One of the unsung divisions in any stand up paddle race is that of the prone paddler. They are the passionate watermen and women who raced in this year’s 2017 Graveyard at the Carolina Cup, not for the glory of the win (as their category is often overlooked or unmentioned due to low numbers), but because of their love of sport. Knees rubbed raw and with hands deep in the water, we at Standup Journal Online, are stoked to present the prone paddler’s perspective of this year’s Graveyard Prone Race offered here by Alice Henley.
Welcome to the Prone Zone
This year was my first Carolina Cup. What really blew me away was the enormity of the event in terms of the sheer number of paddlers from varied disciplines (540 registered paddlers) and the fact that the most elite paddlers in the world were there. I actually ran the Boston Marathon on Monday, and unsure of whether or not I’d be recovered, headed up on Friday and prayed my body would hold it together. I was convinced at the last minute by some of my stand up paddling friends, who sold me on the conditions: south west wind, warm weather and cool water. Of course, I had to do the Graveyard Elite race which can range from 12.6-13.2 miles depending on your course (I hit 12.99 exactly).
Competitive Prone Paddlers: In it for the love of it
A little bit about myself:
I am an ocean rescue lifeguard from Fort Lauderdale Florida. I guard at two beaches in south Florida: Dania Beach and Fort Lauderdale. My introduction to prone boarding came long before I was a lifeguard. I am actually first and foremost a competitive runner. My boyfriend bought me a stand up board in 2010, way before stand up paddling was the ‘IT’ thing to do. It was an Ark board and very stable, but it took two people to carry (so long as the two people were not me!). Although I enjoyed the board for recreational purposes, I have the competitive itch and could not make it go as fast as I wanted. So, one day my boyfriend took me out on his 14 foot Eaton. I was in love, as fast as I had fallen in love with him, I knew prone boarding was for me. Soon after I pursued lifeguarding as a career, and now several years later, I have competed in numerous races of varied distances with all sorts of prone boards.
“I was in love, as fast as I had fallen in love with him, I knew prone boarding was for me.” – Alice Henley
Last year I bought my own 10’6 Kraka so I could be more competitive in lifeguard events. I swore up and down I was done buying boards for a while. Then, my good friend Lacie Flynn, well known in south Florida as one of the fastest female prone boarders around listed her 12’0 for sale. I could not help myself. I knew that was the board I needed if I wanted to compete in events like the Carolina Cup. It is a Surftech Bark Commander Lite (Pro Elite 12’0 x 20). In fact, last year under Lacie, that board won the Carolina Cup for prone women.
Graveyard from the down low perspective of a prone paddler
Race morning bubbled with excitement and there was a pit of nervousness in my stomach. We were told the inlets were “gnarly” the day before and I knew the course required paddlers to ‘surf’ the north inlet. If I’m being honest, I had not been on my board in at least a month, as marathon training had taken the spotlight. In total, I’d used my 12’0 maybe four or five times, in glassy flat water conditions only. So, to say I was nervous is an understatement.
“Around Mile Nine, my mind was ready for it to be over.” – Alice Henley
As the race started, conditions appeared ideal with an offshore wind and small clean swells breaking on the sandbar. The swell was just enough to knock me off my board two times in the start, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before. My goal was to stick with Cynthia Aguilar, the 3rd place female proner this year. I had to work to catch up as my start was less than ideal, but once I got around that first buoy, I was in for the ride of my life. I caught runners for over fifty meters and was sailing down them so fast I had to hold the sides of the board to stay on. At this point, the stand up paddlers start flying past us proners as they have an advantage, but I knew the advantage would soon be in our favor. As I neared the inlet, I was a bit apprehensive, but I saw nice clean waves breaking on shallow sandbars and navigated to a slightly deeper area. I was also mindful of approaching stand up paddlers who could not see me lying down. That was probably the highlight of the race, flying downwind and through the inlet, by far the most fun I’ve ever had in a race.
Into the Wind and Chop
As we made that first turn I knew I was in for it. The upwind leg of the race required me to lay down more while I prefer to paddle on my knees as I can harness more power in my legs. I settled in for what would surely be a long grind. There was a brief reprieve through some squirrely turns in the backwater and I must also point out here that this is a spectator friendly course. With multiple docks, bridges, and sandbars throughout the backwater, racers are cheered on the whole way. After those s-turns however, comes the most draining part of the race, a long upwind grind when you are forced to the point of exhaustion, both mentally and physically.
“Board handlers grabbed my board and I sprinted to the finish chute with all I had left and a sense of pride and joy overwhelmed me.”
Around Mile Nine, my mind was ready for it to be over. This is where one must really power through. As I reached the south inlet, I saw conditions I was more familiar with: a large inlet with powerful currents and dangerous eddies forming around the rocks. It was at this point I noticed several stand up paddlers falling off, at that point of maximum fatigue against an incoming tide. We were told to hug the north side rocks, but if you made the turn too close you’d surely be sucked into those rocks.
Finding the strength to finish the Graveyard
I made a wide turn and began the last downwind push to the finish. It was here I could get back into a good rhythm and pick up some speed. I closed in on another male prone rider and tried to hold off the female prone rider quickly creeping up on me. I turned the final buoy and timed the waves so I could catch one in for a fast, fun finish.
Board handlers grabbed my board and I sprinted to the finish chute with all I had left and a sense of pride and joy overwhelmed me. This time last year I did not know how to strap the board to my car. Now it has traveled 1,500 miles with me to compete in the most prestigious paddle event on the East Coast. My body ached and screamed and, although I was disappointed to not place Top Three, I know that this is just the beginning for me.
2017 Graveyard Top 3 Prone Paddlers
Men’s Top 3 Prone (Graveyard 12’6)
1st Place: Jack Bark (as in Bark boards!)
2nd Place: Dan Michaluk
3rd Place: Christopher Esibill.
Women’s Top 3 Prone (Graveyard 12’6)
1st Place: Abby Brown
2nd Place: Katie Hazlerigg
3rd Place: Cynthia Aguilar
Addendum: The Prone Zone
The stand up paddling community has welcomed me with open arms. They helped me in securing me a room, insisting I come up and even getting a water bottle holder from one of the pros as I did not have one. However, in terms of race recognition we really struggle. There is no prize money for us, but we pay just as much in registration fees for most races. Oftentimes race organizers tell me if we can get more people into the prone division they will get money for that division. But, that is a vicious cycle, because no one will come until there is money. Prone paddling is also dominated in a large part by lifeguards which is not exactly a high income job. This is not exactly a cheap sport. It would be my lifetime goal to get this sport on the map; but, whether you were standing paddling or on a prone board the 2017 Carolina Cup was a deceptively grueling race among the world’s premiere paddlers. I wouldn’t have missed this ride for the world.
–By Alice Henley