Gorge Downwind Championships, Day 1

So after the Canadian Surfski Champs, I headed down to Hood River, Oregon for the Gorge Downwind Championshops. I don’t actually like the name, because it makes it seem like it’s a single race, but it’s not – it’s nearly a full week of downwind shuttles with a race somewhere towards the end (they’re going to announce when the race is when they get a better handle on the wind forecast). The Gorge is famous among wind/water sports enthusiasts like wind surfers, kite boarders, and now SUP, outrigger canoe and surfski paddlers for the consistent winds and waves that roar upriver along the Columbia River Gorge for most of the summer, and now we have a bunch of days where we can enjoy the waves without worrying about the logistics of arranging car shuttles and stuff. There are 300 of us at this event, and shuttles run from noon to 4pm, meaning that a sufficiently well organized and motivated paddler could get an early run before the wind has peaked, and then another one when the waves are just about at their highest.

Driving up yesterday, I was impressed by just how strong the winds were. You didn’t get a lot of views of the river from the highway, and mostly I was concentrating on trying not to get killed by horrible Oregon drivers – including the tow truck blocking the left lane on a semi-blind corner in a 60 mph zone with no cones or flares and the 18 wheeler who decided that one blink was all the warning he needed to give before moving left and checking your mirrors is for sissies. So I didn’t see if the river waves were as ripping as I’d been lead to believe. My motel is a construction site – they’re building a second set of units and they’re way behind schedule, so the parking lot is partially blocked by construction equipment and there is caution tape up all over the place.

I woke up this morning with butterflies in my stomach. I know I’m not as fast as most of the paddlers who live in places with good waves – the Canadian Championships proved that pretty definitively. And the rules are that you must paddle with a buddy. So what if I couldn’t find anybody to paddle with? Ryan Taj Paroz is a top junior (under 23) pro paddler from Australia, and he said he was going to take me out on a double, possibly tomorrow. But that’s just one run. I want to make at least one a day, hopefully more. I tried to hit up some people at the Canadians who said they’d be coming down, but none of them seemed all that interested. If I couldn’t find anybody to buddy with me, I would have wasted my trip.

When registration opened, I headed down to the park and registered. They were already loading up boats for the first couple of shuttles. I saw two guys who looked fit but not super fit who were setting up V8s. I asked them if they’d buddy with me, and they agreed. Bob and Hong. They were friends from San Francisco and obviously paddled a lot more on the ocean than I do. I thought this could be a problem, but maybe the fact that I’ve got a faster boat would help level that gap.

By the time we got to the put-in, the wind was pretty strong. A couple of the more experienced people were complaining that it wasn’t as big as yesterday, but it seemed like plenty to me. We launched and got ready, and off we went. A couple of the guys who launched with us immediately went rocketing off towards the Washington side where the waves were said to be the biggest. But some of the others didn’t pass us and I’m not sure where they went.

I immediately started catching some nice waves – stuff that would be pretty big on Lake Ontario, more like what I got when I was in Tarifa. Bob was ripping it up and was ahead of me, and Hong was pretty much even with me – sometimes I’d link together some good runs and get ahead of him, but he always came storming back and pulled up even or ahead. Bob would sometimes resort to zig-zagging or even throwing his feet in the water to wait for us, but because Hong was his buddy and I was keeping up with Hong, I never had to worry that I was making him wait or ruining his day.

As we got further on, the waves got bigger and bigger. Bob was angling out to the left, towards the Washington side of the river in the part of the river I think they call “Swell City”. Hong and I didn’t get quite as far over as him, but we were in some good stuff. We could see some SUP paddlers ahead, but otherwise it was just the three of us. I can definitely say that I was on some of the biggest waves I’ve ever been on. The V8 Pro was awesome – so stable and nimble. I was carving S-turns down waves. I frequently got swamped with waves coming in the side and filling up the cockpit when I stalled on the back of a big wave, but the water was warmer than it had been at Squamish and because it was all coming from behind or at least from the rear quarters, I never felt nervous or overwhelmed. After the cockpit filled, you’d get a small run on a small wave, and maybe put in a dig to jump onto a bigger wave, and in no time flat the drain will have sucked the cockpit dry. A double surfski that had launched with us came up level with us and then fell behind – I heard them complaining afterwards that the wavelength had been too short and they ended up “high centered” with water filling both cockpits a lot, so they couldn’t get up to a good speed.

After an hour or hour and a quarter, though, I was starting to feel like I wasn’t enjoying it as much anymore. I don’t know if I was tired, or the waves were overwhelming, but I just started trying to figure out where the end was and if we were getting close. Hong came up to me and said we should be moving over to the right towards the Oregon shore because we were getting near the end, and I was a little relieved to get into the smaller waves on that side. Bob was still way out in “Swell City”. As we got closer to the end, the double that I mentioned before came up beside us, as well as a guy in a V12 who had been on our bus. We paddled a bit together and then Bob came over and said we should wait because Hong was a ways back. That was a bit odd, because Hong and I had been neck and neck the whole way, but afterwards I found out that he’d caught a weed. But as I was stopped in the water with my feet out, I wasn’t as stable as I’d been when I was moving and just as Hong caught up and Bob took off, I fell in. Hong and the double got to watch my not very good remount, but I don’t even know if Bob noticed.

Hong and I weren’t 100% sure where the end was – the people in the double and the V12 evidently did, but they were behind us. I thought I saw boats on the shore in this little bay, so I paddled over, but it was just wind surfers not boats. That’s when the guy in the V12 pointed out the sand bar. It was crazy – from where I was in near shore, it looked like the sand bar was blocking almost the entire river. Google Maps shows it isn’t really the whole river, just the Oregon half, but from my angle there was a person standing on the sand bar and he looked like he was directly under the middle span of the bridge that was behind him. But the place we had to land was a channel on the other side of that sand bar. So we went around it, and then paddled through side waves for nearly 500 meters. Bob and Hong actually got out early because it was so shallow they thought they were going to run aground with their surf rudders, but I found the deep part of the channel and paddled in closer to my car. Which is a good thing, because it was way too windy to be carrying a light boat alone, especially one that doesn’t belong to you.

To my great disappointment, however, I discovered that while I’d turned on my GoPro, I hadn’t hit “Record”. I really need to get better at the “switchology” of these various cameras.

Before I came here, I’d hoped that I’d be able to paddle two downwinds a day. I did a lot of long paddle workouts to make sure I had the aerobic stamina to handle two 7 mile runs in a day. But what I didn’t count on was the muscle fatigue. We finished this one around 2pm and Hong was talking about meeting back at 3:30 to do another, but after getting back to my hotel room to change and get some lunch, I decided that my shoulder muscles were sore and tired, and I didn’t want to be out there in the big stuff if I wasn’t strong enough to power through it. I didn’t want a whole run that felt like that bad kilometer or two of this run. So when Hong called I told him to go ahead without me. There is a pilot’s aphorism that goes “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were on the ground”. Change “ground” to “shore” and “up there” to “on the river”, and you’ve got how I feel right now. So yeah, the plan still is to try to do two runs a day, but this run was so awesome that I won’t kill myself to do two runs – if I only get one a day, and it includes a few more runs like that one, I’ve got my money’s worth.