Wrightsville Beach hosted the biggest paddle race in the country April 23, the sixth annual West Marine Carolina Cup. New Zealander Annabel Anderson earned her fourth consecutive win and, on the men’s side, Frenchman Tituoan Puyo held off two former champions to clinch his first victory.
More than 800 paddlers competed in a weekend of races for all board types and ability levels. The event’s highlight was the 13.2-mile Graveyard course, which drew most of the top paddlers in the world.
While international talent took the top spots in the Graveyard’s paddleboard division, locals won the outrigger categories. Two Wilmington teens, Anna Blackburn and Harrison Deisroth, finished first in two-person outrigger and Anna’s father Barry Blackburn won single-person outrigger.
The Blockade Runner’s ocean-side beach was packed around noon Saturday with spectators squinting toward the horizon, where the fastest Graveyard paddleboarders appeared as tiny specks. Minutes later, the crowd was treated to a thrilling finish as Puyo held off past event winners Australian Travis Grant and Californian Danny Ching to win by 20 seconds in 2:04:49.
While Puyo got off to a good start, punching through the surf and heading north toward Mason Inlet in the lead, he didn’t pull away from his opponents until the end. For much of the counter-clockwise loop around Wrightsville Beach, numerous paddlers were in contention.
Through the Banks Channel stretch, a dozen of the best paddlers in the world traded off the lead. Puyo hung back, waiting until the pack moved through Masonboro Inlet to make his move.
“There were some bumps to catch, so I tried to take advantage of that and push myself to the limit,” he said.
Even as he pulled away from Grant and Ching, he never got complacent, glancing over his shoulder a few times as he rounded the final buoy and pointed his 14-foot board toward shore.
“I know Travis and Danny are really, really good,” he said.
The women’s finish was much less dramatic. Anderson said she didn’t get off to the best start, but once she found her rhythm she opened up an enormous lead and earned her fourth consecutive Graveyard victory.
Many of the racers had trouble at the start of the grueling race, getting pounded by large waves on the way out. Terrene Black found what Anderson called “the holes” in the breakers and took an early lead. But Anderson soon caught her and passed her.
Anderson kept pushing herself throughout the race. She didn’t know how far behind her competitors were, but she knew they had formed a draft train, a strategy that enables paddlers to trade off doing the hard work on the lead.
“It’s an incredibly strategic race,” she said.
For paddlers who opted not to do the Graveyard course, the Carolina Cup offered a 3.5-mile Harbor Island loop, which was won by Steve Phillips, and a 6-mile Money Island loop, won by Chris Curry. The event also included a kids’ race and six-man outrigger race on Sunday.