A stand-up paddleboard, a SUP, lets riders catch small waves but doesn't require them
The Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge is one of the premier races in this young sport
“Fit Nation: Around the World in 8 Races” will air three times on Saturday, September 16, between 1 and 6 p.m. ET and one time between 5 and 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, September 17.
No sooner does someone invent a new way to get from point A to point B than a sport is born. With two people doing it at the same time, you have a race.
Take the stand-up paddleboard, or SUP, something of a hybrid between a surfboard and a Venetian gondola. You can catch small waves on it, but having a paddle means you’re not beholden to them. It’s an enjoyable way to get from point A to point B when those points are on an ocean, lake or river. And it’s a good workout, to boot.
The modern paddleboard can be traced to the 1950s, when instructors in Hawaii used them to stay afloat while teaching traditional surfing. But the concept has gone mainstream only in the past 10 years, growing exponentially in popularity and commercialism over that time.
Despite its recent appearance on the recreation scene, there are now more than 300 SUP races a year in the United States alone. It’s newly popular in Australia, where surfing is the national sport, and catching on in Europe. Specialty brands manufacture equipment and sponsor races as well as some of the racers, which is largely the definition of turning pro in emerging sports.
And although there is no agreed-upon international governing body to make rules and create standards, that hasn’t stopped various organizers around the world from tracking times, ranking competitors and creating rules.
Anyone who has tried a paddleboard knows it requires balance and strength and rewards a love of the outdoors. It’s another hybrid, too: of exercise and fun.
Paddleboarding is to surfing what cross-country skiing is to downhill. Working hard for less thrill has its fans, and they tend to be fitter than their joyriding cousins.
There’s also appeal in the ease at which you can enjoy the water. “I still have fun even when waves are terrible,” said Izzi Gomez, a champion wave rider. Her friend Ethan Koopmans agreed: “It’s a fast learning curve and more access to the feeling of catching a wave.”
Location, location, location
Route 84 east of Portland, Oregon, as it snakes along the Columbia River, is one of the more beautiful drives you’ll find in the United States. There are waterfalls, rocky outcrops and a valley gorge of rapid water, colorful rocks and evergreen trees.
Getting out on the Columbia, which is open to various recreation (especially wind-powered), is to immerse yourself in natural wonder. Salmon are totems of the sport: Like the paddleboarders, they fight the current to get to their finish line and breach the water in a burst of energy.
It’s the wind that led race organizers here. Winds reaching 30 mph are not uncommon in the Columbia River Gorge, and that can produce 4- to 6-foot waves – ideal for paddleboarding.
“It’s continually windy,” Doug Hopkins, one of the organizers of the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge, said of the stretch of the Columbia where it takes place. “Good downwind racing is a good long course with good waves, a good wind and easily accessible” from land. “Racers come and stay up to a month because they love it.”
The main stage and race finish line are at the beach on the edge of Hood River, Oregon.
You could scarcely ask for a better small town in which to host a race. It runs up along the south side of the river valley and has views of snowcapped Mount Hood. It also contains a crowd-pleasing variety of businesses for when you’re not surfing, including brewpubs, ice cream parlors, coffee shops, two movie houses, an independent bookstore and a toy store called G. Willikers.
The Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge, which saw its seventh annual race last month, runs over two days. One is for a straight downwind race of speed and stamina, and the other day features a course race around buoys, requiring speed, stamina and agility.
Ready, set, paddle!
The downwind distance race begins at Viento State Park, 8 miles downstream from Hood River, meaning racers are going upstream but with the wind at their backs. That’s the coveted recipe for bigger waves.
Sitting on their boards, participants line up across the river (as best one can in a fast-moving current), waiting for the green signal flag. As it drops, they pop up on their boards and start paddling furiously.
The “elite” racers – a self-determined designation, for which the entry fee is higher but the prize money is up to $2,000 for winners – do the 8 miles twice, taking cars back from Hood River for a second lap.
For everyone else, including many novices, there is the open-class race, which is only one leg and has a less difficult beach start.
The open class is so open, you don’t even have to be on a paddleboard, though most are. This year, fewer than 10 of the 225 participants were on traditional (or “prone”) surfboards and paddling with their hands, and several were in two-man outrigger canoes. A handful were on foil boards, which float the person above the river by several feet, carried along by an underwater fin or hydrofoil, and much faster than a traditional paddleboard.
The river is about three-quarters of a mile wide, which was helpful this year when a massive tanker pulled up behind the racers and slowly made its way around. That width also gives plenty of space to the wind and kite surfers running circles around the hardworking racers.
For the downwind race, most of the competitors stayed closer to shore, which gave a more direct path to the finish line on land. But others chose a strategy of paddling out to the middle of the river, where the wind and waves were greater – but so was the current they fought, a strategy that favors only the strongest paddlers, explained Hopkins.
The fastest competitors know the river well, knowing when to take advantage of places to go deep and when to stay close to shore, where small eddies can propel them despite smaller waves. Obstacles such as weeds and old tree trunks (known as “dead heads”) are not a huge problem on this stretch.
Although some amateur boarders took more than two hours to complete the 8 miles, the fastest elite winner of the “double down” race this year, Bernd Roediger of Maui, Hawaii, did both laps in just under two hours, an average of about 8.5 mph.
The next day, the same racers had to demonstrate a different skill set as they maneuvered around a pinball game of a course. The pattern around the buoys was confusing to follow for spectators, of whom there were dozens standing at the finish.
Some racers use the same board for both events, but the course race favors a more maneuverable flatwater paddleboard over a downwind one designed to catch waves more easily. On a flatwater board, racers shift their weight back to pivot the tip around inflatable buoys.
Especially on the course race, where accidental bumping occurs, most paddlers seemed to fall over at some point. They quickly scrambled out of the chilly river and started paddling away again.
Racers can be disqualified for intentionally hitting another board or paddling while sitting or kneeling for more than a few strokes at a time. But there’s almost never unsportsmanlike behavior in the supportive (if serious) SUP community.
The fastest of the course racers fell less, paddled faster on the straightaways and more effortlessly cleared the buoys – an impressive mastery of the board and of personal strength.
As in any good sport, the path to greatness is blazed with dedicated practice and overall fitness. And the crowds cheered each participant as they hopped off at the beach and ran to the finish line, exhausted.
Fit as a fiddle, happy as a clam at high tide
SUP is popular as recreation, as a competitive sport and as a fitness regimen, one of those great exercises that taxes your whole body. Balancing works all the leg muscles. The movement of paddling works the abs and core. Alternating the paddle builds up biceps and triceps. And the whole thing is aerobic.
“The beauty of downwinding is catching waves for a break,” Hopkins said. “It’s exciting, and you’re not even thinking about” how hard of a workout it is.
And of course there are the health benefits of fresh air, staring into long distances and getting into the flow of the water. It can be meditative and restorative.
The risks of SUP, at least as an organized sport, are minimal. An intense course race could leave a competitor dehydrated, but because personal flotation devices are required, the risk of drowning is negligible. When training, partner with a buddy, stick close to shore, know where you’re going and stay hydrated.
Join the conversation
For those who feel intimidated, local surf shops near paddleboarding hot spots offer teachers. At Hood River, instructors at Big Winds shop can get a newbie up and competent enough to finish the open class in just a few days. A paddleboard – the only pricey equipment – can cost between $1,000 and $2,500 new and roughly half that used.
It’s an inclusive sport, welcoming of newcomers. At this year’s Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge, 79 of the 318 racers were women. The youngest competitor was 9 and the oldest 68.
“It’s a very young sport, so the top pros haven’t been at it very long,” Hopkins said. “They are very supportive of young racers. They realize they need the sport to grow to make a career out of it.”