By Dan Gavere
Have you ever thought about going to Europe to paddle in the winter? No?
I didn’t either, but my girlfriend, Harmony, is another story. Harmony has never been to Europe, and it has been her dream for years, so when she read about the Nautic Race (also known as the Paris Crossing) that was happening on her birthday in the first week of December; well, to say she was excited is a major understatement. She did not delay and booked tickets faster than I could finish my morning espresso. It was done. We were going to Europe, and although I was born in Spain, I’d never been to Paris, and love the thought of seeing and paddling in new places, but in the cold?
This once a year opportunity to see Paris by way of my paddleboard had me interested. While I have taken time off from racing over the last year because of an injury, Harmony has never really started racing seriously because of an injury of her own that has made it difficult for her to paddle hard or for long distances. That is not to say she can’t paddle long distances, but she frequently stops to rest, shoot selfies, or socialize with anyone else who might be on the water and within earshot. I call her a “lazy paddler” because of this and the fact that I don’t think she enjoys sweating too much. After every race I always ask her how it was for her? She’s telling me about people she’s met on the course, where they are from or the things she’s seen along the way from animals to people to whatever… That’s right, she’s sightseeing and socializing, not really “racing” as know it, but its cool because she is always making new friends on the water.
We all have our reasons for being on the water…
I kept all this in mind, as well as the fact that fact that she has only raced one 7 kilometer race in her life, the other 10 races have been 5 km or less. So I asked her “how are you going to do the crossing, it’s over 10Km?” Her response- “I’m not going to do the pro race; there is a leisure division.” What the ? A “Leisure Division” this race is actually starting to sound more and more like it was designed for her. But, even if the French call a recreational or open class “leisure”, it doesn’t mean a Sunday morning stroll! I’m sure she has no idea what she’s getting into but she is so excited that I had to go along with it.
She told me about the route and all the historical landmarks you see along the way, like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the 13 Historic bridges we would pass beneath. She showed me pictures from last year’s event, which had people paddling past all these tourist attractions, and she wanted to do it (here I am imagining her stopping to take selfies ) Registration opened for the race in September and closed that same day, 400 spots gone. I got the devastated phone call from Harmony that she had missed it and put our names on the wait list. Weeks went by with no word. She kept telling me that it would have been cool to see Paris by paddleboard, but she would still go and watch the paddlers do it even though she couldn’t participate. In the mean time I learned that Starboard France had tickets, so I reached out to see if they had any available to get her and I one? It was a long shot and you can imagine how stoked I was to find out they would get us both tickets and boards! When I told Harmony this great news and the fact I would paddle with her to get her Eiffel Tower picture, I don’t think she could’ve been more excited.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but wonder how long this would take us with her antics. Would she be wanting to stop at a cafe along the way and get a hot chocolate? I figured it would be 2.5-3 hours and I was prepared for that.
We arrived in Paris a few days before the race and walked all over the city seeing a small portion of historic landmarks, notable sights, and of course the shopping…
We were pounding some serious pavement, racking up over 25 miles of walking before even getting to the show. Luckily for me Harmony speaks French and was able to help us navigate our way through the city, read the historic signage and order my coffees! After all of the walking we had a good feeling of Paris and were ready to see it by way of the Seine River. At registration check-in we got our competitor packages complete with timing chip and race jersey, and then went to the meeting which was standing room only so we sat on the floor. We got a tasty dinner with some of the Starboard team before walking back to the hotel. With only 3 hours of sleep, my snooze button loving “lazy paddler” was not quick to get out of bed with the 5:00 am alarm.
We headed to the show to get ready and all I could think of was where am I going to get a cup coffee? Well that never happened but I would survive. Arriving to the start by bus had us searching for our boards amongst the 400 others and this was quite the scene. People in costumes, Christmas lights on some boards, and stoke, lots of stoke – you could actually feel it in the chilly morning air.
From all over the World this sport of SUP brought us all together to participate, 19 countries were represented and the majority of people that came to paddle were there to complete it not necessarily race it, but just to experience this unique opportunity. Many of the paddlers had just arrived and obviously looked tired from the jet lag. This wasn’t everybody’s element and dressing to stay warm was the easy part, but dressing to not overheat once the race started would be a tricky balance. Getting on the water provided yet another challenge as the 3 foot drop from street level to water level had some trying to jump on to their race boards, missing them and gasping as they hit the cold water. We took time and started out on our knees to get the hang of these boards which neither of us had paddled before. Once on the water we had to paddle in the opposite direction of the race to hold our spots against the current. Harmony had never been on this type of board before and was struggling to stand already. She decided to wait sitting down while I went for a warm up paddle and to feel out the board I was using. There was a lot of cheering and I heard someone in the distance say go. Uh oh, I missed the start while doodling around. I had to get back with Harmony and make sure she wasn’t already in the drink. As everyone started to churn their paddles into the Seine River all you could hear were hoots and hollers from the spectators and many of the racers. The view from the back was not one I was used to seeing.
People were falling in already and the water was rough like a washing machine. You could hear how the cold water was by the gasps of the people trying to remount their boards after the river took their breath away. After a few minutes I caught up to Harmony, she was paddling along at a surprisingly quick pace even though she had a bad start. For someone on a sightseeing quest she was hauling ass passing people left and right including some of the pro division riders in orange jerseys. I could see that her time on the whitewater was helping her navigate the chaotic little waves as she pulled a few quick brace strokes in order to not fall in. There were very few big boats on the course at this time of the morning, however the water had a lot of micro chop and reverb because the river Seine through Paris has virtually vertical walls the entire distance, which means lots of converging waves from the 400 paddlers.
I dug deep in order to get poised for my first picture opportunity. Sprinting ahead of Harmony I got a 50 meters out in front, grabbed my phone, and got some shots as she passed me and below another one of the historical bridges we would go under. There is a strong steady current pushing us along which felt good but also made for tricky fin grabbing eddy lines by the bridge columns. Some paddlers were learning this the hard way, and I felt bad for those who were falling in; it looked cold, but I on the other hand was warm, really warm and now sweating worse than a hog at the butcher shop even though it was just a few degrees above freezing and you could see the breath of all the paddlers huffing and puffing their way through the city.
Before we reached the Louvre monument, the pro division ahead of us were no longer in sight, they had to turn to the right at the end of the island splitting from us to do a short additional lap around the island then finish in the same spot as us. They splintered off and we continued on straight down stream amongst the 319 other paddlers doing the 10.5km leisure course. After a struggle to get the shot at the Louvre because my sweaty fingers couldn’t control the touchscreen, I again sprinted to catch up. Some of the other paddlers around me were saying funny things to me as I passed them again and again only to stop for pics. One guy asked me to call his mother and another asked me to email him a picture of himself laughing. I said “ha-ha – you bet” very sarcastically.
As we passed the Place de Concorde I was happy to learn from a fellow racer that this was about the halfway point. Then I saw the top of the Eiffel Tower looming ahead. This was it, the shot I couldn’t miss, after all this was my mission and part of the experience that I wanted to provide for Harmony on her birthday. I was paddling at my normal “race pace” now and it felt good that my shoulder wasn’t bothering me any more. Sweat was soaking my eyes, and I was happy for the sweatband on my wrist but loosing some time when I stopped to wipe my brow so I could actually see. We passed beneath another bridge, and I could see where my position would be to get the “money shot”. There was a sweet echo under the bridge and everyone was so serious, paddling along in their own little bubbles staring down at the nose of their boards some oblivious to any outside stimuli; so, in my best crow voice I made some bird noises to lighten the mood– “baakaa,baakaa.” People laughed and smiled looking at me – it worked – I got them to look up and smile and appreciate the crazy things we do for fun.
By now I had reached my spot and the sun was backlighting the Tower perfectly. We scored on the weather this morning and I was stoked it wasn’t grey and drizzle like the days before. Along came Harmony, and I did my thing shooting as many pics as time would allow, in just a few seconds she had passed me with the tower right there in the background. I nailed the shot and felt good to have not failed my most important mission of the trip. Sprinting again to catch up to Harmony again I knew we must be getting close. They told us on the meeting once you pass the tower your close to the finish line. I turned to look behind me and was happy to see that one of my fellow Starboard paddlers had a commanding lead and he was quickly catching up to us. Harmony told me to go ahead and finish so I sprinted along Titouan’s side, cheering and yelling wildly like a possessed Tour De France fan. I could see it was working – he was now hammering for the finish which was up ahead but still a few kms to go. I couldn’t keep the pace nor did I want to at that point, and behind me I saw another Starboard teammate Gaetan just behind 2nd place. A few minutes later I crossed the finish line and once again got myself poised for the “money shot” of Harmony crossing the line. She had a huge smile on her face as she crossed along with several others at approximately one hour and 13 minutes, I was proud of her to be completing the longest race so far in her paddling career.
The sun was shining and paddlers were obviously elated to be done but also to have completed a rare opportunity to traverse one of the Worlds most famous cities on their paddle boards. At this point you would never know it was mid winter and bitter cold because everyone was all smiles and high fives. The winners were getting interviewed by tv cameras and there was a serious buzz at the river side where we had to lift our boards by the leashes up 4 feet to the top of the wall. The same big busses that had brought us to the start were there waiting to take us for lunch at the Microsoft HQ, who’s CEO had also participated in the race and was a major sponsor. Lunch was served and the paddlers were feeding, finally I would get my morning coffee, YES! Harmony had fallen asleep on me after eating and we hung out waiting for the bus to take us back to the show. The results had been posted so I went and checked them out, Harmony had finished 90th, I think it’s safe to say my “lazy paddler” had worked hard and finished strong. After our lunch they took us back to the boat show hall that we had started at 6 am, almost 8 hrs ago. Many of us would head back to our respective booths to tout our products for the rest of the day while others would probably head home or off for a nap, I could use a nap I thought but the buzz at the Starboard booth had me talking to interested people and it was non stop for another 5 hours. The top paddlers in each class would then go into a final event at the indoor pool consisting of short 50-meter sprints in a head-to-head knock out competition. The top paddlers would get awarded separately and for a combined result from the distance and pool sprints. This took another 3 hours and it was fun to see how some paddlers had the sprint and run technique dialed. Finally, almost 12 hours after the day began; they would have the awards ceremony. Only bragging rights and some handsome trophies would be awarded, no cash, no world title, but there was an obvious underlying respect that this is the most competitive race in all of Europe for SUP.
For me it was an opportunity to see the city, and race with my head up seeing and feeling what it must have been like to paddle these same waters by people 100’s and even 1000’s of years ago, but even more to support Harmony in fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams. A first for me but certainly not a last. I look forward to paddling in this event again and is one of the most unique and scenic races I have ever done. A huge thanks goes out to Starboard France (Stephane, David, Herve, Pascal, and Lulu) for their support and of course to the city of Paris for opening up the Seine River for the race. See you next year!