Nelo Summer Challenge - The Insights and The Drama

Thursday, 11 July 2019 14:40 | Written by 
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Hayley Nixon crosses the finish line at the 2019 Nelo Summer Challenge Hayley Nixon crosses the finish line at the 2019 Nelo Summer Challenge

Running down the water’s edge, Hayley Nixon leapt onto her surfski. As she took her first stroke, the paddler next to her, floundering, clipped her ski and she half fell out. Frantically she recovered her balance, only to be hit and almost knocked out again. “Just. Move. Please!” she yelled…


Aside from simply winning the women’s race, Nixon had in mind the challenge introduced in 2018 in the form of a pursuit race within the main race. The men’s start was timed so that the leading man should arrive at the finish simultaneously with the leading women. First across the line would take a €1,000 bonus.

So, it was doubly vital to get a clean start...

“Lesson learned,” she said afterwards. “Don’t start next to a novice!”


Race Course - 2019 Nelo Summer Challenge

The beach start had been Le Mans style: the paddlers lined up 2m behind their surfskis and at the whistle raced forward, grabbed the skis, sprinted with them into the water before leaping on and paddling away.

The collisions left Nixon in about 15th place off the beach. “I could see Georgia Laird charging out in front,” she said. “She was absolutely lethal in Hawaii and I thought, ‘that’s it, game over’”.

But Nixon soon found her rhythm, overtaking boat after boat until she found herself back with the lead bunch. Slotting into the diamond, she was able to ease the pressure slightly. Laird was pulling the group, fellow Australian Bonnie Hancock on her left, Nikki Birkett (RSA) on her right and Angie Le Roux (FRA) on second wave.

“I was surprised at how quickly I’d caught them,” Nixon said.

Having regained her breath, she considered her next move: should she stay in the diamond, or try to out-accelerate the group and get to the turn buoy first?

Better to get into clear water for the turn!

Decision made, Nixon dropped back and steered around the side of the pack. But as she made her move, the others responded. “We had a ding-dong battle to the buoy,” she said. “But I just managed to get there ahead of Georgia, who turned with me and Nikki, with Bonnie just behind.”

Still in contention were several of the other women, including Chloë Bunnett, Judit Vergés and Angie Le Roux.

With no-one in front of her, Nixon went as hard as possible for the next 3km. “I learnt in Hawaii that you have more in the tank than you think you do,” she said. “So, I wanted to burn some matches, really extend myself and see I what I could do from there.”


“The downwind conditions were way better than expected,” said Nixon. “The wind strength felt like about 12kt, with clean wind swell over our left shoulders, small but giving chances for paddles-down for a few seconds.”

The turn buoy having been set 1.5km straight out to sea, the paddlers were on an almost perfect line for the run up the coast.

Having scouted this part of the route previously, Nixon was happy with the deep line. “I knew there was a current flowing south, inshore,” she said. “So, I wanted to be further out.”

Women 5km

5km in, Hayley Nixon leads, Angie Le Roux on the inside

At the 5km mark, the lead group was still close together. “No-one had dropped off,” said Nixon. “It was pretty exciting with Nikki right next to me and one or two of the other girls slightly behind and deeper.”

After 10km, Nixon found herself with something of a lead. “I was feeling good,” she said. “The speeds were quite surprising: I had splits between 4:06 and 4:10, some top speeds of 17kph, consistently above 13kph, better than expected.”


By 12.5km, just over half-way, Nixon prepared to up her tempo for last section of the race. But just then she spotted what looked like a groyne jutting out from the beach, about 1.5km away. Was that the river mouth? Surely not! And her mind went into overdrive…

“12.5 plus 1.5 is 14km,” she thought.

“Add about 2km in the river to the finish, that’s 16km.

“But the race is supposed to be 19km long. Could the race organizers have got it so wrong?!”

Frantically she tried to recall the landmarks that Oscar Chalupsky had described before race: “Look for a windmill, then a church and then it’s the furthest bluff you can see…”. But when you haven’t paddled the course, and you haven’t seen those landmarks for yourself, your mind plays tricks…

And there was no lead/media boat, no-one ahead and there was no sign of the OCs that had started earlier.

What to do? Trust to instinct and stay deep or go inshore to look – and lose the advantages of the deep line?

She spotted Angie Le Roux, who was a little way behind, and slightly inshore. Nixon looked to see which way Le Roux was headed and slowed. “Do we go in here?” she yelled. “No!” replied Le Roux, “This isn’t it, go straight.”

“I was so frustrated,” commented Nixon. “I’d essentially given up my lead.”

She put the hammer down again, paddling around a couple of reefs and away from Le Roux. But she knew the men were chasing her down…

Straight Forward Finish

All at once the way forward became clear – there was the river mouth and the port, further up the coast. The runs were getting messier, her speed was dropping. The lead escort boat caught up and Nixon knew the men couldn’t be far behind.

Kicking herself for hesitating and slowing down earlier, she put her head down and ground it out for the finish. As the sea flattened out in the mouth of the river, she kept checking her GPS to make sure she wasn’t being hampered by the current.

And now she could see the finish arch and hear the commentary; she glanced back to see who was behind – but she could see neither the other women, nor the yellow shirts of the men.

Women port

Straight forward finish for Nixon, nearly 200m ahead of Le Roux and Vergés

A drone flew low overhead and she accelerated for the last time, paddling hard for the last kilometer. She heard the commentator: “Hayley must beat the men by 33 seconds across the line to take the bonus…”

Finally, through the finish arch – and then the seemingly endless wait… only to have the men’s winner, Aussie Tom Norton, take the bonus by less than one second!

“Hats off to Tom!” said Nixon. But if only…!

“It was fabulous to race against such a strong women’s field,” she added. “Angie (so strong!), Georgia, Judit, Nikki who is paddling so well and Chloë who had a good race in spite of being unwell. It was a really deep and pedigreed bunch.

“And thanks once again to Nelo for dangling the line-honors prize and for giving equal prize money to the women. Great to see and we’re getting closer and closer in the gender equality battle!”

The current ICF Ocean Racing World Champion has had a busy 2019:

  • Atlantic Ocean Surfski, Lanzerote: Winner
  • Freedom Paddle, Cape Town: Winner (doubles)
  • South African single ski Championships, Cape Town: Winner
  • Molokai Challenge, Hawaii: Third place
  • Mauritius Ocean Classic: Winner

"It's home now to rest and prepare for World Champs", she said.

women winners


Men’s Race

Fresh from his second place at the Mauritius Ocean Classic where he’d finished less than a boat length behind the winner, Gordan Harbrecht was fired up. As the starting gun went, he sprinted out, dropping everyone except Tom Norton who diced head to head with him to the mark, where they turned downwind some 30m in front of the rest of the field.

“I was expecting Sean Rice to lead the way,” said Norton, “But it was Gordan Harbrecht who took the lead early on.

“So I headed across and sat on his wash until the buoy.”

Mens start

Shown the way

Defending champion Sean Rice lead the chase pack and on turning, immediately headed left, taking a wider line than the leaders in an ultimately vain effort to find better current and wind.

By the 5km mark, Rice was some 700m further out to sea, but the gamble just didn’t pay off.

“For that poor judgement call,” he said, “I was shown the way to the finish line by the very strong Tom Norton and Flash Gordan.”

At the 10km mark, Rice had moved back inshore, but was still some 400m out and 100m back on the two leaders who were still going flat-out, head to head.

men tracks

Sean Rice's track (yellow) compared to Norton/Harbrecht (blue)

Dice at the front

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Norton. “I had a little race with Gordan and that probably helped us stay ahead of Sean.

“I decided that I didn’t want to be in a sprint finish with Gordan,” he continued. “He’s a big dude and he looks powerful!

“With about 3km to go, I had a crack and opened up a little bit of a gap,” he said. “And it was just enough to hold on.”

men finish

15km in, and Norton had moved ahead of Harbrecht. Rice had found his way back onto the leaders’ line, and had made up some ground. But it wasn’t enough and in the end Norton swept across the finish line some 20 seconds ahead of Harbrecht, with Rice a minute further behind.

“Tom was really strong and earned the win,” said Harbrecht. “I’m very happy to be in the pack of big names again. More will come!”

It was Tom Norton’s first international race back in the surfski, after having spent a season in K1 racing at home in Australia. From Portugal, he heads to Canada and then the Gorge Downwind Championships before returning to Australia to prepare for the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in France in 3 months’ time.

Post Race Interview



A massive shout out to Jon White, a British Royal Marines veteran who lost both legs and one arm in an IED explosion while on active duty in Afghanistan.

Using a prosthetic arm and prosthetic legs, he crossed the line in a highly creditable 2:09:56.

His fascinating TED Talk on his journey to recovery and beyond is here:

Summary Results

Click here to download the full results.

To review the race tracking click here.


  1. Hayley Nixon (RSA) 1:34:49
  2. Angie Le Roux (FRA) 1:36:14
  3. Judit Verges (ESP) 1:36:42
  4. Bonnie Hancock (AUS) 1:38:27
  5. Nicole Birkett (RSA) 1:38:31
  6. Chloë Bunnett (ESP) 1:39:20
  7. Georgia Laird (AUS) 1:40:48
  8. Rebecca Newson (GBR) 1:42:08
  9. Caurant Lea (FRA) 01:42:37
  10. Laury Marie-Sainte (FRA) 01:43:22


  1. Tom Norton (AUS) 1:23:01
  2. Gordan Harbrecht (GER) 1:23:20
  3. Sean Rice (RSA) 1:24:02
  4. Andrew Birkett (RSA) 1:25:07
  5. Mackenzie Hynard (AUS) 1:25:56
  6. Valentin Henot (FRA) 1:26:09
  7. Nicolas Lambert (FRA) 1:26:10
  8. Walter Bouzan (ESP) 1:26:48
  9. Esteban Medina (ESP) 1:27:09
  10. Hector Henot (FRA) 1:27:50

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