The golden buoy, or first buoy turn of a race, is one of the most critical elements of race strategy and course layout in SUP racing. What if I told you that you could be at a significant disadvantage before your SUP race begins because of where this first buoy is placed?
So what’s the big deal with buoy placement?
If the first buoy turn is too close to the start line then this can create unfair, dangerous and frustrating SUP race starts.
Have you ever been at a race where there is a massive pileup at the first buoy as you wait for the paddlers in front of you to complete the turn?
You can blame a buoy that is placed too close to the start line for this situation.
A close SUP race buoy turn creates pileups as paddlers aim for the buoy to take the turn as tight as possible. A giant bottleneck effect occurs without enough distance to space out the SUP racers after the start.
By the time a SUP racer rounds the buoy their board may be banged up and the front of the pack is long gone. All of this occurs simply because the first turn buoy is too close to the start line.
Some might say, “Well then paddle faster and make sure you are in the front of the pack.”
SUP racing should have a fun, fair and safe start for stand up paddle races. Ensuring the first buoy is placed at an adequate distance from the start line will help create an enjoyable SUP race experience for paddlers of all abilities.
The SUPAA rulebook has detailed requirements for the first turn buoy placement to help create a fair and fun SUP race start. Article 15 states that race courses must have the first buoy turn at least 100 m (328 ft) from the start line when 40 or fewer competitors are present. The race official must add 10 m (33 ft) to the distance of the first buoy for every 10 competitors after 40.
These are minimum requirements. We encourage SUP race officials to place the first turn buoy even further to help create the best starts possible. Let us know your thoughts on these recommendations and encourage your local event organizer to follow the guidelines.
Losing Before the Start Horn Sounds
Another problem with a close first turn buoy is that is creates a crowded start line and an unfair advantage for paddlers who have inside positioning. In calm conditions, paddlers who are lined up with inside positioning will have a shorter distance to the first buoy turn and an inside positioning advantage.
These unfair circumstances are particularly apparent in short sprint races but are just as important in long distance SUP racing as well.
Track and field events require runners to start in staggered positions to eliminate the advantage gained by inside positioning on the track. Car races hold time qualifiers to reward the fastest drivers with inside positioning on the start line.
Inside positions on the start lines are often jam packed with no room to maneuver or paddle. SUP race organizers can simply move the first turn buoy so that it is a longer distance from the start line to help eliminate these unfair and frustrating situations.
Sprint races should institute seeding to determine which paddlers gain inside positioning on the start line.
Wind and Wave Factors
By now you should understand why the first buoy placement is so important. The examples given so far have been without consideration for a race that has downwind conditions or waves. Let’s take a look at a race with wind or waves to see just how much more critical buoy placement becomes.
You line up for a race and there are 100 other competitors on the start line. The first turn buoy is only 100 meters straight out and the wind is blowing side shore at 13-16 knots.
The horn goes off and all 100 paddlers jockey for positioning as everyone bottlenecks into the first turn buoy. The first five paddlers make it around the buoy with relative ease before the majority of the paddlers reach the buoy.
The first five paddlers are now paddling downwind at a speed that is around 50% faster than the pace leading up to the buoy. The gap that each paddler gains between themselves and those who have not yet rounded the buoy is significant.
The paddlers who have not yet rounded the buoy are essentially standing still as the paddlers who are going downwind continue to advance. Let’s say a conservative downwind paddling pace for winds less than 16 knots is 11-13 km per hour (7-8 mph). A paddler who averages 12 km per hour will travel roughly 11 feet per second. Based on this simple calculation, a paddler who has rounded the buoy will travel roughly one board length ahead of the paddlers behind the buoy for every second they are leading after the turn.
This is a significant competitive advantage for the paddlers who have already rounded the buoy.
If you have ever experienced a bottleneck at the start then you know that you must wait much longer than a few seconds to round a crowded first buoy turn. Not too mention the time that it takes to maneuver around paddlers, get into your rhythm or recover from a fall or tangle.
The time and energy it takes to make up the distance you have dropped behind is incredibly difficult and can often be the difference in the outcome of a race. This entire situation is created in the first minute of the race due to poor buoy placement.
The same ideas can be applied to a race in waves. In waves, the speed that a paddler gains when rounding a buoy and catching waves back to the beach is over 100% faster than a normal race pace paddling speed. Sufficient distance for the first buoy turn in a beach race with waves can be even more critical than other formats.
Why would any SUP racer want to start a race at a disadvantage?
Encourage your local race directors to adopt the SUPAA rules on buoy placement and help ensure SUP races are fun, fair and safe for SUP racers around the world.
Let us know your thoughts on this issue by commenting on Facebook or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.