Surfing in Colorado

Surfing the Colorado River

You don’t see a whole lot of people with surfboards slung under their arms here in western Colorado. But that may change, if a group of experimental extreme athletes who descended on Glenwood Springs this weekend have their way.

Twenty athletes from across the continental United States and Hawaii took to the Colorado River on Sunday for the first ever Whitewater Stand Up Paddling Championships.

The three-event competition pitted the paddle surfers against one another in a whitewater race, a slalom event and a freestyle surfing showdown — competitors balancing atop custom converted surfboards and paddling their way through rapids with single-bladed oars.

“This is a historic event,” said Nikki Gregg, a personal trainer based in Oahu, Hawaii, who took third place in Sunday’s eight-mile race from Grizzly Creek to Two Rivers Park. “I think the sport is really going to grow in the next few years.”

There were no crashes or injuries in the race, though competitors said the Class II and III rapids were formidable.

“This is the first time a lot of people have competed in whitewater,” said Charlie MacArthur, owner of the Aspen Kayak Academy and a stand-up paddling pioneer. “So it’s a whole new ballgame. But as far as scouting the rapids, it’s easier than kayaking because you’re standing up and you can see what’s coming.”

Heather Rousseau/Aspen Daily News
Dave Collins of La Manzanilla, Mexico, competes in the surfing contest during the Stand Up Paddling Championship at the Whitewater Park wave in Glenwood Springs on Sunday. Collins comes from a whitewater kayaking and surfing background and says stand-up paddling “combines the best of both worlds and it is versatile. We are just beginning to see what is possible on these things.”

MacArthur was first runner-up in the race, finishing only two seconds behind winner Dan Gavere after a neck-and-neck ride that took each man just over 30 minutes. In the overall competition, however, MacArthur triumphed — taking the professional prize for combined performance in the racing, slalom and surfing comps. Gavere finished second.

MacArthur’s wife, Jenny, took second place overall among women in the competition — falling just behind Boulder’s Coral Ferguson.

Gavere, from Hood River, Ore., said he got into stand-up paddling for cross-training. Like many of the stand-up racers, he used to race kayaks professionally.

The idiosyncratic skill set for stand up paddling also draws out a lot of current and former professional surfers.

But Liam Wilmott, a competitor who works for Hawaii-based stand up board and paddle company C4 Waterman, said surfing prowess doesn’t necessarily give you an upper hand in this upstart water sport.

“In the whitewater, the waves stand still and the water moves you along,” Wilmott said, “but in the ocean the waves are moving and water stands still. You’ve got to throw everything you know about riding a wave in the ocean out the window when you’re on the river.”

The burgeoning sport’s inaugural championship did have some apparent growing pains. Organizers couldn’t get buoys set up in the river for the slalom event, so they put orange parking cones on the banks of the river and had racers paddle in a circle around imaginary gates that lined up with the cones. The freestyle surfing competition was judged with a decidedly subjective criteria awarding points for on-river board acrobatics. The slalom and surfing events ran about an hour behind schedule.

“You know, this has never been done before so it’s kind of a work in progress,” said EnviroAction Productions videographer Paul Tefft, who helped set up the events.