Three days and counting til the Battle of the Paddle…
Three days until the world’s best converge on Doheny State Beach, Dana Point for the biggest SUP race of the year. While there will be 500 – 1,000 individual competitors racing across several different events on Saturday and Sunday, all eyes will be on Saturday afternoon’s main event, the Elite Race.
In terms of prestige and level of competition, this is the big one. The Elite Race is the single toughest race of the year to win, with paddlers from all around the world converging in Southern California to battle it out around the (in)famous M-shaped course.
But if you’ve never seen the Battle of the Paddle in person you might be confused when paddlers throw up terms like “Hammer Buoy” and “The Chicane”… so let’s take a closer look at the BOP Elite Race course and see what’s in store this weekend.
The Elite Race Final is two and a half laps in the qualifiers and three and a half in the Finals. The first “half lap” follows the blue line above and is designed to thin out the field as paddlers go through The Start, The Golden Buoy, The Hammer Buoy, The Chicane, The Boneyard and then finally across the line at The Finish…
The Battle of the Paddle Elite Race begins before paddlers even hop on their boards. The top contenders can usually be seen jockeying for a good spot on the starting line a good 10 or 15 minutes before the horn sounds, and that’s because positioning yourself with the shortest direct route to the Golden Buoy and avoiding the infamous low-tide rocks can make or break a paddler’s race.
As the start approaches, paddlers stand in knee-deep water and form a line along the length the shore, usually 100 metres wide, waiting for beach marshall Kelly French to get the race started. As soon as the horn goes there’s a mad sprint as everyone tries to get to the Golden Buoy first…
The Golden Buoy is the very first buoy turn in the race. It’s only used once (on the opening “half-lap”) but is one of the most important points on the course. Getting to the Golden Buoy in the lead bunch is fairly critical for a podium finish. Once the main pack hits the buoy a bottleneck starts to form and rounding the buoy gets slower and slower, so if you’re 10 metres behind the leaders right before the first buoy, you’re probably going to be 20 metres behind after you’ve rounded it.
Easily the most famous landmark on the Battle of the Paddle Elite Race course. The Hammer Buoy has been responsible for more lost boards, lost positions and epic photos than probably the entire rest of the course combined. The buoy is perfectly positioned to combine all the elements that create carnage and it’s not uncommon to see ten paddlers on the same wave, all trying to surf towards (and then try and get around) the Hammer Buoy.
Catching a wave from the outside, just after you round the Golden Buoy, and then surfing it right through to the Hammer Buoy can be the difference between an Elite Race champion and the paddler nobody really remembers…
What should be the easiest part of the Elite Race course often becomes the hardest: Running for 100m through the soft-sand chicane in between each lap of the actual course. After giving 100% on the board your legs feel like concrete. Some guys manage to hold off the lactic acid and sprint through the chicane to gain some valuable ground, but most of us just suffer…
To make it even worse, the start of the chicane usually involves jumping off your board in the gnarly Doheny shorebreak that literally pops up out of nowhere, while your caddy then has to navigate the shoreline-circus and get your board 30 metres up the beach to where the chicane ends and you jump back in the water again.
The reverse Hammer Buoy. This is the inside buoy on the far Northern end of the course, over near the rock groyne. It gets its name from the amount of crashes that have gone down as paddlers converge on the buoy (usually on a wave) and try to make the turn. The Boneyard is also particularly shallow at low tide, with rocks popping up all over the place and causing even more havoc.
If you’re not in front by this point it’s probably a little too late, though several of the minor placings have been decided by the sprint up the beach to the finish line.
The finish is pretty straightforward: Jump off our board in the shorey and then run straight up to the line… But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As if 45 minutes of hardcore paddling wasn’t enough, the final 40 metres or so is a straight sprint up the steep slope of the Doheny beach through soft sand.
But of course the finish line offers relief to the paddlers plus, if you’re named Appleby, Ching, Kalmbach, Patterson, Mitchell, Westdorp, Grant, Baxter or Anderson, it also offers a whole lot of glory…