Cold Stroke Classic

John Beausang of DistressedMullet.com takes us inside the passionate North Carolina SUP scene that's turned this third annual race into a brisk, mid-January classic, and comes away with a succinct summary: Blame Canada.

The horn sounds once…One minute!

"How about nine-eight-seven-six there, jocko?!" someone yells at the race director. I hate yacht water starts.

"The starting line is crooked," Bill Gassett tells me.

He's right. We have to get over toward the buoy. Otherwise, we'll be behind and in the wash from the start. The start is everything.

Thirty Seconds!

The current slowly pushes the elite racers together, bunching them up along the floating fluorescent buoy. Chris Hill says he's just out to have fun. I remind him that he only has one speed.

Twenty seconds.

'Why are there so many damn horns?' I ask myself.

Ten seconds!

"Fellas, please!" Betsy Risner says as she's closed off from the course, pushed back a few feet.

Four. Three. Two. One—GO!!!

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The right half of the pack is crammed together and paddling to their left. The left side of the pack is paddling slightly to their right. Boards hit boards. Paddles hit paddles. Frustration and laughter. A classic start cluster-f$&#!

The chase boat, keeping pace next to the front of the pack throws wakes through competitors. No one seems to fall, but I hear some swearing. I'm swearing.

It's a crisp 50 degrees. Competitors in this seven-mile, inland waterway race have stripped themselves of wetsuits in favor of more winter-running attire with surf booties. Catherine Nathan is wearing "jeans and a cute top."

By the first turn, cold-induced rhinorrhea stimulates copious amounts of phlegm. Arms are coated.

One paddler remarked, "Going under the bridge, people were taking photos and I didn't want to look up with a stream of snot coming out of my nose."

Up ahead, someone in a surf stance with an oddly slow cadence pulls away. Introducing Larry Cain, 1984 sprint canoe Olympic gold medalist—you know, C-1, where they're paddling on one knee and lifting the entire hull out of the water with each paddle stroke. When people make comments about the "Engine." They're talking about someone like Larry. He thought it might be fun to try an SUP race. God help us normal humans.

Larry, Chris Hill and Larry's friend Derek lead the pack and steadily pull away. Heather Baus is hammering next to me. She's phenomenal. I know Betsy Risner, Nikki Gregg and Anne Gassett can't be far behind.

By the second of two laps, we all know the conditions aren't what they're supposed to be. The incoming tide isn't incoming. The channels shifted. The course variation from our usual loops befuddles the locals. I can't find the right line. It figures.

In the end, local paddler Chris Hill prevails as the overall winner. Larry Cain and Derek Schotter, paddling 12’6″ boards, are right behind him followed closely by Dan Gavere. Craig "The Piston" Stephens edges out Bill Gassett by a foot. Chris Curry and Matt McDonald battled to the very end for third in the elite stock class. Betsy pulls away from Nikki for second and Anne Gassette isn't far behind for fourth.

Back on shore, the prevailing thought is, "Why am I wheezing?" people are coughing. Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction sucks.

I meet Larry and ask about his technique. He says he's learning SUP and mostly paddles on his right side. "How many strokes before you switch?" I ask. "About 70." He responds. Of course…70. Doesn't everyone take 70 strokes on each side?

I look at all the competitors talking about the race, shaking hands and hugging. These events are so much like Looney Tunes' Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog. They clock in and do battle, trying to destroy each other. Then, the whistle sounds. The workday is over. They punch out, shake hands, and go get a beer.

The after-party is wonderful. Everyone gets a prize. Dan Gavere shows a slideshow of surfing and paddling around the world, inspiring people to take their paddle with them wherever they go. People laugh and talk about their races within the race.

After the awards, the exhausted and overexerted go home while the big dogs watch the fire dancer and after-party at Red Dogs until late. I was in the former group, but I'm satisfied. It's been another in a long line of fun races with friends, new and old.

In an effort to avoid cheese, I'll just say there is an inordinately high amount of stoke and number of nice people in this sport. The Cold Stroke brought out some of the best of them.

Special thanks to Jeoffrey and Catherine Nathan for organizing such a wonderful event.

For complete results, visit the Coastal Urge race page.