SUP River Racing: The Future Of Our Sport?

With the largest purse in SUP racing, the Payette River Games has helped to put SUP river racing on the map. This past week I traveled to Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade, Idaho to experience SUP river racing, and see how it might become a larger part of the SUP racing landscape. After a week on the river, I dramatically improved my river SUP abilities and discovered a new side of our sport that has me more excited than ever about SUP racing.

Grab A Seat

The spectator friendliness of racing on the river is one of the most obvious qualities of SUP river racing. Kelly’s Whitewater Park is a modified section of the Payette River that has various man-made rapids and features that creates challenging whitewater conditions for river athletes. The main feature of the park is a four foot drop and river wave at the top section of the park. This feature is surrounded by stadium seating for convenient spectator viewing a few feet from the heart of the action.

There are not many water sports that can be viewed at such a close distance to the athletes and racing. Imagine taking a seat ten feet from the main peak at Pipeline. This can give you an idea for just how close SUP racing fans can watch river races. SUP beach racing is the closest thing to river racing in terms of spectator friendliness, however, beach racers catch waves hundreds of feet away from the beach and not nearly as close as one can get to the action on the river.

Payetter River Games SUP racing

Front row stadium seating with a view. PC: Payette River Games

Making SUP racing more spectator friendly is a common topic of conversation in the SUP racing community. I believe SUP racing is a participation sport and most SUP races do not need to be catered to spectators. With that being said, there are certainly events that can be modified to be spectator friendly in order to draw in more sponsors, media exposure and help grow the sport. The Battle of the Paddle and other beach races are good examples of exciting spectator friendly formats. While the BOP was entertaining, SUP river racing takes the spectator experience to a whole new level of excitement.

Carnage On The River

The Payette River Games is set up as a combination event where athletes compete in both the Super G and Paddle Cross events for a combined overall score. The Super G is a timed course of buoy turns placed throughout the rapids. Competitors zoom through the course individually and try to secure the fastest time possible. Much like slalom skiing events, anticipation can build as each athlete tries to beat the fastest time.

While the Super G is exciting, it’s ultimately a test of the paddler against the river. The Paddle Cross portion of the competition adds a whole other element of racing with heats of four to six paddlers jockeying for position through the downriver course. Watching and participating in the Paddle Cross was an exciting combination of demolition derby carnage and Formula 1 finesse.

Runaway boards and swimming paddlers were common in the SUP Cross heats.

Front row seating. Runaway boards and swimming paddlers were common in the SUP Cross heats.

We were dressed for the occasion with life vests, helmets and protective padding. Despite the potential for serious carnage there were relatively few major collisions. However, spectators were not disappointed as there was plenty of bumping and swimming as we tackled the whitewater over the weekend.

Watching competitors strategically use river currents to take inside position at a buoy or a high line through the rapids was just as entertaining as watching an epic wipe out. River racing showcases the inevitable outcomes of trying to paddle through whitewater while standing. Spectators are treated to both the carnage and skill of river SUP while athletes are presented with new and exciting challenges.

The River Giveth and the River Taketh

The fastest paddlers in the world cannot match the power of a raging river current. Racing on the river is as much about reading the water and steering technique as it is about paddling fast. The paddlers who had the best combination of fitness and river skills were the ones who came out on top. One fall in the strong current while ferrying across the river was often the difference between first and last place. The river is the great equalizer, no paddler can out-muscle it’s power.

I found spectators and athletes appreciated a slow and perfectly executed crossing of the rapids as much as pure paddling speed in the flats. The goal is not to paddle faster than the competitor next to you in order to get from point A to point B first. Instead, river racing rewards the SUP athlete who picks the best lines, uses solid river paddling techniques and executes their game plan. River paddling is often more the skill of steering strokes than forward paddling. The best competitors use the power of the river to gain speed and let steering and board positioning do the hard work.

A paddler who is seemingly out of the race can grab the lead instantly if the lead paddler takes a bad line when crossing the rapids to the next buoy. Watching this dance on the river and participating as an athlete is a unique feature of river racing that kept me completely engaged. Imagine the enjoyment of watching set waves continuously pumping through the BOP beach race. Now you can get an idea of the potential for lead changes and anticipation in river racing.

A New Challenge

SUP river racing is a new element of stand up paddling for myself and many stand up paddlers. After six years of racing on oceans and lakes I have found yet another element of our sport to fall in love with. The challenge of a completely new SUP skill is a welcomed shot in the arm that has renewed my passion for SUP racing. Our sport is unique in its numerous uses. Surf, flat water, downwind, yoga, expedition, fishing and whitewater are just a few SUP possibilities. Whitewater SUP racing is another amazing part of our sport that I anticipate will become increasingly more popular and visible.

Increased visibility will start with the airing of the Payette River Games on CBS Sports coming this July. So take a river safety course, grab your SUP gear and hit the river for a new and exciting way to experience stand up paddling.

SUP river wave

Did I make it? Let’s say the river was victorious on this attempt.