Words: Louis Kirchell
Pics: Georgia Wharton and Louis Kirchell
Louis Kirchell is part of Loco SUP’s race team. Having competed as a professional windsurfer and more recently entering Ironman triathlons, Louis made the switch to SUP racing shortly after seeing a local event. With his first full year on the domestic circuit now underway, Louis waxes lyrical about his race experience to date.
So after being new to paddling and having had my first taste of national level races, I thought I would put pen to paper and talk about some of the key things I’ve found in this awesome first nine months of stand up paddling!
I have always been competitive with sports and wanted to push as far as I could, so last year when I was winding down after completing an Ironman triathlon I began looking for a new challenge. Seeing SUP racing, it instantly appealed to me; it had the competitive element and meant being back on the water, where I felt most happy after spending a youth travelling nationally and internationally to windsurf race.
My first foray into paddling was on Hayling Island with a national racer (Fran Blake), which I hugely enjoyed and definitely gave me the bug to want to get out more and develop. After that lesson I spent a few evenings bobbing around on the sea, not really sure what I was doing but slowly improving, and all the time absolutely loving the sport; the freedom and the enjoyment were unlike I’d found with a sport and I began to find myself wanting to spend more and more time on the water, and wanting to learn more about the sport.
I quickly moved from an inflatable all-rounder onto an inflatable race, and on a spur of the moment thing I entered the UK SUP race at Hamble (which was less than five minutes from my house, and bizarrely I had never paddled on!). Whilst not setting the world alight, I managed a second place finish in the 6km race… My first taste of competition, and I was relatively pleased.
The real revelation was seeing the lead racers in the 14’ and 12’6” classes respectively, the speed and technique looked worlds apart from mine, and this drove me further. At this time I was fortunate enough to speak to Joe at Loco and, having spoken about my intentions and hopes, I decided to move onto a rigid 14’ race board, and combine a shorter board for waves. I also changed my paddle for a carbon one, which has proved a huge factor in improving and helped me take a large step forward. As the winter began I slowly developed a taste for a small wave, and that opened up a whole new aspect of enjoyment.
Catching my first wave, and being able to turn, was hugely exciting and transported me back to the enjoyment I felt whilst windsurfing. Over the winter I entered the Baysup races, which were excellent and allowed me to meet a number of people who have offered advice and assistance. This really is such a friendly sport, and I am yet to meet someone who isn’t willing to help. All the time I have been constantly trying to change things and develop my stroke.
I have hugely enjoyed the sport of stand up paddling. The challenge of the sport is far more technical than I initially thought and I really feel like I have found a sport for life. The biggest things I have found are; get out, and enjoy. Don’t always look for the optimum conditions, you’ll develop hugely by testing yourself… But stay safe! Get out and try as much kit as you possibly can before buying, what works for one is not necessarily right for another.
It is worth spending some time developing your paddle stroke too. Mine is far from a finished racing stroke but in the nine months I have paddled it has improved… A work in progress. Most importantly, join local clubs, get out, meet people and have fun!
So if you’re thinking of having a stab at racing, here are my top tips (anybody can do it, you just have to have confidence – everybody starts somewhere).
- Start small – don’t rush out, buy a 14ft carbon race board and enter a technical long distance race. You’ll hate it! Consider a few shorter distances on a non-technical board first off. There are plenty of other classes you can cut your teeth in.
- If you’re determined to race, then upgrade your paddle. So much of SUP is about the paddle – in fact, 90% of it! For those determined to spend money, buy as good a paddle as you can afford. It’ll make your life so much easier.
- Work on your paddle stroke! Having purchased a decent paddle, you now have to learn how to use it correctly. A good paddle stroke will save you energy on the race course, make you more efficient and help you avoid injury.
- Get some training in the bag. I’m not suggesting you be on the water every waking hour (this would actually be ineffective). It’s important, however, to at least train some of the time. And remember: training doesn’t necessarily have to be smashing out miles and miles. You can mix things up by incorporating surf sessions, for instance. And if you have access to a training partner then use him/her. Two heads are better than one after all.
- If you really want to succeed in SUP racing then you’ll need to address your diet. Again, I’m not suggesting you completely change your habits but altering your dietary intake can make a significant difference.
- I can’t emphasise this point enough. Whatever length and type of SUP session you undertake, rehydration should be a priority. And on a race course, even more so. I’m not going to get all scientific about it, there’s plenty of info online. Have a Google and see what you can come up with.
- At some point you may want to switch up your board – especially if you find yourself getting even more serious about racing. My advice is to try as many different types as you can. It’s no good being the fastest paddler on the start line if you’re uncomfortable with your equipment. Your board, paddle and fin choices should all work in harmony. I appreciate this initial testing/tuning phase is time consuming but pay it attention and it’ll serve you well in the long run.
- Finally, have fun! Whether training or racing, you need to be enjoying your time afloat. If you’re not, then maybe SUP racing isn’t for you…