You pretty much know it’s going to be a great event when at the pre-registration party you a) drink Coronas with Joe Bark while b) listening to the San Diego crew describe the earlier loss of 3 unlimited boards on the freeway only to turn around and load up with backups, and c) seeing the visible excitement on the face of a 20-something woman who has been wanting to do the downwinder for years because she heard “it’s the gnarliest race around”. All while looking out the window of the Ideal Bar at the blowing waters of Westside Santa Cruz and the next day’s finish line. I think everybody there felt the same vibe because even with a suspect race day wind forecast folks were hyped beyond what I’ve seen in the past years. I was hyped too.
This was the 7th annual Santa Cruz Downwind Ryders Cup hosted by the Ghostryders Watermen Club who, years ago, thought it’d be fun to actually get pushed by wind and swell instead of dragging ourselves through the water. Without knowing it we had stumbled upon gold with this downwind course from Davenport to Main Beach and today it is what anybody would call ‘world class’. Yes, great wind and perfect bump interval does make a course ‘world class’ but there are other factors to this water that elevates the hype factor—things like cold water, swell, kelp, (large) marine life, and the typical heavyweight paddlers who show up to race.
The real excitement for the Santa Cruz Downwind paddle board race is not knowing what combination of these factors the course has planned for us. Like Christmas eve as a kid—you don’t really know what presents you are going to get until you wake up the next morning. When we arrived to Davenport Beach it was quickly obvious that (1) the wind was almost non-existent at the top of the course (not good) and (2) the field was going to be competitive. We had legit names in the paddle board race world – winners of Catalina Classic, Molokai 2 Oahu finishers, Titans of Mavericks surfers, brand owners and board shapers, and a wide range of hard core SUP and prone paddlers.
While all the racers visited and talked shop you could see that the the lack of wind had most a bit eggy. Visions of a 14 mile slog danced through our heads but late reports of wind looking strong down the coast made everybody feel good that we’d be running fast by the time we got to 4-Mile Beach. After a safety brief by local legend Zach Wormhoudt the entire field got together for a pretty rad group picture—definitely one for the history books.
We then lined up for a LeMans start and all ~100 paddlers hit the water in a mad dash. With no wind blowing most took an inside line (I dodged a set at Shark Bite Right) and started our trudge through crossed up water for about the next hour. With no wind blowing the sun felt really intense as the pack thinned out and we all settled into our lines and minds, waiting for some downwind runners. Very few bumps were available in that grueling ~7 mile stretch, then gradually we saw more and more runners. Finally half-way through the race we were connecting 3-4 bumps at a time and getting the downwind glide that this course is so famous for.
As we hit West Cliff Drive ~5 miles later the kelp began to come into play for us on the inside line. Fortunately the wind was pumping so the kelp laid out in a downwind fashion letting us fly right through it (mostly…I did get a strand over my deck and almost stopped dead in my tracks). The wind was really good to us on this lower part of the course producing bump that carried us all the way to the tip of the Santa Cruz Wharf and our left shoulder turn into the finish line.
That final quarter mile stretch along the wharf is the signal that you’ve finished the race and I could taste the Modelo waiting for me on the beach. As I cruised toward the finish I looked over to see Joe Bark next to me with a huge smile thinking the same. We hit the beach and were handed cold beers and high fives from the earlier finishers; not for an amazing finish time but because we did finish. This was a tough 14 mile paddle board race—one hour of hard paddling followed by 1-2+ hrs of sprinting into cold water bump and dodging kelp. Most of us were pretty well taxed.
Standing on the beach listening to stories from the race and feeling the stoke that we all shared for getting through that challenge I realized that The Santa Cruz Downwinder is more than a downwind paddle board race—it’s a celebration. Each year we come together to celebrate the challenge that this stretch of ocean provides and the brother/sisterhood of the people who face it. I’m so stoked to have been part of this event and for TradePaddleboards.com to be a presenting sponsor. Huge thanks to Ghostryders Waterman Club for continuing to put it on.
Already looking forward to next year.