A new, different breed of racer stood out from the crowd at Saturday's time-honored, annual Paddle & Portage boat race in Madison, Wisconsin. For the first time, standup paddling was among the many divisions open to competitors who were previously limited to canoes and kayaks. In this city surrounded by freshwater lakes on all sides, SUP is growing in popularity as local athletes opt for this easily accessible sport as a welcome alternative to historically preferred modes of on-water transportation.
"I tried kayaking, but it was just too constraining," said Cris Rosario, a salesman from Oconomowoc. "I'm loving standup paddling because you can get your whole body into it."
A fitness-focused city with a passion for watersports, Madison is home to many who have naturally gravitated toward SUP. In its 30th year, Paddle & Portage celebrates the Wisconsin tradition of hand-propelled boats that dates back to the days of the voyager fur trappers who paddled area lakes and streams back when the state wasn't even a territory. Nearly 400 teams and individuals started the event from James Madison Park for a 1.5-mile paddle-sprint on Lake Mendota. Hefting their boats and boards onto dry land, participants then portaged one mile across the Madison Isthmus to finish with another 1.5-mile paddle on Lake Monona to Olin-Turville Park.
Largely a team event favored by two paddlers in a single boat, the inclusion of SUP opened the field to even more participants. Race director John Eisele said that adding SUP to the mix of canoes and kayaks met some pent-up demand.
"We've had a lot of requests for it over the last few years," Eisele said. "Standup paddling will get another group of competitors into the race that may have never entered before."
A new wave start system with electronic chip monitoring allowed as many as 100 competitors to race at once in each division, set apart at five-minute intervals. The small core of standup paddlers headed out in the middle of the pack behind teams of two in aluminum canoes. Fast racers who placed well in last year's race and those in lightweight, composite canoes started first. Competitor Alex Lai, a local physician, said he was worried about the mass start, opting to paddle a rented board instead of his new Starboard SUP with a sharper displacement bow:
"It's like a car rally. There's no way I'm risking my good board," he said. "It's going to be mayhem out there."
The mad rush of paddles, boats and boards—on top of the typically choppy water on Lake Mendota—certainly made for some rough going at the beginning. Using a hand-built, hollow-core wooden SUP, Jesse Kaftanski of Beaver Dam said his more stable, though heavier board, would make a big difference.
"The hardest part is the portage," he said. "Paddling three miles won't be a problem. Getting this board uphill over the isthmus to the capital is going to be tough."
Kaftanski toted his board with a carry strap while the other competitors just muscled theirs overhead or on their backs. Gary Stone, a leading SUP advocate and proprietor of the Westport board shop, Paddleboard Specialists, noted that the SUP racers had a big advantage getting back into the water after the portage. "All the canoes and kayaks were lined up waiting to get in," Stone said. "I was able to just run and jump in at the edge of the dock and take off!"
Unfortunately, complications with the new chip system negated Stone's finish, which would have been first place. Rosario completed the course with the best-recorded time at 47 minutes, 23 seconds, followed by Scott Pauli in 49:11. With no prizes for top finishing times, most competitors were simply pleased to race for the experience. And of course, looking ahead to the prospect of racing again next year. — James Mills