The Columbia River cuts its way through snowy mountain peaks and pine tree covered slopes between the states of Washington and Oregon in America’s Pacific North West. It’s a mighty body of water, coffee coloured and a mile wide in places. For thousands of years it’s been home to Native American’s who settled on its banks and fished salmon from its waters. When European settlers endeavored to conquer the West, they established the Gorge as a major transport route. Steamships ferried logs down to the coast and they built railroads on either side of the river.
In the eighties it was discovered by nomadic groups of Windsurfers. These pioneers of modern wind sport found an absolute paradise in the Hood River area. It seems odd that a river, miles from the ocean, can be a Mecca for wind sports. Its secret lies with unique geography. If you look at a map of the Gorge you’ll notice that the river flows directly through the Cascade mountain range. To the east lies the hot dry desert and to the west the cold Pacific Ocean. The Gorge, with its steep cliffs, is the perfect corridor between these two different climatic regions. It acts as a wind tunnel. The hot air rising in desert sucks in the cold air from the coast. During the summer months this effect is so consistent that you can almost expect to have pumping wind every day. Further enhancing the conditions is the effect of the river’s flow, which is in the opposite direction from the wind. This clash of wind and water creates a unique surface turbulence that we as paddlers like to call runs.
The North American Downwind Champs was now the chance for paddlers to make their own history in the Gorge. It would be the first ever World Surfski Series event to be staged on a river. Carter Johnston, racer director and probably one of the most enthusiastic chaps you’ll ever meet, had done a great job of hyping up the place. A sizeable amount of local and international paddlers had signed up for the event, 170 in total. This was a record entry for a surfski race in the US. The event was also being run for the benefit of the non-profit group Rivers for Change, which raises awareness of the plight of rivers in the worldwide.
Paddlers were spoilt with organised downwind runs all week leading up the race. An event pass got you on the Baker downwind bus that ran all day. If you were up for it you could do 3 or 4 downwind runs in a day. And believe me if the wind is really humping it’s difficult to hold yourself back. The runs in the Gorge are ridiculously fun to surf.
The most exciting stretch of the river is without doubt the aptly named Swell City. This is where those unique geological factors I spoke of earlier reach a zenith. The gorge narrows, funneling the wind to speeds of up to 65kph, on a good day. The same effect occurs below the surface where the flow is also concentrated but in the opposite direction. The swells that form here at the clash of the elements are mutated perfection. Standing up on themselves they are steep and magnificently formed. They line up behind each other like obedient imperial soldiers marching in perfect synchronicity.
Sounds a little intimidating if you’re not an experienced paddler but the reality is that this river downwind is one of the most accessible downwinds I’ve ever done. The water is warm and you’re rarely further that 500m from the bank. Those threats that you sometimes face in the ocean, like waves, sharks and rapid changes in conditions, are non-existent. The effect of the wind swell travelling against the flow means that the runs are little slower and easier to catch. I think it’s a great place for paddlers of all abilities to hone their downwind paddling skills.
Race day arrived and the conditions were great. A top field of Surfski and Outrigger paddlers from all corners of the world, lined up in a small wind sheltered bay in Home Valley. The course was a 23km dash downwind (but upriver) to Hood River. After a fair start it was 20 strokes and we were already surfing runs. Immediately Sean Rice and Jasper Mocke surged to the front. The two paddling pros were at each other’s throats from the word go. Right on their toes was the chase group of Michael Booth, Austin Keiffer, Kenny Rice, Mackenzie Hynard, Mark Anderson and Myself. Racing was tight and technical. Because we were paddling into the flow guys there was the additional aspect of eddies and current to consider. We were weaving from bank to bank on differing lines trying to get an edge.
The conundrum is that the runs are bigger in the sections of the river where the current is strongest. But that’s not always necessarily the fastest line to take. You’re surfing into the flow, which feels fast but a look at your GPS shows you that maybe you’re not travelling as fast as you think. Getting into an eddy (and area where the river flow gets caught in a bay and circles back up stream) could help by increasing your speed but the downside of that is the runs are much smaller (less surfing). Getting on the course and learning its intricacies is definitely something you want to do beforehand.
Just before Swell city, a couple miles from the finish, Sean and Jasper were still neck and neck. They had each gambled with different lines on opposing sides of the river only to return to a position where neither had a definitive advantage. Much of the same was happening just behind them with each paddler making their own wager on the course. As Jasper And Sean emerged from Swell City, it was Sean who had the edge. A late gamble by Jasper in the eddy just before the finish didn’t pay off and it was Sean Rice who was crown the inaugural US Downwind Champion. Fellow Team Fenn mates Michael Booth and Austin Keiffer were in third and forth respectively. Youngstars Kenny Rice and Macca Hynard were next in followed by Ando and myself.
The ladies race was also an absolute cracker. An extremely competitve field with some world class international athletes on the line, including current K1 1000 world record holder Teneale Hatton. In almost a carbon copy of the men’s race, it was Teneale and Michele Eray who went toe to toe. Again decided in the last few kilometres where the super fit Teneale powered over the line in first place. Michele was second with another kiwi Rachel Clarke in third. Aussie Rowena Coghill , Yank Maggie Hogan and Saffa Samantha Murray were fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.
I had a bit of a tricky race and although a little dissatisfied with my result (8th) I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the Gorge Festival! Hood River is a fantastic place to visit and the paddling in the Columbia Gorge is superb. Thanks to Carter Johnston and his team for putting on such a well organized event. Keep up the good work. I’m sure this race is going to see some great growth in the future. Also thanks to my sponsor Fenn kayaks for getting me there and supplying me an Elite S (my racing ship of choice). Another thanks goes out to my company Holdfast for supporting my passion of surfski racing and allowing me the time off. A notable mention of thanks also to my equipment sponsors Mocke and Orka Paddles.