They’ve been tight since they were seven – nippers running across the hot obsidian sand of Piha.
They moved together into competition surf lifesaving, and as teenagers became lifeguards patrolling the Auckland west coast beach on weekends.
Then in 2019, they were asked to jump into a surf boat for the first time, to help make up a relay team at the surf lifesaving nationals at Mount Maunganui. They won their first race – and they’ve been riding a wild, winning wave ever since.
The crew of the Piha Piranhas are five young women – most of them just 20 – who are taking the thrilling world of surf boat racing by storm.
All are working, studying and somehow squeezing in training before dawn and after dusk to be national champion surf rowers.
Twin sisters Molly and Niamh Brittenden – the in-sync strokes in the boat – are both studying in the medical field, and working long, unpaid days on placement at Middlemore Hospital. Niamh babysits, and Molly scoops icecream to help pay their way in their sport.
Tyler Lovett – the powerhouse of the crew – has a degree in sports and recreation and works part-time as a pool lifeguard. Natalya Mackenzie – tiny and agile at the bow – is a landscape gardener.
Tobi Oldham – the fifth rower who can seamlessly slot into the crew – has just gone back to Dunedin, studying business and law. She spends her summers in Auckland racing with the crew.
“Surf has been a huge part of our lives growing up together,” says Niamh. “We’re all really good friends and we see each other outside of rowing too.”
It’s those special bonds, the Piranhas believe, that have kept them together as a crew through tough times. A year ago, when Covid cancelled the national surf champs for a second year running, the crew were on the verge of disbanding.
Although they usually race – and dominate – the U23 age group competition, the Piranhas earned their way to wearing the pink singlet of the Oar Blacks last month, rowing as the New Zealand open women’s team in the Trans-Tasman Challenge at Waihi Beach. In difficult surf, they came close to beating the Australians.
A week later, they crossed the ditch to race their Aussie rivals again, alongside 1000 rowers battling it out in the ASRL Open – one of the biggest surf boat competitions in the Southern Hemisphere. They proudly wore the Piha name, and were just pipped for the women’s U23 title on the final wave.
As they crashed through the surf at Bulli on the south coast of New South Wales, the crowd back at the Piha Surf Life Saving Club, watching on livestream, clapped and cheered.
It was the kind of welcome distraction the shaken-up locals seriously needed – among them refugees who’d run from their homes as Cyclone Gabrielle devastated their close-knit surf village on Auckland’s west coast.
The club had become the community hub, providing hot food, beds and showers as floodwaters, landslips, fallen trees and boulders cut off the settlement and left homes unlivable.
“There’s a lot of pride in representing the Piha name. We love that we come from such an iconic place,” says the Piranhas’ coach, Tom Jacka, who’s also the sweep at the back of their boat.
“One of our male rowers has lost his home. He’s had to relocate his whole family. We’re all doing it hard in the surf for the club and for the area.”
Jacka, a well-known lifeguard at Piha, is also a quantity surveyor by day and a new dad. He’s managed to keep the Piranha crew together for the past four seasons.
“The fact I stand on the back of the boat, I’m there every session, really helps,” Jacka says. “They were very close to dropping out of the sport when I first met them, but to have a coach who was really focused on them, they felt the love. They’ve stayed together another four years, and I’d like to think they’d go a bit longer.”
The first time Jacka worked with them was also the first time they got into a surf boat. Piha needed an U19 crew to make up a women’s relay team at nationals, and so he trained them for a couple of weeks beforehand.
Niamh Brittenden remembers Jacka put them into a race see how they would handle waves. “We were sort of scared, when we had to put on helmets and we’re thinking ‘what’s going to happen to us?’ And we won that race out of nowhere,” she laughs.
The team stuck together, with Jacka at the stern, and were joined by Oldham – who hadn’t grown up at Piha with the other four but was a competitive rower on flat water, with a dad who’d raced in surf boats.
In the summer of 2020, the Piranhas swallowed anyone in their path. At the nationals, just before the country went into lockdown, they achieved the ultimate – winning gold in both the short course and long course in their U19 age group. They then entered the U23 division, and won the national short course title too.
Jacka knew they had a special team: “They’re in the trenches and their legs are absolutely shot. Then there’s a bit of a wave and you can feel they’re all there for each other.”
But the pandemic forced them off the water, and then out of competition for two seasons. Although they worked together on Zoom in lockdowns, and trained hard for last year’s nationals, which were cancelled at the last-minute, their motivation was “really low”, Jacka says.
“One or two of them were wondering if they’d come back for another season. So I made them take a break and we reassessed in mid-winter to see where their heads and hearts were. Luckily, they all decided to have another crack this summer, and it’s re-energised them all.
“We’ve had an incredible season. We’ve won every carnival in New Zealand this year, and ended up with the trans-Tasman selection as the women’s open team to wear the New Zealand cap. And we were incredibly competitive against the top Australian open women’s crew. I don’t know if they really appreciate what they’ve done.”
Jacka reckons they can continue to stun. At this weekend’s national surf lifesaving championships at Christchurch’s New Brighton beach, the Piranhas are entered in both the U23 and Open women’s events.
“I reckon we have a good shot of doing both,” Niamh says. “We have the fitness, the strength and the team spirit.”
They have the confidence, too, after rowing in Australia. “We went in quite scared – we were up against 36 crews compared to the eight in our age group at home,” she says. “We had no expectations, we were just happy to go there and be part of it. Then we got second in the final, and it was the coolest thing ever.”
Sister Molly chips in: “We were actually winning the last race, until one team had a single wave in their lane that brought them from last to first. There were no waves all week until then. But that’s what surf boats are, unpredictable.
“We made a name for ourselves, so we really want to go back next year.”
The Brittenden siblings have always done things in unison. They live two minutes apart, and are working at the same hospital – Molly in medical imaging, Niamh in nursing.
In sport, they were always put in the same teams. It’s no different in the surf.
“On the boat, I’m at the very front, and Niamh is just behind me,” Molly says. “Both our oars go different ways, so we’re the most crucial to keep the rest of the boat in time. Otherwise we’d be going round in circles.”
“Behind me is Tyler, she’s seat two,” Niamh takes over. “She’s the powerhouse, with the long legs and the strength. She calls to Tom telling him where the waves are crashing.
“Natalya is our bow, the smallest in our crew and the best at jumping and running. She gets all the air when we go up the waves, so it’s a very skilled position. If the boat goes up, she has to put her oar in the water, so she won’t slam down on the seat. None of us can do it – she’s very brave.”
While the number of female surf boat crews dropped after the worst of the pandemic, the Piranhas have noticed more young U19 crews coming through this summer.
“It just feels like a great big family, everyone is looked after so well,” Niamh says. “All my other friends think it’s terrifying. But the adrenalin before a race – my heart pounds, I’m so focused I don’t hear anything. It’s incredible.
“Every race is different. But it will always be exhilarating.”