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By Jake Howard
This weekend, the best stand-up paddlers in the world will descend on Doheny State Beach for the 2016 Pacific Paddle Games presented by Salt Life. It’s the culmination of a long summer racing season, and for those with eyes on dipping into the $60,000 prize purse, preparation is everything.
“The Pacific Paddle Games isn’t just one of the last events of the season, it’s also one of the biggest events,” said Maui’s Connor Baxter. “Trying to peak at the right time, that’s a hard part of it. Some of us don’t just race short courses, we’re doing long distance, channel crossings, surf races. And a huge thing is not peaking too early in the season.”
Taking place from Sept. 30-Oct. 2, this year’s race categories include Pro Technical, Open Technical, Youth Technical and Distance. With the exception of the pro categories, there are age divisions to accommodate everyone from kids to seniors. The Pro divisions are capped at 150 racers. Last year, there were over 250 total entrants. Given the booming popularity of stand-up paddling, especially in local waters, there’s no reason to expect the participation numbers to drop off at all.
Taking a slightly different tact from last year’s Games, some changes have been made to improve the 2016 technical races. This year’s competition will feature multiple 16-man heats in four elimination rounds. The goal is to cut down on some of the race chaos and keep everybody a little bit safer. Because the race entails multiple laps around a short-course that weaves in and out through the surf line, Paddle Games organizers are optimistic that the new format will have a positive impact.
“The main difference between the Technical and Distance races is that competitors will be going in and out of the surf,” explained race director Anthony Vela. “Doheny is an interesting place that has a lot of reverb coming off the beach, and there are a lot of different reefs. Even on a flat day that doesn’t look bumpy, there’s still a lot of water moving around.”
Last year, the surf was absolutely pumping for the Games, and this year promises to see more of the same. Over the last week, a large storm system has been brewing in the South Pacific, churning out a solid southwest swell forecast to arrive just in time for the weekend. It should be strong enough to push the surf well overhead around Trestles, which translates into shoulder- to head-high surf at Doheny—more than enough to keep things plenty interesting.
Beyond the breakers, the six-mile distance race consists of two laps around a triangular course outside the surf line at Doheny. There is also a three-mile Distance race that is only one lap and features divisions for Open and Recreational racers. And for the non-racers on the beach, the West Marine Demo Zone is an ideal spot to pick up a paddle, grab a board and try your hand at stand-up paddling. It’s open to the public and is worth checking out if you’ve been looking for an excuse to walk on water.
New for this year is the Manufacturer’s Team Challenge, which brings a little industry flair to the Games. Pitting brand teams against each other, the four winning teams split $25,000 worth of print and digital advertising in SUP Magazine.
With seemingly something for everyone, the obvious question is how one goes about winning the Pacific Paddle Games. First and foremost, confidence in one’s equipment is critical. Given that starting lines are notoriously tangled, turns around buoys can resemble a mosh pit, and a healthy south swell will be wreaking havoc, a good feeling about race gear makes all the difference.
“It’s really important to be comfortable on your board,” says Vela. “It has to be wide enough to paddle in tough conditions. In the open distance race, there are about 300 to 400 people starting at one time, and there’s a lot of turbulence.”
But like most races, the devil is in the detail. The top-flight pros spend months dialing in on their race strategies.
“Smaller points that are often overlooked are the little things like mental training, mental preparation. I’m visualizing this race already,” explained Baxter. “Visualizing the first heat, second heat, what I’m going to do strategy-wise, how hard am I going to go, when I’ll need to conserve energy. For instance, I know it’s important to conserve enough to perform strong in the finals (for the technical race) since that’s where the coin comes in.”
When the race horn sounds “you want to get off to a good start where you are paddling at almost 100 percent,” continued Vela. “Then you need to find your groove, that 70 to 80 percent range where you can sustain that pace for the remainder of the race.”
Really, there’s no easy way to win a division at the Pacific Paddle Games. The level of talent is second to none. In the pro divisions, at least, everyone is a world-class athlete, and they’ve had this weekend circled on their calendar all year. But victory also takes a significant amount of luck. One wave can make all the difference. It could knock a race leader off their board just as easy as it could carry them to victory. And because of all these variables and the high drama they produce, there’s no better place to be than Doheny this weekend.