Extract from Sports the Olympics Forgot
Hobart on the island of Tasmania is home to the greatest paddling sports event in the world. Kayakers, canoeists, and rowers from all over the world descend on Hobart in the last week of January to celebrate the sea and all those who seek to skim across its surface as quickly as possible.
This is no ordinary regatta though as the contestants are not allowed to use oars or paddles. Instead they can use only those implements found in other sports such as table tennis bats, pelota baskets, cricket bats, or wicket-keeping gloves. Competitors propel their canoes, kayaks, and boards across various stretches of open water using these implements and nothing else.
The event started when a cricket team set off on a paddling holiday in the Whit Sunday islands and brought along their cricket bats for a few games of beach cricket. When it came to starting a fire an argument started about the best kindling wood to use and the paddles of the canoes were found to be better than cricket bats for starting a good fire. After a week the team only had cricket bats left and had to paddle back home using these and the wicketkeeper’s gloves. This proved to be difficult and yet fun, so the team challenged other cricket teams, firstly in Queensland and then in the whole of Australia, to beat them in a race using cricket bats.
Soon the local table tennis team became involved although they had to race other ping pong teams over shorter distances due to the great stamina required when using a table tennis bat to propel a kayak.
An international element was added when a boyfriend, Joaquin Torres, of one of the lady cricketers tried to use his pelota basket to propel a surfboard and found it to be quite difficult. He resolved to get a team together from his native Basque Country and challenge all comers to a race. Torres had recently taken part in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and remembered that the Tasmanian city is located on the Derwent River and has a protected deepwater harbour that is perfect for racing.
Torres proposed that a series of races should take place in the week after the ocean-going yacht race had finished around Hobart and that these races should commence in January 1972. In this year all the races were over 1 mile and initially comprised only teams of four propelling canoes and kayaks with cricket bats and surfboards with table tennis bats. Some additional distances were added in 1973 both for the sprinters (1000 yards) and for the endurance athletes (2 miles).
In 1974 wicket-keeping glove canoeing over 1 mile was added as a guest event and pelota canoe paddling over 1000 yards too. Two years later baseball mitt canoeing was added as well as kayaking over two miles using table tennis bats, which is even now regarded as the hardest event. In the 1980s single and doubles versions of all the events were gradually increased in number.
Today there are over 80 different events for teams and individuals to enter and these races take place over 10 days in the summer. Some events such as baseball kayaking, Frisbee canoeing, and soccer ball surfboarding have been tried but were either too difficult or never caught on with enough people to be a success.
The most successful team has been Joaquin Torres’ own Bilbao Pelota team who won the 1-mile Pelota canoe race for 21 straight years between 1976 and 1996. Their record time was 32 minutes exactly in 1987. The Cairns cricket team has won over 60 events at various Hobart regattas during its history making them the most successful club.
The final event of the regatta is the Blue Riband event – the two mile individual kayak race using a table tennis bat. Jim Erikson has won this race 4 times, the last occasion was in 2009 when he recorded the quickest ever time of 2 hours 23 minutes and 12 seconds. After this race Erikson swore he would never race again as it was too difficult – “I changed from the pen hold grip to the Chinese grip this year, at least at first, but I caught the bat on something and lost control of it, so I had to dive in and find it again. By this time I was well behind the other 72 competitors, so I reverted to the pen hold grip and made my way through the field, though by the end the webbing on my hand was split and my fingers were sore.”