The years come and go, but nearly all who participate in the Gig Harbor Paddlers Cup agree that friendship, fun and competition are what the event is all about.
For the many kayak, canoe, paddleboard and dragon boat competitors who splashed and paddled across Gig Harbor over the weekend, this year’s sixth annual event was no exception.
“It’s all fun,” said four-time kayak participant Justin Rowntree. “Once we get to the line, it’s race time and everyone is super focused and competitive. But we are all friends, and when the race is over we can pick up our conversation right where we left off.”
Rowntree, a 16-year-old who attends Gig Harbor High School, competed Saturday in a one-person kayak, paddling along the 5-kilometer course to earn second place in his division.
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Justin and his mother, Heidi, are part of the five-time USA National Champion Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing team (GHCKRT), which organized the event as a fundraiser for their program.
Heidi, 59, spearheaded planning during the past year, working to enlist sponsors and vendors to support the Paddlers Cup event, as well as individual athletes. This year, two main sponsors were Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission and the city of Gig Harbor.
Proceeds from the Paddlers Cup benefit the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to introduce children ages 9 to 18 to the sports of Olympic Canoe and Kayak Racing.
“Being on this team,” said Heidi, “teaches its members the value of a healthy life style and winning and losing.”
Given rainy, cold and gusty weather during Saturday’s competitions, event organizers and GHCKRT head coach Alan Anderson tailored races around the poor conditions.
For instance, the first scheduled event was the Cross Narrows Challenge, a race in which stand-up paddle-boarders, kayakers and canoeists were to start at Eddon Boat Park in downtown Gig Harbor, then brave the open water channel of the Tacoma Narrows on a 6.5-mile course, ending at Owens Beach in Point Defiance Park.
High winds, however, forced organizers to eliminate that event from this year’s schedule.
Athletes were able to complete a customized 10K race within the safer waters of Gig Harbor, though, and the rest of Saturday’s 10K, 5K and sprint knock-off races went on as scheduled.
On Sunday, the event was dedicated to Dragon Boat racing.
This year, five teams representing the Greater Gig Harbor Foundation, Pierce Transit, Gig Harbor Rotary, Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) and Windermere Professional Partners, competed for medals in a 200-meter racecourse established within the harbor.
In the coordination of Sunday’s races, Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team organizers had help from Gig Harbor Dragons PenMet Parks and the Tacoma Dragon Boat Association, two prominent local clubs.
“We’re just helpers of the Paddlers Cup this weekend,” Gig Harbor Dragons president Sharon Shaffer said. “Three of our members are steering for the boats racing, and our coach is aligning and starting.”
Along with assuring that the Dragon Boat races ran smoothly, Shaffer and other members of the Gig Harbor Dragons operated a recruitment booth inviting excited spectators to join their Dragon Boat team.
The Tacoma Dragon Boat Association provided two of the dragon boats, which teams used to race.
“The dragon boat racing is a novice community event as most of the participants are first-time paddlers,” said Shaffer.
A three-hour Sunday morning dragon boat training session prepared teams for their afternoon races.
Each team raced in two qualifying rounds. The teams with the best combined times moved on to the semifinal, and the fastest semifinal times advanced to the championship race.
This year the JBLM, Greater Gig Harbor Foundation and Gig Harbor Rotary teams competed in the championship race. JBLM earned the gold medal with the overall fastest time of the day at 55.33 seconds. The Greater Gig Harbor Foundation took the silver medal and the Gig Harbor Rotary took the bronze.
A palpable sense of camaraderie defined the Paddlers Cup weekend as families and friends cheered one another in the spirit of friendly competition. Organizers said this environment has kept participants coming back and will hopefully attract others in the future.
First-time 201st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade soldier and participant Nick Hooker said dragon boat racing was an extension of the many other team-building activities that occur on base.
“I was in the back of the boat, so I could tell when we weren’t all in sync,” Hooker said. “But on the last race it was cool to see all of our paddles coming up and down at the same time. We definitely gave it our all.”
The rest of the weekend’s results and more information about competing or registering a team for next year’s cup can be found on the Gig Harbor Paddlers Cup website at gigharborpaddlerscup.com.
Camille Lemke is a Parkland-based freelance writer and a member of MediaLab at Pacific Lutheran University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.