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Out to protect a perfect paddling record

When she's not protecting dignitaries, Rachel Clarke is out paddling to protect her title as a seven-time Queen of the Harbour

Imagine winning New Zealand’s premier surf ski race. Then winning it again, and again and again, until you’ve done it seven times in a row.

Would you be cocky and over-confident? Would you be bored?

Because Rachel Clarke is none of those.

Racking up over 100kms on the water every week, she trains like someone searching for their first title, and speaks with a humble, gracious undertone.

“If I was to win an eighth one, it would really be amazing,” 29-year-old Clarke says.

Her fiancé Sam Mayhew, ranked in the word’s top 10 ocean paddlers, agrees: “I don't know if there’s another person who has won a race in the world eight times in a row like this, so it is amazing,” he says.

While Clarke’s name is not a household one, it should be.

She’s currently ranked third in the world on the international surf ski circuit, and two years ago held the top spot. She’s also won the prestigious 52km Molokai Crossing twice – a title she’d like to claim again in Hawaii next year. 

But for now, there are boxes to tick closer to home.

The annual King and Queen of the Harbour race this weekend, considered the national ocean racing championships, will be hosted by Clarke’s home club, and therefore carries extra significance. The endurance event will see competitors paddle roughly 22kms in often choppy waters off Auckland’s Takapuna Beach.

“The more wind and waves the better,” Clarke says. “Some people don't like that, but I particularly do.”

Battling tough conditions isn’t just a sport for Clarke, it’s become a lifestyle.

She recently joined New Zealand’s diplomatic protection service, a job which sees her protect our highest dignitaries, such as the Governor General and Prime Minister.

“You’re on the ocean, what better way is there to spend your life?” - Rachel Clarke

But it hasn't been simple finding the right work-sport balance.

“I guess you have to be pretty dedicated and motivated at the same time. Each week I will sit down with my coach and we will work out a plan, because each work week is different. It's not like Monday to Friday, 6 to 3. You could be on a late shift, you could be on earlies, you could be on nights,” admits Clarke.

“It’s anywhere from 40 to maybe 60 hours a week, and then you’re trying to fit in 15 hours of training on top of that. So it’s very hard to juggle, and you have remember not to go over the top and tire yourself out because recovery is also important.”

Clarke first signed up for the police as a 21-year-old, spending the first six years on the beat, before moving into motorway patrol.

When she saw a post in the diplomatic division advertised, Clarke knew she’d found her next challenge. But she was made to work for her spot.

“First of all, there is five days of fitness. They really try and tire you out, make sure that you are really under pressure,” she says.

“Four hour hikes, running, swimming and then when your most tired, they throw in a whole lot of scenarios and see how your react under that pressure.”

It’s the perfect test for an elite sportswoman who’s been putting herself under similar duress for most of her life.

Teneale Hatton has finished runner-up to Clarke in the Queen of the Harbour clash five times. Photo: Jamie Troughton, Dscribe Media

Clarke’s love of the water began early.

“I've done lifesaving since I was five. I started paddling a spec ski [a surf lifesaving ski] when I was 12,” she says.

Growing up in Red Beach, north of Auckland, made turning that passion into a career a lot easier. But she fears not enough Kiwi kids are aware of the opportunities surf ski offers.

She tells me there’s been a small rise in the number of women competing at the high-end level globally, but no such boost locally.

"A lot of people don't know that ocean paddling and long distance paddling actually exists and where you can go with it. You can actually travel the world,” she says.

“So I guess it’s about just getting it out there, getting more people involved and getting people racing and seeing what it’s all about.

“You’re on the ocean, what better way is there to spend your life?”

It may help that she has someone to do it with. Her fiancé, Mayhew – a doctor at Starship Hospital - is right now ranked 10th in the world, and believes female paddlers need more support from race organisers.

Ocean paddling isn’t considered a high performance sport and often women’s prizemoney doesn’t extend as far down the field as the men’s.

"I think for women, just keep promoting them in events with prizemoney equal to guys to keep the girls that want to perform at that level encouraged,” Mayhew says.

When Clarke competed in Perth recently, she was paid A$500 for coming sixth. Her male equivalent received A$1200.

Clarke and Mayhew enjoy the battle they have on the water, and would like to see that become more commonplace in competition.

“I love giving the men a run for their money and it’s quite cool to be racing alongside them,” Clarke says.

Or with them, if Mayhew gets his way.

“I also love the mixed double - where you can actually be in the same ski and I would love to see more races like that,” he says.

Around 160 paddlers are set to line up on Takapuna Beach to compete for the King and Queen of the Harbour crown. And all eyes will be on Clarke.

“I am probably not in the form of my life at the moment, having just had a month off. I’ll just see how it goes and if I take out the title, it will be the icing on the cake,” she says.

Mayhew knows it will be tough for her, but knows what will drive her.

Her rival Teneale Hatton - a former Olympic canoe sprinter who once beat Olympic champion Lisa Carrington in K1 qualifiers – has been a bridesmaid to Clarke in this race five times.

“She has Teneale, who is an amazing paddler, chasing her and she will be peaking and wanting to get a title, so I think it is going to be a good battle,” Mayhew says.

Clarke has a wry smile. “We do a lot of international racing, particularly ding-dong battles, so we are quite close rivals in that respect. So she will definitely be one to watch.”

But bet your bottom dollar, having figured out her work-life balance, the only thing Clarke will be protecting this weekend is her perfect record.

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