It was typical Shane Bennett ... playing down his crew's chances of a title and opting for a backrow spot in the promotional photo during the build-up to the waka ama long distance national championships which begin in Napier today.

Shane Bennett? Yes the same Bennett who was a long-time captain of Surf Lifesaving Hawke's Bay's national Surf League team, a regular podium placegetter at national level in that code and one who never chased the limelight.

Tomorrow Bennett, 36, will join fellow surf lifesavers Ben Cross, Mike Harman and Jack Crasborn and exprienced waka ama paddlers Greg Ross and Troy Hohaia in a Haeata Ocean Sports crew which will tackle the 14-team open men's 28km race in the Te Wananga o Aotearoa-sponsored championships which have attracted 800 paddlers from 53 clubs throughout the country and begin today with single waka races of 10km or 16km.

"I would like to think we could record a podium finish but we've only been together for five months. We've had two training sessions each week during that time and while the technique is the same as used in some of our surf lifesaving events I last had a go at waka ama 10 years ago before Maika Nuku [a world championship-winning coach and paddler] talked us into tackling this weekend's nationals," Bennett explained.


While Rotorua's Bhutty Boys are the favourites for the open men's title spectators shouldn't be surprised if Bennett and co join them on the podium.

Te Rau Oranga o Ngati Kahungunu Waka Ama Club's Teina Pearcey, 19, is one of the youngest Bay paddlers in the nationals. He first took up the sport as a 7-year-old but didn't like it and only resumed two years ago.

"I heard my parents 'stories about how much they were enjoying it and got the bug again," Pearcey said referring to his mother, Lelie, one of eight foundation members of his club and his father, Jim, who was the club's first chairman.

Pearcey will be in a J19 six-man crew which will take on six other crews over 16km. All of his crew, which also includes Carro Smith, Anaru Puketapu, Toby Chittenden, Thomas Brady and Michael Cagley will represent St John's College at the national secondary schools sprint championships in March and their training for this weekend has been part of their preparation for those nationals. A crew from Gisborne's Horouta club will start as the favourites in their division tomorrow.

Maraenui's Tania Sorensen, 66, will be one of the oldest Bay starters and will join Maria Robin, Roberta Brown, Karen Hawaikirangi, Gaylene Luscombe and Moana Whenuaroa in a six-strong senior masters women's crew which will take on five other teams over 28km. Like Bennett, Sorensen also played down her team's podium chances.

"To get back safely," was Sorensen's reply when quizzed on the team's goal.

Her team was formed five weeks ago but has had four training sessions each week since then. It has already tackled tomorrow's course in training.

Sorensen, who started out as a "social paddler" five years ago was a member of the Heretaunga Tuis golden masters crew which won silver at last year's world sprint championships in Australia. Waka Ama New Zealand's chief executive, Lara Collins, said although a Rotorua crew are the favourites in Sorensen's division tomorrow any one of the other five crews could crack a podium spot.

Like Bennett, Pearcey and Sorensen, Ricks Terstappen of the Heretaunga Ararau club, will also be starting in his first long-distance nationals this weekend. He will be in a six-strong Golden Masters (60plus) mixed crew which will come down a grade to compete in a four-team senior masters grade because there weren't enough golden masters crews entered.

"We haven't trained together us a crew. We're all just relying on our experience," Terstappen quipped.

"I first took up waka ama five years ago. I used to swim a lot but a mate suggested we take up paddling and we haven't been back to swimming since."

Terstappen will be joined by Wi Smith, Anaru Robin, Jana Johnson, Bev Williams and Linda Tomuli in his crew.

Nuku is one of four Bay paddlers who will be competing this weekend less than a week after returning from the world whitewater rafting championships in Japan. His wife, Roni, was in the New Zealand masters women's team which won their division, Anne Cairns was in the open women's team which finished second to Japan, Nuku's Kiwi masters men's team finished third and the Nukus' daughter, Te Waia o Tauranga Nuku, was in the Kiwi junior girls team which finished second.