob, two boats: McGregor and Birkett (no surprise there), and defending champions Jasper Mocke and Nicholas Notten.

The (multiple) world marathon champions began to pull inexorably away and by the time they reached Robben Island, they were well ahead.

Hank & Andy

Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett made an early break


Meanwhile… the fleet following had resolved itself into long lines of slip-streaming surfskis; most crews trying hard not to be the ones at the front of a group.

For a while we proceeded at a steady pace on almost completely flat water, but as we approached the southern tip of the island, small bumps began to appear and the skis began to surge forward in bursts of speed as one after another, the crews began to work the runs.

The groups split, reformed, and split again and we found ourselves gaining on our nemeses, Nikki and Kim, who were chirping as usual, apparently able to carry out a full on conversation while paddling at pace that left us more or less speechless.

As the runs grew, we found that we were able to surge forward, and we overtook them as we passed the small harbor and prepared to put in an interval to catch up to the next group. But, disaster, the boat jerked as we hit a clump of kelp with the rudder and our speed dropped drastically.

Thankfully the beloved Nikki and Kim stopped to clear it for us, but in that brief stationary period, a dozen other skis flashed past. Oh woe!

After that setback, we took a while to get going again. The women overtook us and chased their target, another female crew, while we struggled to find our rhythm.

Meanwhile… near the pointy end

Having established a commanding lead in the women’s race, Hayley Nixon and Michelle Burn were taking it wide around the reefs at the far end of the island.

“As we turned at the island, we suddenly saw Bianca Beavitt and Melanie van Niekerk sneaking up our inside,” said Nixon. “It was pure local knowledge and it gave us a bit of a fright!

“I know how good Bianca is in these conditions from the Cape Point Challenge,” she went on. “So, we took off and pretty much time-trialed it for the last ten kilometers to the finish.”

Beavitt and van Niekerk

Bianca Beavitt and Melanie van Niekerk

Men’s Race

Ahead of them, in the men’s race, a similar scenario had played out. Having opened up a sizeable lead, McGregor, too, had the luxury of taken a conservatively wide line around the reefs.

“Jasper and Nick took a riskier, faster line on the inside,” said McGregor, “but we were happy to see that our lead was intact, and we put our heads down on the return leg and just kept opening up that lead.”

Nick Notten and Jasper Mocke

Jasper Mocke and Nicholas Notten

By the time we passed the half-way mark, a wrecked trawler sitting high up on the rocks, the leaders were far out of sight.

Tiger Line

And that was when we saw the lone double taking the tiger line around the corner; they shot over the crest as the wave obliterated itself against the reef with a thunderous roar.

As one, the twenty or so other crews in sight abruptly turned 45 degrees right to find a deeper, safer route away from the surfski-swallowing monsters.

Having negotiated the turn safely, we found ourselves back in a group, but still discombobulated, now by the sloppy chop churned up by the reflected waves from the western side of the island. We battled on grimly, dropping off one slip after another until we reached the southern tip, 4km later.


On the side of those monster swells... Mocke and Notten chase the leaders

As we reached the flatter water, we took a deep breath, an energy gel and a long suck of juice. We accelerated again but spotted another crew in trouble. They too had hit weed and we paused to clear their rudder, passing on the favor that Nikki and Kim had done for us.

And the winners are…

At the front of the fleet, many kilometers ahead, McGregor and Birkett arrived at the finish, an overwhelming two minutes ahead of Jasper Mocke and Nicholas Notten. Kenny Rice and Stuart McLaren crossed the line in third, another 1:40 later.

It was the first time McGregor had paddled on the ocean with Birkett since they took the S2 title last year at the Pete Marlin race. “Luckily Andy let me drive,” said McGregor.

In the women’s race, Nixon and Burn were about to clean up. “It was ours to lose and once we had lined up on Devil’s Peak, we managed to stay well clear of the other women’s boats,” said Nixon.

The tiring Beavitt/van Niekerk had been overtaken by Olympian Bridgitte Hartley who, paddling with Sabina Lawrie crossed the finish line just over two minutes behind Nixon and Burn.

Hartley and Lawrie

Bridgitte Hartley and Sabina Lawrie

Strong finish

As for us, fortified by the gels (what DO they put in those things?), we found our rhythm again and started to reel in some of the other mid-packers, finally reaching Nikki and Kim, whose lack of training was beginning to tell.

Not long after we passed them, their voices faded into silence. What could have happened? Were they sneaking up on us? Had they really hit the wall? Fearing that they’d put their race faces on, we put the hammer down. Gasping our last, we finally finished in 2:26, 60th overall out of 126 doubles and just over two minutes ahead of our rivals.

Last Words

"It was unbelievably cool to be able to paddle around Robben Island on Freedom Day," said Hank McGregor. "We are just about the only sport that can enjoy the privilege of going around Robben Island as a way to celebrate Nelson Mandela's legacy on Freedom Day and it was very special for all of us."

(On our particular victory, Nikki Mocke had the final word, “We’ll definitely see you next year. Be afraid!”)

A truly great day out.

We even made it onto the national news:





  1. Andy Birkett/Han McGregor
  2. Jasper Mocke/Nick Notten
  3. Stu MacLaren/Kenny Rice
  4. Dawid Mocke/Josh Fenn
  5. Barry Lewin/Bevan Manson


  1. Hayley Nixon/Michelle Burn
  2. Sabina Lawrie/Bridgitte Hartley
  3. Bianca Beavitt/Melanie van Niekerk
  4. Nikki Mocke/Kim van Gysen
  5. Jess Pollock/Angie Austin

More information can be found at https://freedompaddle.co.za/ 


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