By Andrew Alexander, DIG Sports Editor
Hundreds of paddleboards, kayaks and outrigger canoes commandeered the Mississippi River last Saturday morning for an epic 13-mile race known as the Big River Regional.
Racers participating in the third annual YOLO Board Big River Regional launched from downtown Baton Rouge and navigated the waters of the world’s fourth longest river all the way down to L’Auberge Hotel and Casino.
Founded by the local paddleboard enthusiast trio of Troy Archer, Walker Higgins and Bryan Prince, the Big River Regional has grown from 74 participants in year one to over 200 in its third year.
“We’ve continued make improvements on things that we think can help make it a safer race and have people enjoy the hospitality of Baton Rouge,” Archer said.
Garrett Fletcher, 24, placed first in the men’s SUP 14’ division with a time of 1:38:50. The Florida native placed second at the event last year, but was able to hold off 2014 champion Zach Rounsaville and Bill Kraft, who traveled from the U.S. Virgin Islands, for first place.
“The start was a bit washy, a little rough out there,” Fletcher said. “I’m used to ocean races, but this is a new board and getting use to the new board in the choppy conditions was rough. The conditions were nice and flat after about halfway through. I like flat water, I can be technically sound so it was good for me.”
Fletcher discovered the Big River Regional through his good friend Jeff Archer, the founder of YOLO Board, and said the race ranks high on list of paddleboarding events he’s attended around the country.
“The best part is the community,” Fletcher said. “I travel all around the U.S. competing in races, but having your local community supporting you is cool. Plus getting to paddle down the Mississippi is pretty cool.”
Bill Kraft, 47, and the second place finisher in the SUP 14’ at 1:41:20, wanted to try a downwind race while he and his wife were visiting in the United States.
“We’re from the Virgin Islands so we’re landlocked there,” Kraft said. “To come race on the Mississippi, we’ve never been here, it was like a once in a lifetime experience.”
Kraft, a former professional kite boarder, said the toughest part of the Big River Regional is the middle.
“Right in the middle you’re looking for the casino building,” Kraft said. “You’ve got to regulate your stroke and stuff to be calm and finish strong at the end.”
“It’s a mental game too.” Fletcher said. “I know Bill [Kraft] is really good, so it scared me having him behind me. And I was pushing hard so he couldn’t catch me.”
Isabella Picard finished first in the SUP 12-6’ female division with a time of 1:50:25.
Gary and Matt Wise were the first to cross the finish line in their outrigger canoe with a time of 1:26:17.
After the race, participants were treated an exciting post race party in the field next to L’Auberge Hotel and Casino that included a Cajun band and a Cochon de Lait.
“I’ve been a lot of places for paddleboard races,” Archer told DIG a couple weeks ago. “Nobody throws a paddleboard race like we do.”
Many Big River racers would likely agree with Mr. Archer’s declaration.