Racers sprinting at the start.

Start of the Gorge Downwind Championship Race at Home Valley Park in Washington.

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 Gorge's steep basalt walls funnel winds down the wide Columbia River.

The Gorge’s steep basalt walls funnel winds down the wide Columbia River.

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.

A racer catches a good glide.

Racer letting the wind and waves carry him upstream.

Sean Rice (1st Place Overall) heading into a fun section of the course.

Sean Rice (1st Place Overall) heading into a fun section of the course.

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.


Brent Campbell (3rd Place OC1) enjoying the wave train.

Mackenzie Hynard (5th Place Overall) chasing the leaders.

Mackenzie Hynard (5th Place Overall) chasing down the leaders.


Jimmy Austin (1st Place OC1) making it look easy.

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.”

Plenty of interesting sights on the Columbia River Gorge.

Plenty of interesting sights on the Columbia River Gorge.

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.

The Gorge is a classic destination for kite and wind surfing.

The Gorge is a classic destination for kite and wind surfing.

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.


Eric Mcnett pulling hard upstream as the wind falls off.

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


Darryl Brown finishing near the Hood River Bridge

Complete Results at http://www.webscorer.com/race?raceid=47398