Since January, I knew the Shaw and Partners international surfski race, “The Doctor,” was going to be one of the most intense events on my calendar. For starters, it marked the last race of my 2019 season and my final chance to earn points in the 2019 World Surfski League. On top of that, the race boasted one of the most stacked fields of the year, an enormous prize purse, thanks to Shaw and Partners, and the prestige of one of the most iconic events in our sport. And if that isn’t enough, The Doctor brings the thrill of a true ocean crossing. The race course spans 27 kilometers across the Indian Ocean from Rottnest Island to the Australian mainland. With all of these factors at play, my day was always going to be an exciting one, but I had no idea what I was in for when I woke up on race morning.

The first challenge The Doctor presents is getting yourself and your boat over to Rottnest Island for the start of the race. This year I was lucky enough to be included in a luxurious yacht crossing, thanks to a group of Western Australian locals, one of whom generously donated his gorgeous 60-foot yacht for the morning. The yacht made the first part of the day incredibly easy. Everyone in the group drove to the harbor on race morning, we tied our boats down on the high bow deck and off we went. The boat was incredible. What a way to start the day! Everyone was grinning as we roared out to Rottnest. The sun was shining, the sky was a clear blue, the water was a vibrant turquoise and the wind was just starting to pick up for what looked like ideal crossing conditions.

Looking out towards Rottnest, I fell into a relaxed silence, thinking about the race start in a mere two hours. Suddenly, I was jerked out of my reverie as the yacht shuddered. The cabin lights shut off and then engines died. I looked around in confusion. The rest of the passengers were doing the same. I got up and looked towards the back deck to see billowing black smoke spewing from the engine compartment. Panic and confusion started in earnest.

There was a fire in the engine room underneath the deck. The captain and first mate hurried to the engine room hatch and emptied a full fire extinguisher down into the engine room. The ladder was so hot that any decent into the room for further inspection was impossible. The crew and passengers dissolved two groups. Half the group was convinced that the problem was neutralized and we just needed to work out some logistics, while the other half went into full emergency mode thinking the boat would go up in flames any minute. I was torn hearing conviction on both sides. The only thing that everyone agreed on was that we definitely were not going to make it to the start of the race on time. That’s when I heard someone yell, “start untying the skis!” Well, I thought, I guess it’s abandon ship.

I scrambled to my bag and changed into my race outfit as quickly as possible, grabbing my paddle along the way. I climbed up onto the top deck to join Kenny and Sean Rice. Sean’s face was a mask of calm resolve and I just caught the end of his conversation with Kenny, “alright, we’ve got to start paddling if we are going to make it to the start. It’s time to go.” They were going to paddle to the start?! Oh man, that would mean at least an hour of paddling against the building wind. The best case scenario would be if we could arrive 30 minutes to rest before the race started, then battle a field of fresh athletes. I must have broken some kind of speed eating record as I forced down my packed lunch and then I was out on the top deck untying skis.

With the back of the boat still billowing smoke and no high dock to help unloading the boats, the only way to get into the water was to throw the skis overboard and jump in after them. Skis and people started splashing down into the water. I laughed to myself, at the very least this will make one heck of a story. I threw myself overboard as my ski was tossed in after me.

The situation miraculously took a turn for the better as a few rescue boats drove up just as I scrambled into my ski. The coastguard was on their way to help the yacht while race rescue boats heading to run safety for the race just happened to be passing by. In a matter of minutes, they were plucking athletes out of the water and tying on boats. Before I knew it, my boat and I were loaded into a crammed rescue boat and we sped off to the start.

Note: As the story leaves our stranded captain and his yacht, I just want to note that he was rescued and towed back to the harbor safely. And to give a little more context, his incredible yacht did experience a serious engine fire on our journey over, but the built-in fire suppression system shut off the engines and doused the fire internally. Without that safety system in place I was told that the boat mostly likely would have burnt to a shell in a matter of minutes and likely sunk.

The next ninety minutes sped by and before I knew it, I was sitting on the start line with the starting siren blaring.

I had been training for this race for the last three months. The training had gone almost exactly as planned and the final two weeks of prep had been perfect. My strategy was to start conservatively but stay in touch with the leaders and then slowly make my way through the field as the wind and the waves began to build.

Austin on the water

I would love to say my race went exactly to plan and our harrowing adventure ended with a glowing success, but this was not the case. My conservative start turned into a painful struggle and before the first 10 minutes had passed, my hopes of being “in touch with the leaders” was well and truly gone. I just didn’t feel like myself. As the field rounded the first turn and started into the small building waves, I decided to take a bit of a gamble. Knowing I wasn’t firing on all cylinders, I turned slightly off course to follow the direction of the waves. My hope was that even though I was not taking the most direct route, I could gather myself surfing directly with the swell and then gradually make my way back onto the race line. The building waves would theoretically allow me to cut at great speed back to the race line. The strategy, though maybe viable if executed well, did not work the way I intended. I was able to gather myself slightly, but when I finally started cutting back, the angle of surf was so extreme that I made no initial progress back to the race line, I only stopped veering off course. Despite everything, I gave the race my all. I had told myself I would fight to the last second of this race so I put my head down and tried to find a rhythm.

As the waves continued to build in the second half of the race, I was finally able to make headway cutting back to the race line. Inch by inch, I clawed my way across the waves. I knew that everyone’s line would eventually converge at the final turn marker and I just hoped that I hadn’t fallen dramatically behind. Finally I saw the marker in the distance and suddenly I went from being alone to being surrounded by paddlers. I was back online and once I hit the marker there was only 5 kilometers left.

As I rounded the final marker and lined up the downwind to the finish line, I could see at least 6 athletes surfing around me. We had all converged and it looked like 6th to 12th place would be decided in the next 15 minutes of surfing. A confidence I had lacked all race rose inside me. This section was where I excelled. The waves were fantastic, the direction was perfect and I had absolutely flown through this section with ease the three times I had paddled it in practice. “Here we go!” I thought, time to salvage this race.

I saw my first opening and went for it. It was an easy move jumping over the shoulder of a wave to move ahead. I took the 6 power strokes I knew it would take to get there … but I never made it. I kept going 8, 10, then 12 sprint strokes, but the window closed and I missed the move entirely. I didn’t understand what was going on. Did I have weed? I wasn’t sure. Ok, I thought to myself, shake it off, you’ve still got this. Just focus. I checked in with my body and though I had been racing hard, I wasn’t redlined and should be perfectly capable surfing the way I wanted. I waited for an extra few seconds on the wave I was riding, just to be sure. Finally, as rested as I could be in a race, I saw another opening and I went for it. I failed, again.

I tried and failed two more times and realized I just wasn’t able to surf and attack like my normal self. My mind was reeling, but I had to adapt. I started only going for small to moderate moves, moves that even in my current state I could make. I was still surfing well, even if I didn’t have any power. I just hoped that would be enough for a top 10 finish. I tapped into a rhythm and did everything I could. There were still athletes all around me. Every move and wave mattered. As I approached the beach and the final run up the sand, I looked to my right to see Kenny on the same wave. I knew this wasn’t where Kenny had hoped to be either, but I knew he would fight me all the way to the finish line no matter what. We hit the beach together and I just closed my eyes and ran. It wasn’t pretty, but it was just enough to sneak ahead of Kenny and take 10th place overall.

Without question, this 2019 Doctor race result was not how I wanted to end the season, but part of the thrill of racing is you never know what will happen. I optimized everything I could control, and on the day with that incredible field of athletes, I was proud of my preparation, my race day effort and a top ten finish.

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019
    Austin's Blog

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13, 2019

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15, 2019
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    Saturday 28, Sept. 2019

Since January, I knew the Shaw and Partners international surfski race, “The Doctor,” was going to be one of the most intense events on my calendar. For starters, it marked the last race of my 2019 season and my final chance to earn points in the 2019 World Surfski League. On top of that, the race boasted one of the most stacked fields of the year, an enormous prize purse, thanks to Shaw and Partners, and the prestige of one of the most iconic events in our sport. And if that isn’t enough, The Doctor brings the thrill of a true ocean crossing. The race course spans 27 kilometers across the Indian Ocean from Rottnest Island to the Australian mainland. With all of these factors at play, my day was always going to be an exciting one, but I had no idea what I was in for when I woke up on race morning.

The first challenge The Doctor presents is getting yourself and your boat over to Rottnest Island for the start of the race. This year I was lucky enough to be included in a luxurious yacht crossing, thanks to a group of Western Australian locals, one of whom generously donated his gorgeous 60-foot yacht for the morning. The yacht made the first part of the day incredibly easy. Everyone in the group drove to the harbor on race morning, we tied our boats down on the high bow deck and off we went. The boat was incredible. What a way to start the day! Everyone was grinning as we roared out to Rottnest. The sun was shining, the sky was a clear blue, the water was a vibrant turquoise and the wind was just starting to pick up for what looked like ideal crossing conditions.

Looking out towards Rottnest, I fell into a relaxed silence, thinking about the race start in a mere two hours. Suddenly, I was jerked out of my reverie as the yacht shuddered. The cabin lights shut off and then engines died. I looked around in confusion. The rest of the passengers were doing the same. I got up and looked towards the back deck to see billowing black smoke spewing from the engine compartment. Panic and confusion started in earnest.

There was a fire in the engine room underneath the deck. The captain and first mate hurried to the engine room hatch and emptied a full fire extinguisher down into the engine room. The ladder was so hot that any decent into the room for further inspection was impossible. The crew and passengers dissolved two groups. Half the group was convinced that the problem was neutralized and we just needed to work out some logistics, while the other half went into full emergency mode thinking the boat would go up in flames any minute. I was torn hearing conviction on both sides. The only thing that everyone agreed on was that we definitely were not going to make it to the start of the race on time. That’s when I heard someone yell, “start untying the skis!” Well, I thought, I guess it’s abandon ship.

I scrambled to my bag and changed into my race outfit as quickly as possible, grabbing my paddle along the way. I climbed up onto the top deck to join Kenny and Sean Rice. Sean’s face was a mask of calm resolve and I just caught the end of his conversation with Kenny, “alright, we’ve got to start paddling if we are going to make it to the start. It’s time to go.” They were going to paddle to the start?! Oh man, that would mean at least an hour of paddling against the building wind. The best case scenario would be if we could arrive 30 minutes to rest before the race started, then battle a field of fresh athletes. I must have broken some kind of speed eating record as I forced down my packed lunch and then I was out on the top deck untying skis.

With the back of the boat still billowing smoke and no high dock to help unloading the boats, the only way to get into the water was to throw the skis overboard and jump in after them. Skis and people started splashing down into the water. I laughed to myself, at the very least this will make one heck of a story. I threw myself overboard as my ski was tossed in after me.

The situation miraculously took a turn for the better as a few rescue boats drove up just as I scrambled into my ski. The coastguard was on their way to help the yacht while race rescue boats heading to run safety for the race just happened to be passing by. In a matter of minutes, they were plucking athletes out of the water and tying on boats. Before I knew it, my boat and I were loaded into a crammed rescue boat and we sped off to the start.

Note: As the story leaves our stranded captain and his yacht, I just want to note that he was rescued and towed back to the harbor safely. And to give a little more context, his incredible yacht did experience a serious engine fire on our journey over, but the built-in fire suppression system shut off the engines and doused the fire internally. Without that safety system in place I was told that the boat mostly likely would have burnt to a shell in a matter of minutes and likely sunk.

The next ninety minutes sped by and before I knew it, I was sitting on the start line with the starting siren blaring.

Austin on the waterI had been training for this race for the last three months. The training had gone almost exactly as planned and the final two weeks of prep had been perfect. My strategy was to start conservatively but stay in touch with the leaders and then slowly make my way through the field as the wind and the waves began to build.

I would love to say my race went exactly to plan and our harrowing adventure ended with a glowing success, but this was not the case. My conservative start turned into a painful struggle and before the first 10 minutes had passed, my hopes of being “in touch with the leaders” was well and truly gone. I just didn’t feel like myself. As the field rounded the first turn and started into the small building waves, I decided to take a bit of a gamble. Knowing I wasn’t firing on all cylinders, I turned slightly off course to follow the direction of the waves. My hope was that even though I was not taking the most direct route, I could gather myself surfing directly with the swell and then gradually make my way back onto the race line. The building waves would theoretically allow me to cut at great speed back to the race line. The strategy, though maybe viable if executed well, did not work the way I intended. I was able to gather myself slightly, but when I finally started cutting back, the angle of surf was so extreme that I made no initial progress back to the race line, I only stopped veering off course. Despite everything, I gave the race my all. I had told myself I would fight to the last second of this race so I put my head down and tried to find a rhythm.

As the waves continued to build in the second half of the race, I was finally able to make headway cutting back to the race line. Inch by inch, I clawed my way across the waves. I knew that everyone’s line would eventually converge at the final turn marker and I just hoped that I hadn’t fallen dramatically behind. Finally I saw the marker in the distance and suddenly I went from being alone to being surrounded by paddlers. I was back online and once I hit the marker there was only 5 kilometers left.

As I rounded the final marker and lined up the downwind to the finish line, I could see at least 6 athletes surfing around me. We had all converged and it looked like 6th to 12th place would be decided in the next 15 minutes of surfing. A confidence I had lacked all race rose inside me. This section was where I excelled. The waves were fantastic, the direction was perfect and I had absolutely flown through this section with ease the three times I had paddled it in practice. “Here we go!” I thought, time to salvage this race.

I saw my first opening and went for it. It was an easy move jumping over the shoulder of a wave to move ahead. I took the 6 power strokes I knew it would take to get there … but I never made it. I kept going 8, 10, then 12 sprint strokes, but the window closed and I missed the move entirely. I didn’t understand what was going on. Did I have weed? I wasn’t sure. Ok, I thought to myself, shake it off, you’ve still got this. Just focus. I checked in with my body and though I had been racing hard, I wasn’t redlined and should be perfectly capable surfing the way I wanted. I waited for an extra few seconds on the wave I was riding, just to be sure. Finally, as rested as I could be in a race, I saw another opening and I went for it. I failed, again.

I tried and failed two more times and realized I just wasn’t able to surf and attack like my normal self. My mind was reeling, but I had to adapt. I started only going for small to moderate moves, moves that even in my current state I could make. I was still surfing well, even if I didn’t have any power. I just hoped that would be enough for a top 10 finish. I tapped into a rhythm and did everything I could. There were still athletes all around me. Every move and wave mattered. As I approached the beach and the final run up the sand, I looked to my right to see Kenny on the same wave. I knew this wasn’t where Kenny had hoped to be either, but I knew he would fight me all the way to the finish line no matter what. We hit the beach together and I just closed my eyes and ran. It wasn’t pretty, but it was just enough to sneak ahead of Kenny and take 10th place overall.

Without question, this 2019 Doctor race result was not how I wanted to end the season, but part of the thrill of racing is you never know what will happen. I optimized everything I could control, and on the day with that incredible field of athletes, I was proud of my preparation, my race day effort and a top ten finish.

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13th

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    TBD Fall 2019