Many of paddleboarding's top racers braved powerful surf Saturday to compete for $20,000 worth of cash and prizes at the 4th Annual Santa Monica Pier Paddleboard Races and Ocean Festival presented by Tommy Bahama. While racers faced waves as big as 10 feet, thousands of spectators screamed and cheered from the pier decks and beach during the first stop of the SUP America Tour presented by Natural Vines.
Safety concerns about the unusually high surf resulted in LA County Lifeguards and race safety officials making the unprecedented decision to cancel several races, including a 2-mile paddleboard event geared towards recreational paddlers. But the pros and advanced racers still competed against each other and Mother Nature in the 5.5-mile long course as well as in the Tommy Bahama Team Challenge Relay Cup.
"It was a hard call to cancel the youth events and the fun paddle, but the conditions were just too big to run them safely," said event director Joel Brand. "In four years of holding this event we've never had surf that even came close to what we saw today. I'm grateful to our race team and the water safety agencies that the entire event went off without a single serious injury."
The high surf narrowed the field in the main race of the day, the Tommy Bahama Team Challenge Relay. Racer Bicho Jimenez of Sayulita, Mexico, a newcomer to the event, capped a series of spectacular wipeouts by relay competitors. Jimenez was on his way back to the beach when an enormous wave overtook him and blasted him off of his board to screams from the crowd. Nevertheless, his relay team prevailed to take home $2,000 in cash, prizes and the Tommy Bahama Team Challenge Relay Cup
Earlier in the day, participants in the 5.5-mile race saw challenging conditions, as they left the beach at the race start just in time to get hammered by a terrifying set. Nearly two dozen experienced paddlers were taken out and washed almost all the way back to the beach.
Maui's Slater Trout won the 5.5-mile race (1:15.08), with Fernando Stalla of Sayulita, Mexico in a second (1:15:15), and Brennan Rose coming in a close third (1:15:17). Brandi Baksic of San Clemente, Calif. won on the women's division with a time of 1:27:25, and Cannon Smith, who has only been paddling for 6 months, took the men's prone trophy with the unbelievable time of 1:15:45.
In addition to the paddleboard races, one of the most exciting events of the day was the two-man lifeguard dory surf race, where the teams were required to complete three laps around a buoy course through the heaving surf. Rowing the double-ended, 20-foot surfboats in and out through the high surf proved treacherous, with four boats getting caught inside immediately at the start, and then swamping.
"In 14 years of lifeguard dory races this is the biggest and most challenging surf I've ever faced," said second-place finisher John Van Duinwyk, a permanent LA County Lifeguard. "Just to make it out through that was to mean you could win."
This was the first year that the Santa Monica Pier Paddle was presented by beach lifestyle retailer Tommy Bahama.
"The Santa Monica Pier Paddle is the intersection of everything we love," said Rob Goldberg, Senior Vice-President of Marketing for Tommy Bahama. "Community, the beach, and passionate athletes who love the ocean. And the level of pure athleticism displayed today in today's extreme conditions made this event unforgettable."
Hundreds of other competitors participated in a one-mile ocean swim, a run-swim-run and youth challenges on the beach next to the pier. Thousands of spectators viewed the event, which also including live performances by hula troops, bands and a pop-up museum dedicated to surf, lifeguard and paddleboard history.
The Pier Paddle event is a benefit for Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay and its public marine education facility, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, that is housed underneath the historic Pier Carousel. Heal the Bay will receive a portion of net proceeds from the event.