South African based Dream Team Rider Cameron Tripney has tested the limits of mind and body by completing the 2023 Freedom Paddle challenge to Robben Island and back. 410 paddlers on a multitude of paddle craft (all human paddle powered craft) set off from the Oceana Power Boat Club in Cape Town to paddle 22km through extremely challenging open ocean conditions, to Robben Island — one of the most iconic islands in the world and South Africa’s symbol of freedom.
Freedom is a status we take for granted in so many instances. The annual Freedom Paddle race represents a drop in the ocean of what freedom means in South Africa.
Freedom Day, the 27th of April, is a uniquely South African public holiday and a reminder of many who went before us, dedicating their entire lives to giving their nation the freedom they had never experienced.
The people of South Africa choose to celebrate this day in various ways, and so every year paddlers of all craft types chose to celebrate it close to the heart of the holiday – Robben Island, where many had suffered for the freedom of others.
The 27th of April dawned and the expected extreme conditions initially seemed to have held back from baring its teeth. The prediction on the day was to be wind gusts of up to 45 km an hour from the North and with sea swells of 3-4 metres. Cam recounts this challenging but extremely rewarding paddle around Robben Island;
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“I arrived at 06h45am and could feel the pensive mood amongst the paddlers. This race given its extreme distance was originally a surf ski race only but in the last few years, as some of our SUP paddlers improve and want greater challenges, like myself, we managed to get the SUPs involved and even had a fun short 10Km race added. As it would transpire, a few of our more seasoned paddlers dropped down to do the fun 10km race but still never managed to finish either as the side swell and 90 degrees winds played havoc with the field, as with us later on in the main event.
By 08h45 the Island mystically appeared and there seemed to be a smidgen of a lull in the white caps. We were all fooled into a situation where we thought ‘Happy Days’, let’s go.
The race director made the call to start, and at 9 am the gun’s boom signalled the start of the race.
As we rounded the harbour wall the wind and swell hit, it was a real battle to stay upright and it was even a battle to stabilise. I had made a decision to pull hard from the start and trusted in what was predicted to be a decent downwind coming home, after rounding the island. That was not the case.
About 3 km in I had managed to pull about a 300m gap on my biggest rival and was well aware of our SA downwind Champion Thomas King, a legendary paddler who can find bumps everywhere being right there. Tom had taken a very wide line heading South of the Island whereas I chose a more direct line.
About 2kms from the island, we hit an intense wind and rain squall. The pelting rain stung my face and all of sudden I could not see the Island, nor the mainland behind me from where I had come — but more alarmingly, nor the safety boat. It felt like one of those dark underwater hold-downs, at this moment I felt rather exposed. I managed to keep orientation pretty good, listened and kept to the line my dad and I had discussed as I paddled even harder. I had to keep going. Roughly fifteen minutes later gaps appeared through the clouds and I was able to see the Island and my landmark just to the right of the lighthouse.
I reached the turning point just off the Island and was so damn pleased and all of a sudden feel the wind on my back. Sadly the wind at that stage of course had started to drop, and not from what I had just hoped was wind shadow effect on the lee side of the island, also, the swell was even more out of the South so would not get much help there either.
Once I rounded the island, the massive, Cape Town Stadium – built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup – came into view and is what I had sent my aim on.
At about 3 km out, and starting to fall a few times, my left leg started to cramp up for the first time, while the lateral muscles in my back started to take strain. I stopped for some extra hydration, and an energy bar for cramps and decided I was going to up the tempo and keep my technique strong and muscle memory hopefully intact to bring me home. I shudder to think what could have happened if I had cramped on the way out to the Island. Some of the prone paddlers had become hypothermic – and had I not chosen to wear a 1mm neoprene wet suit top.
I crossed the line after 22 km of half upwind and half sort of downwind conditions, a crazy mixed day of conditions for sure. Met a few friendly penguins along the way, said hello to my buddies the dolphins and had a strong paddle. I found a new gear that I thought I did not have in the paddle out to the Island.
My winning time was just over 3 hrs at 3h13 with the best two lads coming in over an hr later at 4h28 and 4h32 respectively, still a great effort by them in really tough conditions. That is one for the record books and I was super stoked and proud to have won.
I did not realise how much effort I had to put in such a long upwind scenario to ensure the victory and it would not have been possible without holding on to and standing on the best equipment the world of SUP has to offer. Starboard, thank you!”
Cam paddled the 14 x 23 All Star with the Lima Prepreg Carbon Large blade on S40 shaft.