Mann wins bumpy 2015 Catalina Classic on tiller-less paddleboard
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by Alex Khatchadourian
Photo gallery by Patrick Fallon
“Boat 86, we’re going to need you to slow your paddler down, okay?” said Ronnie Meistrell, captain of Disappearance.
Disappearance, we hear you,” said the muffled voice on the other end of the radio’s channel 68. “We’re letting him know right now.”
Meistrell took a step back from the helm of the Disappearance, the 70-foot lead boat of the 40th Annual Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race. He poked his head out the port side door for a better look at the seemingly caterpillar-sized paddler eagerly passing Disappearance and charging toward the 590-foot-long IVS Orchard, a cargo freighter enroute to the Port of Long Beach.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Ronnie affirmed, looking at the passengers watching the scene with concern from the Disappearance’s wheelhouse.
With each vigorous scoop of water, first place paddler, and ultimate winner of this year’s 32-mile crossing, Dan Mann, 42, appeared to have no intention of slowing down for the fast moving freighter.
Mann took three more swift strokes before raising his arms to check his balance – a reprieve long enough to fathom the situation he found himself in at mile 16.
“I knew it was going to be close, but I knew I wasn’t going in front of it,” Mann recounted later. “I was sure I was going to leave plenty of room, but I didn’t want the race committee to be worried, or the poor guy driving it. By his actions – they were yelling off the side of that thing – they had seemed cool, too. Everyone knew what they were doing.”
Mann, a Coronado Island resident, had experience dodging similar sea traffic, regularly crossing the bustling San Diego Bay between his island hometown and downtown San Diego.
“It was cool. The race committee guys trusted me and knew I wouldn’t do something stupid,” said Mann. “The whole situation was really exhilarating. That thing was hauling ass!”
The same could be said for the 10-time Catalina Classic contender. He was three hours in and still fluidly peeling through the rolling chop at mile 17, the singular front-runner and one of the few paddlers visible from the stern of the Disappearance.
With a finishing time of 5:33:56, Mann’s seamless strokes resembled those of a regulated machine, even during the opening miles of the race, when he admitted he was concerned about the sizeable swell and wind that plagued the race from the onset.
“I realized the wind was kind of an advantage for me with the board I was using today,” said Mann. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is good thing,’ even though I knew it was going to be a longer day. I was hoping for something sub 5:30:00. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that it would glass up by Palos Verdes. And it did.”
The sleek, black, 17-foot unlimited board that carried Mann into the finish at Manhattan Beach Pier just a few minutes past 11:30 a.m. was designed by Mann himself. The board played as crucial a role in this year’s win as his relentless mindset did.
“The board was cool because it was really light – vacuum bag carbon,” said Mann, smiling slightly with pride. “Design-wise it really has a lot of volume; it’s really thick. It was pretty short too and has a dramatic concave contour on the bottom of it, while most boards are convex; more like a tradition boat hull. I slapped this concave in there to try and speed up the flow of the water through the board.”
Mann’s ingenious paddleboard design, sans convex structure and tiller, reflects his overall working methodology when designing boards for his personal brands, Mannkine Surfboards and Firewire Surfboards.
“I like experimenting and incorporating different styles of design,” said Mann. “I try to execute alternative processes when building them; alternative design, that’s my main focus. It’s cool because if something isn’t working on my board, I’ll know right away what it is, change it and make a new one.”
Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning
Only the faint red glimmer of sunrise budding behind the coastline could be seen at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The Classic’s 102 paddlers, including nine women, anxiously made their way down to the Isthmus’ shoreline, calmly setting their boards on the damp sand, while nervously laughing with each other and stretching.
“It’s crazy, no matter how many times you do the race you always have anxiety the days, even moments, leading up to it,” said veteran paddler, Jon Loren.
The truth of the matter is no one knows for sure what may be in store while making the legendary 32-mile trek across the channel. Wretched conditions could await. Wind and swell are unpredictable but inevitably determine how the day will go. The route is known, but passage unforeseen, as Sunday morning’s treacherous conditions proved — persistent wind foreshadowed by the previous evening’s 20-knot gusts and less than desirable seven-foot swells.
While the paddlers stood in knee deep water making last minute adjustments to the board, tenor Dennis McNeil helped calm nerves by singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” acapella. Race director Buddy Bohn, who resurrected the Classic with Gibby Gibson in 1982, reminded the paddlers that this year’s race would honor legendary board shaper Mike Eaton. In 1999, at age 70, Eaton became the oldest paddler ever to complete the race. Last January he suffered a stroke that has left him partially paralyzed.
With the prompt blast of the starting horn at 6 a.m., paddlers plowed through Two Harbors’ mooring only to be met with a severe North-blowing wind and an incessant swell. A small group of paddlers sprinted through the bumpy water at the start, quickly separating themselves from the pack.
“You got it Max; you’re killing it!” bellowed a voice from the escort boat following last year’s Classic winner, Max First.
First, 25, remained focused, unfazed by the water slapping him in the face. His training partner Robert Parucha and last year’s second place finisher Cannon Smith appeared from the trough of one of the large swells rolling through the group of paddlers, both working to maintain stability on their knees.
Conditions worsened, causing eight paddlers to drop out. But a handful of paddlers were able to use the wind and swell to their advantage.
“In that first bit Jack [Bark] and I were getting a great down wind push,” said this year’s first place stock winner, 19-year old Lachie Lansdown. “We were getting bumps from the swell and wind and that’s how we got the lead on everyone from the get go.”
Lansdown, who took out a loan to travel from Australia for the race, focused on his pace and rhythm as he pushed through the channel alongside his friend and five-time Classic competitor, Jack Bark. The two attribute their first and second place finishes in the stock division this year to their love for not just paddling, but paddling alongside some of their closest friends.
“You don’t paddle 32 miles across the ocean if you don’t like it. Everyone in this race is here because they love paddling,” said Jack Bark, son of famed paddleboard shaper Joe Bark. “Even more, everyone is good friends with everyone and most are locals. So to do this paddle in your backyard with all your friends, there’s something so special about it — that pushes you throughout the race.”
Lansdown and Bark tore through the last leg of the race on their Bark Surftech Commander paddleboards, finishing in 6:03:28 and 6:03:49, a mere 21 seconds apart, making for an exciting finish. Third place stock paddler Lockwood Holmes stormed across the finish line in 6:16:34.
Dan Mann found his lead early, finishing first place overall in 5:33:56. Nine minutes later, Smith arrived. First took third, close to five minutes behind Smith. Seasoned paddler and 15-time Classic competitor DJ O’Brien took first place in the women’s division with a time of 6:50:54. She competes on a stock (12-foot) board.
Passing the Torch
One April evening in 2014, a few months before the end of his final baseball season at UC Davis, Robert Parucha went for a run on The Strand. Upon hitting the Manhattan Beach pier he stopped to enjoy the clear view of Catalina Island.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to do it,’” Parucha said. “I’ve always wanted to do it. In fact in 2007, I was on Jay Russell’s escort boat. I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s insane.’ I saw the opportunity to train when baseball finished and got a board and trained for a month and half and did it.”
Two months of training, no previous paddling experience, and Parucha finished last year’s race in a respectable 19th place.
“At first I couldn’t even get up on my knees,” said Parucha. “I’ve been surfing all my life, but I couldn’t get up on my knees for the life of me. You know the rudder? I thought it was a handle. I was carrying the board with the rudder. I kind of figured it out on my own, but the biggest inspiration and help I found was from a bunch of the veteran paddlers.”
A natural atop the paddleboard, Parucha represents a growing group of young local paddlers – Max First, Katie Hazelrigg, Heidi Gastler, Caleb Brown – invigorated by the tradition of the sport and its significance to local watermen and waterwomen.
“I’m stoked and want to help build the sport,” says 14-time Catalina Classic competitor and well-known waterman Jay Russell. “There are some really great young kids who are jazzed about the sport. Paddleboarding is one of the most helpful and understanding fitness sport communities. There’s no ego involved and we’re all willing to help each other out.”
Russell is determined in leading the resurgence of prone paddleboarding amongst a younger generation, especially with the current SUP-mania taking over the South Bay.
“The majority of prone paddlers are surfers and lifeguards,” said Russell. “The stand up paddlers usually aren’t, which is fine, and even though stand up paddling has become such a trend, in the last couple years there has been a resurgence of people going back to the roots of paddling. Prone paddling is the roots, it’s not the stand up stuff. Now, to have these young people getting into it, I’m happy to pass the torch and keep the tradition embedded in this community.” ER
Catalina Classic 2015 top finishers
Dan Mann, 5:33:56; Canon Smith, 5:42:00; Max First, 5:46:46.
Lachie Lansdown, 6:03:28; Jack Bark, 6:03:49; Lockwood Holmes, 6:16:34.
Gracie Van Der Byl, 7:39:34; Marisa Kuiken, 7:23:26, Jo Ambrosi, 7:35:48
DJ O’Brien, 6:50:54; Katie Hazelrigg, 7:13:05; Aimee Spector, 7:38:38