You can't fake it in a race. Your preparation, ability and technique will sort you out in a hurry.
Unlike many other endurance based sports, arguably the most critical aspect for surfski racing is technique.
Former top level cyclist Tyler Hamilton's introduction to competition showcases how unique this phenomenon is. A very green sixteen-year-old Hamilton showed up to his local powerhouse cycling club time trial sporting a heavy, outdated entry level road bike. The other club members on their fully aero $4000+ bikes nary gave the young Hamilton the time of day. When the smoke had cleared the kid on the Wal-Mart bike had decimated the field of veterans from all categories including the top level locals. Performances such as his are made possible by an almost preternatural genetically influenced VO2 max and lactate threshold (and later---EPO and Blood Doping).
Luckily for us, surfski performance relies on far more than superhuman genetics. Muscular strength, stability, tactics, surfing, mental strength, seamanship and technique all must factor to achieve your best results. The downside is that there is a good deal to learn and master. The upside is that it's unlikely a 16 year old kid on a fishing kayak will leave you in the vapors two weeks into paddling.
Although the ski is growing by leaps and bounds in popularity, it's still more or less niche, making top level training difficult to come by. Mostly left to our own devices, we often try to figure things out by trial and error. We've all done it---watched videos trying to self-teach technique, read tutorials, or advice on forums; but at the end of the day, there's a good chance that without a trained eye watching we're adopting bad technique that may eventually become habituated and thereby difficult to eventually undo.
The truth is, even the best paddlers can have blind spots and benefit from good coaching.
If you spend good money on a ski, carbon paddle and choose to occasionally line up for a race, leaving out the coaching element just doesn't make sense, especially when considering the rather low cost versus high return and in some cases, avoidance of injury.
So when I found out last year that top paddler Sean Rice would be offering workshops in my region of the world, I knew straight away that I would be well advised to attend.
The workshop was broken down into two parts: technical for the first half and surf style for the second.
The technique component provided a wealth of information, which followed a more ski-centric source instead of copy and pasting from K1. Set-up, posture, stability, drills and methods were among the topics covered during the first session. Needless to say, I made some immediate changes that day that have continued to be refined in the present.
Much to the incredulous amazement of paddlers from other parts of the world, races in the states often center more on flat water than those in South Africa and down under. Beach starts and big downwind runs are often the exception, not the rule here. So the second half surf session was a great opportunity to pick up some valuable lessons on this facet of my game. I'm ashamed to admit how little I knew about this. I not only learned a great deal that day, but by realizing how much I didn't know, I now see this as a much more important area on which to focus. As such, I've come to view surfing a bit like the bass guitar, it seems easy at first and it's pretty much the instrument you put your sister on in your first garage band, but if you want to really get proficient, you could spend a lifetime honing your craft and always feel that there is something else to learn.
We came solely focused on the workshop, but were pleasantly surprised to find Sean and fiance Emily McGrath to be infinitely approachable, welcoming, and enthusiastic. They bring a true love of what they do and it is immediately infectious. The idea of "Paddle Life" goes beyond just teaching others technique, but instead is a model for Sean and Emily to help grow the sport and share their love of the water.
The nature of these workshops provides a very clear template to follow and allows for detailed questions that assist with uploading the information. According to Sean, the difference between top level elite paddlers and the rest of the field is in the .05 % percent adjustments. These workshops are a great way to begin honing in on these adjustments. He's also offering online training, which could be used as a follow up to the workshops for around $50 per month.
After the workshop, we set off to begin implementing lessons learned and with the new 2016 Paddle Life tour recently announced, we look forward to again taking part as a way to check back in and follow up with further questions. A wise person once said: "we only learn what we are ready to learn at any given time". I learned a lot last year, but I'd like to think I'm "ready" to learn more now and look forward to building on last year's lessons.
Check in with www.yourpaddlelife.com to find out when Sean will be in your area and sign up to learn from one of the world’s best paddlers!