Top photograph courtesy of Dusi Canoe Marathon
This February, while most of us were shivering and wishing for warm weather, one Charleston man was in the warm summer heat of the Southern Hemisphere, in South Africa, attempting one of the most difficult, grueling, and storied whitewater river races of all time, the Dusi Canoe Marathon...on a stand-up paddle board.
Justin Schaay is South African by birth but has been living in Charleston since the late 90s, with a few stops around the United States along the way. Born in Cape Town, South Africa under apartheid and schooled in Durban, Justin grew up on the ocean surfing, sailing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding. Watersports on the rugged Atlantic and Indian Ocean shores of South Africa were a way of life for young Schaay. At age 30, Justin even crewed a trans-Atlantic trip from Cape Town to Tortola on a 46-foot sailboat with two filmmakers.
When a young American volunteer named Janneke came to visit Cape Town in the early 90s, just as Mandela was coming to office and apartheid was ending, Justin, who had been raised by more liberal parents, began dating the Chicago native. Two years later, the couple moved across the globe to Charleston, South Carolina to be near Janneke’s parents, and were soon married. New to the Americas and full of wanderlust, Justin and his bride roamed the United States from coast to coast, landing in Boulder, Colorado for a two year stint. While in Boulder, landlocked in the mountains (and around snow for the first time in his life!), Justin became a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) instructor. His love for epic, extended adventure trips was further developed during his time with NOLS, where he ventured out on a 32-day kayaking expedition through British Columbia and a similar journey in Baja, Mexico.
By the end of 1999, Justin and Janneke moved back to Charleston and started Tidal Trails, an outdoor guiding business and surf school on Kiawah Island. They offer guided nature tours using kayaks, SUPs, and a comfortable boat for those wanting a more leisurely tour. Justin brought his broad experience in every area of water adventure to the Lowcountry, teaching water sports and taking residents and tourists on water adventures, allowing them to access portions of our waterways they would never normally experience alone.
Around the mid-2000s, a new trend (yet ancient form) in water transport, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), came on the scene in the US. Justin, who was used to surfing and navigating the wild and windy water conditions of South Africa, found paddle boarding a bit, well, boring at first. However, the experienced surfer soon realized paddle boarding, which uses a paddle to propel a longboard through water, was a great way to grind some fun out of the smaller, mushier waves of South Carolina’s coast. Paddle boards were added to Tidal Trails’ lineup by 2007, just as the SUP scene in Charleston began to boom and others around the region were catching on to the new sport. Justin, along with other adventure athletes around Charleston, began racing paddle boards as a way to push themselves athletically and to have fun with other water people.
Ever the adventurer, the South African waterman’s love of the long, challenging, multiple-day quests drew him to pursue longer and longer races. Over the past few years, Justin has amassed an impressive resumé of long distance paddles. Here are just a few:
* The Water Tribe NCC Ultra Marathon, a 90-mile race near the Outer Banks
* An 81-mile overnight paddle down the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers in Chattanooga, TN, along with Jeremy Whitted of Charleston, SC and Ben Friberg, Kim Sutton, and Randy Whorton of Chattanooga, TN
* The ChattaJack River Race in Chattanooga, TN, a 32-mile race through the Tennessee River Gorge
* The Cold Stroke Classic in Wilmington, NC, where Justin Placed fourth overall, in front of dozens of elite athletes from around the East Coast
* Most notably, the Water Tribe Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile race from Tampa, FL to Key Largo. This unsupported race (which means you pack or forage for your own food, water, and shelter) runs along the Florida shoreline down the Gulf of Mexico. Most racers have eight days to complete the expedition and compete in ocean kayaks and small sailboats, but Justin completed the marathon on, yes, a stand-up paddle board. He was only the second person ever to complete this on a SUP and currently holds the record of 4 days 20hrs and 41mins.
The historic Dusi Canoe Marathon, which began in 1951, draws almost 2,000 racers annually, mostly South Africans. This marathon is the most renowned canoe river race in the world. The three-day course begins inland, in the town of Pietermaritzburg, winding through dams, rapids, and gorges, ultimately finishing at the Indian Ocean in Durban. Along the way, lest you think the race is just a cruise down the river, there are dangerous whitewater rapids and challenging “portages,” or sections where you must exit the water and carry your vessel up and down hills, through thornbushes, and along rocky stretches of road in the summer heat (yes, it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere in February). Young Zulu children run along the riverbed, swimming naked in the river and cheering the racers along, while Zulu men and women living in “rondavels,” the distinct round Zulu huts, line the riverbanks to watch the excitement. The views are breathtaking.
As a boy living in Durban, Justin would go to watch the legendary 75-mile race. A small number of internationals have competed over the years, but transporting a suitable racing vessel to South Africa, a vessel that can handle the sort of beating it will receive from the rocky rapids and the precarious portages, is expensive and unwieldy. This predicament has thus far kept the race restricted to mostly regional African racers. But last year, four racers were allowed to try the Dusi Marathon on paddle boards, and this got Justin Schaay’s attention. One of the racers is a South African kayak and paddle-board shaper named Corran Addison. Addison had completed and won the Dusi Marathon on a 17-foot paddle board in 2014, tailed by three other SUP racers, and this was enough to entice American pro paddleboarder and Boardworks-sponsored Slater Trout to give the Dusi a try on an SUP. Justin, who is a BIC Sport ambassador, approached BIC with the idea of trying the race as well. The question was what type of board do you use (this is a brand new category for the race) and how do you get it there? BIC Sport suggested the BIC SUP Air 12-foot-6-inch inflatable board, Men’s Journal Gear of the Year winner. Inflatable, you might ask? How on earth can an inflatable paddle board handle that kind of rigor? Well, inflatable technology has advanced to the level where these water vessels are sturdy, lightweight, and durable. Incidentally, Slater Trout and Boardworks came up with the exact same solution, and Trout raced on a Boardworks 12-foot-6-inch inflatable SUP.
A race of this magnitude is expensive and requires sharp planning. Justin, who is humble and unassuming, prefers to do really cool stuff behind the scenes and is not the sort to go around asking for favors. However, Vapor Apparel of Charleston got behind the endeavor and provided Solar Performance UPF +50 shirts for the race, Werner Paddles supplied a paddle, and BIC Sports provided the inflatable board. He also received a PFD (personal flotation device) from Astral Buoyancy and was extremely happy to have been provided an Adventure Medical Kit to patch up his wounds after a tough first day on the river. Justin sent in his credentials to qualify for the race, got his plane ticket, packed his inflatable board and gear, and met his parents in Cape Town to head to Pietermaritzburg for the 75-mile, three-day river race.
The 2015 Dusi Marathon began on February 19 in the early morning hours. Justin, with his parents there to support him (Janneke was home with the couple’s two young daughters), began his three-day journey. This year, the second year for SUP in the Dusi, there were seven men and two women on paddle boards. Only Schaay and Trout competed on 12-foot-6-inch inflatable SUPs. The other seven competitors raced on much longer 14-foot and 17-foot carbon fiber boards. It was the first time the waterman had ever paddled on whitewater, so there was a bit of a learning curve, but his extensive experience on waves and in rough water conditions softened the blow. “We would paddle for about five–six hours a day, beginning in batches, around 7 am,” he recounts. “It was just so good to be on the water, to see the views every morning.”
Some of the rapids were quite treacherous, with emergency rescue teams on hand. On one smaller rapid, where there were no emergency workers, one competitor in a kayak very sadly lost his life this year when his kayak capsized and he could not release his spray skirt in time. Justin recalls, “The mood changed noticeably after the incident. It was sobering. We all had a moment of silence before the start of the race the next day.” The water of the Dusi River is also notoriously full of sewage and all the bacteria that accompanies polluted water, including E-coli. Ingesting Dusi water gives you the "Dusi Guts," as every Dusi marathoner knows. So this year when Justin gashed his ankle on the first day of the race, he knew he would have to monitor the wound closely. “I blew through my Adventure medical kit in two days.” When the race was over, Schaay had to visit a clinic to receive a round of antibiotics for his oozing, infected ankle.
But despite the hardships, Justin Schaay finished second overall amongst the SUPs, beating out Addison (last year's winner), who placed third. Only pro surfer Slater Trout finished ahead of Schaay. Quite an accomplishment, I would say. While Schaay and the other SUP racers are still figuring out which boards work best for this new category of the Dusi race, the hope is that by using the more portable inflatable SUPs that more international paddle boarders can race in the Dusi Marathon in the future.
So what drives Justin Schaay to attempt these races, these long quests that push him to his physical and mental limits? Justin explains, “It's something I've always been drawn too, long-distance expedition-style adventures. I've always enjoyed racing, but for me it's more about the exploration, finding new places to go and discovering new paths. It may have something to do with growing up in South Africa; there are a number of long distance endurance events throughout the year (Dusi, Comrades, Two Oceans, Cape to Rio ...the list goes on), and sport is huge in SA.” The South African athlete continues, “Add to this the amazing natural beauty of the country and there's a feeling of wildness to SA where you want to get out and explore. Physically, I enjoy the challenge of these long events—they are more about the mental toughness than physical ability. I like to think of it as the 'tortoise and the hare.' I'm not a hare but more of a tortoise. Slow and steady gets you to the end.”