“Yoh, my hands are so sore,” 28-year-old Sandile Menjenjalo complained.
Competing in the gruelling PE2EL challenge for the first time, the super fit Nahoon lifeguard, however, said not even the blisters would stop him from paddling his way into the record books. At the time of speaking, Menjenjalo was halfway into the race, with 125km more to go.
“I want to make it to the finish of this race so bad. If I get there, I will become the first black guy to do it.”
Despite growing up 50km from the beach in Potsdam and learning to swim in Buffalo River, Menjenjalo said he always wanted to be a lifeguard and even dropped out of school to realise his dream.
“My parents always said keep at school but when my mother died, I decided to become a lifeguard instead.”
When he started out lifesaving, Menjenjalo said some superstitious people where he grew up, warned him as a Xhosa not to enter the sea, while others said they were scared he would drown.
“I just say I believe in God, He knows everything and is guiding me.”
Passionate about the sea, Menjenjalo, who has been paddling for more than 10 years, said he was more worried about the blisters on his hands during the race than the big sharks competitors sometimes see along the rugged coastline.
“I’ve seen lots of sharks, I used to get scared but not anymore,” he explained.
Although the bi-annual race started out as a one-off challenge between two renowned East London endurance athletes, ultra distance runner John Ball and paddler John Woods in 1972, it has since become a must-do for hardcore paddlers.
According to race director Richard Tebutt, 91 people entered this year’s race.
“It has achieved legendary status among surfski paddlers and for many it is a bucket list event. It is one of the most gruelling races on the world stage and the status of the race attracts many paddlers.”
Although the saying “every finisher is a winner,” may be clichéd in many instances, Tebutt said in the PE2EL challenge, “making it over the finish line really is a huge achievement”.
Besides the obvious perils of sharks and whales, racers also have to contend with unpredictable sea swells, currents and all sorts of weather conditions – including searing heat that can quickly dehydrate an athlete.
The huge swells at the first overnight stop at Woody Cape are the stuff of nightmares for the paddlers and many have come unstuck negotiating their way to the beach or leaving the next morning.
“Safety is paramount,” Tebutt said, adding that every entrant’s movements on the water are monitored via mobile phones using the National Sea Rescue safetrax app.
Paddlers are also followed by NSRI teams “every step of the way” and paramedics are on hand to step in and help.
While most landlubbers will shudder at the thought of eyeballing a shark far out at sea on a narrow piece of fibreglass, Tebutt said it is all part of the fun.
“You always see a shark fin or two out on the water but they do not seem to hassle people much.”
According to Tebutt, during one of the challenges he did, an Australian paddler got so rattled by a “big” great white circling him that he fired off distress flares calling for help.
“There was no space on the [rescue] boat for the ski, so he left it behind,” he chuckled. “A race like this connects you with your spiritual being. The beauty of the coastline is something to behold, especially from the ocean.”
He said another attraction of the race was the camaraderie among the paddlers and their seconds as they explored the coastline.
Race legend John Woods, who lost the inaugural challenge to athlete Ball by 30-odd minutes, said sea safety was non-existent during the first race.
Although a ski boat shadowed him on the first day in 1972, it broke down at Woody Cape and he continued the second day without any sea safety making it all the way to Hamburg in one marathon haul.
“They split the boat coming in at Woody Cape,” he recalled. “The first two days were hard, the east wind blew very hard and it felt like I was going backwards.”
Still paddling in East London whenever he gets the time, the former Springbok lifesaving captain enjoyed the challenge so much he wrote to his bosses and suggested it become a bi-annual paddle race.
The rest is history and the first paddle battle was held later in 1972.
“The essence of the race is still the same.”
Supporting his son, Steve, this year, Woods is hoping his son wins it for the second time in a row.
Woods Junior, 34, has only ever paddled one PE2EL challenge two years ago – which he won.
“There is a lovely culture around the race and it was really special to win it. For the first 50km it is bliss and then you have to dig deep,” he admitted.
The paddlers head out each day soon after first light and spend up to eight hours paddling depending on conditions. There are no cut off times to finish each day and paddlers usually camp at sites along the coast which their seconds have prepared for them. At most stops they just paddle up on to the beach which can make for spectacular wipeouts.
Amazing moments on the water included paddling with hundreds of dolphins while the support paddlers are given from the small communities they stop at along the way is something to look forward to when they make land.
Champion woman racer Bianca Beavitt, 26, said she has been hooked on the event ever since she entered her first challenge in 2008 when she was just 18.
She has won every challenge since then and is hoping to make it five in a row this year.
“I have been bumped by a shark before during the race and the one time I thought a sleeping whale was a rock.
“I was thinking it was a good place to have lunch when it let out air. I screamed so loud I think my parents heard me from the land.”
Beavitt’s father, Chris, said the family looked forward to making the road trip up the coast from Cape Town every two years to act as back-up support for his daughter.
“Being a second is hard work as you have to ensure everything runs smoothly. There is a really great vibe.”
Race veteran Ralph Teuling, who is hoping to complete race No15 this year, said he “must be stupid” to keep coming back.
“This is definitely it,” he explained, before adding, “but I have said that before and here I am.” — firstname.lastname@example.org