October 8, 2015
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

PPGs Preview: 15 Things You Need to Know about the Pacific Paddle Games

Kai Lenny

Kai Lenny putting the Pacific Paddle Games course through its paces this week

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We’re counting down the final hours til the biggest race of the year. On Saturday and Sunday, virtually all of the world’s best paddlers will descend on the “spiritual home” of SUP racing, Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, for a massive two days of racing at the inaugural Pacific Paddle Games

Although it’s the first ever PPGs, the buzz around the event is all time. It’ll probably set a new standard for our sport, and no matter what happens it’ll definitely set the stage for a classic race, with a unique combination of big talent, big prize money and big conditions set to light up Southern California this weekend.

So to get you primed, here are 15 things you need to know about #PPG2015…

1. The Format

The PPGs are, in many ways, replacing the old BOP. And in many ways they’re not.

The Pacific Paddle Games are being run by a completely different team, and there’s absolutely no connection to the old Battle of the Paddle event. Sure, it’s held on the same date and at the same original venue, but outside of that the PPGs are a whole new event with plenty of unique new features, most notable of which is the race format.

Unlike the BOP, where the surf race (the “Elite Race”) and the distance race were two completely separate encounters, the PPGs will be using a “combined results” format to produce one single champion, and one overall podium.

That means athletes will have to focus their energy on two very different disciplines, rather than putting it all on the line in one race. At the BOP all the focus was on the Elite Race, and indeed many paddlers didn’t even bother showing up for the distance event. But this year the title (and the largest chunk of the money) will go to the best overall performer.

The surf race qualifiers are set to run Saturday afternoon (1:45pm-5:30pm local time), with the finals on Sunday afternoon at 2:30pm. But between then, at 8:15am Sunday, we’ve got the distance race.

(view the full event schedule)

This unique schedule, where both races are held on the same day and where each one counts equally towards the overall results, should throw up some interesting strategy options for the competitors.

How hard do you go in the distance race? Do you try to conserve a little for the surf race final, or do you leave it all on the line over the six mile course and then hope the waves can carry you to the finish later in the day?

As Kelly Margetts said in our QB team preview video yesterday; “With this format, anything could happen.”

The format will definitely favour the better all round paddlers, with the sprint or distance specialists a chance to steal one of the race wins but likely to slip down the overall leaderboard. It’ll also favourable for athletes that have the endurance and stamina to push hard in two major races within the space of six hours. Fitness will be more important than ever.

But no matter what happens on the water, for the crowd on the beach and online Sunday is going to be one of the biggest days we’ve ever seen in the world of SUP racing.

2. The Waves

We’ve got a solid little south swell forecast for the weekend, which is going to produce the two magic ingredients for any good SUP race: Waves and carnage. It won’t be as gnarly as Salt Creek, but it should be more than enough to light up the event.

Look for the famous “Hammer Buoy” – the inside turning buoy that’s always placed well inside the surf break – to make its glorious return. In fact we could see a “double hammer buoy” this year (more on that in the “Course Maps” below).

Oh and it’s dead low tide 15 minutes before the start of the men’s surf race final, which will the conditions even trickier as the surf gets hollower and the waves start breaking further and further out.

Conditions are expected to be solid enough that organisers made an official call on safety this week: Legropes (“leashes” for you non-Aussies) are required for all competitors *except* in the pro divisions. In the pro divisions it’s entirely optional, which, despite the current debate on the topic, I think is a very wise call from the PPGs crew. The pros can more easily handle the waves, plus there will be safety jetskis all over the place, so let the elite athletes choose how they want to race.

In the under 14 Grom Race, leashes are mandatory along with PFDs and helmets.

Anyway here’s the current forecast from Surfline (who also have a webcam at Doheny State Beach).

Doheny State Beach Surf Forecast

Below is a great shot of the waves at Doheny on Wednesday afternoon via Riviera’s Mike Muir. That’s Mo Freitas with the concrete “hammer” (that gives the Hammer Buoy its name) clearly visible in the foreground.

Plus there’s the photo right up top that Kai Lenny posted on Tuesday (the surf has been steadily picking up since then). The Maui superstar will no doubt be licking his chops over the forecast for solid waves on Saturday and Sunday, and given his current form will start as one of the clear favourites for the overall event title.

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Mo Freitas and the infamous 'hammer' at Doheny yesterday (photo by Riviera's Mike Muir)

Mo Freitas and the infamous ‘hammer’ at Doheny yesterday (photo by Riviera’s Mike Muir)

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3. The 14 Footers

Another change to the program is the board class. At the old BOP, the surf race was a 12’6 race and the distance was held on 14 footers.

This year the men’s have been logically moved into one board class, with organisers opting to step the surf race up to 14 for the men, while the women are exclusively on 12’6 boards for the whole weekend.

A few athletes were surprised by this announcement, as they associated “surf racing” with 12’6 boards, however I think this is a very wise move and hopefully one that’ll help end that whole annoying “board class debate.”

There’s really very little difference between a 12’6 and 14 footer – it’s a foot and a half of foam – and most top paddlers think the sport should just focus on one board class only. Right now it seems all the momentum is towards 14 footers, at least for the men, and perhaps the PPGs will finally put a nail in the coffin of the debate.

Now we just need the ISA to step up from 12’6 to 14 and we’ll be done, which would bring virtually every major men’s race up to 14 foot as the standard board class. Carolina, the Gorge, Race The Lake, the Euro Tour and a few other big ones are all already using 14′ as the standard. To me it seems that 12’6 is dying out, at least on the men’s side.

In short: Moving both of the men’s races to 14 footers is a great decision.

It’s worth mentioning that organisers made the wise call for it to be “anything up to 14,” meaning you can race in the pro division on a 12’6 (or even a 10’6) if you really want. In an interesting twist, I’ve been told by a couple of the top young guys that they’ll probably race their 12’6 in the surf race, just because they’re so used to their current designs.

Below: Riviera’s Nakoa Decoite looking right at home in the waves on his new 14 footer.

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Nakoa Decoite at Doheny yesterday (photo by Riviera's Mike Muir)

Nakoa Decoite at Doheny yesterday (photo by Riviera’s Mike Muir)

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4. The Course Maps

There are two races for the pros this weekend, the six mile distance race and the one mile surf race.

Both of those are significantly shorter than what we’re used to seeing at Doheny, which should make the racing tighter and more exciting than ever.

The distance event is two laps of a six mile course with a water start and a beach finish. Instead of competitors disappearing down to San Clemente, the action will stay within the confines of Doheny. That’ll make it a lot easier to follow for the fans, while the short distance will take away some of the advantage the strong endurance paddlers normally have (expect a close finish).

The distance race is still a relatively standard affair, however the surf race is going to look very unique. Unlike the old “two qualifiers and then a final” held on a course that took a good three quarters of an hour to finish, the Pacific Paddle Games will introduce multi-round, short, sharp sprints in and out through the surf, probably similar to the model the World Series used at Huntington last week.

Saturday afternoon will see two rounds of qualifiers in the surf race, with heats and then semi-finals whittling the field down to an ultra-elite group that’ll contest the final on Sunday afternoon.

The final is tentatively set for just 20 athletes, but hopefully they raise that to 30 or more so that we get the full “Battle effect” where there’s a big crowd on every wave. No matter what happens though, plenty of big names will be missing out on a spot in the elite race main event. The field is super stacked.

I’m stoked the organisers opted for a shorter course. Most “short course” races end up dragging on for 40 or 50 minutes and feel more like a distance encounter. SUP racing isn’t the world’s most dynamic sport, and at times it can be downright boring, so I think we need to keep innovating and looking for more and more exciting race formats and courses that’ll elevate the sport to a new level, and attract outside fans, media and sponsors in the process.

Look for the new Race Director, Anthony Vela, to set an interesting course for the sprints, the final of which will be the headline event on Sunday afternoon.

Check out the official site for more info on each of the courses, but here are the main two maps we’re concerned with.

Oh and you see those two red dots near the beach on the technical surf race? Those are sitting either side of the infamous Doheny Hammer, the big chunk of concrete on the beach that gave the iconic “Hammer Buoy” its name. The BOP used to have one buoy in this area, and it always produced the most awesomely beautiful “destruction derby” photos and videos. The PPGs will have two buoys in that area, which should make for some all-time shots considering the waves that’ll be hitting SoCal on the weekend.

[notdevice] [/notdevice]Pacific Paddle Games course maps

Pacific Paddle Games SUP Race course[notdevice] [/notdevice]

5. The Seeds

The surf race will have several heats on Saturday, with the winners through to the semi-finals later that afternoon and the losers into the last chance round.

Each heat is tentatively set to have 25 guys in it. If past history is anything to go by, I’d expect around 100-125 guys to enter the pro division, so expect four or five heats in the men’s pro division. You can actually view the current start list over on Paddle Guru, but as usual most of the pros will register at the last minute.

The top 10 from each heat will progress direct to the semis, with everyone else forced through the repechage round. The top 10 from the two semis will qualify for the final, meaning just 20 athletes will be in the main event on Sunday afternoon. Considering that about 30 or 40 truly world class guys will be at Doheny this weekend, a LOT of big names are going to miss out on the final.

(Note: The numbers in each heat and the overall format may change on Friday depending on how many entries there are.)

The qualifiers run from 1:45pm to 5:30pm on Saturday, with the surf race finals on Sunday afternoon (2:30pm for women and 3:30pm for men). The distance race is Sunday morning at 8:15am.

To prevent any stacked heats, organisers will be seeding athletes for the qualifying heats based on the current SUP Racer World Rankings. So if there are six heats, the top six athletes will each be in a separate heat, 7th-12th will also be separated and so on. This should make it more fair, though I’m still kinda hoping for at least one “heat of death” to spice things up a little.

Expect the two semi-finals to be cut-throat.

6. The Manufacturer’s Challenge

Another very unique new addition to Doheny this year is the Manufacturer’s Challenge, where teams will compete for bragging rights and $25,000 in SUP the Mag advertising credits.

Points will be combined from all the top sponsored athletes, with teams also able to select junior and open race competitors for their squad.

I reckon this kind of thing is a great idea, though I suspect the format will be more of a trial run this year. A few of the big board brands opted out of the Challenge as their teams were too small, but hopefully the concept proves itself and we’ll see this thing grow at next year’s PPGs (and some of the other major events for that matter).

The Manufacturer’s Challenge is kind of like a two-day version of our season long Battle of the Brands leaderboard, which we based on the uber-prestigious Formula One Constructor’s Championship.

[notdevice] [/notdevice]Pacific Paddle Games Manufacturer's Challenge[notdevice] [/notdevice]

7. The Buoys

Yet another unique feature of the Pacific Paddle Games are the humble little turning buoys (or “boys” if you’re from Australia), which this year have been put on steroids.

To avoid bottlenecks and chaos round the cans, the long distance race will feature several “curved” buoy turns. Ranging from 10-20 feet in length, these arches are going to be an interesting and very novel little addition to the weekend.

Myself and a few of the QB team riders were brainstorming a new name for these odd looking things, and so far we’ve come up with: Banana buoys, the big banana, golden gate, the caterpillars, sea slugs, U-boats, sunrise buoy, the chicane, half moon, and the sofa. I’m leaning towards Kelly Margetts’ suggestion of sea slugs.

Distressed Mullet has a closer look at the new buoys.

[notdevice] [/notdevice]Pacific Paddle Games buoys[notdevice] [/notdevice]

8. The King Named Ching

Can Danny Ching possibly be beaten this weekend? Well of course no athlete is invincible, however if you look back through the history books (aka our Race Results by Riviera page), you’ll find that Danny has been virtually unstoppable at Doheny.

Based on this new “combined results” format, Danny would have won every single solitary Battle of the Paddle from 2009 to 2015 (both in California and Hawaii). That’s nine different major events. And he would have won every single one of them. I’m not kidding.

So based on history, Danny should be as safe as houses for the overall title. He won all but one of the BOP distance races and never finished worse than third in the elite race. That kind of consistency could see him raising the biggest check in SUP racing history on Sunday.

But there are a few caveats: Firstly, each year the level of competition rises and the gap between the top few guys and the chase pack closes; Secondly, both the distance and surf race courses at the PPGs are significantly shorter than at the BOP, which will even things out and bring more variables (and luck) into play; Thirdly: Have you seen how crazily fast guys like Travis, Titou, Kai, Mo, Connor and co are these days?!

But still, you’d be brave to bet against Danny. All hail King Ching: Lord of the Paddle, Master of the Buoy and Arch-Duke of Doheny.

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Danny Ching

Danny Ching, with his protege and 404 team mate Ryland Hart, at Beyond The Shore Paddlefest last weekend

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9. The Men

In addition to King Ching, if I had to narrow the field to the 10 biggest contenders I’d go with (in no particular order): Travis Grant, Titouan Puyo, Kai Lenny, Mo Freitas, Kelly Margetts, Casper Steinfath, Connor Baxter, Arthur Arutkin and Lincoln Dews.

Yep, there are plenty of world beating paddlers not in that list (Georges? Vinni? Slater? Jake? Beau? Zane? The list goes on…), but that’s exactly how it’s going to be on the weekend. Several big names will find themselves in unfamiliar territory, outside the top 20 or even top 30 on the final results sheet. Given the format, at least a dozen of the world’s best won’t even make the final of the elite race.

There are, quite realistically, 30-35 guys who would feel confident of a top 10 finish this weekend, yet the distance race will be run at a fierce pace, and there’s probably only going to be 20 guys in the surf race final. There’s less room at the top than ever before, yet the field is beyond stacked.

I can confirm that every single one of the top 14 guys will be on the start line. In total there should be 18 of the top 20, and 36 of the top 50 guys competing.

Check out the latest SUP Racer World Rankings – Top 100 Men for a quick form guide. From the top 20, only #15 and #16 will be missing.

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Travis Grant

Travis Grant might have to bust out his Molokai surf skills again this weekend (photo: Dana Edmunds)

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10. The Women

On the women’s it’ll be an interesting battle between the in-form Candice Appleby and the world number one Annabel Anderson. Candice reclaimed her BOP crown at Salt Creek last year, but the two haven’t faced off since that day. This will be their first meeting in 53 weeks.

In the interim, Annabel absolutely dominated the two biggest races of the year, Carolina and the Gorge, while Candice made it a clean sweep of the ISA Worlds and the World Series. They’re clearly both in very good form, so it should be a great showdown on the weekend.

I heard Annabel had visa trouble and might only arrive in California 48 hours before the event. Though knowing Annabel, she could step off the plane five minutes before the start and still be fresh and ready to go.

But while the focus will rightfully be on Candice and Annabel, don’t count out the likes of Sonni Honscheid and Fiona Wylde.

Sonni, the 2014 and 2015 Molokai champ and new world number two following the BOP-pocalypse, will be a particularly strong threat. She’s a proven champion in distance events and is a world class free-surfer, so she won’t have any trouble navigating her race board through the waves. Look to both Fiona and Sonni as safe bets for the overall top five, and a chance at the overall win if things go their way.

I also expect the Aussies Terrene Black and Angie Jackson to fight for the top five (with an outside chance of the top three), as well as perhaps local girl Shae Foudy, who starred in that brilliant Pacific Paddle Games teaser video the other week and knows Doheny like the back of her hand. Lina Augaitis is six months pregnant and will therefore not be competing, though I believe she will be on the beach enjoying the show.

If you’re curious about exactly who I think will win, I’ll post SUP Racer’s official top 10 predictions and dark horse picks on Friday afternoon.

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Candice Appleby

Team Infinity’s Candice Appleby is in career best form, which is a scary proposition for her rivals

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11. The Race Index

Just how stacked is the PPGs field?

I’ve been running a few scenarios through our Race Index algorithm to predict where the Pacific Paddle Games will fit in with the other majors. The short answer: The PPGs will definitely be the most competitive race of 2015.

Although registration closes tonight and half the top guys still haven’t signed up yet (par for the course), I’ve got a pretty good idea of exactly which athletes will be on the start line. From my calculations, the PPGs will score 84.0% on the men’s Race Index. That’s slightly below the 92.0% of last year’s BOP Elite Race, but well ahead of the current season leader, the 63.5% Carolina Cup.

As mentioned above, the men’s field will feature every one of the current top 14 world ranked paddlers, and 36 of the top 50.

It’s harder to pick who’s showing up from the women’s field, but I’m still quite certain it’ll be the highest scoring event on the women’s Race Index as well.

12. The World Rankings

With the men’s Race Index set to peak above 80%, the Pacific Paddle Games will have a big impact on the SUP Racer World Rankings. Bigger than any other event this year in fact.

Expect the Top 100 and Top 50 Leaderboards to get a big shake-up on Monday morning, perhaps just as dramatic as the BOP-pocalypse that destroyed the previous standings last week.

If Danny, Kai or Connor win, they’ll take over from Travis Grant as world number one. Danny and Connor are both former world number ones, yet Kai Lenny, who has spent more weeks at world number two than any other athlete, has never hit the top of the table. Could this be his week?

And of course if Trav wins, he’ll be sitting on top of the table for at least the next eight months thanks to his stellar run in season 2015 (winning in Carolina, Europe, Molokai, the Gorge).

Also look for the contenders who are holding low points, or who have a donut in their best five results, to make a big move up the leaderboard. Lincoln Dews instantly springs to mind. The young gun is sitting 30th holding just four out of a possible five best results, so all the points he picks up this weekend will go straight into his total.

I expect Titouan “Titou” Puyo to finish top three this weekend, which will solidify his spot on the very top tier of the sport. Also look for young guns like Mo Freitas and Casper Steinfath, as well as my official dark horse selection, Arthur Arutkin (if you can call the current world #11 a ‘dark horse’), to challenge for the title at Doheny.

A good result for any of these young guys will see them knocking on the door of the top five in the world rankings, surely one of the most exclusive clubs in the sport.

I also won’t be surprised to see a complete unknowns come out of absolutely nowhere and finish top 10 this weekend, which would see them rocket up the rankings. We’ll likely see a few guys enter the top 20 (and a few others exit), and there could even be one or two debutantes inside the top 10.

I’ll try and update the World Rankings on Sunday evening straight after the event, though considering the classic after parties will be in full swing this year, please don’t hold your breath until after lunch on Monday…

(Note: World ranking points will be awarded based on the one overall weekend result, not the two individual races.)

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Titouan Puyo

Will the humble Frenchman Titouan Puyo (“Titou”) continue his meteoric rise this weekend?

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13. The Groms

It’s not all about the pro athletes at the PPGs. Apart from the demo zone and the iconic open race, there will be one particularly exciting event on the lineup: The Grom Races.

I remember back in the old days of SUP racing when “Grom Races” were a polite exercise to encourage little kids to get more involved in paddling. These days they’re elite and very intense affairs, with amazing levels of talent and high stakes that include potential sponsorship and priceless media exposure.

I’m expecting an all time showing for the grommies at Doheny this weekend. Whoever hits the podium will officially be a new name to watch, and will no doubt be chased by the board brands eager to sign the stars of tomorrow. I’ve actually been told by a couple of the major board brands that they’ll be “scouting” for fresh talent this weekend.

The sport has certainly come a long way in a few short years, though hopefully all the groms on the water this weekend (and everyone else for that matter) remember the third and most important part of Quickblade’s famous slogan: Train Hard. Go Fast. Have Fun.

There are two races on Saturday: The Grom Race for under 14s and the Junior Race for 14-17 year olds. If you’re competing don’t forget that new safety rule: Every paddler in every division, except the pros, has to wear a leash, while the under 14s have to wear a PFD and helmet as well.

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Kids Stand Up Paddle racing

The stoked out grommies will be on the main stage this weekend

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13. The Sponsors

You can’t pull off an event of this size without some serious backing, so a big shout out to the sponsors that have stepped up for the inaugural Pacific Paddle Games. The presenting sponsor is Salt Life, with headline support from OluKai, GoPro, West Marine, Milargo (free tequila at the after party, yeah?), Dos Equis, Maui Jim and California State Parks.

So where’s all that money going? Apart from the $55,000 prize purse and the full webcast production, there are probably a thousand and one little things that need to be paid for at an event like this.

Oh and talking of sponsors, in case you somehow missed the giant QB logos plastered all over the site, SUP Racer’s own coverage of the PPGs is presented by Quickblade. While you’re here, go take a look at the Pacific Paddle Games preview video I shot at their 25th anniversary party yesterday.

14. The Prize Money

Prize money isn’t the main focus this weekend but it will still play a fairly major role, mainly because there’s just so damn much of it…

The total purse is $55,000, which is a record for our sport. Though technically $4k of that is on the prone race, which means the SUP racing “only” gets $51,000. That is still the record, but only just. Not coincidentally, the SUP prize purse at the PPGs is exactly $1,000 ahead of the previous record holder, the $50,000 Payette River Games.

Just like at Payette, the PPGs purse will be split evenly between men and women, meaning there’s $8,000 for both the overall top guy and top girl. Prize money will be paid out down to 10th place overall.

There’s also a bonus for the top four finishers in each of the distance and surf races, so if you win both events you’ll walk away with $11,000 total. Not too shabby for just over 24 hours’ work.

Check out the full prize money breakdown on the official website.

15. The Webcast

If you can’t make it to Doheny to watch the action (and carnage) in person, don’t despair: The Pacific Paddle Games will have a live webcast running Saturday and Sunday during all of the elite racing events. And not just any webcast, this one is shaping up to be the best one in the sport.

I’m personally looking forward to the webcast more than most, that’s because I’ll be a guest commentator on the live stream alongside Chuck Patterson and Jamie Mitchell, while the seasoned veterans Beau Hodge and Pat Parnell will be anchoring the show. The whole thing is being produced by Jodie Nelson, who worked with us at the ISA Worlds and who cut her chops producing the big Hurley Pro webcast.

So yeah, should be a very solid live webcast at the Pacific Paddle Games, and hopefully it’ll give the interstate and international fans an awesome insight into the biggest race of the year.

Where to watch?

The official PPGs website, an invaluable resource in general, will be the main hub of the entire event. We’ll also be streaming the live webcast right here on SUP Racer as well, which will compliment our customary live blog updates and behind the scenes insights that’ll roll throughout the weekend.

When to watch?

Check out the official schedule of events, however the main races to keep an eye out for are the surf race heats and semi-finals from 1:45pm-5:30pm on Saturday, and the finals on Sunday afternoon (women @ 2:30pm and the men @ 3:30pm).

Saturday – Elite Race (qualifiers and semi-finals)
1:45pm Saturday in California =
10:45am in Tahiti
10:45am in Hawaii
4:45pm in Florida/East Coast
9:45pm in the UK
10:45pm in France
10:45pm in South Africa
4:45am Sunday in Western Australia
5:45am Sunday in Japan
6:45am Sunday in Queensland
7:45am Sunday in New South Wales and Victoria
9:45am Sunday in New Zealand

That’s just the start time, keep in mind the qualifiers will run for roughly four hours, so you’ve got plenty of time to wake up and tune in.

For the finals on Sunday afternoon, just add one day, one hour and 15 minutes to the times above.

So there ya go, that’s what to expect at the 2015 Pacific Paddle Games. This is the first ever edition of the PPGs, so we don’t know exactly what to expect and I’m sure there will be a few “learning experiences” ahead of next year’s event, but I’m still confidently predicting it’ll be an all-time event.

And either way, I’m certain it’ll be an absolute cracker of a race out on the water, with one of the biggest fields of elite talent ever assembled chasing a record prize purse, and with fans all around the world able to tune in online and watch the action (and the carnage) go down.

And of course you’ll be able to watch it all right here on SUP Racer.