“Off the charts,” is how Steve Gates describes the second-annual 2012 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge.
With perfect wind and weather conditions, an outpouring of community support and a showing of hundreds of participants, the stand-up paddle (SUP) event wrapped up Sunday afternoon with a buzz of excitement and the hailing of the Gorge as a world-class destination for yet another action sport.
“It was shockingly good,” said Gates, co-organizer of the event and owner of Big Winds. “The field was huge. We had so many of the top men and women in the sport, and we saw a great increase in open class competitors. And the weather was pretty much perfect, which gave people a true sense of the classic conditions that make the Gorge such an epic location for the sport.”
A step above the rest of the competition, 19-year-old Hawaii waterman Kai Lenny took top honors in the elite division of Saturday’s course racing based at the Hood River Waterfront Park and Sunday’s downwind race from Viento to Hood River. In the second-highest paying SUP event in the U.S., competitors were vying for $18,000 in cash prizes.
“Kai is on his game right now,” Gates said. “There was a core group of very experienced guys; any of whom could have won, but Kai raced simply outstanding.”
In Sunday’s 8-mile downwinder from Viento to Hood River, Lenny finished in 55:57, a pace of 6:35 per mile, to edge out last year’s winner, 17-year-old Connor Baxter, by about 90 seconds. More than 150 competitors were behind the top paddlers, all of whom were aided by strong west winds and large rolling swell.
Saturday’s racing featured laps around a course west of the waterfront park. Calmer conditions that day were ideal for the format and rewarded paddlers for smart racing and superior conditioning. Lenny again led the pack of elite racers, followed closely by Jamie Mitchell, Chase Kosterlitz and Slater Trout, all of whom finished within 30 seconds of one another.
Representing the elite women’s field, Candice Appleby finished first in both days of competition, including a 1:14:20 performance Sunday that bettered the times of almost half of the elite men’s field.
New to the Paddle Challenge and also hailed as an astonishing success was a free kids event Friday called Positively Kai, which featured free SUP clinics from Lenny and a race series using boards provided by supporting companies and manufacturers.
“We had about 200 kids show up, which blew our minds,” Gates said. “Most of the kids were local. The participation from the community was very cool to see. One thing I really want convey is the support we had from the community and local government. Without it, the event wouldn’t happen.”
In promoting the event, Lenny said his goal is to use it as a template for other similar events that can help spread a positive example for the youth and inspire kids to realize that the sky is the limit.
“Dream big, work hard, never give up and always keep it fun,” Lenny said.