HK coach man to beat in world of surf-skiing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 January, 2009, 12:00am

His knees gave away about four years ago, so in a bid to stay fit Rene Appel took up a new fad at that time - surf skiing. Today, much to his surprise, Appel is regarded as one of the top competitors in the world in a sport which has quickly grown in stature.

So much so that a press release this week extolled 'Hong Kong's waterman Rene Appel' as one of the competitors to watch out for at next Saturday's Surf Ski World Cup in Perth.

'What? Who sent that,' asked Appel in astonishment when told about the hype surrounding his entry in the 23km marathon event, which is being billed as the richest ocean paddling race in Australia.

Better known as coach of the Hong Kong windsurfing team and mentor to Lee Lai-shan - Hong Kong's Olympic gold medallist in 1996 - Appel denies he has turned from gamekeeper to poacher, and decided at this stage in his life to become an athlete.

'This is just a hobby, although when I first started it, I was ranked in the top 10 in the world,' smiles Appel. 'I do it mainly to keep fit. I used to do a lot of running but then my knees started giving me trouble so I switched to this sport.'

Just imagine having to kayak out in the open water, battling the elements. For the adventurous Appel, it was just what the doctor, worried about his knees, had ordered.

'It is incredibly competitive and great fun,' says Appel with huge enthusiasm. 'Not only does it keep me fit, but it is nice to be out on the ocean.'

He will be in his element next Saturday when 'The Doctor', as the downwind paddle from Rottnest Island to the Scarborough Beach Auditorium is known, takes place. The press blurb shouts 'paddlers from all over the world will converge on Western Australia's capital to take on Appel, a man famous in Hong Kong water sport'.

Appel laughs. 'I don't have the opportunity to train as much as I would like to. I range between doing nothing a week to sometimes four times a week. But my busy schedule and the weather usually prevents me from devoting more time to training.'

His schedule - busy last year due to the Olympics - will be extra tight this year as Hong Kong's windsurfers face a demanding timetable with the National Games and the East Asian Games coming up.

On top of that is September's World Championships, to be held on the 2012 Olympic Course in London, and the build-up to the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.

'We have a very busy year ahead. Finding time for my hobby will be hard,' says Appel. But for this week at least, he will be his own man.

As a nice inducement, the Perth race will offer A$30,000 (HK$167,000) in prize money. But Appel has ruled himself out of contention for the lucre. 'Many of the world's best surf skiers are from Australia and South Africa and they will all be there. My chances are very low, especially as I'm not at peak form.'

Australia's elite including Tim Jacobs, Murray Stewart, Jeremy Cotter and Caine Eckstein. The South Africans will include reigning World Series champion Oscar Chalupsky and Hank McGregor. There will be a host of other international stars like 2008 champion from the famous Molokai to Oahu race, Tahitian Lewis Laughlin, and paddlers from New Zealand, Hawaii, Asia and Europe.

The event, the brainchild of Perth-born nine-time Molokai to Oahu winner Dean Gardiner, is one of only four four-star events in the surf ski world series and also features categories for outrigger canoes and the growing discipline of stand up surfboard paddling.

'I'm too old for this stuff.' says the 45-year-old Dutchman. 'I'm in it just as a hobby and I'm a recreational paddler. But if I do well, I will make sure you know about it.'