Race Recap: Gorge Downwind Champs
The Gorge Downwind Championships has been an annual pilgrimage from its inception. It’s predecessor, the Wildside Relay, first introduced me to this downwind paradise, and I have enjoyed screaming upstream on the Columbia River in the shadow of snow capped volcanoes ever since.
For 2017, the Gorge Downwind Championships would be my first “A” race of the year. A solid plan from Paddle California had me fitter than ever and I was raring to go. My day to day training ground, 5 hours from the ocean, is no venue to fine tune your downwind skills, so I flew in early with Eric Mims and Bruce Poacher from Epic Kayaks, where we met our boats and the west coast legend of Kenny Howell.
While most paddlers were up in Canada competing in the Canadian Downwind Championships, we enjoyed fantastic downwind conditions and a quite river while we banged out some solid mileage to get into the Gorge groove.
Over the coming week, our numbers would swell to 500 strong, while the gorge dealt out average conditions for us to play with. The lack of “nuclear” conditions made it easy to pick your volume and intensity as we continued to play in the Gorge and learn from the sports legends who ran a string of well run and informative clinics.
Race day was set for Thursday with the forecast promising the best conditions of the race window. As we caravanned to the race start, it was clear there would be no free rides out there and we were all going to have to work hard to reach our goals. As the crowd paddled to the start line, the Columbia was awash with bright orange race shirts, surfskis, OC’s and SUP’s. This event must be one of the largest surfski races in the World now.
We started in waves with some of my fellow competitors missing the start as they chatted further back. Thankfully I was paying attention and got away clean in the chaos after the gun. I started very conservatively and didn’t really feel on my game yet, but just kept pushing knowing that 499 other competitors might be feeling the same way. With the course actually taking us upstream but downwind, there is some knowledge and strategy that plays heavily into things. I choose the State-line, basically paddling up the center of the river on the Washington/Oregon state line, where the wind and waves would be the most consistent but the downstream current would be the fastest. In hindsight, this probably is not the fastest line, but I had a fun time nonetheless. As we progressed towards the finish, the waves built and my early conservative effort allowed me to increase my effort and tempo as the conditions built. I soon found myself at the turn buoy about 1km from the finish where I was able to pass a few last folks before running up the beach to the finish. I had way too much energy left and knew it. I probably hadn’t pushed hard enough.
I finished 54th, up from 64th the previous year and a little short of my goal, but having banked another 10 days of knowledge and experience into the reserves. But more importantly, I had had the chance to hang out with friends new and old and enjoy a week of camaraderie in one of the most spectacular downwind venues.