Photo: Greg Panas
Photo: Greg Panas

Preview | 2017 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge

With the 2017 SUP racing season slowly winding down, the world’s best paddlers have gathered in Hood River, Oregon for one of the most popular events of the year–the 2017 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge. Known as one of the premier downwinding runs on the planet, this race brings out the upper echelon of standup paddling athletes, vendors and fans.

Fresh off completing his first solo M2O, SUP magazine editor Will Taylor is on location to bring you full coverage of all the action—and get in a couple downwinders. In the meantime, check out this in-depth preview to get prepped for this weekend’s big SUP showdown at the Gorge.

Big bumps are a hallmark of this event. Photo: Panas

Conditions

Depending on the wind, this race can either be heaven or hell. This is due to the unique conditions created by the wind blowing from west to east–the opposite way of the water current. When the wind is on, this phenomenon creates pumping, overhead wind swell. When it’s off, this race devolves into a treadmill-like slog against the current.

Due to this, race organizers will hold the downwind race on whichever day is windier. As of today, the forecast is calling for the wind to be heavier on Saturday. It might not be all-time (the past few days have been really good) but conditions should still be good. And even though the wind looks like it will drop on Sunday, it will still be kicking up some bumps to make for interesting technical races.

It’s sure to be an action-packed weekend of SUP racing. Photo: Greg Panas

The Races

The Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge is much more than a single race, in fact, it’s a whole weekend of SUP racing. Offering both downwind and course racing options for open and pro racers, it’s an action-packed two days. Elite paddlers will be going for the overall win based on their performances in both styles of racing. To take out the guesswork for you, we broke down each race and what to expect.

Downwind Distance – This fabled eight-mile stretch of Oregon’s Columbia River–known as the Viento Run–attracts paddlers from around the globe. The turbulent waters and often huge bumps challenge paddlers as they race from Viento State Park to the Waterfront Park. The Open class racers will complete one run and begin from a beach start.

Downwind Double Down – Just as the name suggests, this event requires not one, but two full runs along the eight-mile course. The pros will begin from a water start–it was a beach start in previous years–before completing the same downwind course as the open-class racers. After completing one lap, paddlers will be shuttled back to the start line to do it all over again.

The paddler with best combined time will be crowned champion and receive a gender-equal top prize of $2,000. But it’s about much more than just the money, winning this event is a career highlight for any paddler.

Full-contact paddling. Photo: Greg Panas

Course Race – If you subscribe to the belief that rubbing is racing, then this course race should peak your interest. The approximately one-mile course is filled with several tight buoy turns that create a full-contact, no-holds-barred event that is exciting for both spectators and competitors alike.

The elite race for pros will be five laps and include a shorter “hot lap” to be used once at the paddler’s discretion. This adds a bit of strategy to the race as paddlers can easily lose the draft–and the race–by taking the hot lap at the wrong time. As with the downwind double down, this race also boasts gender-equal prize money with first place taking home $1,500.

Meanwhile, open class racers will complete four laps of this course, with no prize money but plenty of bragging rights up for grabs.

Racers to Watch

Fiona Wylde – Local girl Fiona Wylde knows these waters better than anyone. Wylde grew up in Hood River and handily won the elite downwind race by over five minutes last year and settled for third in the course race. Wylde has looked stout on a raceboard this year, so we expect her to put forth a similarly impressive effort in her hometown race.

Local girl Fiona Wylde on her home waterway. Photo: Greg Panas

Penelope Strickland – Coming off her record-breaking major victory at Molokai 2 Oahu Strickland is bound to be riding a gust of confidence. You don’t win M2O without a mastery of paddling in the wind, a trait that will be to her advantage in the Gorge. She won gold at the 2016 ISA Worlds on the technical course too, which will make her a threat in both events.

Annabel Anderson – Champions don’t like to lose and Anderson is no exception. She was the heavy favorite going into M2O and came away with a third place finish. She’s spent about a month downwinding in Hawaii and has been in Hood River taking advantage of great winds for the past few days. We ran into her at the put-in for the Viento Run (where the downwind legs start) and she looked focused, fit and ready to fire.

Annabel Anderson leading the charge. Photo: Greg Panas

Terrene Black – Black is one of the best all-around paddlers in the sport and a regular face at SUP races around the world. She took second at M2O this year (and is a past champ), placed fifth here last year and had two wins on the APP World Tour this year. She’s having a very strong year and could parlay that into her biggest result of the year here in Hood River.

Candice Appleby – You can never count Appleby out. While her downwind prowess is up for debate—it’s hard to practice in sunny, calm Southern California—her competitive prowess is not. Appleby has one of the most impressive race resumes in the sport and never goes into a race with anything but winning on the mind. We ran into her on her first of two downwind runs with Strickland yesterday so it’s safe to say she’s getting her sword ready.

Dark Horse: Andrea Moller – Moller is a downwind master, winning the OluKai Ho’olaule’a an unprecedented seven times in a row. The Maui-based Brazilian sat out most of her favorite races last year due to a big-wave surfing injury and had to settle for a fifth at her pet event when it was turned into a miserable course race due to terrible weather. It looks like it will be blowing here, so expect her to push to the front in the double.

Connor Baxter is always tough to beat. Photo: Greg Panas

Connor Baxter – After sweeping both the elite course and downwind races last year–and in 2014–ConBax is the unequivocal favorite for the men. Baxter is a master of the downwinder and when conditions are on, he’s going to be tough to beat. However, the wind forecast doesn’t look all-time, so the door could be open for another paddler to claim victory in Hood River.

Mo Freitas – Freitas is one of those enviable athletes that seems to be equally good at everything. He’s won big technical races like PPG in 2015 and while he hasn’t had a marquee downwind victory, he’s quietly put up some great results right behind the headliners. The wind looks good for Saturday and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Freitas surfing his way to the front of the pack. And if that happens, he might be fired up enough to hold off everyone in the technical as well.

Mo Freitas loving life on the Columbia River. Photo: Greg Panas

Bernd Roediger – The Maui-based paddler showed his true downwinding potential at last year’s race with a second place result. Originally a windsurfer, Bernd is very comfortable in howling conditions and has been excellent while downwinding on a stock board this year. With unlimited boards excluded from the event, this will certainly play into his favor this weekend.

Dark Horse: Josh Riccio – Coming off a big stock win at M2O, Josh Riccio is looking as strong as ever. While technical racing is not his forte, expect Riccio to give the front-runners a run for their money in the downwind double down.

Kai Lenny will likely race on his beloved foil board. Photo: Franck Berthuot

Foil Division: Kai Lenny – It’s official: if the wind is up, Kai Lenny will be foiling. This is the first major race to offer a foil division and Lenny is chomping at the bit. After introducing SUP foiling to the world over a year ago, Lenny has spent countless hours downwinding and surfing on his favorite new watercraft. Expect him to lay down a blistering time if conditions are right.

Related

Exclusive photos and recap from last year’s Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge.