Moments before the start of the richest ocean kayak race in history, defending champion Dawid Mocke is trying to replace the missing drain plug of Australian Olympian Ken Wallace’s surf ski with a packet of sports gel. Wallace hopes the makeshift effort keeps the boat from taking on water in the raucous conditions prevailing outside the break wall. Mocke’s ski is facing the wrong way when the gun sounds; he has to spin 180 degrees before giving chase to the mob vanishing under the concrete bridge on their way out to sea. He’s in 136th place and dead last.
I’m in the thick of the chaos, clashing boats and blades with so many competitors that five minutes in, I’m ready to hire a lawyer. The head-high swell rebounds off the wall to our right, causing the deep blue water of the Arabian Gulf to erupt in haystacks. Even so, I’m surprised when a bloke from Down Under tumbles into my lap. He slips off (with only a bit of assistance from my wing blade) and I wobble on with all the confidence of a man driving through Baghdad with a Bush/Cheney sticker on his bumper.
One of a dozen international races in the recently formed World Cup series, the Dubai Shamaal features a virtual Who’s Who of ocean kayakers vying for a $53,000 purse, including $20,000 for the winner—a record in an impoverished sport dominated by beer-swilling South Africans and Australians who travel the world to compete for bragging rights and enough prize money to cover their expenses.
The excess is emblematic of Dubai, a tiny Arab emirate where anything seems possible in the age of $100-a-barrel oil. A decade ago Dubai was little more than a dusty shipping port and air travel hub. Now it is the world’s fastest-growing city, home to the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest amusement park, and the world’s largest indoor ski slope. In one part of town 40 skyscrapers have sprouted up side by side, like a field of well-irrigated corn. The population is growing so fast that now only about 20 percent of the inhabitants are native-born; most of the laborers are from India and Pakistan.
Perhaps no project captures the scope and rabid intensity of the construction boom better than the Palm Jumeirah, the artificial island in the Persian Gulf that we trained beside all week. It’s the site of 30 five-star hotels and home to a growing number of celebrities: American Idol host Simon Crowell’s villa is only a corner kick away from David Beckham’s. The outer edge of the Jumeirah, a crescent-shaped wall that acts as a breakwater, is comprised of more than seven million tons of boulders. Already the largest land reclamation project in the world, the Jemeirah is only the first of three palm-shaped islands that will add 320 miles of beach to the city of Dubai. The last, scheduled for completion sometime around 2015, will be almost as large as the city of Paris.
Underpinning Dubai’s explosive growth is a simple worldview: Build it and they will come. It’s a mentality that extends to sporting events, which in Dubai invariably include the best athletes competing for the most lavish purses: The Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world; The Dubai Desert Classic and the Dubai Tennis Championships, headlined by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, respectively; rugby and cricket extravaganzas; Formula 1, airplane, and powerboat racing; and now the world’s richest kayak race, the brainchild of a pair of South African ex-pats grown rich on the building boom.
Last year’s inaugural race was held in windless, flat conditions. But on this 80-degree afternoon on the last day of November, the famed Shamaal winds have been screaming out of the Iranian desert and across the Gulf for a solid week, pushing the race-day swell to six to eight feet, with wave faces twice that high. Just 20 minutes into the upwind leg, 17 paddlers have retired or been pulled from the course. In the end, roughly 40 boats would fail to finish, including a double ski that split and sank, and another sheared in two by a fishing boat.
The pace up front is intense, each racer straining to reach the first of the three $1,000″hot spots,” just 1,000 meters into the 13-mile course that follows the wall of the Palm Jumeirah.
Meanwhile Mocke, the pre-race favorite who started the race pointed backward, had spun his 19-foot ski and lit out of the cove. He caught a wave rebounding off one of the concrete pillars on the bridge, wending his way through the field in a controlled fury. Far ahead, the leaders scramble to hold formation like a gaggle feuding geese. Because racers ride one another’s wakes to save energy like drafting cyclists, tactics are as important in surf ski racing as they are in the Tour de France. Position is everything; in the heavy chop paddlers jockey for the sweet spot, close enough to ride the wake of the man pulling in front, but not so close that the stern of the boat in front could come smashing down on their bow.
Despite the fevered pace up front, Mocke is able to catch the leaders at the second hot spot, two miles into the race. Former World Marathon champ Hank McGregor, who’d won the first hot spot, surges and pockets another grand. Glued to his stern are Aussies Ken Wallace and Tim Jacobs, and a five-man posse from Durban, including the Chalupsky brothers, Oscar and Herman. Mocke settles into the pack, hoping to save energy for the downwind sprint to the finish.
"Miss a stroke in those conditions and you get dropped and it takes you another 20 strokes to catch up,” Herman Chalupsky would say on the beach afterwards, already into his third beer.”When we rounded the turn buoy my battery lights were flashing low.”
While Herman is flagging, McGregor, arguably the best all-around paddler on the planet, surges again, nailing down the third and final $1,000 prize. To claim the”champagne win”—$23,000 and prestigious bragging rights—all he has to do is hold off Mocke, Jacobs, and the Chalupsky boys.
Easier said than done.
By the time I spot the turn buoy for the first time, I’ve fallen in once and gotten air several times when my ski launched over a frothy wave, but I feel rejuvenated when the lead pack of Mocke, McGregor, and Jacobs, in that order, pass just to my right like fighter pilots in formation. Their faces fixed in concentration, they are within spitting distance of each other, and flying back downwind. With the heavy swell at their backs, their race tactics are different, and even more important. The paddlers are still marking one another, but at this stage the contests hinge on catching and surfing the swells,”bumps” in race terminology, that can temporarily double a racer’s speed. Each man is now looking for the big bump that will propel him to victory.
Roughly five miles from the finish, the three duel side by side toward the bright yellow buoys swaying like flimsy goal posts in the wind. Jacobs misses a few runs and drops back. McGregor and Mocke split the uprights literally side by side.”I was aware of Hank and Tim but focused instead on catching runs,” Mocke said later.”I just told myself to trust my stuff.”
Five hundred meters from the entrance of the marina a fleet of powerboats passes the two tapped-out leaders. Mocke reacts more quickly, swinging wide, and latches onto a wave headed in the right direction. He and opens a 60-meter gap on McGregor, who’s floundering in the chop of the oncoming boat. It was the break Mocke needed. He puts his head down and paddles toward the finish as if chased by a wolf.”I had goose bumps all up and down my arms,” he said of his end sprint.”There was so much lactic acid in my body I could hardly lift my arms.”
McGregor closes the gap to less than 40 meters but fails to catch Mocke. Jacobs surges to take third ahead of Herman Chalupsky, who finishes in fourth with brother Oscar on his wash.
Mocke, a 30-year-old devout Christian from Cape Town, tips his head to the heavens and points skyward as he glides under the finishing banner. Behind him the rays of the setting sun shine through the massive circle in the middle of Sol Kerzner’s Atlantis Hotel, a giant pyramid that sits like a fortress at the top of the Palm like a monument to hubris.