By Robert Campbell | LB Indy
Hurricane Simon brought relentless overhead sets to Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point last Saturday and Sunday, turning the seventh annual Battle of the Paddle into a wild free for all, as hundreds of men, women and children of all ages and skill levels battled the breakers to compete in the world’s largest stand up paddle event.
“It was kind of crazy,” said Kristin Thomas, Laguna Beach resident and executive director of the Stand Up Paddle Industry Association, a trade organization she helped found in 2012 to promote the fast-growing sport. “The biggest concern was all the boards flying around,” she said.
To keep racers as safe as possible, event organizers made leashes and life vests mandatory. And helmets were strongly recommended.
BOP is the brainchild of Rainbow Sandals founder Jay “Sparky” Longley, who told one of his employees Barrett Tester in 2005 that he wanted to put on “a world class” paddle boarding event, and “the sky was the limit.”
“Those guys kind of brilliantly thought, ‘wow, what can we do to make stand up paddling a gnarly spectator sport?’” said racer Robert Howson, a Laguna native. “By no means is this an extreme sport. But it sort of becomes one specifically for this event called the Battle of the Paddle.”
By 2012, BOP’s popularity hit an all-time high, as 404 open division racers set a Guinness World Record for “World’s Largest Paddleboard Race.” In 2013, the record climbed to 464.
“We’ve had phenomenal growth every year,” said Tester, now BOP’s director. “There’s no event that has the same caliber of athletes and conditions and course and everyone coming together.”
BOP directly supports Rainbow Sandals Foundation, the 5th Marine Regiment Support Group of Dana Point, the Ocean Institute of Dana Point, OC Parks and Boys & Girls Club of Capistrano Valley.
Organizers moved the six-year-old event from Doheny State Beach to Salt Creek this year because more room was needed for vendor exhibits. And the bluff that overlooks the beach there provides a great vantage point for spectators.
However, overall entries were down due to the rough conditions, which likely had many novice paddlers joining those bluff-top spectators. “The surf was so big that most recreational paddlers didn’t want anything to do with racing,” said Tester.
“Salt Creek’s an ideal surf spot. Not an ideal stand up paddle spot,” said Howson. “You take your typical, average citizen racer, and it was a little bit over the top with the conditions as big as they were.”
Tester admits that moving BOP to Salt Creek was “a risky decision” given the potential for big surf this time of year. He credits the county for helping the event to go off without any major mishaps. “We applaud the authorities for having the courage to work with us,” he said. “The OC lifeguards did a phenomenal job.”
At the start of the 10-mile individual stock race, the 51-year-old Howson collided with a fellow competitor and got rolled by a big wave. “I went over the falls and got back on my board and started paddling,” he said.
He finished fifth in his age group in just under an hour and forty minutes, even though his board “felt a little bit funny” throughout the race. Back on the beach, he found a crack all the way across the bottom of it. “An adventure. That’s what that was,” he recalled laughing.
Hurricane swells did little to deter the sport’s elite, many of whom travelled from as far away as Australia, Europe, Japan and Tahiti to take part in what is called the “Super Bowl” of Sup-ing.
Although an avid racer and one of the sport’s biggest ambassadors, Thomas would rather paddle her “bicycle of the water” over long distances in flat harbor conditions. Still, she enjoys the cosmopolitan feel of BOP. “It’s kind of cool. All kind of languages going on. It’s quite an international sport,” she said.
Howson, a long-time outrigger canoe racer, took to SUP-ing because of convenience and a wider range of local venues. But mostly because his 12-year-old daughter Jade, a Thurston student, also took a liking to the sport.
She started paddling at 9, honing her skills at The Paddle Academy in Dana Point. “Now she’s got a coach, and she’s on a paddle team,” said Howson. “[The Paddle Academy] has been really amazing. Not only for Jade, but for a whole bunch of kids.”
Like her father, Jade braved the Salt Creek swells to finish fifth in the 4-mile under 18 open division race. “It was quite nerve racking,” said Howson. “I was just really proud that my daughter survived it and she did well.”