Races included the paddleboard endurance competition, in which 16 contestants covered 6.3 miles, the Bic One Design challenge, in which contestants paddled a three quarter mile course on identical boards, a 1.5-mile kayak race, and a special race for alumni of Leadership Marco, the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce program whose scholarship fund was the beneficiary of funds raised during the event.
But the competition was less than cutthroat, with a laid-back vibe, at least among the spectators and supporters who milled about the courtyard at the Esplanade. The endurance racers disappeared out of sight, with winner Mark Athandcio returning in one hour, fifteen minutes, and the last finisher coming back at just over two hours.
The day also had an artistic flair, as the Paddle Challenge shared the space at the Esplanade with the return of the Left Bank ArtFest, bringing artists and art lovers to mingle with the SUP, or standup paddleboard crowd, along with the numerous “brunch bunch” at Mango’s restaurant. Island Paradise DJ Steve Reynolds shared announcing duties with on-air news personality Stacy Deffenbaugh of NBC-2, making a return visit to the Paddle Challenge. Volunteer Lesa Saffen circulated tirelessly, selling raffle tickets for the chance to win an $1,800 paddleboard.
Chris Boland of Naples Outfitters and Naples Kayak Company, which supplied the matching boards for the Bic One Design races, said those contests offer the purest test of skill and speed. “In the kayaks, you had one guy on a surf ski, and two people on sit-on-top kayaks. They’re never going to win,” he said. “In a one-design race, it all comes down to skill and aerobic training.”
Some of the skill included handling the crush at the starting buoys, where the boards bunched up, and racers barely had space to get their paddles into the water. They made the boards fly over the short course, though, providing some of the most interesting action of the day.
It was a fun, low-key day to do some paddling under an SPF-22 cloud cover, and the beneficiaries will be the high school senior scholarship winners announced at the end of the school year.