South Africa punches above its weight on the world stage in many different environments: sport, technology, medical and more. Paddling is no exception. Over the past seven decades, many South African paddlers have made their mark outside SA’s borders.

Early pioneers like Dr Ian Player and Prof Willem van Riet may not have competed at the highest level internationally, but their river expeditions and multiple wins of long endurance river races put them right up there with the best of the best from other parts of the world. Even more importantly, both Player and Van Riet made their mark internationally as conservationists.

The next generation of paddlers had more opportunity to travel and compete abroad, enabling kayakers like Tim Biggs and Jerome Truran to take the adventurous spirit of the early pioneers to a different level. They competed at the highest level and also undertook major expeditions, including some serious first descents abroad.

In the 80s and 90s, paddling sports diversified and paddlers began to specialise. While this happened worldwide, South Africa took a slightly different route as a result of its focus on river marathons. Nonetheless, numerous paddlers continued to put SA on the world map.

It is a difficult task to name every South African paddler that made a name for themselves over the seas, but I would like to mention the paddlers who really stand out for me. This is by no means the definite list of top SA paddlers, but rather a list of paddlers that, in my very subjective opinion, have been most successful in establishing a reputation for South Africa on the world stage.

Paddlers like Lee McGregor, who first made his name as swimmer and later as surfski paddler. The Chalupski family, with Oscar being the most well-known outside the borders of our country.

Robbie Herreveld and the late Mark Perrow, two of the most talented all-round paddlers this country has ever seen, and who could have achieved even more with better international exposure.

Martin Dreyer took over the mantle from Graeme-Pope Ellis on the Dusi, but also made a serious name for himself as adventure racer on the world stage.

Hank McGregor, Dawid and Jasper Mocke are all tough as nails and highly competitive in international races. Sprinters Bridgitte Hartley and Chrisjan Coetzee are top contenders in any race they enter.

On the whitewater side, Corran Addison and Steve Fisher are household names all around the world as top competitors and inventors of freestyle moves. The late Hendri Coetzee is considered to be one of the greatest expedition paddlers in history. Others who made a name for themselves as competitors and also expedition paddlers are Andrew Kellett, Shane Raw, Ross O’Donoghue and the late Graeme Anderson. As whitewater guides and safety experts, few can hold a candle to Stan Ricketts, Jakes Saaiman and Jane Dicey.

South African born Mike Horn, highly acclaimed adventurer who resides in Switzerland, is not a paddler, but he is highly revered in the riverboarding/hydrospeeding community for his solo descent of the Amazon River and early waterfall records.

What is maybe less well-known is the impact that South African manufacturers are having across the globe. A number of manufacturers successfully export their products and hold a reputation for producing top-quality craft and great designs.

Fenn Kayaks in East London has been exporting surfskis for two decades, and their crafts are well regarded in many parts of the world. Carbonology Sport in Porth Elizabeth is a younger company but no less successful with their surfski exports. Then, of course, there is Epic Kayaks, a USA company with strong South African roots, which is considered by many to be the world’s premier surfski brand. 

On the fishing ski side, Stealth Kayaks in Durban has a solid reputation in Australia and they are making in-roads in the USA and Europe. Racing kayak manufacturers have taken a hit in recent years with the local river-racing market contracting, but Knysna Racing Kayaks are exporting their quality craft with great success.

Mocke Paddling Gear and Orka Paddles, both based in Cape Town, are flying the SA flag with their innovative and high-quality gear. My own new brand of paddles and other paddling-related gear, under the brand CEKR Gear, is not yet officially launched and I already have a demand from international distributors.

South African-born Corran Addison, who is based in Canada, has been at the forefront of whitewater and SUP development for three decades already. His latest venture, Soul Watercraft, is already taking the North American whitewater market by storm.

Finally, I have to blow my own trumpet a little.  My first kayak company, Fluid Kayaks, was quite an established player in the international world of whitewater kayaking, with a reputation for innovation back in the day when I drove R&D.

My new kayak company, Vagabond Kayaks, is only two-years old, and already we are making waves in all the main markets overseas, with my latest designs considered to be the most innovative recreational kayaks on the market. My reputation for making quality craft has also resulted in a number of international kayaking brands moving production of their kayaks to our factory.

This article is not so much about bragging about our collective efforts, as paddlers and manufacturers, as it is about highlighting the fascinating fact that our impact on the international paddling world is entirely disproportionate to the number of paddlers in this country.

There are only a few thousand river racing and surfski paddlers in the country, and just a few hundred whitewater kayakers. Comparing the number of active paddlers in this country to that of most countries in Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, and many others, South Africa should be a non-entity in the international world of paddling. Yet our paddlers and manufacturers command respect in all corners of the world.

Why is that? How can such a small pool produce such a big impact? Is it the result of the years of isolation that forced us to think outside the box as it did in many other fields? Is it the result of a general ‘can do’ mentality, or a ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’ attitude?

I do not know what the answer is, but I think that South African paddlers in general do not realise how unique our situation is, and how fortunate we are to have access to this wealth of knowledge and expertise as well as world-class kayaks and gear right on our doorstep. Our legacy on the world stage is highly improbable, yet undisputable.