The Durban Paddle Ski Club

By Johny Vassilaros** - 5 February 2006

Little did Fred Crocker realise way back in the 1940s, that his design of a new craft would lead to the development of a multi-million rand ski boating industry and the formation of a unique angling club that now proudly boasts of being the only one of its type in the world - the Durban Paddle Ski Club.

In 1938 Alex Bulley, a fellow surfer, brought back a book and some ideas on surf skis he had seen in Australia while attending the Empire Games. Upon returning home to civilian life after the 2nd World War, Fred wasted no time in designing and building his famous "Crocker Ski." This craft 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. It was originally designed as a surfski, but before not too long, several youngsters were seen fishing from this type of craft off the beachfront.

Fred Crocker


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In the mid 1940s, an angler named Hayden Grey, improved the design of the "Crocker Ski" and built a boat that became the first "ski boat to be launched in South Africa. This new motorised mode of fishing began to produce impressive catches and thus attracting many anglers, but others persevered with the originalCrocker Skis. Amongst these, were Alby Upton, Tiger Aston, Marcel Coulon, Owen Harmsworth, Len Rodgers, Graham Hynes and the Schmidt brothers - Fred, Tommy and the legendary "Lefty." Fred was to attain fame later in the early 1950s by pioneering the famous "Dusi" canoe race with Ian Player.

Early paddle ski


Fred Schmidt

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Since those early days many more anglers utilised these craft off the Durban beachfront but nothing concrete materialised from their activities. Alby Upton however, soon gained fame for his daring and hair-raising trips into the night on his canvas floating machine, taking baits out for shark fishermen and being guided back to shore by torchlight! It was only in the late 1960s that paddle ski fishing began to make a permanent impact. A young Durban Corporation apprentice named Ross Hichens purchased a second hand Crocker Ski and began making spectacular catches off the Durban beachfront.

Ross Hitchins


Tim Driman

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In the angling world good news travels fast and soon, many new faces appeared on the scene. Amongst these were Greg Glazer, Tim Driman, Alex and Kevin Simoni, The Mulroy twins, Wally Watt, Tommy Flanders, Clive Holmes, Bruce Peats, Peter Greenaway and Alan Cerff. Most of the launches took place between Vetch's Pier and the North Pier and, when conditions would permit, between Vetch's Pier and the old wooden sand pump jetty. This stretch of beach, then known as "Pirates Beach", is today known as uShaka Beach. To launch a ski one had to first carry it down a high, steep sand dune, which was littered with broken bottles and other rubble and then, at the end of a day's fishing, repeat this backbreaking feat with a hatch full of fish as well!

About to beach near
Sandpump Pier


The dreaded dune!!

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These anglers soon spread their wings and began operating up and down the coast even venturing out as far as Aliwal Shoal! None of them bothered to carry any safety equipment and many were also fishing at night. Within a few years the sport had grown phenomenally and some form of law and order had to be imposed. On the instructions of the Port Captain, the Durban Paddle Ski Club was formed in 1971 with Tim Driman being voted as the first chairman. Later on, a section of land next to the North Pier was leased to the club by the Port Captain, and the members took it upon themselves to design and construct a clubhouse. These facilities obviously attracted more members and until today, this club has maintained a membership of well over 300.

The Mulroy twins at
Aliwal Shoal

Coming in to Pirates Beach

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Although several "luxuries" such as hatches, rod holders, skegs and transoms have been added over the years, the original shape of the Crocker Ski has hardly changed to this date. After a nasty but comical incident, where Hichen's ski was sliced open by a dolphin's dorsal fin, canvas soon gave way to masonite, then marine ply and finally to maintenance-free fibreglass. Over the years, paddle skiers not only became accomplished anglers but craftsmen as well with many designing and constructing their own skis. Dennis Glazer became possibly the most capable with many of his skis being used by club members to this day. His popularity was also due to the fact that his skis (now called Glazer Ski) had many well-concealed "secret hatches!"

Today, safety is a major concern and life jackets, flares and 1st aid kits are carried, with anchors and fitted capsize ropes also being mandatory. Each member is required to do at least one beach duty each year and these measures have resulted in the 100% safety record throughout the club's history.

Modern paddle ski


Another modern ski

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Although this mode paddle ski fishing is now restricted to between North Pier and the Sunkist Pier with the tip of the South Pier being the seaward boundary, many impressive catches continue to be made by the club members. King mackerel, (couta) queen mackerel, (natal snoek) snapper salmon, kingfish, queenfish and prodigal son are caught during the summer and autumn months, while shad and garrick provide the winter action. Other species such as spotted grunter, stumpnose and rockcod are caught throughout the year.

As with all the other boating clubs in the Vetch's Pier area, the Durban Paddle Ski Club is currently fighting for survival and is being threatened by the Point Waterfront development. Where useless sand dunes once stood, these clubs have single-handedly, without any assistance from government or the municipality, created a multi-million rand boating industry that has a tremendous effect on tourism, jobs and the government's coffers, as well as offering their facilities to the citizens and visitors of the city. One would've thought that the municipality would embrace their efforts and ensure their continued existence, but after many years of negotiations, the future of these clubs still remains uncertain.

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** At the time of writing Johny Vassilaros was Chairman of Durban Paddle Ski Club and working on a book on the subject.

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