Ray Fusco put his faith in having good weather for this year’s New York City Mayor’s Cup Kayak Championships. And after a weather-related cancellation in 2008 and treacherous conditions last year, Fusco, organizer of the unpredictable, Manhattan-rounding marathon, was finally rewarded on Saturday.

Surfski and outrigger canoe competitors from more than 20 countries converging on Manhattan Island for the 28-mile circumnavigation were greeted by near-perfect conditions – partly cloudy skies, 82 degrees and an easterly wind of just 11 mph, a far cry from the ominous, near-black sky, northerly gale, and 4-degree chill that participants contended with in October 2009.

This year, the paddlers’ efforts were worthy of the 80-plus-year heritage of the event, which began as an intra-city contest between New York’s canoe clubs. In the blue-ribbon event, the elite surfski race, 21-year-old South African Sean Rice repeated his victory of a year ago. While the conditions were nowhere near as fearsome this year, Rice overcame stiff competition from Caine Eckstein, Greg Barton, Philippe Boccara and compatriot Dawid Mocke, who had beaten Rice in all of their previous battles.

“My win here last year was a breakthrough because it was my first international victory, so this will always be a special course for me,” Rice said. “I focused a year’s worth of training on this year’s Mayor’s Cup, so for that hard work to pay off again is very rewarding.”

This top group left their fellow racers behind just a couple miles into the race. The six remained locked together for 90 percent of the course, with the lead changing hands numerous times but nobody able to make a decisive break.

“We typically get several guys in the top 10 of the world rankings, but to have the top three plus a host of other world-class competitors made this year really special,” said Fusco, describing how evenly matched the top paddlers were. “Add that to the perfect weather and it was inevitable that we’d get the classic surfski race this turned out to be.”

Eckstein was the first to go for broke as the leaders came in sight of the 59th Street Bridge. But as Bocarra, Barton and Mocke failed to chase him down, Rice was left to reel in the 24-year-old Australian.

Using the hard-won race experience he gained last year, when he beat countryman Bevan Manson and Italian sprint specialist Jaka Jazbec to top the podium, Rice upped his stroke rate and opted to use the curve of the East River to his advantage. This proved decisive, as he pulled Eckstein back and was up by more than 200 meters as the racers went under the Williamsburg Bridge.

“Sean won this race at the Williamsburg Bridge because he knew from last year’s win exactly what line to take,” Fusco said. “By winning back-to-back titles, Sean showed that he’s a master tactician as well as a great athlete, and I can see him winning many more Mayor’s Cup championships.”

Rice finished in 3 hours, 17 minutes, 8 seconds, almost two and a half minutes ahead of Eckstein (3:19:36), over 10 ahead of the third-placed Mocke (3:27:46), and a mere 3 away from the course record set by fellow South African Herman Chalupsky when he narrowly beat Barton in 2007′s epic finish.

“At this high level of surfski competition there’s very little separating the top guys, so strategy is all-important,” Rice said. “Spending hours talking about the course with Joe Glickman and others really helped prepare me, and I’m hoping to carry this momentum into the U.S. Surfski Championships and the rest of this season.” - Phil White