Building a Surfski Community
I can’t help but see lot and lots of potential every time I look at the picture above. 800 boats and only 12 surfskis
As with any niche and cutting edge sport, there are various pockets of communities around the country that are all working to build active and vibrant surfski communities.
The more I have evolved in surfski paddling and the more I have learned about the various communities that existed across the country, the more I realize that there is no reason Traverse City should be left off the map. In Northern Michigan we have one of the most active communities in the country and access to some of the best fresh water in the world.
I know that as the sport first gets introduced to this area I am asking a lot of those willing to take the leap of faith and be a pioneer in helping to lead a grass roots movement and evolve a new sport. In this blog I would like to outline a vision for how I see a community evolving and what the long term potential would be.
In our first year I would like to get a weeknight paddle organized where we will focus on building strong fundamental technique and safety skills. During these weeknight paddles we can also work on race skills including interval work and drafting. I would also like to spend some time out in the waves to work on down wind paddling skills. This summer is off to a hot start and the Lake Michigan water temperatures are already pretty favorable. I would envision working with the group doing short ½ mile out and backs from the shore in a location such as Leland or Empire Beach or even somewhere in East or West bay if the wind is up. It is important for beginners to get a taste for surfing waves early on so that they can get an appreciation for what the sport is truly all about and where the addiction begins.
Either during the weeknights or on the weekends it would also be great to organize short informal races so everyone can push their limits, practice their technique at race pace, and have some competitive fun.
In addition to the once per week gatherings and informal races I expect to see more formal paddle races popping up around Northern Michigan and ultimately a complete racing series similar to what you have in biking and skiing. The Grand Traverse Bays offer an excellent venue. I expect there will be a lot of opportunity to partner with various paddle board races and piggyback off their soaring popularity. Additionally we have seen tremendous growth with the M22 Challenge and it is clear there is strong demand for alternative multi-sport / adventure races. I could envision a new multi-sport race that combines mountain biking and paddling becoming a great success.
While we don’t always acknowledge it, there is probably an equal amount of paddling enthusiasm down in the Detroit Metro area. As races get established I would expect to see more and more competitors from “downstate” coming up to TC to race and even organizing races in the Detroit metro area.
Building up to the really fun stuff
As we develop a group of strong surfski paddlers the options we have living in Northern Michigan will be endless. Once everyone is well versed in safety techniques, we have practiced safety rescues as a group, and all have the right safety equipment, then we can start getting out in either the bays or Lake Michigan for big downwind runs. The Grand Traverse Bays offer a great venue as the waves typically run north/south in the bay so it is always easy to setup point to point paddles where we can maximize the downwind fun. The shoreline of Old Mission Peninsula along West Bay is probably the most ideal location due to prevailing winds in the summer always having a westerly component ensuring we have some onshore wind as an added safety measure. A typical downwind paddle could be anywhere from 4-20 miles. The course used by TC Waterman from Bower Harbors to downtown would be perfect on either a Northwest or Southwest wind and for the real hard core paddlers and endurance athletes we could run the full length of the Old Mission Peninsula for an 18 plus mile paddle.
As the sport evolves and paddlers start to upgrade their boats, there should also become a solid market for used gear allowing newcomers to get into the sport at a lower price point and making it all more accessible.
It may take a few years to get there, but ultimately I don’t see any reason why surfski paddling can’t become as big as road and mountain biking is in Northern Michigan. There are really many similarities. Paddling in packs is always more fun, there is definite peloton strategies of drafting, break-aways and sprinting. When you add in the surfing component you start to get the adrenaline of mountain biking and all the while you’re building your balance, upper body endurance, cardiovascular conditioning and core strength to become a better all around athlete.