The week before the Gorge Downwind Championships was the Canadian Surfski Champs race that we organise, so my time was all consumed with that the week before the race which was great as I didn’t have time to get nervous, but also somewhat nerve-wracking as I also didn’t have time to train! Being surrounded by all the racers visiting for the race was great though as I did get really excited about going to Hood River and being part of such a big event.

“The Gorge” as people reverentially refer to it, is a week long festival of paddling, based in Hood River. I have never seen so many surfskis in one place at the same time it was amazing! One of the great features of the festival is the shuttle service they put on. All day, every day, shuttle buses with trailers take paddlers and their surfskis, OCs and SUPs down to a launch site 12km downriver, and you then paddle back to the start. For me, this was a great training exercise as I had never paddled in conditions like it before…the pic below is the ‘before’ image! That first paddle was, ummm, a learning experience to say the least. I fell in a bunch of times, and while the water was warm after a while I got quite tired of remounting. However, I made it, but felt pretty discouraged.

Gorge surfski paddle

However, I then had an awesome session in an Epic V8 Double with Ryan Paroz the next day, and learnt SO much I felt much more prepared, it was amazing. Thank you SO much to Bob for setting that up, and then to Ryan for the clinic itself. Ryan as a coach was great – encouraging and challenging, and he gave me opportunities to learn in ‘real’ situations too so I really felt an improvement in my paddling from one day to the next. The video below shows some of the footage from our paddle.

For the race itself, the organisers give themselves three days to pick the best conditions, and this year they went with the first day which was TERRIFYING as I’d actually only paddled the river twice at that point. One of the hardest things about race day was the waiting around for the winds to pick up and the race to start. After being at the start line for 10am, the organisers called the race for 2pm, so there was a lot of time to get nervous. One of the safety considerations they highlighted was to advise that if you didn’t think you could paddle, then you shouldn’t, as you were only endangering someone else on the course who might actually need help. That was a fair comment, but definitely made me consider my abilities…I decided that even if the conditions got huge, my remount was solid, and that if necessary I could paddle to the side and just slog it out in the smaller waves to the end.

The start line was also pretty nerve wracking – there were four waves of race starts beginning with the SUPs, then doubles, female surfskis and OCs, then male surfski, then male OC, with 5 minutes between starts. There were a few people that I knew on the start line, and everyone kind of paddled around nervously waiting for the signal. As this is a 22km race I knew that sprinting off the start wasn’t going to do me any favours in the long run, so I just started strong and tried to get in a rhythm. The best thing about the staggered starts was that once I got going, there were a whole lot of people who went past me saying encouraging things and saying hi – some of whom I knew (Pat Langley and Sean Hulscher stand out) but many I didn’t, and people just said hello, keep going, you’re doing great etc etc which was really helpful.

The race start was 10km further down river than I’d paddled at all, so a lot of the first half of the race was me figuring out where to go, avoiding weed traps and trying not to get in anyone’s way who was going faster than me! I was sort of keeping Mel Durban from Kelowna in my line of sight, as she was in a similar boat and paddling a similar pace, and it was definitely comforting to look up and see her still just a bit ahead of me!

One error I made was in the line that I took at about ¼ the way into the race – I could see most of the paddlers were off on the right of the course, yet I was sort of middle-left in the river. This meant that I was in some bigger waves (SUPER FUN) but I lost a lot of time and distance just having a good time on the waves (not sure you’re supposed to whoop with joy in the middle of a race), and trying to get over to the right side. Next year I’ll know better and get over to the right a lot earlier…

Gorge surfski paddling

I had a couple of really fantastic periods where I caught a succession of waves, and my arms got some rest while I let the boat do the hard work, but the race was also pretty tough for me. I had a couple of energy pouches with me, but, also due to lack of race experience, I didn’t take them at the right time and by the last kilometre I was pretty wiped out. I paddled as hard as I could to the finish line though, and came in as strong as possible, at 2:28:59 and in 165th place out of 187 surfskiers. To put it in perspective, the first guys over the line were an hour ahead of me, which gives you an idea of how much slower I was!

Getting over the finish line and onto the beach was fantastic – Bob was there to congratulate me which was perfect as he has been a huge coach and mentor for me in my surfski paddling so far. Even now, 2 ½ months on I am still incredibly proud of myself – this race had been a target for a long time, and something that I never really thought I could do, and do well. And yet I did. I certainly wasn’t the fastest, but I had a BLAST doing it, and really feel like I could go back and do much better having done it once.

Finish line

The Gorge Festival itself was also just a fantastic experience. One of the unexpected benefits of having the race early was that once it was done, we still had two whole days of paddling to enjoy! The shuttles keep running until the final day, so the day following the race I had the best paddle I’ve ever had with a whole bunch of friends from Vancouver who all paddled together. I even went into the infamous ‘swell city’ area, definitely something I didn’t think I could possibly do even just two days prior! With encouragement from my friends, and the knowledge that they had my back, I felt like I could take on anything.

I would love to go back to the town of Hood River and really take time to explore the area – it is a stunning part of the world, with snow-capped mountains on either side, and hiking, biking and climbing opportunities too. The river is the hub, with kite boarders, windsurfers, surfskiers and SUPers just everywhere. Basically, if you like being active outdoors, it’s a mecca! There’s also some pretty excellent breweries and coffee shops too…if you like that sort of thing.

Multnomah Falls

So, after the high of the race, it was pretty cool to come back to TNR and talk to everyone about my experiences. I think the majority of people I know in the race community, SUP and surfski, knew that I was heading down there and I had so many people come and ask how it had gone, it made me feel very grateful for the incredibly supportive people here.

Since then, I have definitely gone easy on myself and took a break from paddling if only for a short time as I was still racing up until the end of the season. I managed to get the worst heel blisters I’ve ever had on a hiking weekend and put it down to having such soft feet from paddling all summer! So that put me out of the boat for a while but it was healthy to have a break I think.

I have now set a new goal of paddling in The Doctor, a 28km surfski race in Perth, Australia at the end of November. I’d been thinking about making a trip down under, and after talking to a couple of advocates (alright, Damo!!!) I know from Canadian Surfski Champs again this year I’ve decided to go for it – you can see footage from the race below. I’ll be paddling a V8 again (mainly because I’m wanting something super stable for my first open ocean race in shark-infested waters!!), and am incredibly excited to take on this next challenge. The Doctor will hopefully be followed by the Palm to Pines race in Sydney as I follow my journey around Australia. So there’s a lot to keep me on the water until I leave in three weeks’ time. I’m trying to get out 3 times per week, doing sprint drills and strength training too so hopefully won’t let the Canadian/British side down!!

My progression has been really interesting to measure, mainly in terms of which surfski I’ve been able to paddle. I started the year off in the Epic V8 Pro, and even paddled the V8 in the Deception Pass Dash in December. I then felt confident to step up to the V10 Sport in May, and am now paddling the Think Evo II.

Needless to say, I will be posting when I can about my surfski endeavours while travelling, and would like to thank ALL the people who have helped me on my journey so far but mainly my hugely supportive family at Deep Cove – Mike D was the one who suggested I even enter the Gorge race, and then Bob has been a huge help, to Viv and Kim who would yell encouragement at me from the TNR media boat every week haha, daryl and Team Think who made my time at the Gorge SO MUCH FUN. Thanks to all my paddling buddies but particularly Andy Hubbard who has been out there learning with me and is now kicking my ass in the V12.

Here’s to Australia, and another great year of paddling ahead in 2018.