By James Casey, JP Australia SUP Racer and new contributing writer at TotalSUP.com
What an experience. I’ve never been to California for a stand up paddle event and for my first to be at PPG2016, I am totally blown away. The Battle of the Paddle and more recently Pacific Paddle Games have always been held in such high regard amongst Stand Up Paddlers and I was excited to test myself against the world’s best. In the last two years since I started racing, Australian Titles has always clashed the super bowl of SUP but this year the calendar aligned and I was able to make my debut at Doheny State Beach.
I arrived in LA on the Wednesday and managed an afternoon warm up session to familiarise myself with the location and course. I practiced my beach starts, buoy turns and race board surfing on the 2-3ft waves that were rolling in every 5-10 minutes. The waves were fat rollers, perfect for a stand up paddle race but if you were caught in the wrong spot it had the potential to ruin your race.
The first round of the Pro Mens heats were set to take place on the Friday. I was in the fourth of eight heats, which I was quite happy about as I would be able to watch a few of the earlier heats but not wait too long and get nervous. After watching the first few heats I realised how important the hammer buoy was, it could make or break your whole event and potentially send you packing early. So there was the waves that could wipe you out, the hammer buoy that would take a bit of luck and a bit of skill to master and finally the worlds best stand up paddlers to race against. This was going to be a tough weekend.
After watching a few fellow Aussies take some big falls around the Hammer buoy, it was time for my heat. I managed a good start and led the race around the first few buoys with Travis Grant content to sit on my tail. As we approached the Hammer Buoy there didn’t seem to be any waves, we were going to have to paddle the whole way in and around. This worked out fine for me as I was at the front and continued to lead heading into the second lap. Again basically no waves as we approached the hammer buoy, Travis Grant and I milked a little bump, managed probably my best turn of the weekend around the buoy and we made our way out to the final buoy before heading in. Travis and I had a good lead and I thought we would both pick up the same wave in. Somehow I managed to miss the first wave and then do a turn and fall off the back of the second wave. My heart rate went through the roof, I glanced behind to see how far behind the others were, managed to regroup and take second behind Trav in the fastest heat of the day.
While I was happy with how my heat went I knew that I would really have to improve my finishes, missing one wave and falling off a second on the final lap were big mistakes that could ultimately mean not advancing to the next round. I had gotten away with it today but wasn’t expecting to get away with it in the quarterfinals.
I watched the remaining heats with my little Hawaiian mate, Riggs Napoleon, getting some of the worst luck of the day, his leash getting wrapped around the Hammer Buoy and being eliminated after the first round. Another thing to look out for, don’t get too close to the Hammer Buoy as you could get tangled with it, another potential eliminating factor to look out for. Mental notes after day one, focus on my finishes and approach the hammer buoy with plenty of caution.
The second day rolled around and the waves had increased. The ocean was relatively glassy but there were some solid 3-4ft sets pouring in every 5-10 minutes, again luck was going to play a big part in the racing today. I had arguably the hardest quarterfinal heat with both Danny Ching and Travis Grant but to get to the final I’d have to beat them anyway. I went in with a similar game plan as my first round, get a good start, be at the front and make my own luck, fingers crossed a big set wouldn’t cause too much carnage at the Hammer Buoy. This is basically how the heat went, I managed a decent start turning the first buoy in second behind Danny Ching. There were a few nervous moments as Danny and I approached the Hammer Buoy and a set began to loom but we managed to get around just in time before the wave and the subsequent carnage ensued. Danny and I surfed the same wave in and I was on to the semi finals. I was happy with how this heat turned out, I had managed to stay out of any trouble again and had a solid finish without missing any waves or falling off. Of concern though was I still hadn’t had a wave around the hammer buoy, the flat spells somehow kept following me in my heats.
The semi final was on in the afternoon and there were some big names in it, Kai Lenny, Connor Baxter, Danny Ching, Travis Grant, Titouan Puyo and breakthrough performer Matt Nottage, this was definitely going to be a tough one. The tide was also much lower and waves far more frequent, this was going to be a completely different race. Due to the low tide we had to do a water start instead of a beach start, I hadn’t really practiced these but all paddlers were in the same boat. It turned out to be a bit of a disadvantage for me, I had my worst start of the weekend heading into the turning the buoy close to last. I managed to sneak inside my good mate Matty Nottage and make up a bit of ground but I was still outside the advancing top 8. As we approached the heat defining hammer buoy I managed to pick up a wave and turn cleanly to be on the ‘bubble’ of qualification, this was going to be a battle to the end. I remained in 8th to 9th position for the first half of the second lap. As we approached the hammer buoy another set rolled through. I managed to just pick it up in 8th position and turn the hammer buoy with no issues, if I made no more mistakes I would make the final. And then I fell punching out over the waves. My heart was in my mouth, I couldn’t believe it, I quickly jumped back up, assessed the situation and paddled as hard as I could. Luckily there was a little gap to 9th and I managed to sneak over the next few waves, turn the final buoy in 8th, pick up a wave with paddlers 5th through to 8th and sprint up the beach in 5th to safely claim my place in the final. This semi final was definitely the most stressful round but just a precursor for the final day. I had successfully put myself in with a good chance for a strong finish on the final day.
The distance race was in the morning on Sunday, the final day of competition. I arrived just after 7:30 attended the race briefing and began to organise my gear. There was almost no wind when we had arrived but by the time the race had started a 10-12 knot southwesterly (cross onshore) wind had puffed up. This was going to be a technical upwind-downwind race, a good start would help but linking bumps downwind would be more important. I had a good start and managed to turn the first buoy inside the top 10 and maintain my position into the start of the second upwind leg. I began to feel fatigue from a long weekend of racing but managed to just hold onto the tail of the second group that Danny Ching was leading at a high pace. We turned for the final downwind section of the race and it felt like I was wearing cement boots, I could hardly move my legs. I had to dig deep to hold my position. I tried to get into a bit of a downwind rhythm, pick the right bumps and milk them for as long as I could but it had turned a little more onshore making it tricky for my tiring body and heavy legs. Leonard Nika and Bullet Obra flew past me about half way through the downwind section, on my count I was sitting in 12th, for any chance of a solid overall finish I couldn’t lose any more places. I turned the final can but no waves materialised I was going to have to paddle the whole way in. I made it to shore just before a fast finishing team mate, Vinnicius Martins from Brazil. It wasn’t the result I was looking for but I still had a good chance of a solid overall result.
The finals were on in the early afternoon and the conditions had seriously deteriorated. The southwesterly wind had continued to blow, the tide had dropped and the waves were pushing 2ft on the sets. This final was going to be a completely different beast compared to the earlier rounds of the technical race. As we were in the marshalling area we got to enjoy the spectacle of the womens final. A see sawing affair with waves, turns, falls and a super exciting finish. Fellow Aussie Terrene Black came from behind to place 2nd, this got me super pumped up for our final.
The tide was just high enough for beach start so we lined up the horn went and we were off. I didn’t get the best start but managed to sneak my way on the inside of turns to approach the hammer buoy still in contention. A set wave broke and the entire field charged towards the hammer buoy. There was a bit of carnage but I managed to come out of the hammer buoy in 5th place. I chased down Slater Trout, Kai Lenny and Connor Baxter while Mo Freitas was out front with a handy lead. There was a long way to go but I was within range of a good result. After clawing my way back up to Connor Baxter, Kai Lenny and Slater Trout, I just missed a wave heading into the Hammer Buoy on the 2nd lap, I caught the wave straight after and managed to gradually catch back up to Slater but Kai, Connor and Mo were further ahead now. The last lap the ocean went flat, Slater and I turned the final buoy in 4th and 5th without any issues. I put my head down and milked a tiny bump while Slater waited for a small wave to form up behind him. My little bump did just enough as it formed into a mini wave just ahead of Slater. I ran up the beach in 4th place with Slater hot on my heels. It was a super fun race and the perfect way to finish off an unreal weekend at my first super bowl of SUP.
The presentation was held shortly after, with points super close. I ended up coming 8th overall with just 50 points (one place) separating 5th and 8th. Overall it was a great weekend, and one I am personally pretty chuffed with. Looking forward to taking all the experiences I learnt over the weekend and taking them into the rest of my year and PPG2017.
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Official website: jamescasey.com.au