The wildfire smoke may have been thick, but it wasn’t able to smoke out the legions of stand up paddleboarders who came from all over the globe to compete in this year’s Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge.
More than 300 people turned out to compete in the fifth annual event, which featured course races at Hood River Waterfront Park on Saturday and a downwinder event on Sunday that ran from Viento to Hood River. That number marks a surge in attendance over last year’s number of 210 paddlers, which was then the largest in the event’s history. In the past five years, the Paddle Challenge has risen to the status of a world-class event and was recently ranked as one of the most competitive SUP races on the planet.
“We were all blown away at this year’s turnout,” said Steve Gates, Paddle Challenge organizer and owner of Big Winds. “We knew it was going to get larger, but we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, they just keep coming!”
Despite smoke that was so thick at times it was nearly impossible to see the Washington side of the Columbia River, Gates said it didn’t appear to cause difficulties for the vast majority of athletes, who organizers consulted after the races to see how they were feeling.
“It was an issue that we were very aware of and acutely sensitive to, but (race participants) were by and large unaffected by it,” he said.
SUP competitors may have come from all over the world to compete in the event, but in the women’s Elite race on Saturday (five laps around the mile-long course) the crowd of several hundred packing the beach witnessed a local woman finish third in wild, split-second, dash-up-the-beach finish.
Fiona Wylde of Hood River went out strong and led for the first half of the one-hour race before Annabel Anderson passed her, and Angela Jackson came up even for the final lap. Wylde said she lost momentum on the second buoy of the fourth lap, giving the New Zealander Anderson, the top-rated woman in the world, her opportunity. She won in 1:03:34.65 (top three results in each division are listed in the info box at right; full results at gorgepaddlechallenge.com).
“In this sport, all it takes is that one opportunity, and if you take it, you’re in perfect position to win,” said Anderson.
She won by 25 yards, leaving Wylde and Jackson to churn out a side-by-side sprint from 100 yards out in the water for second place. Jackson hit the Waterfront Park beach with about a two-foot edge, leapt from her board and got a firm first step on the sands, and edged Wylde at the finish line by about three feet.
The result: 1:04:07.30 for Jackson to 1:04.07.54 for Wylde – less than a-second margin.
“It was a great race, and I know where I made my mistake, but what a finish,” Wylde said. “What’s fun is that Angie is a good friend, we’ve been training for a month together, and to go up against her like that was great.” Jackson and other fellow Australians have been guests in the home of Fiona and her parents, MacRae and Ellen Wylde.
“It was absolutely fabulous to be cheered on like that in my own home town,” Wylde said, adding thanks to Gates and the rest of the race organizers. She also praised the performances of her friends and long-time Hood River training partners, Alyson Fromm and Hannah Hill, who took seventh and 12th in Elite, respectively.
On Sunday, the wind didn’t cooperate for the downwinder event, but again, Gates said its impact on the race was relatively negligible.
“We’ve been really lucky — four out of the five years, the wind came through. This year, it didn’t come through, but it still went off and nobody pulled out,” he noted, adding that the race was “still a good, long, upriver paddle and the current was strong,” and that “almost everyone came early to train, so they got epic conditions” due to the strong wind that was present prior to the weekend.
During one of those training runs, a paddler from Miami, Andres Pombo, went missing in the river on Friday and as of press time, still hasn’t been found (see story on page A1 for more info). On Sunday before the downwinder race, Gates said nearly 300 people, including himself, paddled out into the Columbia at Waterfront Park to form a huge circle and hope for the return of the missing paddler.
“We raised our paddles and held a moment of silence in the hope that somehow Andres would be found safe,” he said.
As with any sporting event of this size and caliber, Gates said it couldn’t be pulled off without the help of so many people.
“A lot of people are involved in making this happen, people who put in a tremendous amount of time putting this together, a terrific cadre of volunteers, people who have been with (the event) for all five years,” he said. “People love being a part of it.”
He said the first SUP Challenge, in 2011, was the inaugural event at Waterfront Park after it opened, “and is a great way to showcase the park.”
“The Event Site is workable, but this is Hood River,” he said, gesturing at the beach and park greens. “It’s a wonderful place.”
In an event that had more international competitors than ever before, Gates said, “We want to show them Hood River, and this event is so unique and so down-home, and this is what it’s coming to be. Everyone loves Hood River. It’s a special place, as we all know.”
Gates was asked if he envisioned this kind of success for SUP when the sport emerged less than a decade ago.
“No, and we were in it right at the beginning, nine years ago and frankly I thought it was boring. I’m an adrenaline spots junkie and I thought ‘this isn’t going anywhere’. Then in the second year, I started racing, and it got the competitive juices going, and the next year I talked to my competitive windsurfing crew, (including Wylde and Fromm) and I asked them, ‘do you want to learn stand-up paddle?’ I thought there was no way kids would like it — too slow — but they said, ‘we’re down with that.’ And then they just embraced it.”
Today Big Winds has 62 kids involved, between the Junior Elite Team (JET) and Devo programs, half boys and half girls.
“It’s just awesome,” Gates said. “They’re up early and I told them off the bat, ‘you don’t have to worry about missing any social life, because all of your friends are asleep.’”
2015 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge top three results per class
Elite Men: (first, second, third): Danny Ching, Travis Grant, Titouan Puyo
Elite Women: Annabel Anderson, Angela Jackson, Fiona Wylde
Groms/Super Groms: Tyler Bashor, Trent Carter, Jeffrey Spencer
Open Junior Boys: Ryan Funk, Tyler Bashor, Trevor Bashor
Open Junior Girls: Daisy Dolan, Erin Sutherland, Valerie Fischer
Open Men: Jack Wygal, Seth Springer, MacRae Wylde
Open Women: Kenzie Carlstrom, Nichole Klink, Kim Rueter
Surfski/Prone/OC1/Unlimited SUP: Ariel Farrar-Wellman, Peter Petrovics, Tim Hornsby
Elite Men: Kelly Margetts, Travis Grant, Titouan Puyo
Elite Women: Annabel Anderson, Fiona Wylde, Terrene Black
Groms: Delila Quinn, Annie Reickert, Jane Staples
Open: Kim Rueter, Giselle Delgado, Avery Bridge
Open Junior Boys: Ryan Funk, Patrick Cleveland, Evan Gerbrecht
Open Junior Girls: Mia Wheatley-Maltais, Daisy Dolan, Rachel Luther
Surfski/Prone/OC1/Unlimited SUP: Ariel Farrar-Wellman, Irish Munce, Scott Trudon