After losing his close friend in a tragic accident in March last year, followed by weeks of lockdown, Ballito surfski paddler Quinton Rutherford got into the ocean and paddled 50km in one go. What he didn’t know was that this would be the catalyst towards him breaking a world record just a few months later.
Very few people are as passionate about ocean paddling as 50-year-old Guinness World Record holder Quinton. “I started surfski paddling when I was 20 years old and I haven’t stopped since,” he says. “It actually drives my wife crazy, because I’m literally always in the water!”
Quinton secured himself a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest ocean paddle in 24 hours when he paddled 227km from Cape Vidal to Salt Rock last November. His motivation to tackle this incredible feat was to honour his friend, former Olympic paddler Mark Perrow, who died in an aircraft accident shortly before the first lockdown.
Originally from Amanzimtoti, Quinton, who owns his own plumbing company, his wife Cindy and their three children relocated to the North Coast 10 years ago.
As a former SA Navy diver, Quinton has always been exceptionally sporty. He loves running and triathlons and, of course, is passionate about paddling. He has completed 25 Duzi Canoe Marathons and 15 Fish River Canoe Marathons and 15 Umkomaas River Canoe Marathons.
But while he has spent a significant amount of time paddling in rivers, the sea is his first love. “If I can’t paddle, I will surf,” he laughs. “That’s what we love about the lifestyle in Ballito. You can surf, paddle, dive or fish to your heart’s content.”
Unbeknown to him, Quinton’s journey to breaking the world record started when he met Mark three years ago. “We became fast friends and spent a lot of time paddling and fishing together. He was one of those people who I just wished I had met 20 years earlier.”
Quinton was devastated when Mark, a pilot, died tragically in a plane crash in March. Shortly afterwards South Africa went into hard lockdown.
“When we were finally allowed out, I got into the ocean and paddled 50km. The next time I paddled 80km. When a friend asked why I was doing it, I said I wasn’t sure.”
The same friend, an ex-pat in New Zealand, also told Quinton that he lived across the road from the world record holder for the longest ocean paddle. His record was 209km.
“I started thinking it was possible to break the record. The next time I pushed it to 100km. I was tired afterwards but, two weeks later, I did 133km, from Zinkwazi to Scottburgh.”
With each long paddle, the idea of breaking the record became more of a reality and, when a tracking company offered to install a live tracking device in his paddle and the SA paddling group got involved, it became a tangible goal.
Quinton had to overcome a fear or two of his own in the process though. “I was attacked by a shark off Karridene on the South Coast in 2000. It was a later afternoon and the shark launched me into the air and bit my boat in half. I was also taken out by a wave in 2005, 6km out off Durban. My boat broke and I had to swim in. I had to find a way to pack those fears away.”
The logistics for breaking the record were complicated and, in order to avoid paddling in the dark, Quinton had to maintain an average speed of 16km/h, which would only be possible if it there were good North East winds and he was able to catch the current that runs from Cape Vidal. His longest training paddle was 164km from Richards Bay to Durban. He paddled from 7Am to 7pm, arriving in Durban in the dark in late October. The paddle generated a lot of interest and Quinton started securing sponsorships from Fenne Kayaks, Spilltech and Engen Ballito, which were necessary to help cover the cost of R175 000 to have Guinness officiate and record it.
With meticulous planning and after carefully considering the weather, Quinton decided on a date and phoned his friend Mark’s wife to let her know. Both were amazed to find that Quinton had inadvertently chosen Mark’s birthday.
The paddle was a huge success and Quinton far surpassed the record by paddling 227km in one day. He started in Cape Vidal at day break and eventually fell out of his boat just past Thompson’s Bay, almost directly in front of Mark’s house. “I ended up having to go 34km out to sea to catch the current. We were dealing with 32 knot winds and 8m to 10m swells, so it was quite challenging for the support vessel. I think they had a harder time than I at times,” he laughs.
While his friend Mark was the motivation for him taking up the challenge, Quinton says he has had a number of people reach out to him since then to tell him how they have been inspired by him to do something different.
“It just felt like something that was possible – and I was looking for a challenge. We couldn’t participate in any races, so I guess I just made my own race. I really believe that anyone can do something like this – you don’t have to be special or very talented. You just have to make up your mind and, if you’re passionate enough, you’ll do it.”
Quinton’s next goal? To paddle across the Atlantic in a conventional surfski – something that’s never been done. Watch this space!
Text: Leah Shone