What Paddlers Want: Reflections on SUP Racing
A rising tide of discussion on creating a good race experience has percolated to the top of discussions across the SUP racing community in the past month. Starts and finishes, run or no run, grandstands or beach towels, surf or flat water, pros or recreational paddlers.
Stand up paddlers, whether they are beginners or veterans, all have one thing in common. They enjoy getting out on the water. It is this singular reason which is driving the growth of other paddle sports alongside SUP. People just want to get out and float. You only had to look south along the beach at the Pacific Paddle Games to witness this as a mass of paddlers combining pros, weekend warriors and probably a few first timers came together in the fabled waters off Doheny State Beach just outside of the competition zone to play in the waves, talk story and have fun on the water.
Get Out and Float
Some may float faster than others. Some float on inland waterways while others take to the waves. Others still, a product of their environment, prefer the open ocean. The beauty of it all is not the accomplishments of individual performances, but the coming together of the community as a whole. And this is what future race planners should focus on. Creating an all-inclusive event which attracts and retains participants by getting everyone out to float.
Such an event should look so fun and amazing that the odd spectators on land are literally scrambling to ditch their street clothes, find a board or the paddle craft of their choosing, and get out and float.
Some commentators have made the comparison to running and the 5k, 10k, marathon format. These events attract a wide range of participants from serious competitors looking to win or improve upon their personal best to the majority of participants who take part purely for the experience. SUP should be no different.
Make SUP Racing an Experience
Creating a positive and memorable experience for participants is also something SUP race planners need to give more attention. At many local races you can probably make a reasonable estimation before the start who the top finishers will be. Fantastic! With that minor detail out of the way what is the course going to be like? It should be challenging. It can even be grueling. But it must be a fun and positive experience.
Paddlers approaching Alcatraz at The Battle of the Bay. Photo: OnIt Pro
The Survivor race at the Quiksilver Waterman Festival held in Huntington Beach a couple of months prior to the Pacific Paddle Games was an excellent case study in how to stage an exciting and fast paced competition. And while the event was held in the ocean with an in-and-out through the waves format, the basic template of the knockout style races can be easily replicated on any body of water for paddlers of any skill level. When speaking with Jamie Mitchell prior to the event he expressed a strong desire to add a bit of spice to the stagnant SUP racing scene with a fun, challenging and exciting format which departed from the run of the mill SUP race.
Race the Lake of the Sky’s “SUP Cross” is another good example of testing the water with a different race format. Like the Survivor model, SUP Cross is fast paced, exciting, fun, and can be staged on any body of water. It is an experience. SUP Cross also makes use of everyone’s favorite beginner SUP, the 10’6” all around board. Everyone races on the same length board.
This leads to one of the most oft discussed topics in SUP racing. The board class debate. A limitless stream of individuals, many with far more racing experience than I, have weighed in on the board class debate over the years. My view is simple and straightforward. Whatever the length is, there should only be one SUP race board length. A race board should be distinctive, easily recognizable and readily understood for what it is – a race board. An adult paddler considering getting into SUP racing should not have to decide between two arbitrary lengths separated by 1.5 ft of foam and carbon fiber. And by adult paddler I mean both men and women.
Young paddlers under a certain age, let’s say 18, could potentially race on shorter boards depending on the length of a SUP race board. Keep the unlimited class as anything longer than a race board and actively promote and open races to all paddlers who paddle anything other than a race board or an unlimited. This will foment growth within the industry by encouraging all stand up paddlers to participate in an event – not just competitive racers.
Running does not exclusively focus on the runners who have the lightest, most expensive running shoes and specialty clothing. It is about creating the lowest possible barrier to entry (this includes the entry fees) and getting out there and taking part in the experience. SUP racing should be no different.
Round It All Out
Back on land there should be a range of fun and exciting games and activities for everyone to join in. I call this the Payette River Games Model. Beach volleyball, beach flags, horse shoes, log-rolling, even ax throwing – the latter a highlight from Payette. The Payette River Games owned this space.
Another fun event in this category which SUP Examiner has supported the past two years is the Cinco de Mayo Pro down in Corpus Christi, Texas. They key to success is the ability and creativity of event organizers to adapt the event to their local environment. Not every event needs to have an ax throwing contest, but hey, if it fits within the context of the local environment, why not? Give paddlers a reason to stick around after their race. By having a selection of games and other activities, SUP events will be primed to play a role in growing the sport.
So, get out there and float and have your next memorable experience. Make the most of future SUP events, both on and off the water, so when you return home at the end of the weekend you have something to share with your friends who are not [yet] members of the incredible SUP community.
P.S. SUP Examiner accepts submissions from guest writers with stories about great experiences!