Gorge Downwind

Experience it to Believe It!

It was an amazing whirlwind five days out in Hood River at the Gorge Downwind Champs. When I thought about how to organize my recap, the simplest approach seemed to be just giving a day by day breakdown. So here goes:

Tuesday Arrival:

I caught a 6:00 AM flight out of Traverse City and via a smooth connection in Minneapolis, was grabbing my bags and rental car in Portland by 11:15. When I arrived in Hood River (HR) I went straight to the event site to get the lay of the land and connect with Kenny Howell to get setup with my new model Epic V12 Ultra for the week. The wind wasn’t crazy, but it was blowing nicely and I couldn’t wait to get out on the water. The Tuesday shuttle scene was a little hectic due to one of the van’s breaking down (quickly rectified by Carter and team by the next day), but I managed to get connected with Team Epic (Greg Barton, Eric Mims, Bruce Poacher) and we decided to run our own Viento shuttle. Viento is the launch point on the Oregon side of the river that sets up an 8 mile run finishing at the event site, also referred to as the downwind village or most commonly known as the bargain beer tent.

It was my first paddle at the Gorge, and in the new Epic V12, and I was buddied up with Greg Barton (note: Carter enforces a strict paddle buddy, leash, and pfd law throughout the event). I was just a tad nervous getting started, but once I pointed the V12 downwind all that was long gone. I was immediately blown away by the stability and fit of the V12. I suspect it was a combination of the Gorge conditions and the Epic V12, but surfing has never been so effortless. I had a big paddling weekend in Michigan before heading out the Gorge and felt like I probably ran myself into the red a bit, so was conscious of not overdoing it early in the week in Hood River. Greg circled back a couple of times, but I think I held my ground fairly well when the runs picked up in Swell City. Fortunately Eric and Bruce were also going pretty easy, and we all finished up paddling the stretch from Swell City to the beer tent together.

Following every final downwind run of the day, is a mandatory stop at the beer tent for $2 micro brews. On Tuesday I had a chance to meet Pat Langley (found of Vaikobi) for the first time in person, along with several paddlers from around the world whom I had never met face to face.

We wrapped up the day at the beer tent and headed out for a great casual dinner at a Taqueria within walking distance of the house I was sharing in downtown Hood River with several other midwest paddlers. I’m convinced Hood River is the perfect sized town to host an event like this. Big enough to have lots of restaurants, coffee houses, and breakfast diners, while still being very small, easy to navigate, and mostly walkable.

Wednesday – Getting Settled

Wednesday morning I was on a mission to get my second TC SURFSKI flag situated at the event site. Unfortunately I had just received the flags before heading for HR and was shorted some key parts for the base, so had to find the local Ace Hardware and build some makeshift parts. Thankfully in the end it all worked out.

The buzz Wednesday morning was all around the calling of the race day, and as most predicted, by around 11:00 am it became official that Thursday would be race day. With that confirmed, most paddlers were content to do just a single run and rest up for the big day. That worked fine for me, and our group of Midwest paddlers did a Viento run in the early afternoon. Conditions were great on Wednesday, I’m guessing a 4-5 out of 10 on Carter’s “nuclear scale”. I reconfirmed on Wednesday that the effortless surfing I experienced Tuesday was not a fleeting dream. Wednesday was much the same, even better. My average HR for the run was somewhere just over 100. The effect of wind opposing current creates steep and slow moving waves that are both easy to catch and easy to ride for extended periods of time. If your not racing and don’t need to push over the runs, you can literally just cruise through the 8 mile run. Although I never ran multiple runs in a day, I now understand how you can do 2 or 3 without concern.

Wednesday night I was queued up for a Sponsor Highlight at the beer tent where participants were also enjoying one of the complimentary dinners included with the race package. It was an excellent chicken, rice, vegetable dish with lots of savory sauce options. I arranged with Pat Langley and Carter to facilitate a panel Q&A with Oscar Chalupsky, Sean Rice, and Dawid Mocke. I decided to focus on what I have defined as the Five Dimension of Surfski Paddling: Forward Stroke Technique, Downwind Surfing, Cardio, Strength, and Balance. I asked one question in each category and had each participant provide their answer. I’ll need to do a detailed blog at some point, but the net/net was:

  • Forward Stroke Technique
    • Q: If you could teach just one drill, what would that be?
    • A: The brace stroke is absolutely the most critical. Without a strong brace on both sides you will not achieve your maximum potential as a paddler. Additionally, you should seriously consider getting video footage of your stroke. Most likely you look quite different than you think and video doesn’t lie
  • Downwind Surfing
    • Q: How to get better if you don’t have access to downwind conditions?
    • A: Find a boat wake to practice on,  and/or commit to short power intervals, as you must be able to accelerate the boat quickly and confidently to catch runs
  • Cardio
    • Q: What is your go to form of cross training?
    • A: Running, swimming, cycling
  • Strength
    • Q: If you couldn’t paddle for a year, what would you do to maintain strength to paddle well?
    • A: Pushups, pull-ups, situps, swimming
  • Balance
    • Q: What are the most common balance issues that you see?
    • A: Paddlers in boats beyond their skill level, and pulling the paddle too far back

Thursday – Race Day

Thursday morning I had breakfast with Dawid Mocke and Ian Black at Betsie’s Diner in Hood River. Aside from a classic diner style breakfast to power us through the day, we had great discussion around the future of the Mocke Brand and the incredible product line they have created. The discussion left no doubt that Dawid, Ian, and their team are dedicated to being the innovator and leader in providing the essentials for those living the paddle lifestyle. I’m honored to be a part of their extended team and look forward to pioneering this space with them.

After breakfast it was time to gear up and get ready to race. We made our way over to the race start just in time to get settled for the pre-race meeting. It was an incredible vibe and energy as 400+ paddlers prepared to race downwind. The starting area sits in a bit of a wind shadow as opposed to the venue site which is fully exposed to the wind. This gave the feeling of a windless race ahead, but once we got out on the water, it was clear there was solid wind.

Around 1:30 we put our boats in the water and paddled up to position for the race start at 2:00. With 400 boats on the water, paddlers were spread out for at least a mile. We all paddled around slowly killing time to the race start. Not wanting to be in the way of the first 2 start waves, I headed upwind and away from the race start. By the time I started getting serious about working my way up to the start (wave 3) the wave 4 paddlers (OC men) were yelling to us that that our race already started. I was too far away to have heard or seen anything, and this was a bit disheartening. In hindsight, I’ve done enough races that I should have known to be more aware and push up toward the front. I certainly wasn’t the only one, and I know there were still more paddlers even further from the start than me.

The runs were quite small at the start, so it was a lot of paddling and not a lot of surfing, but fortunately that changed pretty quickly. By about mile 2 or 3 I was pleasantly surprised to find runs much nicer than I had anticipated. By mile 6, I was well past the frustration of the start, and thinking to myself, this is by far the most fun I’ve ever had in a race. I took generally a middle of the river line, thinking that based on my training and skill set, I would be better off surfing the bigger runs than powering through the smaller stuff on the side where the current is less formidable. Eventually I drifted over to the right side where I discovered a section of really nice runs. In hindsight I probably stayed right too long, and should have surfed across the river and into Swell City where I could have leveraged the bigger runs to my advantage and been better positioned for getting to the turn buoy before the finish. As it was, I ended up with about a mile or so grind out to the turn buoy before making the last grind to the finish. I definitely faded the last 2 miles of the race, but overall, felt really good and certain that I gave it everything I had. I was content to finish 45th, with a rough start, in an extremely competitive field, and my first real downwind race.  Here is the Garmin track of my race.

Following the race it was of course Beer Tent time and I was joined by two of my brothers Gabe who traveled in from Bozeman, Montana, and Anthony who flew down from our home town Soldotna, Alaska.

We hung out for the awards ceremony and entertainment and then wrapped up the long day with dinner at Brian’s Pour House Grill, where we coincidentally stumbled into Oscar and Clare along with some other paddlers.   Short side note:  one of the very best things about the Gorge experience is meeting new paddlers, often from other countries. The fact that Hood River is a small town, virtually ensures that the group at the table next to you in any restaurant or bar are fellow paddlers.   Whether on the shuttle bus, at the beer tent, or around town, you are certain to strike up conversation with fellow paddlers and forge new friendships.

Friday – Have Fun

With the race behind us and while we waited for the wind and runs to build, the group opted for a morning hike. The hiking around Hood River is world class and our group decided to explore the water falls and vistas at Starvation Ridge. Our planned 2.5 mile and 600 feet of ascent hike, turned into 4+ miles and 1800 feet of climbing. The trail actually continued for another 2000 vertical feet up, which I’m certain would have been spectacular, but with downwind conditions building, we cut the hike short.

We headed up for another Viento run. This time, I split from the group at the end of Swell City to connect with Oscar who was doing tandem loops through Swell City and had generously offered to take Gabe, Anthony, and third brother Oliver (who arrived that day from Bend Oregon) out for tandem rides. Oscar was on to something with this. Even when the rest of the run isn’t cranking, Swell City seems to be almost always great. We would paddle about a kilometer through Swell City then circle back along the shoreline. With the current in our favor, it was pretty easy keeping a good pace against the wind.

The first run through Swell City with Oscar in the Nelo tandem and me in the V12, may have been the highlight of the trip. We launched with a friendly race competition and I managed to make all the right decisions, link every wave, and beat Oscar through. I was in complete disbelief when I got to the end of our little loop and didn’t see Oscar in front of me. Oscar proceeded to beat meet handily in the next four runs, but that didn’t matter. I was still elated to have taken one victory with a perfect run.

The experience of racing just that short distance did trigger an epiphany in what makes a good downwind paddler and perhaps what that elusive “sixth sense”  might be. I’ll need a full blog to explain, but I have a theory it may come down to mental horsepower and the ability to process hundreds of variables at once (mostly at a subconscious level) and make the right decision every time. Anyone who has spent time with Oscar knows that his mental horsepower is an equal match to his physical horsepower. This just might be the secret. Which of course begs the question, how do you improve this? Lots of options to explore here, most having to do with increasing mental focus and processing power, caffeine, nootropics, meditation, flow states… definitely something for another blog.

Gabe had to split, but both Anthony and Oliver received a pretty unrealistic introduction to downwind paddling. Literally less than 10 paddle strokes to cover a kilometer. Oscar was nailing it in the Nelo 600 with perfect runs straight through Swell City and hardly a single stroke taken. Suffice it to say that in 10 minutes time, my brothers were able to get the full Oscar Chalupsky experience. Effortlessly linking runs all the while heckling the less enlightened paddlers powering their way through Swell City.

While we did loops, the rest of the my group from the Midwest managed to get in 2 more Viento runs to round out the day. (for those counting, that is 2 1/2 hours of hiking with 1800 vertical feet, and 24 miles of downwind)

Friday evening Nelo hosted a pizza, beer, and wine event for the US distributors and dealers. There I was able to meet the infamous Don Kiesling producer of the much sought after “DK” custom rudders. In addition to other lively conversation, we discussed having Don come on the podcast sometime this fall to talk rudder design and function.  I’ve got a custom DK Surf rudder on the way for my Epic V10.

Carter also joined us on Friday and it was a great opportunity to debrief on the event and specifically race day. Carter was actively seeking constructive criticism from all, and we had some great discussion on how to continue refining what has become the biggest surfski event in the world. I’ll also have Carter come on the podcast sometime in the coming months to give an update on plans for next year’s event.

Saturday – Have More Fun and Wrap It Up

Saturday morning started with a meeting with the Nelo team to talk business and strategy for the US market. We had an excellent discussion and it is clear Nelo is committed to growing their presence in the US market and willing to work with the distributors and dealers to make that happen. Look for more announcements coming soon, the future looks very Nelo Lumo bright 🙂

Following our meeting I was  lucky to secure two Epic V8s and gear through the generosity of Kenny Howell and Bob Putman, in order to give Anthony and Oliver a chance to demonstrate what they learned from Oscar. As predicted, the winds were pretty light on Saturday, probably a 2/10 on Carter’s nuclear scale. This actually made for picture perfect beginner runs. Neither Anthony nor Oliver had spent more than an hour cumulative time in a surfski before doing this run. Within five minutes, Greg Greene and I were coaching them right onto the runs and they were quickly getting the hang of it. Once again the slow moving, but steep waves proved perfect for coaching. I could sit right behind them call out paddle strokes and they would be on the run. I’ve never seen it so easy to get beginners connecting runs.

We wrapped up the runs and I packed up my flags, picked up some extra stock from Mocke and hit the road to Portland for my red eye and was back in Traverse City by 10:00 AM Sunday.


From the week in Hood River I probably have at least 4 more blogs to write including:

  • My downwind epiphanies
  • Update on the Five Dimensions of Surfski Paddling
  • Reflecting on what worked with my training and what I should do different for next year
  • Experiencing the uber fun Epic V12

Until you have experienced it, it is hard to imagine how perfect the conditions are in the Gorge.   My first downwind run post Hood River out on Lake Michigan was a serious adjustment.   I felt like I was paddling terrible,  my boat (paddling the V10 GT)  felt clunky, hard to maneuver, and  I generally felt off.    After viewing the GPS stats, I realized it was actually a pretty solid run.   So strange how it felt so out of flow compared to paddling the new Epic V12 at the Gorge.

Mark your calendar for October 1st 2017.  This is the planned date Carter will open registration for the 2018 Gorge Downwind Festival.   Everyone is quite certain it will sell out in a day.  You don’t want to miss it!

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