Jay (Sparky) Longely was walking his golden retriever, Benny, along Beach Road in Dana Point, Calif., last week when a sight common to the Pacific Coast appeared: a truck carrying surfboards. What wasn’t common about the Chevy Silverado pulling a red 15-foot-long trailer packed with 12 board bags was the blue, cursive print on the license plate: Mississippi.
“That was a hell of a trip,” said Josh Chrisman, an athletic looking 25-year-old with a buzz cut, after he backed the Silverado into the driveway of a nearby house.
He then told Sparky it took him and his girlfriend, Christy Parnell, 29 hours to make the drive from Kiln, Miss.—a town of around 2,000 near the Gulf of Mexico. The other boards were for their friends and family, who were flying in the next day.
“We’re all here for the Battle,” he added.
They weren't alone.
The Battle of the Paddle, the world’s premier stand up paddleboard event took place this past weekend at Salt Creek Beach in Southern California.
“It’s the Super Bowl of the sport,” says event director Barrett Tester.
But instead of a stadium filled with jersey-clad fans, the shoreline was massed with more than 20,000 spectators in board shorts and bikinis. Instead of cheerleaders there are Tahitian dancers and Hawaiian drummers. And instead of a kickoff, hundreds of racers jockey along the starting line in the sand and await the referee’s call of “Racers! Are you ready?” before the blast of an air horn as they stampede into the surf.
“We usually have three or four false starts because everyone is so amped,” says Kai Lenny, a 22-year-old from Maui and last year’s elite champion. “Just talking about the race makes me excited.”
Last year the event attracted 1,275 racers, who competed in one or more of the Battle’s five courses that include the elite race, a long-distance race, and a series of relays with teams of four. There are male and female, pro and amateur, grade school and senior citizen racers alike who prepare every year for the contest.
It’s this variety that adds to the allure of the event, where for the price of registration one can rub shoulders with the sport’s top pros.
“You can’t go to an NBA game and play against Kevin Durant,” says Candice Appleby, the four-time BOP champion from San Clemente, Calif., “But if you enter the elite race you can line up and compete against Kai Lenny and Connor Baxter.”
The open race, for intermediate to advanced paddlers on any size board, broke the Guinness World Record for “World’s Largest Paddleboard Race” in 2013. The previous record holder? The 2012 Battle’s open race, which had 404 competitors.
Yet eight years ago, there were no drums, no spectators, no racers. Eight years ago, Sparky, the owner of Rainbow Sandals—the Battle’s name sponsor—had never even heard of this offshoot of surfing with ancient Polynesian roots.
Few others had. Big wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama only started to rekindle interest in the sport starting in the early 2000s.
Sparky got his first glimpse one afternoon in 2006 when he watched master surfboard shaper, Ron House, glide along wave after wave at Capistrano Beach. “He was catching everything and seemed like he was having a blast even though the waves were horrible and about two inches high,” Sparky recalls.
He was standing—the whole time.
Instead of paddling with his arms then popping up to his feet once he caught the wave, Ron propelled himself using a six-foot single-bladed paddle.
“What’s that?” Sparky asked his longtime friend and surfing legend, Gerry Lopez, who was sitting near him at Phillip (Flippy) Hoffman’s beach front house.
“That’s SUP,” said Lopez, who had seen Hamilton and Kamala stand up paddleboarding on a trip he took with them to the Mentawais Islands in Indonesia.
“I didn’t care what the name was,” Sparky says. “I just told Gerry we had to learn to do that.”
They did. After a lesson from Ron, Sparky and Gerry found themselves spending more time on their SUPs than on their regular surfboards and soon dreamt up the idea of a contest that “celebrated the love of the ocean and paddling,” says Sparky.
Lopez took up the cause and designed an event that combined flat-water paddleboard racing with a wave-catching component.
The result was a format that was the first of its kind: a four-mile circuit course, on which competitors complete four laps paddling through the surf zone and around a series of buoys. Between each lap racers also have to dismount their boards and run a short sprint on the beach.
In 2008 Lopez partnered with Rainbow Sandals to hold the first Battle of the Paddle at Doheny State Beach. Two-hundred and seventy five racers showed up.
“No way,” Lopez says when asked about the inaugural event at which the lifeguards gave the paddlers confused stares. “We had absolutely no idea what we created.”
The swell in participation at the Battle over the past seven year mirrors the explosion of the sport.
“Stand up is huge right now,” says Sparky. “The reason a lot of surf shops are still in business is because they sell stand up paddle boards.”
The numbers prove it. The Surf Industry Manufactures Association noted in a retail distribution study that while surf retailers experienced a 5% overall sales increase between 2012 and 2013, SUP board and paddle sales grew 41%.
Just ask the Chrismans. Josh’s sister, Ashley, opened MS Gulf Coast Paddle in Bay St. Louis, Miss., in 2012. Although she says residents first gawked and took pictures of her and her friends paddling their boards around the Jordan River, sales have quadrupled in the past year.
The sport can credit its rise to its user-friendly nature and accessibility. With no waves required and little skill needed to stand on the wide, thick board, SUPing has sprung up across bodies of water throughout the world—from the Deshutes River in Hood, Ore., which Lopez calls home, all the way to Lake Zurich in Switzerland.
Dan Gavere, a professional racer and the national sales manager for Starboard Stand Up Paddleboards, says that he has ridden his SUP in at least 30 US states and just got back from a sales trip to Hamburg, Germany.
“If you can ride a moving walkway at the airport than you can ride a Stand Up Paddleboard,” he claims.
Though this weekend in California it was easy to see how the competitors could mistake the walkway for a roller coaster.
The Battle changed venues for 2014 from the slower, softer waves at Doheny to the steeper, more critical surf at Salt Creek Beach.
“Its akin to going from the bunny slope to a double black diamond,” says Tester. “We’ve changed the game.”
As a precaution, all racers were required to wear portable flotation devices and leashes. The decision was also made on Sunday for the kids under-12 races to take place on the beach instead of in the surf.
On Saturday and Sunday, boards, paddles, and bodies could be seen flying like shrapnel as racers tried to navigate their way through the overhead surf amid the roars of the crowd.
“It’s broken dreams, broken boards, and hopefully not any broken limbs,” said Kai Lenny. “That’s what makes it such a spectacle and that’s what people like. They want to see the crashes and the wipeouts.”
That isn’t hyperbole. During the second lap of the men’s elite qualifying race, Danny Ching snapped his board in half while trying to ride over a wave. He grabbed a replacement and still managed to qualify for the final.
Despite a collision of his own with rival Connor Baxter during the final, Kai Lenny outpaced Jake Lensen by nine seconds to becoming the first back-to-back BOP champion. Candice Appleby won the women’s elite race.
“It was epic,” said Appleby, who despite falling off her Surftech board several times still claimed her fifth BOP crown. “The waves were solid four- to six-foot glassy and pumping. It would have been great conditions for a surf contest.”
Though not everyone was stoked on the conditions.
While Josh Chrisman took third place in his age group in the open race, Ashley and five others from their crew decided to watch from the sidelines.
“The surf is really high, and this is more of an elite venue than for the average rider,” Ashley said. “I didn’t race because I didn’t want to get hurt.”