It was about 10am when we arrived in Woolacombe after driving since 6am. There had been a constant fog over the moors and conditions were looking pretty sketchy, with no wind, bad light and rain.
Pulling into the Esplanade we saw plenty of cars with skis on the roof and people milling around and chatting, but very paddle boarders were on site. Kate and I decided to grab a drink after the drive and sat for a few minutes before seeing a few vans turning up with the sup crews appearing.
11am was the briefing call so we headed to the Woolacombe Village Hall where paddlers had to show their safety kit including whistle, pfd and flare whilst obtaining race numbers and instructions for the race that was presented by the race director, Mark. This wasn’t a quick welcome chat as is often the case. The ski paddlers are serious players and the seriousness of the water conditions meant paddlers had to tune in and make they were 100% clear about the rules and regs for this race.
After the race brief we all planned driving and drop offs before heading to Lee where the sups would launch from and the skis headed down to Woolacombe as they were launching from the main beach.
After dropping off a few boards and seeing everyone of the sup paddlers were ok, Kate and I headed off to Ilfracombe where we met our boat captain, Paul. We were tasked with photographing the event from the sea so a great way of really experiencing the conditions without being on a board.
As we headed out of Ilfracombe we encountered a huge ship carrying over 700 american tourists. Floating luxury as they were shuttled to land in some very fancy looking craft. Turning out of the protected harbour the conditions immediately changed and the bumps started facing us head on, but the wind was still a little light and cross off. It only took us about 10 mins at a light idle to make it to the holding point and the conditions had let off a little so the sea state was looking very sedate for open water, but our captain Paul assured us it would soon change as the tide was beginning to flow.
We could see from the shore the sup crew getting ready to launch and due south was Woolacombe, but no surf skis were yet visible around the headland.
The first sups reached us just minutes after the start horn and the picture show PJ Simmons already taking a comfy lead, but having some work to do in managing the conditions.
Just seconds behind PJ was Ollie Shilston on another narrow race board and showing just how much balance is needed when conditions change as he just managed to recover from a near dip.
The rest of the fleet were in hot pursuit and handling the conditions well, but as you know, paddling into waves is often easier than the conditions they were about to encounter.
Bearing away and heading in northerly direction along the rocky coastline the competitors now had to face a worstening sea state. Bumps were not fully lined up yet and so they were being hit with an angle wave that was trying to drive them into the shoreline whilst the wind kept forcing them out to sea.
You can see Veejay and the oldest man on the water 🙂 Tim Rowe making a really solid job of the early conditions.
As the sups headed off into the distance our boat held place until we saw the first skis coming around the headland. By now the tide was flowing and the sea state was really jacking up and what had been bumps and chop was now replaced with white caps and steep 4-5ft drops in place, particularly from the headlands.
The early elite skis were really flying along and made it look effortless, cutting the water and using every bump to increase their leads.
Captain Paul decided we should wait for the ski fleet to pass before catching up with the sups but this turned out to be our downfall for photos. The fleet very quickly stretched out due to the water state getting tougher and we were now faced with a minor ski rescue.
All being good and man on board with his ski we sped off to try and catch our lead paddlers, but we’d lost so much time, many of the paddlers had already finished so any chance of action shots was gone. Saying that we rescued man and boat so all good.
I was stoked to be part of the team helping on the Icon. The work going into it is huge and the rescue cover is immense. As this discipline evolves in the UK more and more paddlers will aim to compete, but it is something you’re gonna have to really train and focus on as it is certainly no walk in the park. The conditions we had were tricky but with the lesser wind, they definitely weren’t too challenging.
If you are keen to find out more about downwind paddle boarding then we have a facebook group as well as havin experienced paddlers from sussex to Cornwall who are worth hooking u pwith to gain an insight into what is involved.
One thing that should be said now is the kit needed.
A suitable race/downwind board capable of being paddled in rough water, a pfd (belt type that inflates), waterproof phone case or vhf, smoke flares and whistle are all something that you should consider. It may seem overkill, but on this route we took you could see that a downed paddler would have struggled to managed the swirling waters and flow of the tide if they had broken free of their board.