Stand-up paddling has gone from a small niche in the adventure sports community to a well-respected discipline for fitness, training and even competitive racing. It seems that every city near a decent lake or beach has an ever-growing community; you can even find SUP groups in New York City (although most don’t recommend taking a dip in the East River). After spending my morning commute passing the SUP Yoga group (yes, it’s a thing) at the local pond, I got curious and found the perfect venue to explore the sport: the Vail Summer Mountain Games.
The only disconnect between registering for the SUP river sprint at the Summer Mountain Games and actually racing? I’d never been on a paddle board, let alone on a whitewater river with nothing between me and a sure trip to ER save for a board, paddle and helmet. But first times are a charm, so after research and a consultation with the pro team at Boardworks Surf, I settled on the ten-foot six-inch Badfish Board ($1,429) and made for the water.
The board shares more in common with a military-style inflatable zodiac than a contemporary surfboard. Rather than a foam and fiber rigid frame, Badfish boards employ Multi Chamber Inflation Technology (MCIT), a design that allows for three separate inflatable chambers: a more rigid central one and two outer “rail” chambers that are flexible and can respond to swirling river currents more nimbly. This also makes the whole kit great for travel, as the board, pump and fins roll into a backpack for easy transport, and the whole system weighs in at just over 30 pounds. At first I was a little doubtful about stability — the rail chambers seemed to pick up a lot of wave motion — but a few quick training sessions without any falls on some flat water calmed my worries. In fact, the two outer chambers provide an almost outrigger effect, stabilizing the deck. The combination of these flexible “rails”, a reinforced bumper bow (for rocks and rapids) and a stiff deck material that sits low on the water bolstered my confidence, even though I didn’t have the opportunity to practice on real whitewater before heading to Vail.
Then came race day. A quick preview and a dip in the 39-degree run-off waters evaporated any ounce of courage I’d clung to. A three-mile sprint punctuated by a series of class II and III rapids — not to mention a few large drop-offs — was a far cry from the relatively calm waters of lake training. Waiting and watching for over an hour while wave after wave of kayakers fought the rapids — with sometimes disastrous results through the more turbulent sections — didn’t instill any more resolve.
Finally, my bib number came up and I reluctantly traded the relative safety of the river bank for the race course. The first section was relatively calm, and with only a few sections accented by small wave trains, I easily sprinted almost as quickly as I had on flat practice water. That all changed with the first real rapid. A two-foot drop beneath a bridge followed by a series of whitewater boils put the tracking and stability of the Badfish to the test. Despite being thrown from the board, spending some time on my knees and getting spun around more than once, I kept making forward progress.
The outer rails performed perfectly: the flexible pontoon effect allowed the board to move with the flow through every wave and pocket on the river. The rigid deck kept me
on my feet relatively dry, except for a nasty episode when a large rock threw my balance off and I ended up face down in the shallows. Throughout the worst of my struggles, though, the Badfish’s impressive steadiness kept me gliding evenly along the worst of the river; I finished the race, a true testament to Boardworks’ product.
The Badfish’s whitewater performance is only rivaled by its abilities as a yoga platform, I’ve since decided. If you’re looking to get into SUP this summer, look no further.
METHODOLOGY After taking the time to learn flatwater paddle, the author decided to stretch his abilities with a little whitewater racing. He grabbed a board, helmet, wetsuit and paddle and found the steepest section of Gore Creek to hurtle down at breakneck speed.