With incredible scenery, almost guaranteed perfect daily downwind conditions, simple fast shuttles, great organization, abundant support from almost all the industry and a well contested competition … you are probably thinking of somewhere in Hawaii, South Africa or Australia. But no … this is the Gorge Downwind Championships in Hood River, Oregon and it is one of the top downwind destinations on the planet. Because of all these things this awesome event has grown from just 100 participants to a sold out 300 in just one year. Next years cap plans to be 450 and they should have no trouble selling out based on the enthusiastic response of all of those that attend.
We arrived in Hood River while the Canadian Surfski Championships was being contested and therefore had the place to ourselves in addition to solid, reliable conditions. As an east coaster, the Gorge is the highlight of my year and I always learn so much, so getting there early allowed me to get reacquainted with the river and get comfortable in the conditions that in no way resemble those back home. I also got to try some new equipment including the Fenn Glide, Elite S and Epic V10 and to see the unique Revo in action.
As paddlers started filtering into the area the energy of the event builds. Paddlers from New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Hawaii, Tahiti, South Africa, Ibiza, and elsewhere make this truly an international event as does rubbing shoulders with the international legends like the Mocke and Rice brothers, Michele Eray, Teneale Hatton and many others that currently define todays elite class of surfski athlete.
After a week of what was more fun than serious training, it was race day. Conditions were predicted to be solid although the gorge never really filled in, meaning it was going to be a grind for a good chunk of the race. The race would cover 13 miles downwind with 4 starts. The mens ski start would be last with 130 male athletes packed into the cove at Home Valley.
I dropped into the pack far right directly behind Jasper and David Mocke. I figured they knew what they were doing so it would be as good a place as any. As soon as the start horn blew the sheltered bay at Home Valley exploded with water as everyone sprinted for the hot spot all the way across the river on the Oregon side. It took us about 4 minutes to cross the river with good swells coming in at our right quarter. There was one person flipped at the buoy when I got there and lots of bracing going on elsewhere. Sean Rice handily took the hot spot with the other elite paddlers lined up behind.
The next 8km were great downwind conditions with really fun rides you could link up and enjoy. Sprint. Relax. Sprint. Relax. It felt so good to be cruising up stream and downwind in these great conditions. Sadly, somewhere west of Drano Lake, the awesome conditions ended and it became a bit of a grind all the way to the finish. Along the way my race also fell to pieces, finishing side by side with my good friend, Maurizio from Italy, but still pumped to have had such a great week with such an amazing field of friends and athletes. Some of these guys make it look really easy and there is so much to learn from them.
The team organizing the Gorge Downwind Championships was led by Carter Johnson and they really poured their heart and soul into making this a successful event. All the internationals seemed to really enjoy the location and conditions so I’m confident that this event will sell out all 450 spots next year. I’ll be there for sure.