Big river regional

With my first ever paddling related shoulder injury, 2015 has proven to be a bit of a disappointment.

After a layoff and some physical therapy, I was anxious to get back on the boat and gauge my recovery. My first opportunity would arrive at the third annual Big River Regional race in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The BRR has historically focused on paddleboards and is subsequently a regionally recognized championship for SUP, but race director Bryan Prince is now focusing on bringing up the numbers of their kayaking, surfski and OC brethren as well.

His desire is beginning to bear fruit as the 2015 edition closed with total paddlers numbering two hundred, with seventy five of those being of the seated variety. Historically, events in the gulf coast region tend to be very well attended, but are often weighted towards recreational kayaks as opposed to surfski. Race director Bryan Prince offers that this region, based on a myriad of swamps, bayous, gulf and river access facilitate a lifestyle where some form of pirogue are common, but the surfski has remained a relative outlier to the area.

We arrive at the race check in Friday night to find an energized hotel lobby full of racers receiving their race packets and information.

After checking in we were instructed to leave the boats out over night at a guarded area on the banks of the Mississippi river. This is a one way down river event, so in the morning we drove to the finish and caught a shuttle back to the start.

Scottish bagpipes played during the pre-race milieu and after a brief meeting and prayer, the star spangled banner was performed on guitar a la Jimi Hendrix style to signify “paddlers on the water”.

Staging was a bit chaotic. Two hundred boats/boards on the water all bumping and maneuvering for position against a fast moving Mississippi River began to feel a bit like the arcade classic “asteroids”. As we reached the one minute countdown, all began to turn from their upstream position and began to point towards downstream direction. It was here that the carnage began, with many running into one another as racers jockeyed for position.

In keeping with my tradition of bad starts, I was one of the unlucky ones bouncing off a few paddleboards after the start was called.

Eventually picking my way through, I began the thirteen mile downriver run. Memphis paddlers Elmore Holmes and Kata Dismukes got a gap off the front as the rest of us gave chase. More chaos ensued as surprisingly large (for a river) beam on waves were generated from the chase boats, putting a few in the water. I had two boats to choose from for this race and at the last minute opted for the more stable Think Evo II over a faster, less stable Uno Max. I mentally congratulated myself on a good decision where my limited bucket time in the Uno Max would no doubt have resulted in some early swimming.

As we progressed down the river, the turbulent water gave way to calm, flat and slower conditions. The front begin to materialize as Elmore Holmes (epic V-12), Kata Dismukes (Epic V-12) and Matt/ Gary Wise on an O C-2 began to pull away with Ted Burnell (Think Uno Max), Shane Kleynhans (Epic V-10S) and myself chasing. Slowly, Burnell started to pull the leaders back as I followed comfortably about ten yards behind Kleynhans for about 80% of the race. About 10 miles in I opted to come off his line to follow what I interpreted to be a more direct route. This turned out to be a bad choice, as I came into slower shallow water and lost valuable time that I would not make up.

Up ahead at the front of the race, fellow Chattanoogan Ted Burnell put in an impressive effort to recover from a bad start of his own to bridge up to the lead group of Holmes, Dismukes and the Wise duo on the OC-2. Dismukes, suffering from a shoulder issue eventually fell off the pace of the front group, finishing a respectable fourth overall. After a cat and mouse game between Holmes and Burnell, Holmes made a push through in the closing miles to finish a boat length ahead of Burnell for first in surfski and second overall behind Wise/Wise in OC-2.

The after party was a sight behold. Staged on the grounds of the L’Auberge casino; a pig roast feast along with barbecue and beer were on hand while a live band played as attendees danced to the sweet sounds of Zydeco. According to my native Louisianian friend Jeff Slade, this dancing or music is also known as “Fais Do Do”.No matter how your race turns out, it’s hard not find a reason to smile with beer, food, zydeco and friendly faces. Attention to detail made for a memorable event which we will be returning for in the future. It’s no stretch seeing this event growing into a premier race in the southeast for all sit down and stand up paddlers, especially as the surfski continues to grow in the region.