The two-day, Red Paddle Co Dragon World Championships is an event like no other. It involves teams of four from across the world battling it out on a mighty 22-foot inflatable ‘Red Dragon’ board to be crowned the ultimate victors.
Words George Shillito // Photos Red Paddle Co
Born out of the concept of bringing people together from across the world, the Dragon World Championships is no ordinary event and is perhaps most unique in that there is no qualification required. It has been designed as a celebration of SUP to enable paddlers of any ability or experience to form a team and take on the gauntlet in some fast, fun racing on a global stage.
This year was strongly supported with 30 teams representing 15 countries congregating on the mountain fringed shores of Talloires, Lake Annecy in what was to be the most spectacular, dedicated event in the competitions three-year history. In association with Nike Swim and the Alpine Lakes Tour the event welcomed new activities such as SUP Yoga, the beginner POP race on Red Paddle Co 10’6” Ride boards, two long distance races in the form of the 10km Mini-FAT race and 32km FAT race as well as a kids race and of course, adrenaline-fuelled Dragon racing.
A clap of thunder boomed across the sky and a flash of lightning exploded in the distant snow-capped peaks, an auspicious welcome to competitors at an event with ‘Dragon’ in the title. If it wasn’t for the numerous Titan pumps laying around the event site, you would have been forgiven for thinking someone had unleashed the beasts from a long-forgotten mountain cave rather than simply inflating them.
As teams new and old congregated at registration and peered hopefully out at the ominous scene, a single ray of sun cut through the dark clouds like a warm knife, then another, and another. As practice sessions got underway, sunlight danced and refracted off the lake’s calm surface and the 10km stretch of water became sparkling emerald green. A gem which would soon become a battle ground.
The initial race briefing provided all teams a chance to size-up the competition and check out the complex 600m course for the first time. ‘SUP Race Team Hungary’, last year’s victors, returned in high spirits ready to protect their title from the previous year by setting the bar high in the early rounds. As ladies, men’s and mixed teams all battled it out against one another, the water became restless from being torn apart by paddles and a strengthening wind. However, the teams remained unaffected as the stiff inflatable boards punched their way through the chop and confidence grew as paddlers became accustomed to the conditions, kit and in some cases, their newly formed teams.
This caldron of team camaraderie, cultures and anticipation for the elimination rounds to come the following day produced a different kind of electric atmosphere to that of the thunderstorm. As the commentators wrapped up the racing, the DJ upped the tempo as friends old and new shared stories and drinks watched the sun dip into the lake shore casting everything an incredible golden glow as the infamous Daffy’s Gin Party swung into action.
The following morning teams were greeted by a magnificent fresh and clear morning, a stark contrast to many of the competitors heads but offering a powerful remedy nonetheless. To kick start the action over 180 solo paddlers seized the early start to take to the water for the incredible mass start of the FAT and MINI-FAT long distance races. As the starting siren disturbed the crisp mountain air great cheers erupted from the onlooking Dragon teams, spectators and paddlers alike as paddlers found their flow and paced themselves for the challenge to come.
No sooner had the solo racers rounded the first bend and made their way out of sight, attention turned to the first elimination rounds in which they would be placed into their divisions for their chance to be crowned Dragon World Champions 2019.
Paddles ablaze, water boiling, bodies were pushed to their limit as the teams exploded from the standing start surrounded by cheering supporters willing them on; some to win, some to simply make it round in one piece.
It was the first time teams had competed in their individual divisions and as the heats fell away, just four teams remained in the ladies and men’s divisions, whilst six would battle it out in the mixed final. As those teams who were knocked out swelled the ranks of onlookers, a short break offered the chance for the advancing teams to rest and recover as fatigued racers crossed the line after their mammoth endurance efforts in the 32km FAT race, whilst the Alpine Lakes Tour Kids and POP races got underway.
As the sun hit its apex in the sky, hundreds of spectators lined the shores of Talloires beach as the commentary announced the start of the Finals. This was the last chance for the teams to stake their claim at victory and to leave nothing on the water. These races were not just about those in the final but about the relationships forged in the midst of competition, the teams who were knocked out in the previous rounds, the teams who had never stepped foot on a Dragon before the event and the camaraderie Dragon racing ignites.
As far as finals go, it was not just those on the water who were giving it all that day, for as the racers tamed their Dragon boards and flew from their starting lanes the commentary was drowned out by the building energy on shore.
As the water settled once more, the closely fought ladies final saw the Dragons Angels from France take victory, whilst in the mixed division it was team Dragonfly from Latvia who secured themselves the title and the formidable form of SUP RACE Hungary in the men’s who managed to hold off a confident and powerful French team to take the title for the second year running. A super-final saw the top four teams from all divisions take to the water in a massive 12 team final in which all competed on a level field for overall bragging rights.
The final prize giving marked the end of the Dragon World Championships 2019 and saw John Hibbard, Co-Founder of Red Paddle Co, present the ‘Spirit of the Dragon’ award to the newly formed ‘English Roses’ who entered the event just a week before. The award is given to the team who embodies the event by putting as much energy into their racing as they do off the water, mingling with teams, sharing experiences and of course some of the last on the dance floor. It is an award that encompasses the whole event and ushers in a new generation of paddlers to provide a platform for everyone to get involved and find out what the amazing sport of SUP and racing has in store for those brave enough to rally the troops and unleash the Dragon!
The Red Paddle Co Dragon World Championships is in association with Nike Swim and the Alpine Lakes Tour. SUP International