This past weekend, the Gorge Paddle Challenge celebrated its 12th year. Since the beginning, the Gorge Paddle Challenge has always been about competitive racing, community engagement, youth progression, and having fun celebrating the world-class conditions of Hood River, Oregon.
Steve Gates, the owner of Big Winds, and the Head Coach on the Big Winds JET Team, organized and planned this race. The idea was to always combine a downwind race on the world-famous Viento Downwind Run with a course race. Professional paddlers from every corner of the globe descended on Hood River for more than just a weekend of racing, they came here for an experience.
Fast forward to the Gorge Paddle Challenge in 2023, times have changed, and the event has morphed, but we are still here in Hood River racing! The weekend kicked off on Friday with a free kids’ event called Fiona Friday Funday! The awesome team at Wylde Wind & Water worked hard to put together an epic two-hour program for the 75 kids from their local community.
Starboard Dream Team rider Fiona Wylde I won the overall title at the Gorge Paddle Challenge by winning the Downwinder (long course) and second in the Technical Course race. Here’s Fiona’s recopa of the event;
Saturday was the downwind race from Viento to the Hood River Waterfront Park. In years past, the Elite Women started first. It was exciting because that meant the women were the first to cross the finish line, but it also meant we didn’t get to see the other races. This year we started together with the elite men and we started after all of the SUP Open divisions. For me, this was so cool because so many of our Wylde Wind & Water JET Team paddlers and parents raced in the downwind race and it meant I got to cheer on everybody from the water as I paddled down the course.
The conditions were lighter than normal for the downwind race, but the bumps were still amazing! It took a bit more effort to catch each bump, making the race more tiring, but when you caught a bump, it had the typical Viento Run glide. Despite our small women’s elite fleet, it was stacked. Four out of the eight women have world titles including, Candice Appleby, Seychelle Webster, Jade Howson, and myself! I knew from this stacked line-up, it was going to be an intense weekend.
I got a gap from the rest of the fleet and settled into my own pace. After about a kilometer, I had a decent gap and focused on catching every little bump, not matter how big or how small. About half way through the race, I caught up to the first open and junior paddlers on our JET Team. To me, this was one of the best parts of the weekend, cheering on our young paddlers from the water! Then, a few meters later, I caught up to my aunt and uncle who were also racing. I couldn’t help but smile. I crossed the finish line in first place and all of our young Development Team, including parents, family, and friends were there cheering. This is what this race is all about, community on and off the water.
Technical Course Race:
Sunday was the course racing day. We woke up to white caps galore! This happens when you have a wind dependent race. Sometimes the forecast changes and you never know what you are going to get! I think everybody would have loved to have more wind on Saturday, but it is what it is!
Following the Groms and Super Groms race was the Junior Women and Open Women’s Course race.
I got a good start and was in the lead for ¾ of the first lap. Coming into the infamous ‘W’, Juliette Duhaime, Candice Appleby and I were neck and neck. Candice decided to take her Super Lap first and in split-second decisions, I decided not to. A Super Lap allows you to cut off part of the race course, making the race shorter. You can pick when to take your Super Lap, but you can only take it once it the race.
I passed Juliette on the second lap and when it was my turn to take the Super Lap, Candice and I basically came together at the exact same time. The final lap was a complete sprint. I gave it everything I had, but I knew I was fatigued. Candice was about a board length in front of me. My upwind buoy turn was a little slow and that gave her the perfect opportunity to open the gap a little wider. I had energy left for two surges, but it wasn’t enough to close the gap.
I finished in second place, and I am super proud of that! Because of this result, I won the overall title at the Gorge Paddle Challenge for the 7th time.
~ Fiona Wylde