Recap: Tough Conditions at Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge

Slater Trout slinks into the hole slot on Day One of the Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge during the Elite Course Race surrounded by the world's best racers, and a thick layer of smoke from nearby forest fires. Photo: Brian Munce (@photobymunce)
Slater Trout slinks into the hole slot on Day One of the Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge during the Elite Course Race, surrounded by the world’s best racers, as well as a thick layer of smoke from nearby forest fires. Photo: Brian Munce (@photobymunce)

Margetts, Ching and Anderson Prevail in Tough Conditions at Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge

After a weekend of diehard racing among the world's top paddlers, the fifth annual Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge wrapped up yesterday in hot, windless conditions with Annabel Anderson winning both Saturday and Sunday’s events for the second year in a row. On the Men’s side, Danny Ching took the course race win on Saturday, while 42-year-old Kelly Margetts beat the all-star group of paddlers on hand for Sunday’s race to steal the story of the event. Travis Grant, who’s putting on the best season of his career with wins at Molokai 2 Oahu and the Carolina Cup, took second in both races for the overall win.

The weekend’s conditions were anomalous for this section of Hood River, Oregon. The ferocious westerly winds that grace the Gorge, which famously couple with the river's opposing current to create massive bumps, failed to register for Saturday and Sunday’s races. Instead, a light easterly breeze blew down the river, exacerbating the oncoming current for paddlers and carrying with it a thick layer of smoke from numerous forest fires in the surrounding area. The smoke settled into the Gorge for the weekend, tainting the air to leave contenders even more winded. To top it off, temperatures hovered in the high-80s through the weekend. Needless to say, even for the fittest racers, this year's Paddle Challenge truly lived up to its name.

Day One: Course Race

An ominous air hung over the opening day of racing, as Miami's Andres Pombo, a member of the paddling’s extended family, went missing during a downwind practice run. After authorities recovered his board and found GoPro footage from the camera attached to its deck, which showed Pombo separating from his equipment before drifting off screen, a massive search was launched to find the missing paddler. Pombo has yet to turn up and recovery efforts remain underway.

The day of course racing kicked off with a dominant performance by Annabel Anderson. The Kiwi proved yet again she’s the lady to beat (coming off a second-place overall/14-foot stock win at Molokai 2 Oahu) taking a commanding early lead in the Course Race that cinched her the victory long before she crossed the finish line. Behind her, friends and training partners Fiona Wylde and Angie Jackson duked it out for the second-place finish, with Jackson eventually pulling ahead to settle the duel just before the finish line. Wylde came in a close third, with Shannon Bell (4th) and Terrene Black (5th) wrapping up the top-five. See below for full results from the women’s Elite Course Race.

On the men’s side, Saturday’s Elite Course Race played out with a proper—if odd—battle among a handful of the world’s fastest gents. Ching was the undisputed top performer, holding a lead throughout the five-lap course before almost losing it while heading for an incorrect buoy near the end of the race. He was followed by the lead pack before they realized their mistake. Ching finished just steps ahead of the on-fire Grant, who was just coming off one of the performances of the year at Molokai 2 Oahu. New Caledonia‘s rising threat Titouan Puyo finished third with world champion Connor Baxter, Georges “The Tahitian Beast” Cronsteadt and Maui superstar Kai Lenny filling out the next few places in that order. A splintered chase pack came in more than a minute behind Lenny. See full results for the men’s top-20 below.

Day Two: "Downwind" Race

Day Two on the Gorge kicked off with a paddle-out on behalf of Pombo, the missing paddler. Jake Jensen led the pack on Pombo's board, followed by what may have been the largest paddle-out group in SUP history, with nearly 250 community members rallying to support the search. What a supportive group the SUP community is.

Meanwhile, race coordinators reevaluated the day's racing due to the light winds, resolving to cut the usual eight-mile Double Downwinder (where competitors do the downwind run twice for time) in half for Sunday’s race, a welcomed revision given the brutal conditions.

The women were the first to test the waters, putting on valiant performances despite the oncoming current and dead wind. Anderson once again took first-place, making a clean sweep for the 2015 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge for the second year running. Nearly a minute behind Anderson, Wylde (2nd) and Black (3rd) came in neck-and-neck to round out the top-three, followed by Angie Jackson and the youngster Shae Foudy.

On the men’s side, a main group of 15 to 20 paddlers jockeyed for position behind the leading pack, which consisted of Grant, Ching and Margetts, as Puyo paralleled the pack with a line of his own all the while. Smaller draft trains took chances by breaking off to run their own lines along side the chase pack, with Lenny and Josh Riccio opting to go it alone for a stint and Cronsteadt choosing his own route as well. In the end, Margetts, a favorite contender among the paddlers, proved that age is not a factor by beating out the young guns to claim victory with a time of 1:19:27.73. The 42-year-old, who turns 43 in a few days, beat out runners up Grant (2nd) and Puyo (3rd) for a storybook ending in the vicious Hood River conditions. A perennial contender at past BOP events, this is the biggest win of Margett’s career. An amazing performance from the Australian resident.

Results for Day One Elite Course Races:

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Full Results for Day Two Distance Race:

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More from Columbia River Gorge.

More info on Andres Pombo, the missing paddler. Our condolences to his family and friends.