Surviving the Surf -- Carolina Cup 2016 by Ted Burnell

I’m standing on a beach, holding my OC-1 and listening to a countdown with other outrigger, surfski, and prone board racers.  I’m staring at crashing walls of water that threaten to humiliate and crush my boat and my soul.  The count ends “3, 2, 1, GO!” and there is a slight let up in the surf that will only last seconds.  I run in, tossing the outrigger and jumping on.   I paddle before I even have my legs in the boat and dig like crazy.   I punch through some manageable surf and make it through the break just as a massive swell rolls under me to annihilate those behind me that were just a hair slower.  I just survived the scariest start in my 25 year racing career.   This is my welcome to the Carolina Cup.  

The Carolina Cup is one of the largest paddleboard races in the country, bringing paddleboard  superstars like Danny Ching, Travis Grant, and Annabel Anderson just to name a few.  A handful of skis and outrigger canoes do the race as well, and it appears those categories are growing every year.  This year’s Graveyard course field included 12 surfskis and 17 outriggers, but that paled in comparison to the 176 paddleboards.  There were also few dozen prone boards.   The course is a 13 mile loop around Wrightsville Beach, NC, a barrier island community just off Wilmington.  The event  also offered 3 and 6 mile races on flat water for those not wanting to challenge Neptune on the open ocean.

This race is a carnival of beach party, equipment vendors, demos, and mega stoke with beautiful Wrightsville Beach as the backdrop.  Most of the athletes look like they are pulled from the cover of a surfing magazine, but that’s probably because they are.  

So let’s get back to the race.  After that chaotic start, I made the turn around the first buoy to head north with a nice SSE swell pushing us along.  It was a rear quartering swell that didn’t give a big push due to its angle, but it was enough to counteract the NNW 10mph headwind.  The swell was also really fun for this inland paddler used to lakes and rivers, and was very manageable.  As I headed north, faster OC paddlers on faster boats started to overtake me, but I didn’t care.  I was having a ball and had survived that launch intact.  

But there was one more major obstacle, the inlet into the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW).    These inlets are where swell, wind, current and reverb waves create a maelstrom.  This one was no exception.   The previously gentle 3 foot swells stack into steep faces launching you into a fun but scary fast surf glide. But then a reverb wave would knock you sideways killing the speed you were building. I did more hard bracing and sever rudder changes than I thought my gear would stand but managed to stay upright through it.  I may have had a bad line as well, as I went far right, and a local OC-1 paddler went by me on the far left.   Eventually I made it through to the flat water of the ICW for a nice 6 mile jaunt going with both the wind and current.  I traded draft positions with that local paddler for the entire ICW portion.    

Eventually we reached the end of the calm ICW section and had to head back out through another inlet.  I hung back and let the local paddler lead me through, as the course or best line wasn’t entirely clear to me.  This inlet had some big swells, but they weren’t stacked and there wasn’t any reverb, so while still fun, it lacked the clenched fear of the previous inlet.  

Once back out in the ocean, we turned back north to the start finish line about 1 1/2 miles from the inlet.  The initial turn buoy at the start also served as the final finish turn buoy, for a surf in to the beach and a run across the sand to the finish line.   By this time my left leg and hip were completely numb from over-leaning to my ama side for stability.  I knew I had raced a fun, clean race and had no delusions of outsprinting the 30 year old local paddler up the hill in the sand with a leg that was completely asleep.  Also, when we got to the turn buoys, the top 4 pro paddle boarders had caught us and made the tight turn with us. They had started 8 minutes behind our wave, and yes, they are THAT fast!  Not wanting to mess up pros competing for the podium, I veered wide and caught a wave to surf it in to the finish.  I looked over and the paddle boarder on my left was none other than Danny Ching.   Surfing in on an OC-1 next to Danny Ching on a wave was one of the single biggest highlights of my paddling career.  I went extra wide to give him room so as to not accidentally take him out.   I did manage to make it to shore without carnage, even intentionally side surfing the last few feet for a fast approach that wouldn’t damage my boat.  The run up the beach to the finish line was as predicted; a numb leg limping stumble that was sad and pathetic.  But I didn’t care, I’d just completed the race clean and way faster than I expected and had a head full of fun memories.  

In the end I managed a 4th place finish and was really happy how the whole race went.  Eric Mims was the fastest overall of the day in surfski at 1:50.03, and the top paddle boarder was Puyo Titouan of New Caledonia at 2:04:49.     The fastest OC-1 was Barry Blackburn, schooling me by a full 10 minutes with a time of 2:03:49.  

Speaking of fast, the fastest prone board was Jack Bark (son of legendary board shaper Joe Bark) won the prone division with a time of 2:20:03!   This guy led me on the ocean and through the first nasty inlet, and it took miles of flat water for me to be able to reel him in.  It blows my mind someone can be that fast laying on their stomach just paddling with their hands.

One of the great things about the Carolina Cup is that they route the course either clockwise or counterclockwise to give the best downwind conditions on the ocean.  So, if you like some heart stopping excitement, a great beach party, and paddling with the swells, then I highly recommend you find yourself at Wrightsville Beach for the 2017 Carolina Cup!

Photo Credits:,  Jenny Yarborough, and Aerial Images ILM