Thrown In The Deep End At The Paddleboarding Dragon World Championships
Photographs: Global Shots
For most athletes, taking part in the world championships is the culmination of a lifetime of dedication and sacrifice. For me, it has involved a couple of hours of gentle practice in the Caribbean sunshine. The biggest sacrifice I’ve made so far has been to delay the time of the day’s first rum and Coke.
The event I’m taking part in is the inaugural Dragon World Championships, a stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) race organised by board maker Red Paddle, founded in 2008 by former windsurfing champion John Hibbard. Advances in technology means that they’ve been able to create an inflatable board rigid enough to stay rock-solid with several people standing on it. That’s why this competition – taking place in Carlisle Bay, off Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados – will see teams from around the globe battle it out on four-person, 22ft (6.7m) Dragon boards, with Hibbard on hand to oversee proceedings.
The format on day one sees points allocated according to where you finish in your heat. Your score determines your seeding for the knockout rounds on day two. Until a few minutes before the start, I’m feeling quite relaxed about the whole thing because I’m meant to be part of a ragtag team of journalists for whom the pen is mightier than the paddle. But an injury to another competitor means I’ve been drafted into The Grand Masters – a team comprising seasoned watersports enthusiast and windsurfing instructor Bob, and a pair of Red Paddle distributors from Germany called Etienne and Marion. I’m immediately made to feel part of the gang but if we were the Beatles, I would be our second-best drummer.
Feeling the heat
The first round is forgiving in that we’re paddling for points rather than fighting to stay in the competition, but the opposition is as stiff as the board I’ll be riding. We’re up against a team who have flown from Russia to be here (and aren’t exactly exuding an it’s-the-taking-part-that-counts aura) and a local quartet who may be new to Dragon board racing but are well versed in the bay’s swells.
Our tactics are simple. Marion is at the front and will call the strokes. I’m buried in second place, with the other two guys at the back acting as the engine room. We make a solid start but I’m so busy concentrating on staying upright that my strokes are more gentle pats than powerful pulls. The course takes us straight out to sea, then into a left turn after 200m, continuing until we complete the 800m roughly-square route.
The Russians speed off with determined efficiency, leaving us to battle it out with the locals. They’re probably faster but they’re spending more time in the water so we edge past them and float up the shore for a second-place finish. We’ve bagged valuable points but I’ll need to pull my paddle out if we’re going to get past the second round.
After watching the rest of the heats I go in search of some expert advice from the REDSUPLadies team from New York. They’re composed, graceful and tactically shrewd and I want to know how they do it. “The secret to our success is teamwork and understanding how each person works,” says team captain Jennifer Hung. “We focus on synchronicity and communication. You let everyone know what’s coming up and what’s going on so everyone on understands how to move forwards.”
Her wise words give me something to think about as I recover, as all aspiring world champions should, with a cocktail in the setting sun.
Back at the bay on day two, there are four teams in our heat but the sun (and possibly last night’s cocktails) have gone to my head so I race off down the beach too fast, failing to give Marion time to get up onto the board and leaving us adrift of the competition. We also take a poor line around the first buoy and by the time we hit the back straight we have some serious catching up to do. However, we settle into a rhythm and start to reel in the two teams in front.
This feels like a real battle and at the third buoy we take an aggressive inside line in an attempt to take out the teams ahead. The gamble pays off and we’re picking up speed just as we turn parallel to the beach. A moment later all four team members, our paddles and the board go flying. In our haste to get past our competitors we didn’t look at what the water was doing and were wiped out by a tsunami (OK, a 2ft tiddler).
In the home straight Marion is struggling to find her balance so I compensate by pulling even harder. I also start to call the strokes, mounting a last-ditch attempt to produce a fast finish. It’s not to be and we drift in to the beach in last place. Our podium chances may have sunk without trace but I give myself a pat on the back for my heroic performance.
Then I give myself a slap around the face after I talk to someone who knows what they’re doing because it turns out my actions ruined our chances of progressing. “It’s all about gliding,” says Jason Cole, team captain of Paddle Barbados, a quartet of local SUP instructors who are favourites to become champions. “It’s not really about strength. If you don’t get a glide then the timing will be off. If someone behind you pulls too hard while you’re adjusting or changing sides then you’re going to fall backwards,” he says, as I nod sheepishly and examine my flip-flops.
I spend the next couple of hours watching Cole and his team-mates destroy the competition and become the first ever Dragon World Champions.
Fortunately I’ve got a chance to redeem myself in the Dragon Warrior Sprint, a handicap race where every team in the competition starts at intervals according to where they placed in the main event. The course snakes around a few buoys before heading back to the beach, but there’s a surprise in store because 25m from the shore we’ll have to drag our board over two other boards in the water manned by Hibbard and his Red Paddle colleague George Shillito. They’ll aim to halt our progress by prodding us into the water with Gladiator-style pugilist sticks.
Our penultimate place finish (the journalists did the profession proud by propping up the table) in the main event means we’re going off second. Having learned from our mistakes we take it steadily at the start and we soon overtake the journo crew. As we near the turn for home we’re still in first place but there’s a pack of paddlers behind us. Under pressure we take a wide turn for home and about half a dozen teams sneak in on the inside.
By the time we reach Hibbard and Shillito the sea is a froth of boards, bodies and paddles. We drag the Dragon over the boards, going shoulder to shoulder with our old foes, the Russians, and storm up the beach for a creditable eighth-place finish. We may not have troubled the winners but if your final standing was determined by how much fun you had, then I’ve just conquered the world.
The 2018 Dragon World Championships will be held at Lake Fuschl, Austria, from 31st August-2nd September 2018. For details, visit dragonworldseries.com.