Paddle races are inherently dangerous. Even in the most benign of conditions, people can get hurt and even die. We don’t think about it often because of the contagious spirit embodied in the participants and event staff. It’s fun. BUT. It’s dangerous. And as paddlers—as participants in these events—we need to take personal responsibility for our participation.
We’ve posted a ton of safety articles on Distressed Mullet over the years. Please check out the archive here.
An integral part of requiring personal responsibility is understanding the risks. It is a shared responsibility between race and racer. Events have to participants what to expect. Even if that expectation is for an incalculable number of conditions and a high possibility that there will be no one there to rescue them or their equipment. At the same time, racers need to do their homework. They have to check the conditions, ask questions, GOOGLE IT. They also have to respect the distance and the conditions that they will face be being prepared. That means training and practice in conditions and not just showing up. It might work in a local 5K paddle, but in the larger, more extreme paddle challenges, very few paddlers can just show up and go. Races like Chattajack, The Blackburn Challenge, Molokai 2 Oahu (M2O) or the Cape to Cape in Cape May NJ will eat you up and spit you out. That’s why many races pre-qualify participants based on their ability, race results, and some require paddlers to have an escort boat. You have to show the event not only that you can do the distance, but you can do the distance in a range of conditions, within a certain amount of time, and without draining event resources.
The Blackburn Challenge, a 20+ mile open water circumnavigation of Cape Ann put on each year by the Cape Ann Rowing Club has one of my favorite opening paragraphs of any of the circumnavigation and crossing events:
“The Blackburn Challenge is a 20+ mile open water circumnavigation of Cape Ann. Participants row or paddle small boats in the open ocean waters around Cape Ann, and conditions can vary dramatically throughout the day. Occasionally the water can be very rough, with strong winds and high waves. While we have some powerboats on the course to monitor checkpoints, we do not provide boat escorts—you should expect to be out of their sight and fully independent most of the time. Unless you have solid experience in difficult conditions with the boat you plan to use, you should not enter this event. Always plan an “escape” path to safety, and if you encounter any problems along the way, pull out and call to let us know. The orderly, safe and sportsmanlike conduct of this event is your personal responsibility, and is essential to guaranteeing the future of the Blackburn Challenge.
We have no rain date; there’s always an event…”
—From the Blackburn Challenge Race Overview, accessed on 27 August, 2018
The point is, participants, after preparing for an event and being given the information on the conditions and course, we as paddlers need to agree to take the risk. All of us. Not to just get in the water, but to acknowledge that we are fully aware of the risks and agree to take those risks. Race or not to race, to finish or not finish. Those are our questions. Of course, it’s up to the event to make the course as safe as possible, to offer assistance in emergency situations, but in some arenas, they can’t put up the bumpers thwarting gutter balls and can’t bubble wrap you. Simply put, some races are not meant for the inexperienced and no race is meant for the unprepared. In fact, some races are not meant for anything less than the best watermen and women.
In the case of the Gorge Downwind Championships, this gets tricky. Some days, the Columbia River can look more like a lake than a river. For races weeks like that, most paddlers can do the course. Even on days with mild winds, inexperienced paddlers with the proper safety equipment can participate. Then there are weeks like we had this past July. For nearly a week, winds consistently whipped up waves like locals hadn’t seen in decades. Phrases like “All Time” and “Epic” spread across the globe. Even OC paddlers on their way to Tahiti were bummed not to be headed to the Pacific Northwest. (Suckers!)
In places like the Hatchery and Swell City where strong currents collided with gusting winds to produce waves big enough to hide a 21-foot surfski or outrigger canoe in its trough.
The event, held this year from July 17-22 in Hood River, Oregon, set expectations and education for the potential for dangerous conditions on day one, moment one, during check in. First, participants get and sign the mandatory legal waiver. Paddlers do that all the time. No one reads it. They just sign and ask for the shirt. The gorge anticipated this and went further.
The next part, the delightful surprise as a former race director, was the signing of the event badge. This was the first time I’d seen this at an event and I loved it. The Gorge Downwind Challenge created laminated, hard plastic badges that served three purposes:
First, it provided a high-visibility badge for participants to be used as entry onto the shuttles from the beginning of the Viento run, located 8 miles down river. It was mandatory that all participants affix the badge to their Personal Flotation Device (PFD) or safety “Kit.”
Second, it provides instructions of what to do in case of emergency in order: Call 911, contact the safety director, and text the race director. I LOVE THIS. Why? Because that’s the protocol. If there is an emergency, dial 911. Don’t wait. Don’t wait for the race director to call them. GET HELP. I also love that in cases involving safety, you have someone to contact. The SAFETY DIRECTOR. And as a last step, contact the race director who communicates best by text (even know he had surgery on his hands, it was still the best option with so much going on).
This is where the badge gets even awesome-er. Next, it did something new…
On the back, is an education, an agreement—notice on what to expect and making you aware that you agreed to do this.
You had to read and check each of the following items before signing the tag in permanent marker.
- I can remount in rough water
- I will always paddle with a buddy
- I will always wear my PFD
- I will always wear my leash
- I will wear bright clothes on the water
- I understand on race day staff can only rescue me and not my boat
- I understand that I am fully responsible for my boat on the trailer
I TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY
Why was all this important?
Because conditions were extreme. 270 people did not enter the water of the over 700 who registered that race day. In some spots on the river, waves were in excess of 12 feet. Winds on one night blew in the 60 MPH range, blowing all the tents down except 2. These are tents built and set up for wind. And they were left strew about like broken matchsticks the next morning.
In fact, we had emails to that effect. Everyone knew what were were getting into.
On race morning, the race director, Carter repeated this no less than 50 times.
THESE ARE EXTREME CONDITIONS. WE CAN NOT SAVE YOUR BOAT. DO NOT ENTER THE WATER UNLESS YOU ARE ABLE TO REMOUNT YOUR BOATS IN EXTREME CONDITIONS.
Even with all the setup, the signing of the badges and constant chatter about the safety concerns, there was still a decision to be made by each participant. Some of the paddlers thought they laid it on pretty thick. And they did. But that was a good thing. Conditions were so extreme that one of the safety boats was unable to reach the starting line. They played HONEY BADGER on the PA system to let everyone know that the river don’t give a F?#%&!
The river wasn’t angry. But it was alive. And I enjoyed all but a few moments of the race. In one case, I saw a surfski paddler go under, two other competitors swooped in to stabilize his ski between them and get him back on and paddling. It was proficient. It was a wonderful example of sportsmanship, camaraderie and community. I flipped at the 4 mile mark, my leash held and I remounted. Two paddlers paused to make sure I was ok. I remounted and continued. It actually loosened me up.
In the end, the race was a success and this year was one for the ages. We were fortunate enough to not have any major incidents. There were a few saves made by the safety staff and some paddlers were met with unexpected, unrehearsed self-rescue situations.
I appreciate the thought that went into this. It’s a small badge and a huge issue. And as an unexpected bonus, this badge has become one of my favorite keepsakes from events over the past decade. It’s going on my wall with my other medals, photos. But mostly, I love the thinking behind it. I love the execution and I love that we all take part in these races as willing participants, as partners in an adventure with preparation, knowledge and respect. Race directors, think on this. It’s a GREAT idea.
Well done Carter and everyone else who made this year so special. I look forward to many more years of this pilgrimage to the Gorge.
And as an aside, thank you to everyone who came out to our crazy bachelor party week for Steve. Best week ever. Someone needs to get married next year so we can do this again? Oh, and I’m NOT DRIVING next year. Slack asses. Who has my blue straps! I’ll be ready.