By Andrew Alexander, DIG Sports Editor
From battleships to barges, the Mississippi River has been utilized over the years for exploration, war, trade and commerce and even recreation.
On Saturday August 29, the world’s fourth longest river will welcome a variety of more modern watercraft for the third annual YOLO Board Big River Regional stand up paddleboard (SUP) and kayak race.
A trio of local paddleboard enthusiasts founded the 13-mile race from downtown Baton Rouge to the L’Auberge Hotel and Casino in 2013. Troy Archer, Walker Higgins and Bryan Prince, also known as the Big River Crew, desired to share their passion for the sport of paddleboarding with their city and showcase their beloved river to the rest of the national paddleboarding community.
“This is our town, and we want to make this a destination place for paddleboarding,” Prince said. “There are races all over the country, but most of them are bay races or ocean races or a smaller river. We thought we would kick it up a notch and make it more of an epic adventure for people to get out there and paddle one of the largest rivers in America.”
Prince said the Big River Crew chose the Mississippi River as the race location because, “that was the most interesting location we could think of to have a race.”
“We’ve had little races on the LSU lakes, but there’s no real draw for anyone outside of Baton Rouge to come paddle on the LSU lakes,” Prince explained.
A 15-year whitewater kayak veteran, Prince had never touched a paddleboard before he moved to Louisiana from Tennessee but picked up the sport shortly after arriving in Baton Rouge.
“I moved down here, and there were no mountains,” Prince explained. “So I was looking for something that could get me on the water and at least have some kind of a challenge. I thought maybe it would be fun to try to balance standing up on the water, and I grabbed a few paddleboards and started paddleboarding.”
Paddleboarding is one of the fastest growing watersports in the nation, and can be used for a variety of activities, including fitness, fishing, and recreation.
According to Archer, the beginning of the Big River Regional is a spectacle unto itself and includes bagpipers, a priest blessing and East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore shooting a flare gun as hundreds of paddleboarders embark on their 13-mile trek down the Mississippi River.
“When you’re getting 150 paddlers on the water, and you’ve got bagpipes playing some cool war music in the background, the hair is standing up on your arms,” Archer said.
The allure of paddling the Mississippi River, combined with the festive atmosphere surrounding the event, have made the Big River Regional one of the most popular paddleboarding races in the region. Racers have come from as far as California, North Carolina and Florida to navigate the currents of the fabled, and sometimes treacherous, body of water.
“Growing up, our parents always said stay away from the Mississippi, but there was something that always drew you to the excitement of trying to get down that thing,” Archer said.
“The Mississippi River has so much history to it, and it’s the lifeblood of America,” Higgins said. “It creates that desirable ‘bucket-list’ location to race down, which makes it a unique thing. On to top of that, adding on the flair of the Louisiana lifestyle and Cajun lifestyle and that riverboat gambler theme we’ve kind of gone with really appeals to a lot of people.”
Because of its location, Prince said the danger level of the Big River Regional is higher than most other paddleboard races he’s been involved in and recommends beginner paddleboarders watch from the shore.
“You’ve got faster moving, strong currents,” Prince said. “You have a lot of obstacles such as barges, dredges, bridges and buoys to go along with that fast moving current. This is definitely not a race that we advertise for novices. We don’t want this to be your first ever paddleboard race.”
The race employs a minimum of eight twin-engine or better safety boats every year, and Prince is also quick to point out that “if you have a reasonable ability to balance, some endurance and you’ve been paddleboarding for awhile, you should be fine in the race.”
One of the biggest hurdles the Big River Crew faced when creating the event was convincing the Coast Guard to shut down all commercial river traffic for several hours on race day. That’s no small feat, considering Baton Rouge is home to one of the most prominent inland river ports in the country.
“In order to shut [the river] down, we had to prove we had a solid plan and that we were equipped to handle the race in a safe manner,” Prince explained. “It was a fairly monumental undertaking and took about four or five months to convince them that we could pull something like this off.”
The Big River Crew came up with a very detailed safety plan of every possible scenario that could possibly arise.
“We prepared for everything from bad weather to a chemical spill,” Prince said.
The result has been a successful and unique sporting event here in Baton Rouge that’s seen its participation grow from 70 to 150 racers from year one to two, and projects over 200 racers in 2015.
Although the World Paddle Association is the governing body for the stand up portion of the race, and the Big River Regional serves as the regional championship for WPA, Prince encourages anyone interested, regardless of watercraft type, to participate in the race.
“It’s primarily geared towards stand up paddleboarding, but we’re not trying to be elitist,” Prince explained. “We’re not trying to keep other people that want to participate in the event or get out on the water from being here.”
Higgins said most of the Big River participants are actually not major paddleboard racers.
“I’ve been a lot of places for paddleboard races. Nobody throws a paddleboard race like we do.”
– Troy Archer, Big River Regional co-founder
– Troy Archer, Big River Regional co-founder
“They’re just people who’ve done paddling, whether it’s stand up, kayaking or surf ski, and they just want to try something out be able to say, ‘I’ve raced down the Mississippi River,’” Higgins said.
A self proclaimed “thrill-seeker” and global adventure and expedition race veteran, Higgins discovered his passion for paddleboarding when his then-girlfriend, now-wife surprised him with a YOLO Board for Christmas over four years ago. Archer’s brother, Jeff, founded YOLO Board, a company that specializes in selling SUP boards.
Higgins and Archer, both Baton Rouge natives, have known each other for years through their ties within the local fitness community. Archer owns Spectrum Fitness and Higgins was a personal trainer.
Back then Archer brought boards to his health clubs and led fitness paddles, where people confused the paddleboards for surf boards. When Archer brought a trailer full of paddleboards to the LSU lakes to spread the word about the sport he “literally had to pull them to the water to get them on the boards.”
Together, Archer and Higgins founded Muddy Water Paddle Company in May of 2013 and have been helping lead the paddleboarding revolution in the capital city ever since.
One of the Big River Crew’s desires at the genesis of this event was to share a bit of Louisiana culture with the out-of-state racers. This year’s post-race festivities include a pig roast and a Cajun band.
“For the people that live here all that may seem kind of trite and commonplace, but when you’re traveling and you get to really sample Louisiana, and what it is and what it has to offer, I think that’s a great selling point for the race,” Prince said. “It really makes the event special.”
Archer said the race is an achievement Baton Rouge should be proud of, and Higgins hopes other “unique and cool” events will be created in the capital city in the future.
“You’ve got to have fun things and things that are going to keep people grounded to Baton Rouge,” Archer said. “Young people want to be associated with things that are up-and-coming, cool and hip.”
“It’s important for young people to understand that these kind of things can be created, and we can have those cool events that you see happening in Austin, Texas or somewhere like that,” Higgins said.
What do you get when you combine the Mighty Mississippi, Cajun cuisine, bagpipes, and hundreds of paddleboarders? A paddleboarding experience unlike any other, according to Archer.
“I’ve been a lot of places for paddleboard races,” Archer said. “Nobody throws a paddleboard race like we do.”
For more information on the third annual YOLO Board Big River Regional, visit BigRiverRegional.com.