Sheila Pearce, the wife of Dusi Canoe Marathon founder, Ernie Pearce has passed away. She recently turned 90.
Pearce was the last link back to the foundation of Natal Canoe Club (NCC) and the Dusi Canoe Marathon in December 1951.
“I always called her the mother of the Dusi, because from its inception she and her husband, Ernie, ran it by themselves for many a year until Natal Canoe Club took over from them in the late seventies, early eighties,” Owen Hemingway of Pope’s Canoe Centre said.
“She was always very involved. It’s a very sad loss for canoeing.”
NCC General Manager Brett Austen Smith paid tribute to Pearce, saying: “She was an iconic person and part of the very beginnings of not only Natal Canoe Club and the Dusi, but also part of the beginning of canoeing in South Africa. It is very sad to learn of her passing. She will always be remembered, as will her husband, Ernie.”
Kevin Culverwell, Chairman of NCC, commented: “When they used to run the Dusi, it was very hands-on, but when they stopped doing that they came to the start every year. Then Ernie died and Sheila kept on coming to the start every year. Obviously it was very close to her heart, because they started this thing together.”
In more recent years the leading FNB Dusi contenders would meet and greet Sheila Pearce before setting off on the first stage of the three-day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. She would also be presented with flowers, which the big guns regarded as good luck.
Hemingway explained how that tradition began with a laugh: “It started the year I paddled with [former Comrades winner] Shaun Meikeljohn (in [2004). We fell out at Ernie Pearce Weir. The next year I paddled with him again, and he said to me ‘I hope you’re not going to fall out again’. I said ‘No, I am taking a leaf out of your Comrades book. You put flowers at Arthur’s [Newton] Seat, you have a good race, so I am going to give Auntie Sheila flowers and we won’t fall out at Ernie Pearce Weir. It worked. I have never fallen out since!
“A lot of other people then linked onto it and she received quite a few bunches of flowers before each Dusi. It was a bit of a tongue in cheek thing with Shaun.”
Renowned canoeing historian John Oliver remembered the kindness of the Pearce family, which he experienced when he and a friend decided to take on the Dusi for the first time in 1978.
They went to see Ernie Pearce to tell him they wished to participate in the race and were invited into his house, where Sheila and one of the couple’s daughters were also present. Ernie signed them up for Natal Canoe Club and the Dusi and then, Oliver said, he asked a very important question: “Well, you’re going to need a boat, aren’t you?
“I said ‘yes’. Within half-an-hour, Sheila and her daughter had phoned around and arranged a boat.”
Oliver, who is a familiar face at all races nowadays, said Sheila Pearce did the same thing in her time. “She was always at all the races. She was the mother of canoeing,” he added, echoing the words of Owen Hemingway.
“She was an iconic person and part of the very beginnings of not only Natal Canoe Club and the Dusi, but also part of the beginning of canoeing in South Africa. It is very sad to learn of her passing. She will always be remembered, as will her husband, Ernie.”
“She was a very kind and efficient person.”
“Her impact and that of Ernie was lost a long time ago. When they used to run the Dusi, it was very hands-on, but when they stopped doing that they came to the start every year. Then Ernie died and Sheila kept on coming to the start every year. Obviously it was very close to her heart, because they started this thing together.
“I think the Dusi paddling public at large these days don’t really know who she was, other than some of the older paddlers.”