The 2016 Far North SUP Tour

The following article was printed in Australia's SUPWorld Magazine, and gives a fine summary of the 2016 event.

NORTHERN EXPOSURE!

Start driving north from Auckland, and it doesn't take long before you realise that you're in a rather special part of New Zealand. Craggy, rolling scenery, not a lot of people, and – most significantly from the paddler's perspective – one hell of a lot of coastline. Amazing coastline. Islands, bays, harbours, sheltered creeks and inlets, incredible sand dunes, the surreal stretch of '90 mile beach', and a plethora of world class surf breaks too.  Factor in the subtropical climate and relatively warm water year round, and it all adds up to an ideal environment for stand up paddleboarding.

However, being sparsely populated with significant distances between the main towns,  it wouldn't appear the most ideal environment for SUP racing. Yet the laid-back Northland approach to life has somehow managed to generate the most active year-round competition scene in all of New Zealand. If you're passing through Whangarei on a Tuesday - any Tuesday  - or Kerikeri on a Thursday - any Thursday - then pack your paddleboard. There will be a race happening. Every week, rain or shine, summer or winter, the crew assembles in the carpark at about 5pm for their weekly fix. It's all completely unofficial; no entry fees, rule books or race marshalls, just a bunch of people getting together,  lining up, and somebody says GO!!. 30-40 hard-fought minutes later it's all over, and straight to into the pub for a 'debrief'. Grass roots racing at its absolute best.

In Whangarei (the capital city of Northland), the race always follows the same route; starting underneath a footbridge, racing down an inlet through the centre of town past all the marinas, cafes and bars, to the next bridge and back. 4Km in all. The 'Bridge to Basin', they call it. It's such a great race track that each year since 2012, they've made it a proper formal event, and the B2B is now a well established item on the annual NZ SUP race calendar.

Meanwhile, a bit further north, the Kerikeri crew were thinking of putting on an event of their own in similar style using their own regular 'racetrack', while even closer to the top of New Zealand, a crew in the incredibly scenic little waterfront town of Mangonui was thinking along the same lines. And thus the Northern Exposure concept was born... Why not tie the three events together, and create a full-on SUP tour?

The only three-day weekend in the NZ winter calendar is the Queen's Birthday weekend, in early June. So the events were nailed down to that. Each to be a standalone event in its own right (the organisers competing to make theirs the best!), but rankings and prizes for the overall series too. It seemed a great concept, but would anyone (other than the locals) turn up? No-one knew whether the concept would gain any traction. It's quite a long way north for the Aucklanders to come...

Fortunately, the response turned out to be a resounding thumbs-up. Inclusivity was always one of the main aspirations of the tour, all three venues offer extremely safe and sheltered paddling, and at each event the fleets were split so that beginners on surf SUPs could enjoy their cruise, and then watch the pros do their thing. Prize classes in all fleets ranged from veterans down to juniors, to ensure  everyone was in with a chance. Plus of course, loads of spot prizes, many reflecting the local industry, crafts and attractions. And the formula worked. The tour attracted nearly 140 competitors across the three events, ranging from some of NZ's top racers through to complete newbies,  8 year olds to 80 year olds. And everybody had a blast...

Stone Store Stand-Up!
The series kicked off on Saturday afternoon at the incredibly scenic Kerikeri Basin, a tranquil tributary of the Bay of Islands, with a 6km jaunt up the inlet for the 14'0 class and short course, multi-lap, lots-of-corners, 4km races for the 12'6 fleet and the surfboards. With many of the competitors in fancy dress and the weather perfect, the vibe  was fabulously relaxed, yet the racing  was excitingly close throughout, making ideal viewing for the hundreds of spectators. Prizegiving was immediately followed by a full-on dinner for all the competitors and crew in the waterfront Pear Tree restaurant, and a couple of great bands to really get the party started.

Mangonui Madness!
Partying too hard is a guaranteed way to ensure that the following day's racing will be tougher than usual, and sure enough, event #2 of the tour was undoubtedly the most challenging. The wind blew from the one direction that ruffles the normally tranquil waters of Mangonui harbour, creating a  vicious wind-against-tide chop that really sorted out the men from the boys. Nevertheless, the racing was once again tight and highly entertaining, this being the best of all venues from a spectator vantage point of view, with the whole race course easily visible from the elevated town waterfront,  backed by some excellent cafes and bars.  The racing was finished by lunch time, the event schedule deliberately [planned so that after the prize-giving there was still plenty of time in the day to go check out some west coast surf (or more of the afore-mentioned cafes and bars...)

Bridge to Basin!
And so to the tour finale, the now well-established Bridge to Basin event. Being the closest to Auckland, this one always attracts a few more of the top racers, not least because the B2B trophies are legendary – things of great beauty made from native wood by local craftsmen. This event too is  a fabulous spectator venue – everyone up on the footbridge chanting the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, and then suddenly all the competitors burst into view from under the bridge, to paddle right through the heart of the town. As well as a hotly-fought standalone contest in its own right, with a local crew of nearly 40 regulars looking to defend their dominance over the invading hordes, this was the finale for the tour, and some fabulously close finishes had emerged. The 14'0 fleet was particularly close, with fellow NSP team riders Marcus Hansen and Sam Thom having an incredible tussle for first overall, Sam winning the Kerikeri event and Marcus taking the Mangonui leg, leaving them on equal points. Meanwhile in the masters class no less than 4 racers were tied in equal second. It was the same story in almost every fleet - it was all going to come down to this last race.

race in whangarei

The surfboard fleet had their race, and then the raceboards went off.  Everyone gathered on the bridge, waiting expectantly to see who would appear first. The leading 14s hove into view, and Marcus and Sam were once again neck and neck, giving it everything in the race to the finish. The crowd was shrieking – to be honest nobody particularly cared who won, it was just great to see such exciting racing. It was nearly a photo finish but in the end Marcus just got his nose ahead, to lift the overall series trophy.