The cream of New Zealand kayaking will have an early showdown in this weekend’s Eastern Region surf lifesaving championships in Mount Maunganui.
Among the 80 starters in a stacked open men’s ski field is a who’s who of past and present paddling talent, including Olympians Darryl Fitzgerald (Waikanae) and Steven Ferguson (Piha) and national kayaking representatives Marty McDowell (Titahi Bay), Jarrod Fitzgerald (Waikanae), Scott Bicknell (Ocean Beach Kiwi), Zac Franich (Orewa) and Jamie Banhidi (South Brighton).
McDowell is also the defending New Zealand ski race champion, with three-time winner Travis Mitchell (Mairangi Bay) also present, while rising stars Jack Wilson (Orewa) and Mount Maunganui local Sam Shergold further expand the depth.
The annual surf lifesaving showpiece, boasting more than 1000 athletes from 40 clubs, is at the perfect time for the top kayakers, who have their own national championship on Lake Karapiro in early February.
It’s a similar story in the women’s ski ranks, with Olympian and world champion Teneale Hatton (Piha) headlining an equally strong field, featuring top kayakers Rebecca Cole (Fitzroy), Rachael Dodwell (Mairangi Bay) and Red Beach’s Caitlin Ryan, and leading marathon surf ski star Rachel Clarke (Red Beach).
There’s Olympic swimming talent present too, with New Zealand surf lifesaving team captain Andy McMillan (St Clair) making a return to the beach for the first time since helping his country retain their world championship title in France in September.
Hatton’s Piha teammate Kirsty Wannan, meanwhile, will be a leading contender in the ironwoman, after winning her last start in Mount Maunganui, December’s Mount Monster endurance race.
New Zealand’s top surf boat crews will also be present, using the carnival to warm up for the upcoming trans-Tasman test series in Waihi Beach on February 7.
National men’s champions Piha – Ben Scott, Paul Gerritsen, Ben Richards, Jean Paul Smit and sweep Mark Bourneville – have been selected to row against the top Australian crew, while the women’s representatives will be Red Beach’s Ashleigh Jenkins, Madison Smith, Zita Talaic-Burgess, Kelly Andrews and sweep Shane O’Halloran.
Olympic rowing gold medalist Joseph Sullivan has also shifted boats this season and is now rowing for the Muriwai surf boat crew.
The Eastern Region championships are the second-largest on the surf lifesaving calendar, behind only the national championships, and have been running annually on Auckland Anniversary weekend since 1963.
After two years in Whangamata, the championships return to Mount Maunganui this year, where they’ve been held most years since the 1980s.
It may play into the hands of the host club, who won the overall points tally last year by 49 points from Red Beach and Papamoa.
This weekend’s championships will also feature a fleet of drones, which will provide live coverage of the on-water action back to the beach. There’s also a central hub with a mini surf lifesaving expo, while the top sprinting talent have a late-afternoon slot on the Saturday to showcase their speed to the general public.
Event director Scott Bicknell said the initiatives were designed to bolster the athlete enjoyment, while also making the action more relevant to the public.
“The championships have been running for 52 years and have so much history and meaning in the surf lifesaving fraternity,” Bicknell said. “It doesn’t mean they can’t move with the times, however. What we’re trying to do is create a memorable event for athletes, as well as help the public comprehend why surf sports are so vital to the wider surf lifesaving movement.”
The championships start at 8am on Saturday and finish on Sunday afternoon, with the club-based Super 9 carnival to follow at the same venue on Monday.
The Super 9 pits New Zealand’s best clubs against each other in an invitation-only event, to see who has the best athletes throughout a range of agegroups and disciplines.