Sweat is pouring down your face, while salt spray dries on your legs and in between your fingertips as you paddle upwind. Your hand grips the top of the handle of a carbon fiber paddle tightly. Open water surrounds you on all sides as your board cuts through the whitecaps. -By Jason Paul
Stand up paddle racing is an adrenaline sport and one that has been taken up by more enthusiasts than any other form of paddling. It is a rigorous workout in a camaraderie setting and a fun way to share time together on the water. Here is Standup Journal contributor Jason Paul’s report on the Top 5 Most Grueling Sup Races in the world.
Stand up Paddle Racing: the World of Stoke
Welcome to the world of stand up paddle racing. Since the paddle board revival of the early 2000’s, sup racing has become quite a popular activity and today you’ll find people racing on everything from inflatable paddle boards to high-end, full carbon models. You’ll still find stand up paddlers in the lineup at surf breaks all over the world, but the number of sup racers, or flat water paddlers, have overtaken their surfing counterparts.
“Stand up paddle racing is a challenging sport which can be unpredictable due to ever-changing water, terrain, and weather conditions.”
The Outdoor Foundation’s 2017 Special Report on outdoor participation found that 3.2 million Americans ages 6+ participated in stand up paddling. Since 2010, this number has more than tripled and is sure to multiply with stand up paddle boarding’s addition to the 2018 summer Olympics.
Stand up paddling’s growth in popularity is partially due to its accessibility for paddlers of all ages and abilities, not to mention the fact that one can paddle just about anywhere there’s water. Humans are a competitive species, and with popularity, comes the inevitable drive to be the best.
What makes sup racing the addictive sport it’s become?
Modern sup racing is divided into categories based on equipment, participant experience,age and race type. As participants prove their skill in lower level races, they’re able to advance to more challenging races — the most challenging typically being accessible by invitation only.
Stand up paddle racing is a challenging sport which can be unpredictable due to ever-changing water, terrain, and weather conditions. In fact, paddle board races are often some of the most taxing and technical you’ll find in any sport. Read on as we list our picks for the top 5 most grueling stand up paddle races.
# 1: Yukon River Quest, Alaska
Far to the north in Canada’s rugged and untamed wilderness is the Yukon. Initially inhabited by first nation tribes, the Yukon today is no less rugged than it was during European exploration of the territory in the early 1900’s. It’s no surprise that this furrowed land — home to grizzlies, mountain lions, moose, and caribou — is now a destination for stand up paddlers.
“This 444 mile race takes place over the course of 3 days and 2 nights in the Canadian wilderness, and a typical race completion time requires more than 50 hours of paddling.”
The Yukon River Quest is hands down one of the most intense and demanding endurance races in the world. This 444 mile race takes place over the course of 3 days and 2 nights in the Canadian wilderness, and a typical race completion time requires more than 50 hours of paddling.
Prior to any stand up paddle race, participants are routinely instructed on safety concerns and hazards during a pre-race briefing. The Yukon River Quest is no exception; however, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pre-race briefing anywhere else like it.
Paddlers are forewarned with information on what to do if they encounter dangerous wildlife, like grizzly bears. If there’s an emergency, they should be prepared to camp out for as long as two days without professional or medical support. Paddlers arrive equipped with tents, sleeping bags, two extra sets of dry clothes, food, GPS trackers, medical kits, and backup paddles.
#2: Molokai 2 Oahu, Hawaiian Islands
The Molokai 2 Oahu, affectionately known as the M20, sells itself as the most challenging prone and stand up paddle race in the world. It carries on the legacy of watermen in Hawaii’s history by emphasizing human powered pursuits guided only by wind, waves, and stars.
“M2O champions the legacy of passion and resilience that has defined watermen for generations.”
With more than 30 countries represented, M20 is also one of the most widely recognized paddle board races in the world. The race course traverses 32 miles across the Ka’iwi channel (over 2,000 feet deep at its deepest point), from Hawaii’s Molokai island to Oahu. Surf conditions, winds, and currents all pose significant challenges and hazards to racers.
All things considered, the M2O champions the legacy of passion and resilience that has defined watermen for generations.
#3: Red Bull Heavy Water, San Francisco, CA
In stark contrast with the Yukon River Quest, the Red Bull Heavy Water stand up paddle race is a brisk 7.5 mile paddle through San Francisco Bay. While this might sound easy in comparison, the Red Bull Heavy Water incorporates something you won’t find in the Yukon: massive surf. Red Bull aims to create a platform for adrenaline and they hit the mark by guaranteeing that the event take place in no less than 10 foot +surf.
“Red Bull Heavy Water plays to stand up paddle boarding’s roots and watermen culture by demanding an expert level combination of endurance, strength, and excellent wave sense.”
Racers start in Ocean Beach, California often compared to the heaving and hollow Puerto Escondido in Mexico and continue through a current infested course towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Unlike other races on this list, the Red Bull Heavy Water plays to stand up paddle boarding’s roots and watermen culture by demanding an expert level combination of endurance, strength, and excellent wave sense.
# 4: SUP11 City Tour, the Netherlands
What once started as a race for ice skaters in the winter has become one of the gnarliest stand up paddle races in the business. This race takes you on a wild ride over 5 days, 136 miles, and 11 cities in the canals of Northern Holland.
“Expect perfect exhaustion and blisters. “
Racers come from all over the world to compete in the wet and windy weather conditions of this race. A typical day for a SUP11 City Tour racer will consist of paddling upwards of 20 miles through canals varying in shape, size, and water quality. To get ahead in this race, paddlers start each day with an endurance crippling sprint followed by hours of clustered drafting against headwinds and downpour.
While this event doesn’t test racers on the open ocean, weather conditions often present near hurricane force winds and some of the longest days in stand up paddling. Expect perfect exhaustion and blisters.
# 5: Pacific Paddle Games, Dana Point, CA
“Racers must complete two laps on a bowtie shaped course off Doheny known for its rip currents, shore break, and last summer’s notable arrival of great white sharks.”
While not solely a race, the Pacific Paddle Games is a celebration of all things paddle boarding. Professionals, amateurs, and youth are all invited to attend and participate in the Pacific Paddle Games which is geared towards pushing the boundaries of racers’ speed, surf skills, and maneuverability. Racers must complete two laps on a bowtie shaped course off Doheny Beach in Dana Point, California, known for its rip currents, shore break, and last summer’s notable arrival of great white sharks.
While not exactly an endurance race (the longest being 6 miles), racers are required to demonstrate an expert wave sense through executing sharp turns in the break zone, all while maintaining their speed and control. Not unlike other surf-focused competitions in Southern California, the Pacific Paddle Games tends to draw a crowd of ocean goers and land lubbers alike.
Lastly, another aspect of the Pacific Paddle Games that really sets it apart is the prize money. The Pacific Paddle Games offers the largest prize money in paddle sport history, drawing in paddlers from all of the world.
— Written by Jason Paul
Jason Paul is a passionate paddler and editor-in-chief of InflatableBoarder.com Jason loves sharing the sup stoke with others. When he’s not on the water or reviewing inflatable stand up paddle boards, you’ll find him spending time with his beautiful wife and two small children at their home in Panama.