The Island on the north side of the RiverWalk is a favorite summer spot to watch rafters flip, flop and crash through the surf, and to see some talented local kayakers test their mettle against the punishing whitewater waves.
Now, for the second time in as many years, the RiverWalk Island will draw some of the best freestyle kayakers to Columbus to test their skills in the water at the 2018 Freestyle Kayaking National Championship competition - also known as Paddle South.
“Generally we try to move the national championships across the country so different communities get the excitement that comes with this type of event,” said Stephen Wright, a six-time national freestyle kayaking champion who now works with the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Committee to plan events like Paddle South. “Occasionally we'll do it two years in a row somewhere if we just really like that playspot.”
Wright said the 2017 event was such a success, and such a great time for competitors and spectators, that they just had to come back again.
“The wave here is ridiculously fun,” he said. “This is a great, world-class playspot that everyone loves to surf.”
Paddle South brought around 50 competitors to the Island in 2017, both locals from around town and from across the country, Wright said. Dozens more spectators piled onto the Island to watch the free event, listen to music and partake in the nearby BBQ festival. Among the kayaking winners that year - then 13-year-old Smiths Station native Mason Hargrove in his age group.
Wright said there are a couple of factors that make Columbus a premiere spot for hosting a whitewater event of this scale, even two years in a row.
“The Chattahoochee River through Columbus is uniquely good whitewater because it has a lot of flow. Even at the base flow, there's more than 1000 cubic feet per second coming down the river, and at the levels we ran the competition, there were something in the neighborhood of 9000 cubic feet per second coming down the river,” Wright explained.
“That is just a ton of water, so with that much water we have the ability to have a really large, vast, exciting wave. It's also generally a really deep, safe place to learn to kayak, so it has something for kayakers of all skill levels, beginners all the way to the best of the world.”
Being smack in the heart of Uptown doesn’t hurt either, Wright said.
“Everyone who came to compete was very excited to be on the wave, and then what a treat to be able to just walk a few blocks to Uptown and eat at fantastic restaurants, go to great coffee shops, have great nightlife ... it was just the perfect place to be,” he said.
The 2018 National Championship competition works like this: Each athlete who competes will have a few rides in the preliminary round, which can last up to a minute. While they ride the wave, they’ll be trying to do as many tricks as they can, while also trying to get the most time airborne. The harder the trick, and the higher they fly, the more points they get, Wright said.
After the preliminaries, the competitors will try to stake out a spot in the top 5, then compete the next day for the top titles.
The event is free for spectators, and Wright said you don’t have to worry about knowing freestyle kayaking terminology or rules - the announcers will make sure to keep the excitement moving and explain what’s going on.
Wright said he expects this year to be even bigger and better than 2017, which he said was one of the most popular kayaking events of the year.
“I know a lot of people wished they could have been here last year that will likely`plan better this year and make it,” he said. “We’re excited to be back here in 2018.”