(Special blog post from Don Kiesling, Tsunami Rangers officer)
Once you’ve decided to get your feet wet with surfski racing, you’ll need more info about training and races to achieve maximum fun and success. Many paddlers choose a specific race that’s convenient, or suits their athletic aspirations, and make it their goal to finish said race, or to achieve a certain time or placing. This is a great way to start. If the goal race is very challenging due to length, rough conditions, or depth of field, it would be wise to pick some less challenging races to build up your experience and conditioning. Few runners enter a marathon as their first race, and surfski racing is no different. Later I’ll describe two of the races that serve as the ultimate goal for many U.S. racers.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with other active paddlers, you may be able to join or start a club or training group. Paddling with a group on a regular basis is an ideal way to prepare for the demands of racing. Training partners motivate and push each other, ask and answer questions about gear, technique, and racing, and provide race-simulation opportunities. If you aren’t the fastest paddler in your group, you’re in luck! Chasing a faster paddler is sure to increase your speed. If you happen to be the fastest, you may have to build in some extra challenges, such as giving your partners a head start on intervals.
Some paddling groups, clubs, and businesses host a weekly race series. Weekly races are often an informal short time trial in protected waters, and the focus is speed! Regardless of format, cranking out a few hard miles on a regular basis will quickly build your racing chops. You will become more relaxed with racing and the associated exertion, and relaxation is one of the keys to successful racing. This point was made clear to me during the 1984 Olympics, watching Carl Lewis run the 100 meter dash in slow motion replay. Even with the incredible explosion of power needed to win the gold medal, his cheeks were flapping! Kayak racing demands effort from most of the body’s muscles, but there is plenty of opportunity to relax and gain efficiency. This relaxation doesn’t come immediately to most, but it does eventually with time on the water.
Although you will probably start training and racing in flat water, surfskis are competent craft in all conditions. Experienced paddlers know that they really shine going downwind. Their ultra-low drag, shape, and steering characteristics allow competent paddlers to catch waves and travel at speeds not possible through hard paddling alone. The rush of catching and riding waves is one of the highlights of surfski racing! If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with regular wind over water, you should take advantage and practice as much as possible. If not, then build your skills by chasing whatever waves are at your disposal (from other paddlers, bigger boats, swell), and plan to travel to a good downwind location whenever you can.
We’re fortunate on the west coast of the USA in having dozens and dozens of kayak races to attend. One could race nearly every weekend of the year, and on many weekends twice, but that’s too much for most of us! You’d be wise to pick a local race as your first. (Travelling to a distant race can be more stressful than the race itself!) As you gain experience, you may want to experience bigger fields and more challenging conditions. Two of the best races to aim for are the US Surfski Championships, and the Molokai World Championships. Although both races are championships in name only (but part of a World Series points ranking), they are considered by many experienced racers to be the best races around. Both offer stacked fields, challenging conditions, and prize money for the contenders. Most important, finishing these races is an accomplishment in itself, and a worthy goal of any racer.
The US Surfski Championships started in 2003 in San Francisco. Since then it’s grown to become one of the premier races in the US, and the world. The wild waters of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate have humbled mariners for centuries, and now surfski racers get to test their mettle there. Although the course has varied, it’s typically 15 to 20 miles, and includes segments both in the Bay and in the open ocean. Interestingly, the most intimidating water can be in the Bay, due to the funnelling of wind and current through the Golden Gate. Due to popular demand, the course has migrated to more and more downwind action, and it can be one of the most challenging downwind courses in the USA. This race is definitely only appropriate for intermediate to advanced surfski racers, but most racers could eventually tackle it through a program of regular training and increasing exposure to rough conditions. In addition, there is a short course (6 to 8 miles) in a more protected area of the Bay, and this is a great stepping stone to the long course.
The Molokai World Championships started informally in 1976, but before long was considered by most paddlers to be THE race. It crosses the Kaiwi Channel from Molokai to Oahu, a body of water that can serve up the wildest conditions the ocean has to offer. It can also be flat as a pond, but due to the regularity of the trade winds, it’s usually a screaming downwind sleigh ride! At 32 miles, and with big winds, breaking waves, and even some current, Molokai is not for the faint of heart. (Not to mention heat, sharks, flying fish, and other obstacles!) But it’s these conditions, and the prestige of having crossed “The Channel,” that keeps paddlers coming back year after year. Once you have some races under your belt, you may start to aspire to a Molokai crossing of your own. If this is the case, consider using the US Surfski Championships, and ideally some of the shorter (but still challenging) Hawaiian races as stepping stones.
A final note about surfski races: They don’t happen without the tireless energy and dedication of race directors! The amount of time and dedication to run a small local race, much less a big international championship, is staggering. Many directors spend the whole year planning and organizing an event that may take just a few hours to stage. Be sure to thank your race director for putting on such a cool event, and consider volunteering to help organize or stage a race in your area.
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