Danny Ching is a famous SUP and outrigger canoe racer from California. Right now he's ranked #3 in the world and he has lots of first-place wins in super competitive races like the "Battle of the Paddle". That's Danny on the right, next to a top Florida racer named Brad Ward.
Mr. Ching has two signature brands: "404" (paddleboards) and "Hippo Stick" (paddles).
My local SUP shop, CGT Kayaks, sells a lot of his stuff, and my buddies on the CGT Race Team really idolize Danny because he's such a badass. Naturally, we were stoked to hear that he would make an appearance at a SUP event in our area, the "Fort Desoto Paddle Roundup," which was held April 17th - 19th.
The first two days of the roundup were social events, clinics, gear demos, and short-length recreational races. I only made it up for the last day, which was a 9.5 mile "Elite Race" around Mullet Key, the island at the mouth of Tampa Bay that Fort Desoto sits on. (See my GPS track from the race.)
So I wouldn't have to get up too early on race day, I stayed Saturday night at the aptly named "Budget Inn" in St. Petersburg. I was thankful to get a ground-floor room to put my board in at night, and a mini-fridge to pre-chill my camelback. Some other folks from the CGT race team were up for the whole weekend, camping on Mullet Key. They invited me to see a Tampa Bay Rays vs. NY Yankees baseball game on Saturday night. The Rays lost 0-9 but it was still fun to watch. The Rays have a cool aquarium at the stadium with real stingrays and cownosed rays that you can pet. There's also a sign at the back wall of center field that says "404," which we thought was apropos to the weekend's event.
The race venue was a beautiful beach with clear, blue water. The race itself was fun, but very challenging. (More so because I forgot my gatorade-filled camelback in the hotel fridge and had to tuck a borrowed water bottle in my fannypack lifevest instead.) I paddled hard, struggled a lot, learned a lot, and managed to get 3rd place in the 14' sup division with a time of 2:00:50. Danny Ching did it in 1:43:15 and Brad Ward did it in 1:54:27. Full race results including times are posted on Distressed Mullet.
The race start was from the beach, around a buoy near shore, then clockwise around the island. I was a little more thoughtful about the start than I had been at the Cocoa Beach race. I positioned myself upwind of the buoy, and though I didn't dash into the water and pop up on the board as fast as some of the competition, I had a safe, wide line that got me offshore and ahead of the slower folks early on.
The early part of the race was cool because I could still see Brad Ward and Danny Ching not that far ahead. For about half a mile I drafted behind two guys on JP boards. The drafting definitely made it easier and helped me save some energy for later. Then I got ahead but the JP guys drafted me for a mile or two. Doh! Eventually they wore out and I dropped them, and the rest of the race was just me competing with myself, because Brad Ward was too fast to catch up with, and Danny Ching was of course long gone.
The middle part of the race was very challenging because of a strong sidewind. As you can see from this iwindsurf.com graph from Egmont Channel near the race site, the south wind rose steadily through the morning.
The incessant choppy waves and wind forced me to paddle only on one side, and even then I had a hard time maintaining course. My speed dropped from about 5.4 to 3.3 mph and I struggled to find a rhythm. The usual tricks weren't working, but I had some success with adopting a weaker but higher cadence stroke and standing farther forward on the board to weigh my Fanatic Falcon's nose down and prevent it from getting knocked downwind by each wave. In retrospect I think a smaller fin might have helped me make course corrections more easily. I'll have to experiment with that in the future.
The coolest part of the race was going under the large pier at the southwest end of the island, and finally getting to go downwind and paddle on both sides again. The wind and waves really gave a great push to the finish line.
By the time I got there, though, the wind was so strong that I had trouble turning the board to face the beach for the final paddle in. I could hear the race mc talking me up on the bullhorn as I came around the buoy so I wanted to look cool, but I was awkwardly paddle-steering to stay on course for beach.
It sure felt good to run through the finish line in 3rd place, though.
About 13 people had to drop out of the race before the end, but most of my CGT teammates finished it in good time, too. I was really proud of everyone who even attempted the course.
Here's CGT racer Kevin Hill winning first in the male 18-39 12'6 board division (2:23:34). Interestingly Kevin was beaten by Mark Athanacio in the 40-59 12'6 class (green trunks, 2:10:38), and Mark was beaten by Kelsa Gabeheart in the female 18-39 12'6 class (pink tanktop, 2:09:46), showing that age and gender divisions don't always stack like you might expect.
CGT team captain Matt Kearney showed he had recovered from a nasty falling-on-his-fin-while-surfing injury by finishing strong in 2:41:47.
And CGT team motivator Justin DiGiorgio made it in 2:49:43.
It was interesting to see all the different types of athletes completing the challenging course. Folks of all ages, genders, and body types seem to be able to draw on diverse individual strengths to get their SUPs and other paddlecraft moving fast. Outrigger canoeist Wendell Martin (goatee) doesn't look like the typical athlete, but he wasn't far behind spandex beefcake Mark Wienzierl (cowbow hat).
And here’s an outrageously muscular guy contrasted against a striking slender 56 year old woman and an average looking younger dude. Anybody with the right attitude can do well at this sport.
PS- That’s me windsurfing in the background of the above photo. I put a 5.5 sail on my SUP raceboard after the race and blasted around for a while on that. It planes but not super fast. My top speed was about 19 mph according to the GPS. I switched to my 106 liter shortboard for a bit after that and had a good sesh up until the lunch and awards ceremony. Lunch was traditional “old Florida” cuisine, with cornbread and smoked mullet. Everything was on biodegradable or reusable kitchenware in keeping with the environmental awareness theme of the event. Very cool, in a scaly, boney, fishy sort of way.
Next race is much closer to home; the CGT winter race #4 this Sunday. I’m hoping I can get first place in that, but you never know what tough competitors might show up, or when Mark Athanacio might decide to race a 14’ board instead of his usual 12’6. I’ll paddle hard regardless.
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