Downwind in paradise: Tahiti’s Air France Paddle Festival ditches the grind, embraces the wind

 

Tahit’s premiere international event, the Air France Paddle Festival (photo: @paddleleague)

Palm trees? Check. Coconuts? Check. Downwind bumps?! Check.

If you love a good downwinder and like to combine your paddling with your traveling, mark Saturday the 4th of April in your calendars. Because in an announcement that will surely spread delight among the ocean paddling community, one of the toughest races in the world just got a whole lot more fun.

The prestigious Air France Paddle Festival, long known as the premiere race on an island long known as the world’s premiere paddling nation, has changed course this year. Literally.

The infamous 23km long distance main event, an often flat-water affair whose hot, brutal conditions have eaten the world’s best paddlers alive over the years, is now an 18km downwinder. There’s also a foil race on the schedule for the first time alongside the kids race and the 8km open race (which will be a mini downwinder inside the safety of the lagoon).

Tahiti, with its grand history of outrigger canoe paddling (known as va’a in Polynesia), is regarded as the strongest paddling nation on the planet. Dozens of outrigger athletes have crossed over into SUP over the years, so while past winners of the Air France Paddle Festival include Titouan Puyo, Sonni Honscheid and Annabel Anderson, every year the local warriors – Georges Cronsteadt, Steeve Teihotaata, Enzo Bennett and Keoni Sulpice, to name just a few – prove just as tough as the conditions themselves (and often come out on top).

The Air France Paddle Festival, now in its seventh year, has long since established itself as Tahiti’s main international event. Not only does it attract top international talent, it gathers 250-300 local kids and amateurs for a complete ocean festival. But it’s also established itself as a brutal race on par with Carolina, after the likes of Lincoln Dews, Michael Booth, Connor Baxter, Olivia Piana and many more of the world’s top-ranked athletes all hit the wall over the past couple of years.

So the SUP downwinder will be a welcome relief from the draining hot Tahitian sun, while the foil downwinder is, I believe, the first ever foil race held in French Polynesia.

above: the massive Air France open race

In addition to being a great event on the water, Air France also has the best damn live stream in the sport thanks to the local TV station (Tahiti Nui Television or ‘TNTV’) that produces a broadcast worthy of ESPN. As always, I’ll be hosting the English-language live stream on The Paddle League.

If you combine all of that with the postcard-perfect location of Tahiti, the Air France Paddle Festival surely becomes one of the best destination races in the world. There’s also some solid prize money, which is gender-equal across all divisions, and free plane tickets up for grabs.

Previously, one of the biggest hurdles for any event in Tahiti has been the cost of getting there — the islands of French Polynesia are smack bang in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. Fortunately, there are now multiple options to fly out of California (San Fran and LAX), including with title sponsor Air France, along along with a dozen flights a week out of Auckland, New Zealand and even direct flights from Hawaii and Japan.

It’s all happening on Saturday 4 April.

If you want to join in the fun, follow the Air France Paddle Festival on Facebook for more details on how to sign up. And if you can’t make it to paradise, you can simply relax and grab your front row seat with The Paddle League live stream. You’ll have to bring your own coconuts though…

Less flat water, more downwind bumps for the Air France Paddle Festival in 2020 (@paddleleague)