It’s fair to say that the opening event in the newly formed SUP Champions Tour was a huge success. Everyone who attended the 2014 Carolina Cup seemed excited to soak in the sun and surf all while enjoying a friendly dose of stand up paddleboarding competition.
Friday, the day before the big race, featured a lot of camaraderie as everyone enjoyed the beauty that the Carolina coast has to offer. Seriously—it is gorgeous. Vendor tents were set up both on the sound-side of Wrightsville Beach across the street from Blockade Runner (the beach resort that hosted the event) as well as the ocean-side lawn. Riders, vendors, and your everyday spectators wandered from booth to booth where marketing guys and company representatives were enjoying the weather and one another’s company. There were also lots of board demos available for anyone wanting to hop on and test a potential purchase.
That morning a class had gathered for paddleboarding yoga training put on by Lazy Dog Paddle. There was even a real dog (whether or not he was lazy is up for debate) waddling around the beach anxious to go for a ride. Bumps the paddleboarding dog was a popular patron that day as he wandered from board to board, insistent he be let on to go for a paddle. He sure knew how to work a crowd.
The rest of the day was pretty relaxed, with lots of boards to test in the chilly Carolina water. We saw all kinds of boards from prone, hand-shaped boards made locally, as well as an all-wooden board and paddle made by the rider himself. It was a remarkable manifestation of the kind of scope of the sport—it really has grown to be a huge community that is eager to make room for everyone.
As the tents were being taken down at the expo, a large group paddled across Banks Channel to a small beach on Money Island island about a quarter of a mile away in remembrance of a member of the SUP community who had recently passed: Bob Risner. The “Paddle Out for Bob,” as it was dubbed, was a moment where riders could join together away from the displays of competition and just support one another as well as Bob’s wife, Betsy. Many participants in this moment of commemoration wore green t-shirts that said “Love Like Bob.” It was all very indicative of the kind of family-oriented attitude the SUP community has toward one another. It was a very intimate and moving display.
Later that evening there was an autograph signing with the pros where you could get a poster filled with signatures from your favorite pro paddleboarders. Kids, teens, and adults alike lined up in front of the tables for a chance to meet and greet their favorite athletes, men and women who obviously didn’t feel an elevated sense of self. They were happy to chat with whomever pushed a poster across the table to them as well as joke with who they would be competing with on their left and right. No sense of pending competition made them feel as though they needed to adopt a steely or exclusionary demeanor. I love that no one seemed to take themselves too seriously.
The evening wrapped with a speech from Dave Kalama, long time wave rider and SUP guru. He gave an intimate speech on the lawn of the Blockade Runner as the sun set on the evening before the race. He spoke about finding the will to go on, a concept he had to face head-on during a particularly trying competition.
After what was hopefully a good night’s sleep (though likely fitful for the competitors), the next morning started early with contestants lining up on the sound-side of The Blockade Runner. The small stretch of beach was covered with a rainbow of paddleboards as competitors in the recreation and the open races (both about 6.5 and 3.5 miles respectively) were running around trying to get prepared for their start. The wind was kicking up and I’m sure was affecting the racers mentally. The water was not warm by any stretch of the imagination but everyone seemed excited, if not a tad nervous. The MC opened the morning with safety instructions and an attendee performed a Hawaiian blessing on the event. He scooped ocean water from the shore and ceremoniously splashed it on a nearby board while chanting in Hawaiian. It culminated in everyone clapping together to the blessing and getting excited for the race to begin.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, racers lined up after a little instruction from the MC for the recreational race, a 6.5 mile loop around Harbor Island that began and ended on the sound-side of the beach. Racers had to paddle out from the beach to a more open stretch of water because there were so many of them (approximately 650 racers signed up for all races put together). There they waited for a boat to signal them off with the use of two flags.
After the first group had left (all to the hoots and hollers of support from the beach), the open race began in much the same way—a group of less experienced riders and people just looking for a short, fun ride that morning got on their boards for their 3.5 mile loop.
After the open and rec racers were off, everyone headed to the ocean-side in front of Blockade Runner to watch the elite racers get ready for a 13.2 mile route that has earned the ominous nickname “The Graveyard.” Other beachgoers had gathered to check out the event as groups of family, friends, and racers lined up on the beach, psyching themselves up on the sidelines. First to leave the beach were the kayakers and prone racers (those guys are nuts!). Next to line up and sprint to the water after the horn were the elite men’s division followed by the women.
The fun part about the race was that we got to head back over to the sound-side of the beach to watch the elite racers come around during the first stretch of the race. Oftentimes, all you get to see as a spectator is the beginning and the end of each race. By the time the racers got to the docks where we were watching, they had worked themselves into packs so they could draft one another. They were working hard, jockeying for position in their groups as they worked through the first 1/3rd of the course. Event organizers who knew everyone’s name were shouting encouragements to the racers from the elevated dock, letting them know how far competitors were behind them, telling them who they were close to catching up ahead, and reiterating how great they were doing. This was another reminder (as there had been many throughout the weekend) of how much this community supports one another.
There was a moment of respite as spectators watched and cheered on participants coming in from the Harbor and Money Island races before heading over to the elite finish line. Everyone’s eye was on the coastline, waiting for any sign of competitors coming down the stretch. The first people to come in were the kayakers who stormed the beach triumphantly in quick succession. It wasn’t hard to spot who was the leader of the pack in the men’s elite stand up division because of his neon green hat, shorts, and 404 board. It was Danny Ching, soon to be three-time winner of the elite race at the Carolina Cup, claiming that title two times in a row.
Despite being in what I’m sure was some serious pain, Ching was all smiles as he left the water behind and crossed the finish line at 2:23:56. Less than a minute behind him was George Cronsteadt who came in second with Travis Grant on his heels.
The women’s division was even closer as the top three racers all came in within 11 seconds of each other. First one to cross the finish line was Annabel Anderson at 2:49:13 followed by Jenny Kalmbach at 2:49:19 and Lina Augaitis at 2:49:24.
For a full list of winners, head to the official race time page from Game On.
I’m bummed we had to take off before the kid’s race the following day because it represents so much of what the weekend was about—enjoying the water and sharing something you love with family. For the SUP community, it’s obvious that they all support each other and love to share the sport with the next generation. There was an overwhelming sense of love and support that permeated not only the laid back aspects of the weekend but the competition as well. The whole spirit of the event created a really enjoyable atmosphere; it was evident why people keep coming back each year!
To quote from a statement issued on the Carolina Cup Facebook page:
“The thing about the Carolina Cup is that it isn't just an athletic event. It's a family reunion. It's 600 different personal races. It's a spectacle. It's a chance to learn new things and make new friends. Thank you for everyone who gave your time and talents, including our sponsors, volunteers, participants, and family members along for support. It takes all of you to create such a special event that generates so many individual stories and accomplishments. Congratulations everyone, and thank you, again! Y'all come back, ya hear?”
Oh, we will! Make sure you watch our highlight video from the 2014 Carolina Cup.