The Durban Paddle Ski Club is situated at the end of Signal Road on the southern part of Vetch’s Beach next to the North Pier. It caters for all paddle ski and kayak fishing enthusiasts, including the old traditional Crocker Skis, as well as for the paddling fraternity. Having the safest launch site on the KwaZulu Natal coastline it offers safe access to the ocean and being ideally situated for novices to the sport.
Joining this club is both simple and inexpensive. Annual fees are set at R450 (+R600 entrance once off) and after the initial outlay for the various safety items required, costs remain minimal. Most of the fishing and paddling activity takes place in the Addington area, although members may operate as far north as the Umgeni Mouth but may not venture out further than one kilometer from the tip of the South Pier for safety reasons. Members may also cross the harbour channel, up to three kilometers from the South Pier to the Cave Rock area. However, members are not allowed to fish inside the harbour channel while crossing. By joining this club, members are also permitted to fish in Durban Harbour, excluding prohibited areas. (A bay licence is issued as part of the annual fee).
After a long drawn-out battle with developers and the municipality, the future of this unique club was finally secured and will most certainly be accommodated in whatever development may take place on The Point in the future. The club is proud to claim that it played a crucial role in preventing Vetch’s Beach and Vetch’s Pier from being destroyed by the proposed small craft harbour development.
HISTORY OF PADDLE SKI FISHING IN DURBAN
Whenever people find themselves on the coast they come across a wide variety of boats that are used by South African anglers. These range from ski boats, bay boats, inflatables, ski-vees, etc. etc. Yet there is a unique little craft, that apart from a handful of people that fish off the Durban beachfront, few people are even aware of its existence… the Durban Paddle Ski.
The original “Crocker Ski” was a peculiar, flat-bottomed banana-shaped contraption, being supported by a meranti beam frame, covered in canvas and coated with an epoxy paint to make it watertight. Later, anglers started making them out of masonite, then marine ply and finally maintenance-free fibreglass. Although “luxuries” such as hatches, rod-holders skegs and transoms were added, the original shape of the craft has hardly changed.
As anglers started to enjoy incredible catches of both game and reef fish, more and more anglers were attracted to this new, exciting and fairly inexpensive mode of fishing. In 1945 an angler called Hayden Grey improved the design of the Crocker Ski and built himself a boat that became the first ski boat to be launched not only in South Africa, but in the world! This 11-foot craft was built out of plywood and was powered by a 5 Hp Bendix outboard motor. Soon after, others such as Ted Holgate, George van Reenen, Ernie Comley Doc Hulett and Joe Mara followed suit, and a totally new form of fishing emerged in Durban. The efforts of these pioneers eventually led to the formation of the Durban Ski Boat Club in 1951.
FORMATION OF THE DURBAN PADDLE SKI CLUB
Over the next few years, the lucrative catches made by these anglers attracted many others to the scene, some designing and constructing their own ski boats, while others persevered with the original Crocker Ski for the sake of affordability and just plain simplicity. For the next two decades, the paddle skiers remained an unorganised lot launching up and down the Natal coast whenever and wherever they pleased and showed total disregard for all safety regulations and lack of respect for any authority. By the late sixties, the numbers had increased substantially and the need to form a club was recognized. This did not happen until 1971 with Tim Driman being hugely influential in this process and elected as the first chairman of the Durban Paddle Ski Club. The fact that this club was, and still remains, the only one of its type in the world, makes all past and present members something of which to be really, really proud. Crocker Skis are not used anywhere else in the world. Since those early days paddle ski angling has gone from strength to strength and until today this club has maintained a membership of around 400.
When visitors and tourists view the Crockers for the first time, they normally give us one long sceptical look, which basically questions our sanity and make remarks such as “surely you guys don’t go out to sea on THAT!” This is where club legislation comes in, and under the authority of The Harbour Master, the club enforces a strict safety code of conduct. Flares, life jackets, 1st aid kits, anchors etc are carried at all times as well as operating a beach safety duty system for all the members, ensuring a 100% safety record throughout this club’s history.
INTRODUCTION OF THE LONG SKIS/KAYAKS
The introduction of the “long skis/kayaks” during the mid 1990s, revolutionized paddle ski angling. The speed these craft can reach enabled anglers to launch and beach their craft through the surf off most beaches and were no more confined to only operating from recognized sheltered launch sites. It also provided access to the open sea without the use of expensive motorized craft. Today hundreds of “long skis” can be seen operating along the entire coast of South Africa, and boating large pelagic fish, such as king mackerel, tuna, wahoo, sailfish and other various types of billfish which until now were only accessible to ski boaters. This industry has shown phenomenal growth attracting dozens of extremely competent manufacturers, who are forever redesigning, improving and producing many exceptional craft.
LAUNCHING AND OPERATING AREA
Club launches take place directly in front of the clubhouse, which is situated next to the northern harbour breakwater (North Pier). These craft may operate between the Cave Rock area off the Bluff beaches (approximately 3 kms from the South Pier), to the Umgeni River, and can venture out one kilometre seawards of the tip of the South Pier.
Although the immediate area around the clubhouse is most certainly over-fished by paddle ski, ski boat and shore anglers, as well as the dreaded and most indiscriminate fishing method of seine netting, it still provides decent fishing to paddle skiers. A five-minute paddle takes one to a fascinating man-made reef known as Vetch’s Pier, which was constructed way back in the 1860s. This structure was intended as the northern breakwater of the then Bay of Port Natal, in the attempt to get rid of the dreaded bar that lay across the entire estuary. After being declared a total failure, it was later dismantled and the rocks were used in the construction of the old North Pier. Today only the foundation rubble of the original Vetch’s Pier remains. It extends at right angle to the beach reaching approximately 400 metres offshore. As far as the fisherman is concerned, it is the home of millions of marine creatures that set off the food chain attracting many predatory species to the area. It is also the largest sub-tidal mussel bed on the entire Natal coast hosting approximately 85 tons of mussels. It is extremely disturbing to think that Durban Metro and its developer allies intended to construct a hotel on top of this sanctuary and extend a pier alongside the reef to form a small craft harbour. Had we allowed this to happen, we have no doubts that the marine life in the entire area, in which we operate, would have most certainly been seriously affected.
Towards the end of Vetch’s Pier, a natural, underwater limestone reef runs parallel to the beach in a northerly direction for several hundred metres. It is here that shoals of shad congregate in the winter and spring months making Limestone Reef the prime target area for all paddle skiers. Numerous species of reef fish such as rockcod, stumpnose, brusher, rock salmon and cave bass are often found hanging around this reef. Surface feeders such as shad, queen mackerel (Natal Snoek), couta, seapike and other gamefish are also caught fairly regularly on Limestone Reef. Deeper out lie small pocket-sized reefs, which are home to numerous rockcod and other bottom-dwelling species.
A further fifteen minute paddle to the north, just behind the backline, lies a shipwreck in barely four metres of water often breaking the surface during a calm low tide. These are the remains of a cargo boat named the Ovington Court, which ran aground during a storm in 1942. It is now known amongst the paddle skiers as The Wreck and it acts as a natural fish magnet. The rest of the seabed in the area and up to the Umgeni River Mouth is covered with sand and many species of foragers are caught here, particularly close to the shark nets.
FISH SPECIES CAUGHT, WEATHER CONDITIONS AND WIPE-OUTS
A wide variety of fish are caught in this area by paddle skiers. In the summer, gamefish such as king mackerel (cuda), queen mackerel (natal snoek), kingfish, queenfish, prodigal son and springer are caught regularly, while in the winter months, shad, garrick and the odd kob provide the thrills. Other fish such as yellow fin tuna, spotted grunter, stumpnose, snapper salmon and rockcod can be caught all year round. Baitfish such as mackerel, “redeyes” and maasbanker are extremely plentiful in the basin during most of the year and most paddle skiers hardly ever need to spend much money on bait. The Umgeni River Mouth (Blue Lagoon) in particular produces queen mackerel throughout the year and garrick during winter and spring months, often making the long paddle (6 km) to this area worth the effort, although this should only be undertaken by reasonably fit paddlers and in calm conditions only.
The weather plays an important part in the life of the paddle skier, as he is probably more vulnerable to the elements than any other angler. The south-westerly buster is his greatest enemy and it is best to avoid launching when the barometer is low, a sure sign that a buster is indeed on the way. The best conditions in the Vetch’s area are usually to be found after the south westerly has blown itself out, as this wind tends to flatten the swell and the surf zone. On weekends, when the clubhouse is open, the predicted weather, tides and sea conditions are displayed on the notice board.
Coming in to beach can sometimes be a little problematic particularly for the much slower Crocker skis and especially during strong north-easterly winds, which tend to increase the swell in the basin and stir up the backline. The trick of the trade here is to shift the weight of the anglers to the stern (Crocker Skis) to prevent the nose “digging in” and to keep the craft pointed towards the beach at all times. Timing the run for the beach between sets of waves is also crucial, but unfortunately, like everything else in life, sometimes things are not as simple as they sound. But as long as rods and hatches are well secured and you have a spare change of clothing, it all adds to the fun. The club even awards an annual trophy for the most spectacular “wipe-out”! There is never a shortage of candidates.
The Durban Paddle Ski Club strongly advocates a strict code of conservation amongst its members in an effort to protect our marine resources for future generations. We are however extremely concerned and have been for many years, on the seine netting activities by a commercial businessman off Addington Beach. This indiscriminate and destructive form of fishing has been in practice since the 19th century and we believe that it has no place in today’s world, where scientists keep telling us that so many of our marine species are under constant pressure and several are on the point of total collapse. We have been advocating ending this practice for years, but so far this plea has fallen on deaf ears. Several years ago the netters started to operate after dark and abandoned their old traditional rowing boat having acquired the use of a motorized duck. After reporting it to the authorities, the government used good sense to prohibit them from this practice and instructed them to return to their old traditional method. In our view, that is not enough.
The Vetch’s/Addington area is marine haven for many juvenile species, which in turn attract the larger predators, but as soon as they stray close to the shore inside the shark nets, they get scooped up by the seine netters. While the netters claim that they “release” all under-size fish, most fish do not survive the ordeal of being dragged through the surf zone onto the beach and have their scales and protective slimy coat removed in the net as well as having their gills choked by the sand. It is difficult to see any sense of having so many restrictions on the recreational angler, while a commercial businessman in the same area is given total freedom to destroy whatever he wants. A study done by the club in the mid-nineteen nineties showed that one net operating in the same area wiped out 14 times more fish than the entire membership of the club which stood at 339 members at the time. It was also accepted that the netters were guilty of serious under-reporting their catches. All other fish that were discarded (killed) did not form part of their figures, even though that amount easily surpassed the fish they actually kept! Why Ezemvelo Wildlife continues to turn a blind eye to this outdated and destructive practice, is a total mystery to us.
THE POINT DEVELOPMENT
The future of the club had been somewhat uncertain between 2003 and 2013, due to the proposed small craft harbour on the Point. After refusing to sign an agreement, which would have seen the entire beach smothered in concrete with a 5½ metre seawall and a 24-storey hotel built into the sea a stone’s throw from Vetch’s Pier, the developers attempted to evict the Durban Paddle Ski Club, while the other boating clubs, succumbed to the threats of evictions, and signed. The view the club took was that the ravages of heavy construction over the projected 15-year period, would have had a catastrophic effect on all marine life in the area, particularly of that on Vetch’s Pier, upon which our sport so heavily depends. Membership would have also been seriously affected. In simple terms, it would have been pointless having a fishing club in an area where there would be no fish. All the money in the world would have meant nothing, if we had no beach!
All the boating clubs on Vetch’s Beach were also required to consolidate under one umbrella body and operate under one roof. The clubs were to raise approximately R20 million to construct and then operate such a clubhouse, which would have also been rated by the municipality and levied by the developers. In our opinion, this would have taken membership out of the reach of the average citizen, making it affordable only to the elite. For us, signing the agreement would have lead to financial suicide and we had no doubt that the evictions were nothing more than punitive and vindictive measures for the club daring to oppose the small craft harbour.
Realizing, we could not go it alone, the club was instrumental in forming and funding a public body to legally challenge the approval of the small craft harbour. This body was called The Save Vetch’s Association (SVA). After a long and bitter legal wrangle against huge odds, an agreement was reached between the club, SVA and the developers, in which a much scaled down marina could go ahead and the club be reasonably accommodated along with all the other boating clubs. This was indeed a huge accomplishment for this little club. Recent developments indicate that no small craft harbour will be built, which means that Vetch’s Pier and Beach will remain intact, while it appears that we shall be accommodated right on the beach beneath the promenade which will be extended from uShaka to the base of the North Pier. And that my friend, is all we ever wanted.
Yes, we did spend all our money saving this beach and we were criticised and even mocked by certain people for taking this ‘extremely costly’ stance. Our question to our critics was ‘how costly would it had been, had we not taken this stance and allowed for the total destruction of the beach and reef?’ We believe it was worth every cent and would do it all over again if we had to. We are proud to state that had it not been for the action taken by the Durban Paddle Ski Club, the Save Vetch’s Association, the legal team that stood by us throughout this uphill battle, and nobody else, today there would be no beach or reef for the people of Durban and particularly, the members of the other boating clubs on Vetch’s Beach, to enjoy. Saving this little piece of paradise, is our humble gift to the wonderful people of Durban…You’re welcome!
SAND PUMPING THREAT TO VETCH’S PIER
We are however gravely concerned for the well-being of Vetch’s Pier as a result of the sand pumping avidities of the Durban Municipality. For years they have been over pumping and dumping sand on Vetch’s Beach, raising the level of the beach substantially and in the process burying the first 100 metres or so of the reef. The mussel and red-bait beds, which are vital to the overall health of the reef, are being systematically smothered to death and nobody seems to care. The club has raised this issue with the municipality and we remain hopeful that things will change soon.
Joining the Durban Paddle Ski Club is a lot easier and less expensive than most other sea-going organizations. No courses or exams to pass, with the only requirements being the possession of a paddle ski, various safety equipment and a fair respect and knowledge of the sea. The friendly, almost family-like atmosphere that exists amongst the members of this club is totally unique. Club’s doors are always open on weekends to visitors and new members, so if you’re thinking of joining this breed of anglers, or you’re just visiting our city, pay us a visit and see these unique little craft in action.