We’d heard about the SEA Paddle NYC race last year, when we saw the Kai Lenny photos. We were interested : 40 km (25 miles) racing round Manhatten, VERY interested.
It’s a charity race, they do a lot of that over there. Every entrant finds sponsors and rakes in money to support ocean protection causes. Others were collecting for concerns supporting people with autism.
It seemed like a great idea, so we contacted the organisers, and our sponsors, Oxbow, then booked our flights and added that to our race calendar. The chance to go paddling in New York was too good to miss, likewise dragging our good friend Valere Caneri along on the adventure.
The water along the course is apparently usually fairly flat, which suited us down to the ground. The challenge was on, and we sent our new Oxbow Racer Flatwater 14s over in advance. We’d allowed 2 weeks for full race training, after a short recovery break following an intense racing period, principally on the Euro Tour.
We’d never trained for such a long race distance before, and we started testing some home-made energy drinks during the training period. But most of all we did a series of long, intense sessions, three to four hours at a time, back home on the Mediterranean and at Lac Leman. On 1st of August we took off from Geneva for a trip that we would never forget. Without knowing, we were about to embark on one of the most difficult races of our lives.
After a night in an AirBnB near Chinatown, the plan was to spend the morning checking out the race course, then go to the Manhatten Kayak Club to unpack the boards, which had been sent there. With the jetlag we were wide awake at 5.00am. Out of the window we could see Wall Street bursting into life, everyone hurrying to the office, coffee cup in hand, just like in the films ! It was already quite warm, but the underground train air conditioning unit outside was a sign of the sudden changes of temperature that is the reality of New York daily life.
We headed off to the east coast to look over the first 20 km, and especially Hell’s Gate, the most difficult section of the course with the heaviest currents, marking the point where the East River and Harlem Rivers meet. Then we went north, towards the Bronx, a big contrast to the buildings further south, here it was forest and parkland. After a morning walking miles and riding every one of the underground train lines it was back to the BnB for a rest.
In the afternoon we went to the Manhatten Kayak and SUP Club as planned, and were made very welcome. The big chief, Jay, introduced us to some club members and showed us round, talking about the organisation and the great infrastructure : they hold regular race training sessions, and have a great launching spot just in front of a jolly looking little boat : the Intrepid, an old World War II aircraft carrier! Our boards had arrived safely and we unpacked them in front of a group of fascinated local club paddlers. The day ended in local Italian eatery, time to start pre-loading with carbs, although we’d have been keen to try something a little more “regional”.
Time to catch up with the « Horror Movie » crew (Valere and his girlfriend/photographer Desy). We quickly showed them the spots we’d checked out the day before, the start line at Brooklyn Bay and the jetties at East River. Enough for them to have checked out all the camera angles and positions ready for race day. Then lunch at a restaurant buffet where you pay by weight, which didn’t really work to our advantage. We’re well known to be big eaters so, with just 2 days to race day, we piled up our plates with mountains of food ! The surprise is that an imperial pound isn’t as much as all that. Then another afternoon at the SUP and Kayak club, shooting some stuff for the video, and testing our new boards. We soon worked out the boards, finding them impressively fast.
The day before the race. Our heavy legs, following all the walking on the previous days, persuaded us that the best plan was a day off. There was a meeting organised for late afternoon in a little restaurant, to collect our race vests and eat a meal with the other participants. We discussed the likely conditions for the following day, the tides, the wind, Hell’s Gate… It seemed there wouldn’t be too much current, and it’ll be with us for the first twenty minutes, against us for the next 15km, then with us again for the final stretch. Start time is 9.00am for the elite riders, 8.30 for the amateurs (big respect to them, 40km without being used to distance paddling is a big ask). We met some of our rivals, some big names among them, such as Kai Lenny and Chase Kosterlitz. After dinner we planned our strategy for the race. There were two of us, we’d trained hard, and were not there just to make up numbers. We understand how on race day you should always expect the unexpected, but our plan was to go off fast from the start to grab the lead, then try and get away from the bunch with a series of hard attacks.
Up and ready at 6.45am, we ate a big, hearty breakfast, prepared our secret elixir energy drinks, then made our way to the start at Brooklyn Bridge. Jay had kindly taken our boards already, if you’re new in town driving in Manhatten can be a nightmare. Valere started filming while we went through our warm up, then prepared our boards, and frankly, we were more than ready.
After paddling out to the start, and watching the amateurs get going, we joined up with the others on the start line. There weren’t too many elite competitors, about 40 in all. And then we were off, we got the start we wanted and were soon leading the field in 1st and 2nd places, as planned. A small chasing bunch formed not far behind us, comprised of Chase, Lary Kain (Olympic gold medal winner in kayak), Kai Lenny and Garett Fletcher. After a quick heads-up we decided to execute the second phase of the plan, to attack hard three times in the next five minutes. The first attack happened, but from behind we can hear “What ? You still have 25 miles guys…”. We slowed the pace and Chase broughts the group back to us. At which point we attacked again, feeling good and wanting to test the others. This time it was Lary Kain who paddled the chasers back to us. Third attack : this time we put some distance between us and the group, but we could see that the current was getting stronger so we eased off a little to be sure of having enough in the tank for the rest of the race. We did the next 20 minutes like that so as to not do too much pace-setting for the others. We paddled past Valere and his girlfriend and at that point we were feeling pretty good.
Jérémy Our plan was to eat some fruit jellies for energy every fifty minutes. I’d just started stuffing the first one in when we were surprised by the wave of a passing boat, and Kai surfing it. I followed him, surfing while eating my jelly, but a tiny mistake with my edge threw me off the board. “No, not now”, I said to myself, hauling myself back on board and sprinting to catch up. I was starting to have stomach cramps from eating the jelly too quickly. The boat’s bow wave reached shore, and I managed to get ahead of Kai, still towing the group along behind.
Ludo I noticed that Jeremy had broken away from the group. I felt I was slipping behind, then I picked up some bow waves that helped me accelerate. Kai managed to overtake us to our right. I kicked on again and managed to catch Jeremy, making full use of the tow.
Jérémy We paddled light for about 30-40 minutes, and I knew that we needed to find the flat water that would suit us, where we were going to be best. Kai was between Ludo and myself, and it seemed he was paddling less hard than some of the others, like Lary and Chase, that it was maybe the moment to go for it. I attacked hard, sprinting away without looking back. I concentrated on keeping up my speed and saw that Kai was falling back. I put in an extra burst of power to make the break. Job done, the group couldn’t catch me.
Ludo I saw Jeremy attack, Kai falling back, a big gap opening up, and I was pleased for him.
Jérémy I managed to gain some distance, pulling away from the second group, catching up some of the amateurs and prone paddlers. I was feeling pretty good and I thought the best plan was probably to try and extend my lead, so that I could ease off a bit and keep some energy for the three hours racing ahead before the finish line. We’d estimated the total race time to be about four hours.
Ludo Kai was not paddling at all hard, and I heard Lary talking to the group, saying « Ok, I’ll go first, we can catch him up if we relay ». Lary paddled very hard for 15 minutes to haul Jeremy back in.
Jérémy Wow, I’d made a real break, the second group were about 500 metres behind, a big distance to catch up on an SUP, relay or no relay. I understood that the race was far from over , but all the same, I was enjoying that fact that I was in 1st place, racing in New York, lucky to have the experience. The current was favourable and I tried to push on, looking behind from time to time just in case.
Ludo A boat was following quite close behind, making great waves for surfing, but… I was getting annoyed so I shouted at the boat to stop. We quickly pulled Jeremy back in.
Jérémy After over an hour of paddling alone, as we left the Harlem River, just over half distance, I looked behind and was astonished to see the chasing group not more than 30 metres away. I couldn’t understand, I must have been very tired and they must have been working hard, very hard. No point giving it everything now, they would catch me up anyway. I was beginning to feel the two and a half hours of racing in my arms and decided to re-join the bunch. I tried asking Ludo how that happened, he said I should shut up and concentrate, and he was quite right.
LudoI managed to get back to Jeremy and tell him he needed to calm down, there was still lots of racing to be done. We needed to rest a bit.
Jérémy We placed ourselves 1st and 2nd again but we could sense the other racers paddling strongly and waiting for the right moment to attack. As we approached the Hudson River (about 15km from the finish line) we could tell this was a key moment in the race as the current was very strong. A speed boat passed us by on the right at the point where the Harlem River joins the Hudson. Chase managed to get on and surf its bow wave. I was paddling neck and neck with Kai, who was still paddling hard and smooth. I had a little laugh, realising that it was Kai Lenny who had given me the desire to get into SUP in the first place, and here we were, side by side and stroke for stroke.
Ludo As we joined the Hudson River I was feeling really tired. The others all seemed much fresher and I had a real battle just to stay with the bunch.
JérémyI was beginning to hit the red zone, Chase had managed to pull away by some distance, we were into the wind and there was heavy chop, and still 15km of racing to do. I said to myself “OK, it’s going to be mental challenge all the way to the finish”. We realised there was little chance of catching Chase. Meanwhile, Kai, Lary and Garett were still relaying along behind, so I tagged along with them, after all, they’d done that to me for most of the race so far.
LudoThe pace was still really fast into the wind, difficult to keep up, especially with such strong currents. I had nothing left in the tank, couldn’t keep the rhythm up and had to let the others go on at the 25km mark. I was on my knees and close to throwing up. A support boat came up to see if I was ok and bring me some water. That helped, I set off again and finished the 15km upwind on my own.
JérémyIt was a real struggle mentally and physically, Kai was trying to get away on the bow waves of the passing boats, Lary and Garett were steering a different course. By now I was looking at 2nd place at the best, so I hung on to those two and thought about another attack much closer to the finish. Kai and Lary pulled away again on a bow wave, leaving Garett alone in the middle of the river. Kai paddled across the line in 2nd place, followed by Lary, then Garett close to total exhaustion. I crossed the line just behind Garett, and seconds later was overcome by intense cramps all down my left side, my abdos and my right pectoral all at the same time. I fell off my board.
Ludo I tried to keep up a good rhythm and stay in the contest. I finally crossed the finish line, a great relief after an unbelievably difficult race.
Our hands were blistered and bleeding, we were destroyed by fatigue, a bit disappointed with our results but happy to have put up a good fight, we couldn’t have done any more or better. Garett was even worse, spending two hours being attended by the rescue services and on a drip ! We took in lots of fluids and some sandwiches as we went over what had just happened. We discovered that actually it Kai’s dad who’d brought his power boat close to the group, making it easy for them to catch us up. That annoyed us quite a bit, but as we headed off to the sauna (the finish was at a massive sports complex) we were also already planning our return for next year’s race.
In the afternoon there was a prize-giving ceremony, followed by a meal all together on board a big anchored boat. It was a fitting way to end the story, chatting to some of the native New Yorkers who’d been in the race. We’d been hoping to spend an evening seeing what the Big Apple night life had to offer, but there was only one thing and word on our minds : sleep. Besides, we had an early start next day in south Manhatten to do some photo and film shoot at the Statue of Liberty.
After doing our tourist bit at the Statue of Liberty we spent some more time filming. We headed down to Brooklyn for one of the best burgers NYC has to offer. Then in the evening did some more filming, down in Times Square, trying a few off-the-wall shots in the bustling crowds (walking backwards across pedestrian crossings for example).
We shot our final seconds of film before picking up our flight to Portland (and the legendary Hood River race, a famous downwind event). We were happy with our film shoot and had complete faith in Valere’s skills at editing all the rushes together back in France. It was an amazing experience in this amazing town, and we promised ourselves that we’d definitely be back next year for our revenge.
Original text written for GetUp, January 2018