This article is featured in the Buyer’s Guide 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.
Words: Christian Knight
Photo: Steve Rogers
It's a familiar scenario for many paddlers. The daily grind has left you with too little daylight, and too many excuses not to paddle. But your buddy needs a partner for one quick lap down your backyard favorite. So you bomb it, in seemingly record time. Afterward, the two of you can only wonder, 'How fast was that?'
That simple question helped spark whitewater competition's newest trend: two-man races.
"It's all about efficiency," says Seattle's Todd Gillman, 38, founder of the Robe Canyon Race, the original whitewater race to require a teammate. "We've all got obligations in our lives, so the objective is to get down and get out as quickly as possible. My idea was to encourage that efficiency within normal conventions of kayaking."
The Robe race is among a handful of Pacific Northwest creek races for two-person teams, including B.C.'s Callaghan Creek Race and Washington's Little White Salmon Race. Teams start together, and the clock stops when the second paddler crosses the line. For race organizers, the format simplifies a nagging issue—how to set safety in inaccessible river sections. Solution: Everyone is a safety boater. And the byproduct of racing with a potential rescuer, of course, is the opportunity to race longer sections.
"Having a teammate makes sure you have someone looking out for you," says Callaghan organizer Steve Arns. "It's in the spirit of kayaking to have buddies looking out for one another."
Racing with a teammate also pushes racers to go harder. "Nobody wants to be the goat," says Seattle's Darren Albright, 30, who competed in all three teammate races this year. "Nobody wants to let the other guy down." But no matter how evenly matched the team, one member is always going to be slightly faster, or know the lines a little better. Which means that finding the perfect partner is as important—and often as stressful—as the race itself.
This year's Robe Race was a testament to just how awkward that process can be, with racers shuffling around like middle schoolers at their first dance. Hence the 11th hour email that roped me into the race: "I find myself without a partner. This is kind of heartbreaking because I've been getting out on [Robe] a lot … Would you consider racing with me? Whatever the answer just be straight up and let me know. With you, I feel pretty confident that we could mesh well."
But if grassroots contests that bring us together can thrive as leaner productions to organize, and racers can push themselves farther safely, then a few bruised egos isn't a bad way to finish.