It’s late in the morning on race day, a blazing sun has just broken through an overcast sky and the air is buzzing with nervous excitement as the start time draws near. Hundreds of paddlers wearing neon jerseys—safety orange for the men and hot pink for the women—are applying sunscreen, setting up their GPS devices and duct-taping race numbers to their watercraft.
The grassy park we’re in is filled with surfskis (those sleek ocean kayaks), stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and one-man outrigger canoes (OC1s). At the prerace meeting, everyone clasps hands, and a paddler speaking Hawaiian offers a pule, a prayer, for a safe journey.
It’s the scene you’d expect before the start of any major paddling race in Hawai‘i. Except we’re not in Hawai‘i. We’re 2,600 miles away, in Oregon. And we’re not paddling on the ocean. We’re paddling the Columbia River, the mighty waterway that flows 1,243 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Paciﬁc.
More specifically, we’re at the Maui Jim Gorge Downwind Championship to race along a 13.5-mile stretch of the Columbia River Gorge. Eighty miles long and up to four thousand feet deep, the Gorge punches through the Cascade Mountains and runs all the way to Portland, forming the state line between Washington and Oregon as it goes. In the summertime, cool maritime air from the Pacific rushes inland toward the warmer air mass rising over the central part of North America. The Gorge is the path of least resistance, making it a wind tunnel that is so dependable it’s become a mecca for windsurfers, kiteboarders and —most recently—ocean paddlers.
As the wind rushes up the Columbia against the current, it creates an odd phenomenon: a wind swell that travels upriver. Where the opposing wind and water meet head-on, the waves stack up, growing taller. The stronger the wind, the steeper the bumps, as they’re called. Some down-wind paddlers live for catching bumps, riding each one as long as possible then sprinting to catch another, reveling in free ride after free ride. “Most paddlers think, ‘A river? You gotta be kidding me,’” says Kai Bartlett, one of twenty-two Hawai‘i outrigger paddlers in attendance. “But when the Gorge is good, it’s good.”
The city of Hood River is a well-kept, dog-friendly place with a population of about seven thousand. It’s a laid-back community partial to fair-trade organic coffee, craft IPAs and, most of all, the great outdoors. In addition to watersports, it’s a magnet for hiking, mountain biking, skiing and all sorts of other fresh-air pursuits. Located in the heart of the Gorge, at the confluence of the Columbia River and the river it’s named after, the city serves as both staging area and end point for the Gorge Downwind Champs.
Throughout the six-day event, tired and happy paddlers in hats and sunglasses trickle out of the water at Hood River Waterfront Park, carrying boats on their shoulders or SUPs under their arms. They congregate around the racks and trailers where they store their craft. Their kids tear around the grassy knolls near the cordoned-off swimming beach. Behind them colorful, U-shaped kites hover lazily in the sky, and the kitesurfers they’re tethered to crisscross the river alongside flocks of windsurfers and foilboarders.
In addition to the race itself, the Gorge Downwind Champs’ $170 entry fee includes two meals and $2 beers from Full Sail Brewing Co., the local brewery. It also—and most valuably—includes daily shuttle service. Not unlike a ski lift, the shuttles carry paddlers and their boats or boards from the park to various locations downriver, dropping them off to get in as many downwind runs as their bodies can handle.
All week long, race director Carter Johnson bounces around the park with “STAFF” emblazoned across his jersey and a phone forever at his ear. He hooks up speakers, carries ice, greets old friends, makes announcements and puts out fires left and right. When transmission failure cripples a shuttle, he knows who to call. When the cash box runs out of change, he hustles up more. When the kegs run dry (heaven forbid), he’s the cool head at the center of the crisis. Every few minutes someone interrupts him with, “I know you’re busy, but …”
The logistics involved in accommodating hundreds of paddlers for even a single day are a “nightmare,” he says. “Over six days, it’s just stupid.” But he embraces the chaos and matches it with over-the-top enthusiasm. Now in its third year, the Gorge Downwind Champs has rapidly become one of the largest multidisciplinary paddling events in the world.
This year there are 550 paddlers, with some coming from such far-flung places as Hong Kong, Brazil and Poland. The surfski division is the most popular, with 283 entrants. South Africans and Australians make an impressive showing. The OC1 category has 198 entrants, far more than most such races in Hawai‘i, where OC1s were invented. The stand up paddleboard division draws 69 entrants. Contest-ants range in age from 13 to 75 and include both weekend warriors and athletes from the elite ranks of their sports. The latter include several winners of the Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu OC1 world championship, a.k.a. the “Molo Solo,” as well as a half-dozen Olympic flatwater kayak medalists.
With a purse of $40,000, the cash pay-outs are among paddling’s most generous. “I did not want to keep this event small,” says Johnson. A seasoned surfskier himself, Johnson discovered the wonders of the Gorge ten years ago. “I fell in love with this area. I’m the kind of person who loves the stoke—the stoke is my life! To share the stoke feeds the stoke. I wanted the world to know what we had here.”
The Gorge Downwind Champs is part week-long paddling festival, part one-day all-star matchup and part trade show. Races like this present a valuable opportunity for boat manufacturers to showcase their latest models.
The vast majority of OC1s in the world are built by one of three companies: Kai Wa‘a Hawaiian Ocean Canoes, Kamanu Composites and Puakea Designs. Each company has team paddlers in the race. They represent the best of the best, so the competition is definitely stacked.
These competitors know each other well. Most have raced together in the past on the same six-man canoe crews, as members of the US junior national canoe/kayak team or as paddling relay partners. “All of the top racers have tremendous respect for each other,” says Puakea team rider Danny Ching. “I believe this comes from the dedication to training each of us has had to go through.”
Ching is from Redondo Beach, California, where his father, former Hawai‘i resident Al Ching, helped establish the formidable Lanakila Outrigger Canoe Club. The younger Ching parlayed his success as a champion stand up paddleboarder into a SUP business called 404, named with a nod to Hawai‘i’s 808 area code. Ching is half Hawaiian, his business partner spent half his life in Hawai‘i, and 404 is, of course, half of 808. “It’s hapa-Hawaiian,” Ching explains, “half Hawaiian.”
The way people so far from Hawai‘i can identify so strongly with Hawai‘i reminds me of something that Matt Dubrule, Hawai‘i event manager for Maui Jim, once said about why stand up paddling has become such a fast-growing sport. “A person just needs a board and a paddle and they are living Hawaiian ocean culture on any body of water across the world,” he said.
More and more the same could be said of OC1s—a person just needs an outrigger canoe and a paddle and they can live Hawaiian ocean culture anywhere. The combined fields of SUP and outrigger paddlers at the Downwind Champs total 267, of whom just twenty-six are from Hawai‘i. So how exactly did the other 90 percent come to engage in these most Hawaiian of watersports? With that question in mind, I head to the Puakea Designs team house.
Puakea’s marketing operations manager and “team mom,” Maddie Spoto, found a rustic, riverfront house in the woods for the Puakea crew fifteen miles downstream from Hood River Waterfront Park. To get to the front door, you have to cut across railroad tracks and walk over a footbridge, but the remote location is ideal for relaxing and doing practice runs.
When I arrive, the gang is just finishing breakfast before their morning training run. Maddie is texting away, coordinating airport pickups, leashes and life jackets. Two-time defending Gorge champion Jimmy Austin lounges in a recliner, while first-timers Kaihe Chong and Jennifer Fratzke kick back on the couch. Utterly content—the product of decades of gratifying water time—their mentor and company founder John Puakea sits by the fireplace. He is the son and grandson of master koa wood canoe builders and a highly sought paddling coach who has led several individuals and teams to world titles.
“Stand up paddling is the gateway drug,” Puakea says. “It gets people into the water.” Later when SUP paddlers see OC1s, he says, it piques their curiosity. “A lot of SUP people would say OC1 is going to the ‘other side,’” says Fratzke, who started her competitive paddling career racing SUPs. “But once they try, they’re hooked.”
Puakea explains how OC1s, which once had to be special-ordered and had long wait lists, now enjoy wider distribution. Both Puakea Designs and Kai Wa‘a Hawaiian Ocean Canoes have started manufacturing their boats in China through a company called Outrigger Zone. “Ozone’s” mass production capabilities and worldwide distribution channels make it possible and more cost-effective for someone in, say, Wilmington, North Carolina (home to the country’s largest SUP race), to buy a Hawaiian canoe from a local dealer. Last year Puakea’s production increased fourfold.
“It’s funny—I do clinics all over the world, and people in other places some-times embrace the culture of canoe paddling more than we do in Hawai‘i,” he says, telling us about a group of families that brought home-cooked kalbi and rice to a paddling clinic he led in Seattle. “There are Mainland clubs that hold blessings for the canoe before they put it in the water. They’ll call and talk to me about the names of the canoes. In Hawai‘i we almost take that kind of thing for granted.”
When I wake up at 7 a.m. on race day, the leaves outside are fluttering and I start fidgeting with anticipation. After watching three days of other people’s epic runs, I’ve been amping to do a downwinder myself. And thank my lucky stars, Maddie has secured a boat for me.
After checking in at 10:30 a.m., I scope out the narrow beach where everyone will launch, 13.5 miles downstream from Hood River. A marine layer keeps the air temperature at a comfortable 72 degrees. Everyone crosses their fingers that it will soon burn off and the wind will roar in behind it. And to everyone’s relief, it does. I’m giddy as the Puakea Designs trailer pulls up carrying the Ehukai pro model that I will paddle. Weighing a scant 16 pounds, it’s the Ferrari of OC1s. I finish attaching the ‘iako (spars) to the ama (outrigger) just as Carter takes to the megaphone.
“Whoever parked on the train tracks, you are a Muppet!” he bellows. “If you parked on the tracks, move your car immediately!” The crowd laughs, even though it’s not really funny when a few minutes later a train approaches, blares its horn and screeches to a halt. Suspending his dis-belief, Carter forges on with the meeting.
First, he reminds everyone that a life jacket is mandatory. “The wind’s going one way. The river’s going the other. Your separation from your boat is twice as fast.” He pats his head with one hand to demonstrate the universal signal for “I’m OK.” If a paddler is in distress, he requests we stop and help. He warns us about hazards: There are white buoys that mark the location of gillnets. There’s also a huge submerged log, dubbed “Thor’s Hammer” for the damage it could inflict in an unfortunate meeting with a boat. After fielding questions, Carter sets the race start at 2 p.m.
Over the next hour, in an astonishingly orderly fashion, some four hundred paddlers in all three types of craft push out against the wind to an invisible starting line, which extends from a point on shore to an escort boat on the river. There will be a rolling start in four heats, one every five minutes.
Suddenly I realize this is the first time all week I’ve been free of phone and pen. Taking a deep breath, I inhale the stunning beauty of the Gorge and splash myself with the cold, invigorating fresh water. Most of the boats cluster in the lee of a little island near the Washington shore. Kai Wa‘a’s Pat Dolan strokes through the pack with earbuds in, game face on. Danny Ching does a few laps upwind in his signature green boat. An endless stream of surfskis makes its way to the holding area. A siren sounds, signaling the start of the stand up race. The heat for the women’s outriggers and surfskis—my heat—is next, followed by the men’s surfskis and then the men’s outriggers. The start boat paces the pack until the siren goes off and we’re unleashed like horses out of the gate.
A few miles into the race, the waves are so perfectly lined up it’s ridiculous. Kaihe Chong calls this a “stairwell” because you descend straight from one wave to another, to another, to another, without having to hustle left or right for the next drop. I’m so stoked that it hardly fazes me when Ching blazes past, running over the bumps and jumping his way up the river. He finishes fifth overall. Kai Bartlett, owner of Kai Wa‘a, wins the men’s division, followed by Chong, two boat lengths behind. In the SUP and OC1 divisions, Hawai‘i paddlers top the leaderboard. South Africans, not surprisingly, dominate the surfski division.
To my right, in the flats near shore, I see the woman in the blue boat that I’ve been battling start to gain ground. There’s less current where she’s at—but there’s also less surf. I frantically debate whether to change my line. Nah. I’m staying right here in the middle of the river, where the waves are stacking up. The surfing is irresistible, and at the end of the day, if it doesn’t put me ahead, at least I had fun all the way.
The next trough begins to form in front of me, and I sprint for it, dropping in for another free ride. This goes on for mile after blissful mile. Before I know it the yellow buoy set outside Wells Island near the finish line appears. For an insane moment I wish the race were longer. The pack of boats veers right toward the beach. Shifting into overdrive for the final stretch, I join them. And the Columbia River keeps on running. HH