Game Changer

Grand Prix breaks new ground for whitewater kayaking

This story is featured in the August 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

By Dave Shively

Dane Jackson, the Whitewater Grand Prix's overall winner, goes huge on the Pillars section of Quebec's Ashuapmushuan River. "To win the first one, " Jackson says, "that's as good as it gets." Photo: Miles Clark / triberider.com

On this Sunday afternoon in early May, the Petite Bostonnais River is anything but small. As 600 cfs barrels down the narrow granite gauntlet, a cross-section of the world’s top paddlers stare into the crux of the racecourse: a weir-hole entrance to a chaotic and continuous 60-foot slide with serious face-shredding potential—all of it feeding into an enormous re-circulating hole. Avoiding that sucking man-trap meant threading a seemingly impossible line to the right after more than a minute of all-out paddling through a succession of multi-tiered Class V drops.

Excitement and anxiety ripples through the 28 paddlers, knowing that an entirely different kind of competition is on—the time trial stage of the first annual Whitewater Grand Prix, which consists of six big-water paddling competitions held over two weeks in the backcountry of eastern Ontario and Quebec. By the end of the steep-creek survival sprint, one-fifth of the supremely talented international field had suffered harrowing swims. Seven declined to take their second runs. This is what they wanted, though: a competition for and by athletes, alone on stout water. Alone that is, unless you count the small army of shooters lining the banks and hanging from the helicopter, capturing every moment in high def.

The Grand Prix represents a radical departure from the prevalent thinking in whitewater, often driven by sponsor dollars, that events must be saddled to high-traffic, user-friendly urban sites. The paddling alone delivered the excitement. The hype followed, thanks to a steady stream of masterfully edited video clips that sifted out all but the most electrifying moments and showcased the search, the camaraderie, the carnage, and the unspoken tension behind the events.

It was an athlete’s vision, and athletes who made it happen. “I wanted to bring the event away from on-site spectators and document it properly,” says Patrick Camblin, a cutting-edge paddler who decided to invest his time and energy to creating something different, something more engaging. “Nobody has stepped up to put kayaking on par with other action-adventure sports like snowboarding, and I’m determined to be the one that does it.”

So how do you fit kayaking into the sleek X Games action sports mainstream? On the most dynamic water possible, basing events on big waves, not big crowds. If you build it around the right features, Camblin figured, the athletes will come.

Rush Sturges sums up the prevailing attitude among elite whitewater boaters. “To be honest, it’s almost humiliating to compete in a small hole and have it totally suck when I put most my time into surfing big waves. That’s not what I train for,” says Sturges, who finished the Grand Prix in third overall, behind Canadian Ben Marr and 17-year-old Tennessee phenom Dane Jackson. New Zealand’s Lou Urwin, the only female who finished the time trial in her boat, won the women’s overall title.

Spanish paddler Gerd Serrasolses (who finished seventh overall) enters the crux slide at the end of the Stage 3 Steep Creek Time Trial. Photo: Miles Clark / triberide.com

“Small-hole [events have] a place in the sport too, this is just on a different playing field,” Sturges adds. “Hole boating will never be in the X Games, never going to be on ESPN prime time. But what we’re doing out there on an extreme creek or a big wave, that’s super-dangerous shit, and ultimately if you want to sell a sport, it has to have risk involved.”

If you doubt that super-dangerous shit sells, take mountain biking’s Red Bull Rampage, a parallel event concept—a contest developed by athletes and driven by extreme terrain that pushes elite competitors to new levels of performance. Riding a mountain bike down sheer desert canyons, with judged lines incorporating gap jumps and bone-crushing step-downs, is like the Whitewater Grand Prix in another way, too: “It requires the rider to completely suspend recognition of the consequences,” says Bike magazine’s Brice Minnigh. First run in 2001, Rampage has changed mountain biking forever, leading to an entirely new “Freeride” category of bikes and style of riding. It also has produced, as Minnigh puts it, “an inordinate amount of exposure for the sport per pound of footage—more than the world cup or any other event out there.”

And that’s the real end product—the captivating imagery that inspires the action and stokes the fire, and future, of our sport. Camblin’s team of videographers and editors—some, like Sturges, going straight from boat to laptop—collectively captured the breakthrough moments. They delivered clips in stylish packages paced by infectious music and framed by the immediacy of the contest. Most importantly, it gave those outside the sport no choice but to pay attention. At the time of press, the Grand Prix’s Vimeo page had registered more than 86,000 views, while Camblin finished the edits for a broadcast on Quebec sports network RDS.

So with this stylish asset in hand, and all the eyeballs to go with it, will Camblin sell out to the highest bidder? Yes and no. The event’s title sponsor is Camblin’s TribeRider.com, a kayak media hub and occasional apparel company he runs out of his parent’s basement in Arnprior, Ontario. “We don’t even sell anything,” he explains, “our shirts are there, but they’re all sold out.”

The viral success of the inaugural Grand Prix presents an opportunity to bring in money outside of the less-than-thriving whitewater kayak industry, Camblin says. But he’s not interested in taking it from just anybody. “I don’t want to have some oil company sponsoring it. I don’t want to sell it out just for the point of selling it out, but I want to do what I can to increase the exposure.” Ultimately, he says, he wants more people committed to paddling, and to care about rivers. Whatever the future holds, Camblin does not intend to step down soon. In fact, next year he’s going bigger. Africa bigger.

“The plan’s emerging to start in Zambia on the Zambezi, hold three events there, then travel overland with all the athletes 3,000 kilometers to the White Nile, trying to get involved along the way with an NGO that’s dealing with water issues,” says the 29-year-old, pausing to remember the vital hook, “the TV show we produce from that will be pretty compelling.”

CLICK HERE to read more about the Whitewater Grand Prix.

Check out Five 2 Nine Productions‘ Currents episode on the Grand Prix:

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