The beaming morning sun warmed my tanned shoulders as waves gently crashed behind me. While standing in a huddle for the race briefing, some competitors waxed the shaft of their carbon paddles for better grip. Others applied sunscreen. I restlessly snugged the straps on my PFD, trying to quell my excitement and angst.
Three minutes later, at 8:30 am, “3-2-1-GO!” the announcer shouted over the bullhorn. With paddles in hand and stand-up paddleboards in tow, 26 of us sprinted across the white sun-baked sand on Miami Beach in Barbados and launched our inflatable SUPs into the choppy sparkly sea. I frantically plunged my long paddle into the crystal clear water, chasing after the fast floating flock. At the double red buoys, I turned right to begin the 9K “Dragon Run” – a downwind paddle race to Carlisle Bay, in Bridgetown, St. Michael, the finish and main race event site at Paddle Barbados.
This was no ordinary SUP race. It was the kick off competition for the inaugural Dragon World Championships, sponsored by Red Paddle Co., October 27-29, 2017. The culmination of a yearlong Red Paddle Dragon Board race series, comprised of over 60 Dragon World Series competitions around the globe, the generous $6,000 prize purse attracted 50 passionate paddlers from 10 countries, including Panama, Latvia, France, Portugal and USA.
“We wanted to make a really special finale to top it off,” said Red Paddle Co. co-founder John Hibbard, a former professional windsurfer turned elite SUP racer - turned entrepreneur.
An inflatable SUP specialist for over a decade, Red Paddle Co. rocked the SUP market with its pioneering 22-foot long, 34-inches wide 4-person, inflatable Dragon Board. “I was super keen to do something different the sport and introduce more of a team aspect.” Noted Hibbard, explaining the lightweight, stiff board is made from an innovative MSL material. “We made a few prototypes and immediately, it was clear the Dragon was brilliant fun.”
There were four Dragon Board teams and 10 of us individual paddlers in the downwind race. My friends from home in NYC, Team Red SUP Ladies, immediately took the lead of the Dragon group. With the precision of Olympic synchronized divers, the foursome moved as one, hinging forward and powerfully planting paddles into the water at the same time. Their finely tuned choreography and finesse equaled speed.
As I watched them paddle into the distance, I struggled on the rock n’ rolling open-ocean swells. I felt wobbily and anxious. While, I’ve surfski kayaked for nearly two decades, I’m relatively new to SUP and this was my first downwinder. It was intense.
The pounding, gusty tailwind shoved me forward, making it hard to balance on the 11’3” Red Paddle Sport board. Unlike experienced paddlers, who cruised through the rough sea, I spent my energy trying to stay on my feet.
I recruited my yoga Zen, reminding myself to breath, relax and enjoy the stunning coastline. Once I chilled out, it was a lot more fun. An hour later, I was relieved to paddle past my hotel, Sugar Bay Resort & Spa - meaning Carlisle Bay wasn’t too far away.
As I neared the bustling finishing area, another paddler, Ollie from U.K., tried to pass me. After an hour and half on the bouncy water, my legs felt like Jell-O and my brain was fried from focusing. I could hear people cheering from the beach. “Its neck and neck!” the announcer George Shillito called over the mic, giving a play-by-play. “Stef and Ollie going for it!”
I dug my paddle deep into the water – and mustered an all out sprint. It was a battle not to be last! With inches to spare, I squeezed my SUP into the finishing chute first. Ollie’s SUP hit mine. We both fell, laughing. I unstrapped my board leash and ran onto the beach with arms overhead claiming my pseudo-victory - and hugs from the Red SUP Ladies, who won the Dragon board division in just over an hour.
After a short recovery, I met my team for the elimination round of the main event - the Dragon World Championships. It was time to unleash the dragon.
A test of speed, skill and synchronization, 4-person Dragon Board teams were to race around a 1K square circuit, marked by four red buoys. Given the miss-and-out format, the two top finishers of each heat advanced to the semi-finals – for a chance to reach the finals. At the end of the two day competition, the fastest team would be crowned Champion.
The first wave of racers was oddball mix. The Red SUP Ladies were paired against four muscular men on Team Dragon Alliance and Team Puffin, a family from Northumberland (a small village in northern England, near the Scotland border). The Puffins, comprised of Mom Georgie Paige, Dad Toby Sowmann and their 8, 11 and 13 year old daughters, were in Barbados on vacation - and heard about the competition from paddling pals.
“The kids have spent significant time on paddleboards.” Said Georgie, who took second in the 9K individual downwinder. “We thought the race sounded like good fun, though we didn’t have any expectations.”
To everyone’s surprise, the petite blond tweens and their parents didn’t miss a stroke. They reached the first buoy with Dragon Alliance on their side, but got around the buoy first. Cheers erupted on the beach as their lead grew. When the big guys found their rhythm, they started catching up, until a sneaky side wave at the third buoy knocked them over. Allowing, the Puffins to smoothly secure second place, after the Red SUP Ladies.
“Dragon racing is such a leveler.” Noted Georgie. “The kids came together as a team and were able to handle the waves because its part of growing up by and paddling on the sea.”
My team, Team Ted, was up next. We line up on the beach next to two other teams and at the sound “Go!” we were off, running toward our Dragon Board. With two racers on each side of the board, we held the chunky handles and ran it into the warm, turquoise sea.
“Stroke, stroke, stroke!” filled the air. My teammate Sarah Cole took front position on the board with me behind her and my teammates stacked behind me. When Sarah paddled on the right, my teammate in third position did too, while I paddled on the left side with the fourth position paddler. “Stroke, stroke, stroke, switch!” After six or eight strokes, we switched sides.
We were all Dragon Board newbies and quickly learned that paddling a 4-person SUP is very different than splashing solo. It requires precise coordination and fluid paddling to keep the board in motion. It also creates this weird mix of stress and bursts of laughter from the silliness of it all. Though we had steady bouts, our board mostly quivered and jerked - occasionally, sending us for a swim. As we approached the notorious third buoy, a wave broke, we lost our balance and started giggling. “Splash!” Game over.
When we finally reached the beach finish line, I was ready for a Daffy’s Gin & Tonic, the featured happy hour cocktail at the beachside bar.
The next morning at 10:00am, the semi-finals started with the winners advancing to the finals, where local Team Barbados won with a swift sub-eight minute lap. The Red SUP Ladies were second and Team Pacific, third.
For a final fun challenge, the competition wrapped up with a nutty Dragon Warrior Sprint. The obstacle course required teams to zigzag around buoys and carry Dragon boards over other boards, while race officials created chaos. Once again, Team Barbados won, followed by Fireballs and Red SUP Ladies, rounding out top three.
After the race, a friend joined me to spend a few days enjoying beautiful Barbados and Bajan hospitality. One day, we learn to Surf SUP with Sarah and Jason Cole, owners of Paddle Barbados.
After a brief dry land lesson with Jason, we walked down a rock staircase to a stunning beach cove in Freights Bay. Then paddled out to where a handful of surfers sat on their boards - and all waited for the next set of waves.
Jason was a patient and skilled instructor, who advised us to look up, paddle hard and have fun. I was initially nervous and stiff. But, after a few tries, it started to make sense and things quieted down in my brain, so I could relax and relish the rush.
As a set of waves approached, Jason got me lined up in ready position, then shouted, “Paddle hard! Paddle hard!” Suddenly, the powerful wave thrust me toward shore like I was on a magic flying carpet. I was surfing! It was awesome! By the end of our two-hour session, my cheeks hurt from smiling.
That night we joined Stef Lemieux for sunset SUP yoga on Carlisle Bay, back at Paddle Barbados. After an action-packed week, I craved a little Ohm zone. With a gentle breeze cooling my warm skin, I pressed my hands and feet into the board morphing into an upside down “V” shape Downward Dog, stretching my overworked shoulders, back and legs. As the water chattered beneath my board, I peeked between my legs and watched the glowing orange sun softly set below the shimmering horizon.