The Carolina Pro-Am is the longest-running Pro Am Stand Up Paddle Surf event in the world and for the ninth edition of the contest event organisers, Haywood and Rob along with event sponsors Infinity SUP will be welcoming some of the top names in the SUP surfing world to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, USA from April 21 – 23. TotalSUP really wish we could be there but instead, we caught up with Haywood and Rob to find out more.
Infinity’s Candice Appleby on her way to overall victory in 2022
Hi guys, how does it feel to be hosting your ninth Carolina Pro-Am at Wrightsville Beach?
Rob: It feels pretty good!
We’re all proud of the event and really enjoy showing off Wrightsville Beach. This really is a labour of love. It’s a contest put on for sup surfers by sup surfers. We get out and compete with everyone else. I don’t think it would have continued for nine years any other way. This makes me start thinking about the ten-year anniversary and trying to make it something special. Honestly, though we wouldn’t be here, much less for 9 years, without our core crew of people, specifically the Inland Paddle Syndicate, the local community and sponsors and the competitors who participate every year.
Haywood: This contest has come a long way since the Wrightsville Beach Longboard Association approached Me and Jason Colclough in 2012 and asked us to add a SUP Division to their annual contest. It rapidly grew from there to the first official Carolina Pro-Am in 2014.
We knew that we could not pull this off by ourselves so we got Byron Kurt involved right out of the gate to help us structure this entire thing. Once Byron was onboard we really had all of the pieces in place. Hobie and Salt Life were our original major sponsors and they helped fund this deal, Hobie would bring 6-10 people every year. Once Hobie got out of the SUP biz, Rob brought Infinity in and they replaced Hobie without us missing a beat. A little history lesson, we did not get here overnight and although it has been a lot of work it has been worth every minute.
Carolina Pro-Am on Wrightsville Beach
Carolina has a rich history within the SUP world with the Pro-Am and Carolina Cup with the famous Graveyard course. What makes your backyard so special for Stand Up Paddlers?
Rob: Unlike other locations, Wrightsville Beach has great surf along with inlets and intercostal waterways to paddle, just look at a map of the area. You can paddle everywhere which caters to all levels of paddlers. We’ve got everything from challenging currents and wind to protected channels and creeks and a long stretch of beach with two inlets to surf. There is a rich history of surfing here and it has embraced sup surfing. In fact, I recall National Geographic listed it as one of the top 20 surf towns in the world in 2014.
Haywood: Wrightsville has what I would call incredible “aquatic diversity.” In a 5-mile stretch we have one jettied inlet with surf breaks that catch north and south swells; a natural/shifting inlet that catches south swells and a number of typical beach breaks. Our inland waters allow for almost any type of flatwater paddling you would want. The inland waterways and sounds here offer natural courses to follow that range from 3.5 miles to the world-famous 13-mile Graveyard Race.
We are also set up really well for downwind runs. You can paddle out at either inlet and do a 5-mile downwind run depending on wind direction. If you want to do a “hybrid run” you can downwind northward from the Masonboro Jetty to the midpoint of the island; cross the island on foot and paddle inshore back up Banks Channel to your starting point.
Carolina Pro-Am competitor’s viewpoint
The Carolina Pro-Am is usually held early in the season, this year from April 21 to 23. Is this the sweet spot for conditions locally or can travelling paddlers hope to get similar conditions at other times of the year?
Rob: Spring and Fall I think are the sweet spots with the Fall probably being better when the tropical season heats up. Mid-summer tends to be less surf but still fun. We try to coordinate with the Carolina Cup with the goal of creating a week of stand up paddling and making it more convenient for those travelling for both events.
Haywood: We get pretty good surf during the spring months, as fronts cross the US and move offshore of the East Coast. These storms can generate north swells if these weather systems move into the Atlantic north of us. And we can get south swells if these systems move offshore south of us. Our best swell generator this time of year is a low that moves off of Florida and follows the Gulfstream north up the East Coast, similar to our Fall Hurricane Swells. If we get one that tracks “up the chute” between us and Bermuda it’s close enough to give us a long period swell, but far off enough to not bring us 25+knot winds.
Hurricane Season – Image Laura Glantz Photography
Hurricane season is by far our best time of the year for swell, as long as we don’t take one on the head. Hurricane systems that head west; veer north about the Bahamas; and head up the aforementioned “chute” can give us 2-3 day swells of 6-10 feet.
The Carolina Pro-Am brings together some of the top professional paddlers for the three days of competition in the Open and Longboard competitions with a combined winner in the professional ranks. Looking back at the roll call of previous winners it’s great to see Izzy and Infinity’s Candice Appleby in there showing the guys how it is done. How did that combined champion come about?
Rob: Logically it seems appropriate to have an overall champion, male or female. Then Haywood created it to honour his father, Newkirk Sr, an overall waterman and multi-generational resident of Wrightsville Beach. As far as Izzy and Candice winning it, that was even easier….. they whipped everyone! If you’re the best over the weekend you’ll win.
Haywood: Wrightsville has been called a “surfing town with a paddling problem” and The Carolina Cup, in fact, was started by a group of surfers that rode standups when the surf was flat. When we started the Pro-Am, we immediately noticed that we had some serious talent showing up at the contest. Shortboard standouts like Bullet Obra, Mo Frietas, and Caio Vaz were mixing it up with World Champion Longboarders like Colin McPhillips and young tipsters like Fisher Grant.
So we decided to Crown an Overall Champion with the best-combined finish in the short and longboard divisions.
The original benefactor of the Carolina Pro-Am was The Wrightsville Beach Museum of History. They suggested that we name the overall winner award after my Dad, Haywood Newkirk, Sr. Pops was maybe the first true waterman at Wrightsville Beach. In the late 40’s and early 50’s he was the head lifeguard known for his ocean distance swims; surfing on a fibreglassed airplane wing with an attached fin; and as a first mate on the legendary charter boat The Martha Ellen.
During the early years of the award, we started to notice that women like Izzy Gomez and Candice Appleby were more than holding their own with the men. So we thought that it was only fair that they be allowed to compete for the overall title. And it didn’t take long for Izzy to take home the overall crown in 2019. Candice Appleby’s performance last year was as dominating as I have ever seen by any competitor. Thus, she picked up the overall crown in 2022.
The Carolina Pro-Am focuses on much more than the Pros, it looks like you have a category for everyone with a surf SUP! How many competitors are you hoping to see this year?
Rob: It really does. Honestly, I feel like that is what truly sets us apart and what has contributed to the longevity of the contest. Competitors have described it is like going out and surfing with your best friends. We all interact, both on the beach and with the evening social events. The Pros are so accommodating giving advice, meeting the amateurs, doing clinics, etc… We have open age group categories in both open and longboard and really try to incorporate additional heats so everyone can surf more than once. I really like that we have our First Comp / First Time division for those who have never tried a contest or are a beginner sup surfer.
However, the main event has really become the Tandem Bully Board and SUPSquatch World Championships! These are free to enter and crowd-judged.
SUPSquatch dropping in!
It was interesting to try and incorporate these into the contest. There was initially a hesitation that it could lessen the “quality” of the event, making it silly. But it has added an element that truly contributed to what sets us apart and what we’ve been focusing on which is it’s just fun! Regarding the competitors, I’d really just like to see more locals come out. Have fun. Especially our local neighbouring states like Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Rob and Haywood with their Infinity Surf SUPs
Infinity Surfboards are one of your headline sponsors, you’re not exactly neighbours so how did that collaboration start?
Rob: Easy, they’re awesome! No, for me I first met them during the 2017 PPG in Dana Point and then ran into Dave in San O while on a vacation and actually ended up buying a New Deal while there. Since then we’ve all really got to know each other and I’m proud to be one of their brand ambassadors here in NC.
They’ve obviously been a brand that has been a huge part of the history of stand up paddling. And really focus equally on their surf and race boards. It’s a perfect match for our contest and especially the week they’re here with the race the following weekend. Most of the credit goes to our other co-director Byron Kurt of the World Paddle Association for bringing Infinity into the contest. We can’t thank them enough for their support and hope our event is able to give back to them as well.
As the organisers of such a popular event what have been your personal highlights in the last 9 years?
Rob: For me, it’s been the new connections and friends. It may not always be perfect but we try hard to create a fun event for everyone. Year after year, win or lose, my goal is for people to walk away and say “that was fun”.
Haywood: It has been an honour to bring folks to Wrightsville Beach for a world-class surf event and for them to embrace our “Surfing Town with a Paddling Problem.”
But by far, the highlight for me has been the lifelong friendships that I have made over the years.
It has been an absolute pleasure finding out about the Carolina Pro-Am with Rob and Haywood and they, along with the rest of the team in Wrightsville Beach are looking forward to seeing you at the ninth edition of the Carolina Pro-Am in April 2023. Registration is open now and I think it is safe to say that if you sign-up you will have a great time with them. You can find out more about the event on their social media channels; Facebook and Instagram and you can sign up for the Carolina Pro-Am 2023 through PaddleGuru here.
Images from Rob Moran and Laura Glantz Photography
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