Photo: Nicholas Doll

Photo: Nicholas Doll

The Conch Republic may not be recognized as a sovereign nation, but a trip to the Florida Keys can be like entering an entirely different world. The 16th annual Key West Paddleboard Classic race provided a four-day festival of SUP fun in the sun for hundreds of paddlers.

The weekend-long event kicked off early with a Thursday evening "Yappy Hour" meet-and-greet hosted by race organizer Sue Cooper of Lazy Dog at the Hurricane Hole Marina, complete with board demos, live music, an invitation to "bring Fido on a leash" and a pack of completely unrestrained paddlers.

After a Friday morning Paddle Yoga session at the Lazy Dog shop, Sue Cooper and elite paddler Justin Cook held an afternoon paddle clinic at the race start location. The official Kick-off Party was held that night at historic Turtle Kraals where, in days past, sea turtles swam in pens awaiting a trip to market.

Heather Baus, the 2012 women's winner, was happy to be there, saying "I can't say enough good things about the Key West Classic," noting that, "race proceeds go to the Special Olympics, so you really feel good about participating. The course is scenic and offers a lot of room to navigate, which can make or break a good performance, but it is packed with a lot of tricks, including heat, wind and currents. This race is not about winning – it's about finishing."

Anticipation ran high among attendees from all over. Betsy and Bob Risner drove almost 3,000 miles from Park City Utah, leaving home one day after returning from the Carolina Cup, to attend. Betsy had competed the past three years, but was sitting this one out while recovering from knee surgery. "It has never been a fun race to do," she said, due to conditions, "but there's a magical draw. The destination brings you there, the people hold you, and you keep coming back. You would think, going around an island, that the wind would be at your back at some point, but it never was." Risner didn't sound like she'd miss pushing through the narrow tidal waters of Fleming Key Cut either, recalling that in past years "it required ten to 20 strokes to move an inch."

Helga Goebel of Fort Lauderdale, the top Florida female racer for the past four years and Riviera Paddlesurf Team member, who won the women's overall this year and in 2010, plus the women's 12'6" in 2011, agreed that the course was challenging, with shifting wind and "currents are all over the place. You don't know what direction they'll come from – it's crazy." She described struggling against the tide while a competitor cruised along parallel to her, riding a counter current. Helga said she has not been training as hard lately, and her goal this year was "to finish, have fun, enjoy, and help other people."

Photo: Nick Doll

Photo: Nick Doll

The main event was held Saturday, May 11th, at Higgs Beach on the southern shore of the island, near the Southernmost Point in the continental U.S. Racers lined up for the Elite 12-mile "Paddle Around the Island" with 14', 12'6", and 12' and under board categories, as well as a four-mile Open Race, both with an ocean start and beach finish at Higgs Beach, near the White Street Pier. The 12-mile race also included prone paddleboard, outrigger canoe, surf ski, kayak and dory categories.

Prior to the start, a traditional Hawaiian Pule Blessing was offered by waterman Reid Inouye of Honolulu, to express thankfulness, request safe passage and provide the paddlers a moment for reflection and camaraderie.

The 12-mile clockwise course transited portions of the Atlantic Ocean, Key West Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, and passed multiple historic locations including Civil War-era Fort Zachary Taylor, Naval Air Station Key West's Truman Annex, and the historic Sponge Market and Aquarium. After entering the harbor and passing the local sunset-viewing spot, Mallory Square, racers battled the swift currents of Fleming Key Cut and then traveled the length of the island's Gulf shore before passing through Cow Key Channel and completing a long Atlantic leg back the start.

Helga Goebel took first place in the women's 12-mile 14' category, and won the women's overall, while having fun, Lizi Ruiz took second and Tammy Brinkman was third. Heather Baus won the women's 12'6" category, Bailey Rosen took second and Mini Cunha Margareth Lagace placed third. Race organizer Sue Cooper of Lazy Dog captured 8th place in the 12'6". Aranza Rodriguez won the women's 12', Sandy Rodriquez was second, and Holly Amodio took third. 11 year old Savannah Baus and her father Jim won the tandem category.

"This is always a hard race," said Bailey Rosen. "I think it's one of the most difficult technical races in the world. It was hot, it was long, and we had either a headwind or a side wind basically the whole time," she said. "There was a lot of back and forth drafting and passing the whole time, but there was great sportsmanship out on the course and always camaraderie between racers. It places in my top three hardest races of all time," Rosen added.

Thomas "Maximus" Shahinian won the men's unlimited category, and the men's overall, with Daian Hildreth in second and Juan DeLeon in third. In the men's 14' division, Charlie Howden came in first, Matt McDonald took second and Jacob Portwood was third. Justin Cook was first in the men's 12'6" division, Joseph Morel took second and Jamie Twigg was third. Bill Whiddon was first in the men's 12', Bert Koch was second and Alex Pelley took third.

Thomas "Maximus" Shahinian, who raced on his rudderless 19' x 23" board, described the choppy crosswind conditions, saying "luckily it smoothed out on the back side of the island enough for me to make up ground before rounding the island and heading back to the finish line, with even stronger crosswind conditions. You know it’s bad when you need to dodge kite surfers on the course!"

Photo: Nicholas Doll

Photo: Nicholas Doll

The Four Mile Open Race consisted of a two mile out-and-back, parallel to shore course starting and finishing at Higgs Beach, with paddlers competing in 14', 12' and 12'6" board divisions. In the men's 12'6" category, Skot Scott took first, Jake Stepp was second and Brad Hallock took third. Andrew Dickey won the men's 12' division, Richard Thompson was second and James Bennett took third. Barry Josepher took first in the four-mile 14′ category. In the women's 12'6" category, Jessica Cichra took first, Annette Garcia was second and Cristina Boeri took third. Jen Hayes won the women's 12' division, Alex Cotleur was second and Kimberly Depasquale took third.

Kelly Beard, 32, of Stuart, Florida, who competed in the four-mile race for her first time, and took 14th place in the 12' and under category, provided these comments: "The four mile race was brutal. We paddled two miles into the wind with rough chop and swell hitting us from the side, so we had to paddle on our left side the entire first half. The second half was certainly better, with the wind at our backs, but you couldn’t see the swells coming, so it was still a challenge."

A Special Olympics paddle, led by Team Lazy Dog, was held right after the four-mile race. Suncoast Surf Shop of Treasure Island, Fla. donated paddles for each of the athletes, Baus donated the board on which she won the past two 12-mile races, and Lazy Dog donated $1,800 to Special Olympics.

The awards celebration was held at Turtle Kraals & Half Shell Raw Bar in the Historic Seaport. Raffle prizes included donations from local restaurants and shops, a custom bamboo paddle rack by Ernest "EJ" Johnson, a pair of Riviera paddles custom painted by Drew Brophy, as well as the grand prize, a custom 14' Zulu Warrior race board donated by Packet Casey, who won the men's 12-mile 12'6" last year, and placed fourth this year in the 14' category.

"The after party is off the charts! I think it's probably the best after-paddle party, hands down!" said Baus. "It couldn't be put on by a better group of ladies," she said of the Lazy Dog crew, adding that the overall gathering is like an "SUP family reunion."

On Sunday morning, 17 year old Bailey Rosen ran a sold-out SUP class for 20 kids, assisted by her fellow young paddlers Savannah Baus, 11, and Milla Navarro. "I love doing clinics and helping kids with paddling and stroke!" said Rosen. "They are all so stoked and have a ton of fun, and that's what makes it most fun for me. I teach safety first, then paddle technique, and skills like buoy turns. It was a blast," she added. After the clinic, the youngsters competed in a one-mile Kids Race for paddlers 15 and under.

Sunday's festivities continued with sprints and relays. Sprint races were run in heats on boards 12'6" and under, with the top five paddlers in the men's and women's divisions competing in the final heats. The Relay Races featured four person teams, with at least one female per team, and only one 12'6" or under board per team, on an eight-lap ocean circuit course, in which competitors beached their board and ran through an obstacle course before tagging their teammates.

"The Lazy Dog crew did a great job with the entire event and certainly made me feel at home," said Beard. "The SUP community is incredibly welcoming, and the pros I've met are so friendly and willing to share their knowledge. Nothing compares to the hospitality and graciousness of the people in this sport. I'll be investing in a race board and entering the 12-miler next year, for sure," Beard added.

Tom Fucigna


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