Abandoned factories and homes, broken government, and crime are what most people think of when Detroit is mentioned. But while I was there, my experience was with beautiful water, a city recovering and paddling stoke in spades. This positive side of Detroit reaches a zenith each year at the OABI race. OABI stands for Once Around Belle Island, a beautiful island that sits just in front of the city in the middle of the Detroit River. The locals pronounce the acronym name as “Owabi”.
Belle Island, the site of the Detroit Grand Prix, was once a city park. When the City of Detroit went bankrupt, the park fell into disrepair, became crime ridden and covered with trash. Thanks to local residents efforts and the State of Michigan, it is once again a great place to visit and paddle from. One lap around is approximately 6 – 7 miles.
A few months ago, I was in Michigan for a work project. I let Ulli Sherer know I was going to be in the area and would like to get out and paddle with her. Ulli is the owner of the regional Think Kayaks dealership, Great Lakes Surfski and has been a major supporter and competitor of the OABI. Not only did Ulli and her awesome husband Myron lend me a boat to paddle, they graciously put me up for the weekend. We paddled on Lake St. Clair in their hometown of Grosse Point and then out around Belle Island the following day. I was blown away by how beautiful the water was and how cool the City of Detroit looked from the water. They insisted that I come back and race the OABI, and based on the hospitality I was shown on my first trip, I readily agreed.
The second time around I was once again hosted by the incredible Ulli and Myron Sherer and their house full of amazing animals. Staying at their house is more interesting than staying at the Detroit zoo. They have two dogs, a gecko, two parrots, two parakeets, a tortoise named Hank, and a GIGANTIC rabbit named Bruno.
The day before the race we pre-ran the course while taking careful mental notes on the best lines. The winds were high and the channel side of the island was quite rough. This helped cement my decision to forego paddling the Uno Max Ultimate for the race, opting for an Evo II Ultimate instead. I was being truly spoiled by Ulli and Myron in the selection of boats that I could borrow. That evening we made our way to the packet pickup and pre-race party at a local bar. This was a great chance to meet race organizers and racers and get a sense about the excitement of this race.
Race day commenced with thunderstorms threatening to delay the race start. The race organizers shrewdly pushed the crowd to get on the water early and start before storms could delay our race. Unfortunately, the push to get going quickly resulted in the start gun going off for the ski/kayak wave before the starting line buoy was set out. Which in turn necessitated a few extra minutes of racing my way through paddleboards as I chased after my departing race heat. In the end, this late start wasn’t a factor for me in finisher ranking, but I hope it’s a detail they get straightened out next year. After charging upstream through the race field I finally caught up with the front pack. This pack consisted of Michael Meredith on a ski, John Beausang on OC-1, an OC-2 team and a sea kayaker punching WAY above his weight class. I caught this group just as it was rounding the upstream end of the island. The overall leader, Rob Hartman from Holland MI was so far ahead of the pack that I never did see him. The guy is seriously fast, and he never had even the slightest challenge. I’m hoping we see him at some of our bigger southern races next year.
Eventually, I worked my way into second place with about 4 miles left. We were now on the rough side of the island, and I was enjoying the rough water capabilities of the Evo II when I spotted a weed bed seconds too late and then the subsequent enormous drag nearly slowing me to a stop. I tried in vain to shake that weed anchor to no avail, and had to dismount and clear the snag. After clearing a weed ball that looked like Sigmund the Sea Monster off my rudder, I remounted to find I had been caught by Michael Meredith on his Uno Max Ultimate and sea kayaker still charging ahead. As I sought to recover from my remount, a white squall hit us with fierce winds, stinging rain, and near-zero visibility. I knew these severe conditions would give me an edge in the Evo II so I pulled hard trying to regain a lead on Michael. The squall let up and he was still extremely close, but ‘luckily’ another squall hit. This squall was accompanied by some giant freighter swells that were, unfortunately, heading in the wrong direction to surf. At this point in the race, I felt Poseidon himself was trying to sweep us from the water. I could barely see the end of my boat, and it felt like my eyeballs were getting snapped with a rubber band. But alas, the squall ended and I had come through it with a decent lead over Michael. I was mightily impressed though that he kept the Uno Max upright in those conditions. I own that same boat and am sure I would have swum in that situation.
Soon I rounded the bottom of Belle Island and headed upstream. The sun came out and with the wind now absent, it was a hot flatwater slog to the finish. As I glided into the beach I attempted to gracefully jump out of the ski to sprint across to the finish line. This, of course, is not how it went. My attempt to run almost planted me facedown into the sand because one leg had frozen in deep sleep. I made a humiliated leg dragging hobble across the line. This was a repeat of the same scene when I raced OC-1 earlier this year at the Carolina Cup. But I didn’t care. I just finished the OABI, the funkiest, hippest, race you’ll ever do.
The OABI as a race isn’t perfect. The course direction around the island doesn’t take advantage of predominant or race day wind direction, the race start was a bit of a cluster, and supposedly it’s had its organizational challenges in the past. But that’s what makes this race great. It’s just like Detroit itself. It still has a couple of rough spots, but awesome in a completely unique way. The race, like the city, is growing and improving.
And that’s the thing about the OABI. How you perform, or actual race situations are not the story here. This event is more than that. Part of what makes this race really special is the oddly well-blended cultures of surf vibe with blue-collar grittiness. An example is that despite the ferocious wind and rain squalls, every single person finished the course. That won’t happen anywhere else. Detroit’s iconic symbol is a gigantic fist sculpture and it perfectly sums up the resiliency and toughness of the folks still here. It’s the fact that this event starts with a pre-pre-party, then a packet pickup pre-party, than pre-race activities, and is followed by a concert, SUP polo and all sorts of other shenanigans. Also, the race itself is on water so blue, clear and inviting that you have to look up at the iconic Detroit skyline to remind yourself that you’re not in the Caribbean.
If beautiful water, unique paddling culture, a stunning city skyline and being part of a great American revival appeals to you, make your way to the OABI next summer. But if you encounter challenges during the race, just tough it out. It’s the Detroit way!