Surfski races are usually far and wide apart, occurring on different continents around the globe. So it is a treat to be able to compete this summer in two back-to-back international races in North America: the Canadian Downwind Champs in British Columbia and the Gorge Downwind Champs in Oregon. While conditions always differ, I took this opportunity to fine-tune my strategy for both races in hopes of going neck-and-neck with the best paddlers in the world. This is my goal in every race, to prove to myself that I am capable of being a top competitor. When I first began surfski I was excited to inch up the ladder of success, but being routinely within the top five or six paddlers to cross the finish line seemed an impossible dream. After spending the past couple of years honing my skills, working on my weaknesses and refusing to give up despite setbacks, I finally feel a measure of confidence — but anything can happen. This is why I love to race.

With a solid field of international competitors coming to the Canadian Downwind Champs race, I knew I would need a fast start and well-executed race to hope for a top 5 finish. Before the race, I decided on my strategy. First, I would line up next to the reigning leader, Sean Rice, and bank on his speed to help me to the hotspot. I also wanted to make sure to line up on his downwind side so I could maximize any waves and then easily surf back to his wave while still staying on his side wash. The wind was expected to blow. From the hotspot (1.5km into the race), my plan was to gather myself in the waves then push my surfing threshold. I was feeling confident after my recent training trip to Hood River and I was hoping to test my downwind racing and not my flat water endurance.

Austin KiefferAfter my warm-up, I was greeted by an absolute mess at the start line. Everyone was bunched up, knocking paddles and boats, and refusing to give an inch as the field tried to line up. After several failed attempts at getting a spot near Sean, I eventually gave up. Ruining my start because of athletes boxing me out or paddling over me was not the way I wanted to start my race.

I swung out wide and lined up on the far side of everyone. Finally, in a bit of calm space, I prepared myself for what I knew would be a furious dash to the hotspot. When the horn sounded, I took off hard and gravitated to Mackenzie Hynard (Macca) and Sean to my right. The three of us were head-to-head and leading the charge. Macca quickly deferred to Sean and dropped to his wash. He slid into the spot I was hoping for and I settled for Macca’s wash, dropping back slightly. I felt strong, but I was nervous about the position (I was upwind, on a second wave and not drafting the person leading). In the heat of the moment, I decided that a better draft position was worth burning some energy. Worried that Macca would block a surge past him on his left and we would waste energy competing for the same spot, I slowed down enough to move behind Macca then surged right of him. With a big push, I was able to catch up to Sean and settle into the pace.

About 500 meters into the race, I saw Tom Norton’s bow and then (his brother) Sam Norton’s boat. They looked strong. I held to Sean for a kilometer, but after surging at the beginning and again to pass Macca, I was beginning to feel cooked. I knew things would get worse if I didn’t back off just slightly. I slowed and the four leaders slipped away. Sam showed his form and not only surged to the lead, but held on to take the hotspot with Kenny, Tom, and Sean all in close formation around him. I rounded the hotspot just behind them in 5th position. I looked down the course and saw the moment of truth … the waves were much smaller than I hoped. In fact, they were tiny!

In surfski racing, small waves are of no help at all. Ideally, big waves assist your pace while giving you a bit of a rest. With small waves, however, you have to exert more energy to pull over each one if you want to keep your race speed up. And with the wind so mild, traveling with it feels more like you are in dead calm conditions rather than getting cooled off by a breeze.

My flat water skills are decent, but I had been training for the Gorge race and hoping Canada would be windy. Despite Kenny, Tom and Sam charging on the inside direct line (the line I had originally planned on taking), I decided to aim wide. My hope was that if the wind built, the waves would be best in the center. I tried to find a rhythm, pushing at every opening I could see and milking every ounce of speed out of the bumps. I kept tabs on the other four ahead of me and though we were all on different lines, we seemed to be holding pretty even. I was on the widest line in 5th position, Kenny, Tom and Sam battled for the podium on the inside line and Sean was between us in 4th.

It was hard to pay attention to my paddling while constantly watching the others, so I refocused on what I was doing. After the fast start, I knew it was reckless to try clawing and climbing over everything. If I went over my lactic threshold my body would soon crash. While trying to snake my way through the waves as quickly as possible, I also had to keep an eye on my heart rate to stay in my desired race zone. After a few kilometers of heads down paddling, I looked over to see that I had pulled level with Sean. Further out to my right were Kenny, Tom and Sam but they were on such a different line I couldn’t tell if I was gaining or losing ground against them. And then the wind started to build, my cue to start pushing my pace. I knew how to surge hard to make more ground and rest on the waves while still making good progress through technical steering. Just before the point (marking 13km in and 8km to go), I pulled ahead of Sean. My speed spiked and the waves were finally good!

As we began to round the point, we all came together again. Kenny had a slight lead, but Tom, Sam and I seemed to be roughly even. They were on the inside of the turn, but the waves were definitely better where I was. I figured that if I used the waves to slingshot the outside of the turn, I might be able to surf into second place. And that is when the waves began to die. They didn’t just die down, they disappeared! Suddenly, in nearly dead flat water, I found myself on the outside of a big turn. Cursing, I tried to close down the turn and pull into the other paddlers’ line, but by the time we finish the turn, they are comfortably 50 meters ahead. Plus, Sean powered up and pulled just slightly ahead. I thought about slotting in behind him, but he was too strong in the flat conditions. We were all in a line, shockingly close, maybe 30 seconds separating Tom in 2nd place from me in 5th. The race directors advised that the fastest line was the slightly longer line that took races off course, but allowed them to avoid the oncoming river current.

As the top three swung wide, Sean and I chose instead to take the direct line to the finish. It was a risky move to go against conventional wisdom, but it was the only possible way to catch the leaders. Sean and I started to push. Any hope I was holding in the back of my mind for the wind to pick back up was gone. We were in for a slog to the finish. After grinding away for 3km, I realized our line not going to pay off, but Sean’s “fire up” had more kick than mine. I doubled down and kept pushing for the last kilometers. Each stroke was painful, but I finally made it to the finish line and punched my ticket for a solid 5th place performance. In less than a week I would be coming to the Gorge Downwind Champs race ready and excited to put myself to the test once again.

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019
    Austin's Blog

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13, 2019

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15, 2019
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    Saturday 28, Sept. 2019

Surfski races are usually far and wide apart, occurring on different continents around the globe. So it is a treat to be able to compete this summer in two back-to-back international races in North America: the Canadian Downwind Champs in British Columbia and the Gorge Downwind Champs in Oregon. While conditions always differ, I took this opportunity to fine-tune my strategy for both races in hopes of going neck-and-neck with the best paddlers in the world. This is my goal in every race, to prove to myself that I am capable of being a top competitor. When I first began surfski I was excited to inch up the ladder of success, but being routinely within the top five or six paddlers to cross the finish line seemed an impossible dream. After spending the past couple of years honing my skills, working on my weaknesses and refusing to give up despite setbacks, I finally feel a measure of confidence — but anything can happen. This is why I love to race.

With a solid field of international competitors coming to the Canadian Downwind Champs race, I knew I would need a fast start and well-executed race to hope for a top 5 finish. Before the race, I decided on my strategy. First, I would line up next to the reigning leader, Sean Rice, and bank on his speed to help me to the hotspot. I also wanted to make sure to line up on his downwind side so I could maximize any waves and then easily surf back to his wave while still staying on his side wash. The wind was expected to blow. From the hotspot (1.5km into the race), my plan was to gather myself in the waves then push my surfing threshold. I was feeling confident after my recent training trip to Hood River and I was hoping to test my downwind racing and not my flat water endurance.

Austin Kiefer Paddling After my warm-up, I was greeted by an absolute mess at the start line. Everyone was bunched up, knocking paddles and boats, and refusing to give an inch as the field tried to line up. After several failed attempts at getting a spot near Sean, I eventually gave up. Ruining my start because of athletes boxing me out or paddling over me was not the way I wanted to start my race.

I swung out wide and lined up on the far side of everyone. Finally, in a bit of calm space, I prepared myself for what I knew would be a furious dash to the hotspot. When the horn sounded, I took off hard and gravitated to Mackenzie Hynard (Macca) and Sean to my right. The three of us were head-to-head and leading the charge. Macca quickly deferred to Sean and dropped to his wash. He slid into the spot I was hoping for and I settled for Macca’s wash, dropping back slightly. I felt strong, but I was nervous about the position (I was upwind, on a second wave and not drafting the person leading). In the heat of the moment, I decided that a better draft position was worth burning some energy. Worried that Macca would block a surge past him on his left and we would waste energy competing for the same spot, I slowed down enough to move behind Macca then surged right of him. With a big push, I was able to catch up to Sean and settle into the pace.

About 500 meters into the race, I saw Tom Norton’s bow and then (his brother) Sam Norton’s boat. They looked strong. I held to Sean for a kilometer, but after surging at the beginning and again to pass Macca, I was beginning to feel cooked. I knew things would get worse if I didn’t back off just slightly. I slowed and the four leaders slipped away. Sam showed his form and not only surged to the lead, but held on to take the hotspot with Kenny, Tom, and Sean all in close formation around him. I rounded the hotspot just behind them in 5th position. I looked down the course and saw the moment of truth … the waves were much smaller than I hoped. In fact, they were tiny!

In surfski racing, small waves are of no help at all. Ideally, big waves assist your pace while giving you a bit of a rest. With small waves, however, you have to exert more energy to pull over each one if you want to keep your race speed up. And with the wind so mild, traveling with it feels more like you are in dead calm conditions rather than getting cooled off by a breeze.

My flat water skills are decent, but I had been training for the Gorge race and hoping Canada would be windy. Despite Kenny, Tom and Sam charging on the inside direct line (the line I had originally planned on taking), I decided to aim wide. My hope was that if the wind built, the waves would be best in the center. I tried to find a rhythm, pushing at every opening I could see and milking every ounce of speed out of the bumps. I kept tabs on the other four ahead of me and though we were all on different lines, we seemed to be holding pretty even. I was on the widest line in 5th position, Kenny, Tom and Sam battled for the podium on the inside line and Sean was between us in 4th.

It was hard to pay attention to my paddling while constantly watching the others, so I refocused on what I was doing. After the fast start, I knew it was reckless to try clawing and climbing over everything. If I went over my lactic threshold my body would soon crash. While trying to snake my way through the waves as quickly as possible, I also had to keep an eye on my heart rate to stay in my desired race zone. After a few kilometers of heads down paddling, I looked over to see that I had pulled level with Sean. Further out to my right were Kenny, Tom and Sam but they were on such a different line I couldn’t tell if I was gaining or losing ground against them. And then the wind started to build, my cue to start pushing my pace. I knew how to surge hard to make more ground and rest on the waves while still making good progress through technical steering. Just before the point (marking 13km in and 8km to go), I pulled ahead of Sean. My speed spiked and the waves were finally good!

As we began to round the point, we all came together again. Kenny had a slight lead, but Tom, Sam and I seemed to be roughly even. They were on the inside of the turn, but the waves were definitely better where I was. I figured that if I used the waves to slingshot the outside of the turn, I might be able to surf into second place. And that is when the waves began to die. They didn’t just die down, they disappeared! Suddenly, in nearly dead flat water, I found myself on the outside of a big turn. Cursing, I tried to close down the turn and pull into the other paddlers’ line, but by the time we finish the turn, they are comfortably 50 meters ahead. Plus, Sean powered up and pulled just slightly ahead. I thought about slotting in behind him, but he was too strong in the flat conditions. We were all in a line, shockingly close, maybe 30 seconds separating Tom in 2nd place from me in 5th. The race directors advised that the fastest line was the slightly longer line that took races off course, but allowed them to avoid the oncoming river current.

As the top three swung wide, Sean and I chose instead to take the direct line to the finish. It was a risky move to go against conventional wisdom, but it was the only possible way to catch the leaders. Sean and I started to push. Any hope I was holding in the back of my mind for the wind to pick back up was gone. We were in for a slog to the finish. After grinding away for 3km, I realized our line not going to pay off, but Sean’s “fire up” had more kick than mine. I doubled down and kept pushing for the last kilometers. Each stroke was painful, but I finally made it to the finish line and punched my ticket for a solid 5th place performance. In less than a week I would be coming to the Gorge Downwind Champs race ready and excited to put myself to the test once again.

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13th

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    TBD Fall 2019