The vast expanse of the Yukon River. Photo: Trevor Clark

The Yukon River, a vast expanse. Photo: Trevor Clark

Standup Paddlers Conquer 444-Mile Yukon River Quest

The Yukon River Quest is well-known in paddlesports as the gnarliest and most grueling race of the year.

This revered competition usually takes between two and three days to finish as athletes–traditionally in either canoes or kayaks–paddle 444 miles through the Canadian wilderness on the Yukon River. It’s not for the faint of heart and prior to this year, standup paddleboards were not even allowed.

However, that all changed this year when organizers made an exception to allow SUP–a move that attracted top expedition paddlers including Bart de Zwart, Lina Augaitis and Joanne Hamilton-Vale. Yet with SUP expected to be the slowest of all the crafts, many traditionalists were highly skeptical about the move.

Unfazed by the doubters, 11 standup paddleboarders set out last Wednesday with one goal in mind–finish the race. Three days later and after only a combined 10 hours of mandatory rest, all but two achieved that goal and proved SUP belongs in the legendary competition.

For the majority of the race, the lead SUP pack featured a three-man dead heat between Bart de Zwart, Norm Hann and Jason Bennett. Paddling for more than 24 straight hours at times, the trio continued to push each other until the closing hours of the race.

With only a couple hours until the finish, de Zwart finally made his move to burst ahead and open up a gap. He managed to maintain this gap to the finish, becoming the inaugural SUP champion with a time of 54 hours and 41 minutes. Hann and Bennett would cross the line together only 15 minutes later.

Making this accomplishment even more impressive is the fact that de Zwart finished 26th out of 93 total entries which also included solo, two-person or four-person canoes or kayaks. In a race where many folks questioned whether SUP should even be allowed, to beat two-thirds of the field is a perfect way to silence the critics.

Arguably the grittiest performance came from top female SUP finisher and new mom, Lina Augaitis. Despite delivering her first child only six months ago and still managing to breastfeed during the rest stops, this supermom crossed the finish line with a time of 60 hours and 22 minutes. Not only impressive athletically, her determination serves as an inspiration to moms everywhere.

However, for all the triumphs the Yukon River Quest also delivered a few heartbreaks. Most notably with Joanne Hamilton-Vale, who was forced to retire early due to extreme illness caused by drinking river water. In addition, fellow standup paddler Tony Bain was forced to retire around the 186-mile mark.

Despite the hardships of some, the Yukon River Quest could be considered a big step forward for our sport. These 11 SUP pioneers pushed the limits of what was thought to be possible and proved standup paddlers can not only hold their own, but rather compete at a high level in one of the most extreme paddling competitions on the planet.

After this year’s trial run for SUP, we look forward to seeing which paddlers take on the 444-mile challenge next year.—Jack Haworth


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