KwaZulu-Natal’s sunny Durban is a surfski paradise famous worldwide for its golden beaches, big waves and exhilarating downwind racing conditions. The city is home to some of the world’s greatest surfski paddlers, and hosts the world’s largest surfski series, breaking world records for paddler numbers. It is the number one city in the world to live in if you’re passionate about the sport.
“Durban is the best place in the world to paddle. We have warm water year round and no real winter to speak of. For novice paddlers, the Durban Bay is a sanctuary to kick off learning the sport, and for the hard-core extreme paddler, Durban also provides some of the best downwind surf one can find. It’s this amazing environment that has aided the growth of the sport,” explains Barry Lewin, a Jeep Team-sponsored athlete, who is also one of South Africa’s top surfski paddlers, and organiser for Durban’s Varsity College FNB Marine Surfski Series and the Bay Union Surfski Series.
Describing how it all began, Lewin said the sport first took off in Durban in 2001 when the Winter Surfski Series, run by Billy Harker, hit the scene. Before this, surfski was considered more of a fun hobby than a professional sport.
Says Lewin, “Under Harker’s management, people started taking surfski seriously, with paddler numbers doubling from 100 to 200 in the first year of the series. In 2003, 525 paddlers took part in the series, and saw Durban break the Guinness World Record for the biggest entry for a domestic surfski event.”
Durban-born Lewin is an accomplished river marathon and surfski paddler, with a number of local and international titles to his name. Notable achievements include winning the Liffey Descent in Ireland on his first attempt back in 2007, as well as breaking the 25-year-old K1 record a year later at Australia’s Avon Descent. But it is back home in Durban where his passion and dedication to the development of surfski has really grown the sport in recent years.
Lewin has been instrumental in developing Durban’s young talent, having founded South Africa’s first surfski development programme for underprivileged youth, as well as launching Durban’s first surfski school in 2006. The development programme, now managed by Lewin’s dad, Mark Lewin, has produced a number of the country’s top paddlers, including Sthembiso Mbatha, who represented South Africa at the 2011 Surfski World Cup, and is now a coach at the school.
Says Lewin, “It all started with a small surfski school in Durban to teach people how to paddle in the sea. The joy of sharing my passion for the ocean and sport is extremely rewarding. The school is the perfect way to try out the sport. Coaches include myself as well as some of Durban’s top paddlers, including Wade Krieger and Sthembiso Mbatha. Schools travel from across KwaZulu-Natal to take part in our clinics.”
Lewin’s success with the Surfski School led to him taking over management in 2010 of Durban’s premier summer surfski event – the Varsity College FNB Marine Surfski Series. Under his leadership, the series attracted major sponsorship from Varsity College in 2010, and then from banking giant, FNB in 2015. Since then, the series has grown into the world’s biggest surfski event, attracting record entries every year.
“The Varsity College FNB Marine Surfski Series is special because it is also an event aimed at developing young surfski talent in Durban. Every year, the final race in the 10-part series doubles as the Varsity College FNB South African Schools Surfski Championships. This places Durban on the map globally as the premier hotspot for up-and-coming surfski talent.
Other major surfski events now taking place in Durban include the winter Bay Union Surfski Series (April – May 2016), which is also organised by Lewin; the Durban Downwind from 25 – 26 June 2016, which also doubles as a World Surfski Series event; and the Wall and Back Surfski Series (October – December 2016). Surf’s Up Durban!