Photos and words by Greg Fassett
Every good surfski and OC1 paddler will tell you there is nothing more exhilarating, more gratifying, more fulfilling then a good downwind run. The instant your nose drops and you feel your craft release and the synergy propels you forward at grin-inducing speed. Freedom at last! Whether your craft is a surfski, outrigger canoe, or a SUP, the experience of downwind paddling amplifies the experience ten fold when you can cooperate with the wind and waves. Great downwind racers are part technician, part artist, and part athlete that can read the wind and waves and position their craft to form a partnership that results in one hell of a ride. Its a sport that few ever leave once its addictive qualities are harnessed. They remain on the never-ending quest to connect the dots, read the bumps, and find that next great sleigh ride.
The quest for that feeling brought paddlers from around the world to the Gorge Downwind Paddling Festival, a week-long event in the world-famous Columbia River Gorge near Hood River. An international field of top outrigger canoe and surfski paddlers competed in a variety of races through the week, including the inaugural North American Surfski/OC1 Downwind Championships, and the incredibly fun and popular Wildside Relay. The best surfski paddlers from around the world along with the premier OC1 paddlers from Hawaii made for an impressive field.
Gorge Fest also featured clinics led by experts and offered organized shuttles along the course all week for training runs. The 2015 festival was sponsored by Rivers for Change and ran from July 19-25th.
The Columbia River Gorge is a utopia for wind seeking adventurers. A place that funnels consistently heavy winds from the Pacific Ocean into the gorge along its steep basalt cliffs creating ideal conditions for downwind paddling. When it reaches Hood River Oregon the Gorge can generate 8-foot swells in certain parts of the river. This combination of wind and waves makes it a perfect locale for legendary downwind runs. Paddlers aren’t the only ones attracted to this wind-sports Mecca, however, and the racers had to navigate between an impressive number of windsurfers and kite boarders zigzagging across the river enjoying the perfectly clear warm windy day.
Interestingly enough is the fact that the race runs upstream. Danielle Katz from Rivers for Change had this to say about the race “This was the first downwind world championship on a river and I think that’s a pretty cool thing. Paddlers get to paddle upstream, kind of like a spawning salmon.”
Rivers for Change hosts this event because its a great opportunity to connect and engage paddlers with a new environment. The top downwind paddlers are all ocean paddlers, so this race opens up new opportunities to learn and experience more our precise waterways. “Not only are we viscerally connecting someone to an incredible place, these events help provide a venue in which to help educate and inspire people into becoming more engaged and larger stewards of all the places they play in,” explains Danielle.
Race Director Carter Johnson would like to see the race grow beyond a premier surfski event, with more OC1s and even SUP racers joining the week long festival. “I would like to see 150 of the top outrigger paddlers and 150 of the top SUP racers here next year along with an already impressive field of Surfski athletes,” Carter says. The prize money from this years race demonstrates they are serious about growing the race next year and from all the talk around the Full Sail beer garden, the paddlers already consider this event a premier downwind race that can be compared with San Francisco’s Surfski Championships or the Maui to Molokai race.
The Winners of the 1st North American Downwind Championships
Men’s Surfski - Sean Rice
Women’s Surfski – Teneale Hatton
Men’s OC1 – Jimmy Austin
Women’s OC1 – Leanne Stanley
Complete Results at http://www.webscorer.com/race?raceid=47398