ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Rough conditions do not stop Cold Stroke Classic in Wrightsville Beach

by Tyler Roberts
Saturday, January 21, 2012


A southwest wind whipped through Banks Channel on Saturday, Jan. 21, throwing water and producing white-capped ripples. The inlet looked like river as the current pushed northward with the 30-knot winds.

It was the morning of the 4th annual Cold Stroke Classic standup paddleboard race and a crowd of paddlers waited anxiously for the race to begin.

Nearly 100 boards laid across the narrow stretch of beach behind the Blockade Runner Beach Resort positioned for takeoff. The start was postponed until the U.S. Coast Guard was present and additional safety measures were taken as a precaution in response to the rough water.

At 10:45 a.m., roughly 50 paddlers pulled their boards into the water and waited for the start of the recreational division race. When the start was signaled, the paddlers pushed their boards through the water looking for an opening in the crowded start. Then, as they built momentum in the water, they hoppd to their feet and entered the rushing current.

After 30 minutes of waiting, the first paddler appeared in Motts Channel, Kevin Rhodes, a Wilmington resident and recreational paddleboarder. As he entered the channel, he was struck by the strong winds once again. Though he was within sight of the finish, the hardest leg of the race was yet to come. Rhodes fell off of his board three times trying to fight the wind and waves.

“You are cruising about halfway, then you come around that corner [at Lee’s Cut] and you hit a wall,” Rhodes explained, motioning with his hands the force of the wind that he and the other paddlers encountered. “You have to shorten your stroke and just power through it.”

As the rest of the recreational division paddlers completed the first 3.5-mile loop around Harbor Island, the elite division turned and pointed north to complete the second loop of the race.

Several paddlers, like local paddler Justin Donaton, were registered for the elite division race but decided to finish the race on the first loop because the conditions paddling against the wind were so challenging.

“You were like a salmon swimming upstream,” Donaton said. “We are not fish. We have a board and two legs and arms. It was challenging, but a lot of fun.”

Matt McDonald, a paddler from Destin, Fla., had a similar experience completing the elite race.

“The first lap you just went and found out how tough it was going to be on the backside,” he said. “On the second lap you knew to save your energy coming down and surf as much as you could going down on this leg and save it all for this side.”

Don Alderman, another visiting standup paddleboarder from Charleston, S.C., completed the two loops around Harbor Island. After his first go-round, he found a way to push through the second lap.

“Going downwind on the second loop you are just trying not to paddle too hard and conserve your energy,” he said. “But then on the flipside, when we came around, it was more just survival man, really.”

Just as those words left his mouth, another racer in the elite division was knocked over by a small wave and his board was blown down the channel. Alderman said the rescue boat on the backside picked up one paddler in a similar situation.

“Crossing the channel towards the end was just, well you couldn’t ask for anything worse,” McDonald said.

Even though the conditions were rough, the contest retained its easy-going, family friendly vibe throughout the morning. Each racer coming to shore was met with cheers. People stood by the water’s edge to help the exhausted paddlers carry their boards out of the water.

“It was a great turnout and pretty exciting conditions,” Donaton said.