Trip report by Robert Stehlik, September 23, 2017
I just got back from Europe where I raced in the SUP 11 City Tour in Friesland, Netherlands and then went to the Paddle Expo in Nuremberg, Germany.
The 11 City Tour has been on my bucket list for quite some time so being able to participate in the 9th edition of this race was a dream come true. I arrived in Amsterdam after two long flights from Hawaii the morning before the race and got a ride to Leeuwarden by Paco Freens, the European Blue Planet distributor. The weather was stormy and the race organizers decided to cancel the first day due to gale force winds that would not have allowed a safe event. This was welcome news as I was jet lagged from two sleepless nights on a plane and a 12 hour time difference. We got to watch the finish of the non-stop paddlers on a screen at the event HQ, a ultra marathon where paddlers paddle the entire 220 km course without stopping. After a "Prologue" paddle around Leeuwarden we checked into our sleeping boats. The paddlers slept on three historic sailing ships that followed the race course, which is great as your room and stuff gets moved for you. Our boat, the Johanna, was built in 1897 and was packed with over 30 paddlers. The boat was a bit cramped, noisy, humid and smelly at times but the close quarters led to a friendly atmosphere where we quickly got to know each other and it quickly felt like a big paddling family. The bunk was a bit too short for me to fully stretch out and one of by room mates was snoring so I could only sleep with ear plugs and I did not sleep well the first couple of nights as I adjusted to the time difference. If I do this race again I would make sure to arrive a few days earlier to have time to adjust.
Since there was no race on the first day we had a chance to explore Leeuwarden and walked up to the top of the leaning tower of Leeuwarden. Since the race was shortened to 4 days, the race organizers decided to change the course to go from Leeuwarden directly to Workum, usually the finish of the second day of paddling. This new course was 50 km long and the weather was still rough, so we knew we had a tough day of paddling ahead of us. Here are a couple of short videos from the rest day showing the stormy conditions.
First Race Day (Day 2): Leeuwarden to Workum- 50.1 km
The day started well enough and after passing several low bridges and a few upwind legs we had a long canal passage with side/ head winds and relatively calm water. I was excited and tried to keep up with faster paddlers which got my heart racing and was a mistake in retrospect. I started slowing down before reaching the rest point after about 25 km, where we had to take a mandatory 15 minute rest, a welcome break to refuel. I thought "so far so good" but the rest of the day turned out to be one of the toughest experiences I ever endured. After the break I felt refreshed but the course was mostly upwind with increasingly stronger wind and cold rain, culminating in a series of lakes where it took everything I had to keep going into the strong wind. My body was aching everywhere and just when I thought I had made it through the last lake, there was another one. I wanted to quit and had to stop several times but used all my willpower to keep going. After over 7 hours of mostly upwind grinding I finally made it to Workum, where the grassy field at the finish was muddy and completely soaked by the rain. I was ecstatic just to reach the finish line despite my poor finish time. We were shivering in the cold wind and rain and were shuttled to a heated community center which was a great reprieve from the wet and cold. Here we got food, hot soup and a massage. The daily massages after a long day of paddling were a treat! The Hasulyo brothers ended up winning the first stage with a lead of over 17 minutes over the third place finisher, making it very difficult for anyone else to catch up and almost assuring them first and second place finishes in the pro division.
This is a gallery of photos from the SUP 11 City Tour Facebook page and my own photos in no particular order, story continued below the photo gallery, click on image to see full size photo:
Second Race Day (Day 3): Workum to Franeker 41.3 km
I had another night of restless sleep and did not feel great in the morning but once I warmed up a bit the second day of the Tour went much better for me. The 14' x 21" Blue Planet dugout race board I was on was a prototype designed for a much younger and lighter team rider and I really struggled on it the first day. I managed not to fall in but struggled with balance all day in the rough conditions. On the second day the water was fairly calm after the start and we even had blue skies for much of the day and I finally started to feel comfortable on the tippy and fast board. I found a good group of paddlers to draft with and kept a good pace all the way to the finish. Along the way we rung a bell in towns where we did not have a rest stop. The scenic canals were marked with arrows and ribbons at intersections but as a fist timer on this course it was sometimes hard to know which way to go, so it was good to stick with more experienced paddlers. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to navigate the canals at night for the non-stop paddlers that paddled the course before us. My strategy was to try to draft someone slightly faster than me and just hang on as long as possible. The last leg of the roughly 41 km day of paddling was even with the wind. After several nights of restless sleep, I finally slept well and woke up ready for another long day of paddling.
Third Race Day (Day 4): Franeker to Dokkum 42.6 km
While everyone had a tough first day, some of the paddlers were having a harder time on the following days as fatigue set in. I felt better and more comfortable on my narrow board every day, especially on the third day after a good night of sleep. I had a decent start and even caught up to the fastest group in the masters division but used everything I had to catch them and then could not keep up. So I ended up drafting with a second group of paddlers, pulled most of the way by Torsten Ahrens, a strong German paddler followed by Amos Kahana from Israel and myself. Around 12 km there we had to take out the boards and carry them around a lock followed by a second lock at about 22 km that was also the lunch spot where we took the mandatory 15 minute lunch break. We started together and Torsten continued to lead the draft. After 37 km Torsten slowed down a bit after leading all day and then could not keep up with the draft when Amos and I passed. We kept a strong pace to the finish and I ended the third day with the fastest average speed despite the skies opening up and a torrential downpour before the finish, completely drenching all paddlers before reaching the scenic finish in Dokkum. In the evening, we bought some groceries and Furio Vitali, an Italian living in London, cooked up a nice meal for us on the boat which we enjoyed with a few bottles of wine.
Last Race Day (Day 5): Dokkum to Leeuwarden 27.2 km
The last day is the home stretch and shortest day of the tour. Paco Freens came with his 12 year old son Donato Freens to paddle the last stage. Donato started with the Touring division on the 14 x 21 Blue Planet dugout board and finished in first place. It's the longest race he ever paddled and we were proud of his great finish, I'm sure we will see him do well in future races! This is a video of the Touring division start on Day 4 in scenic Dokkum:
I started a bit later with the masters division. I did not have a great start and could not keep up with the faster paddlers. After a few kilometers though, Philippe Soeters, a fast local paddler who fell at the start passed me and I was able to jump on his draft. He had a great steady stroke and I could just barely hang on as he was motoring upstream and caught up with the faster group. Thorsten Ahrens also jumped on the draft and we kept going like that all the way into Leeuwarden to the finish, without a mandatory lunch break on the last day. What a great feeling of accomplishment it was to finish this race and I felt surprisingly good despite paddling as hard as I could for 4 days.
The organization and group of volunteers putting on this race did a formidable job. I have helped organize a few one day races and can only imagine the planning and logistics involved in putting together a multi day, multi stage race with so many locations, so all I can say is: Well done!
No rest for the weary, the next day we drove 7 hours to Nuernberg, Germany with Paco and Mariana Freens the European Blue Planet distributors (www.blueplanetsup.eu) and set up our booth at Paddle Expo. We exhibited for the next three days and had a lot of interest from European SUP shops, including surprisingly many shops from Eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine. The SUP market seems to be strong and growing in Europe but I was surprised that the market currently seems to be dominated by cheap inflatable boards. Here are a couple of videos of our booth setup and our video playing on the big screen.
Two days after the show ended I'm already back in Hawaii. Next weekend I'll be at the Pacific Paddle Games, so stay tuned for more travel stories!
For more information on the SUP 11 City tour, also check out the great coverage of the race by Chris Parker, bossman at SUPRacer.com: http://www.supracer.com/sup-11-city-tour/
This is the official website for the 11 City Tour: http://sup11citytour.com
Videos from the SUP 11 City Tour youtube channel: