Inaugural Polar Paddle a Big Hit Despite the Cold and Wind
Ken Gallant couldn’t recall who exactly came up with the idea, but it occurred at some point during a recent monthly meeting of Alliance for a Living Ocean board members.
“We were discussing some new fundraiser ideas, just throwing out all kinds of stuff, and the idea of doing a winter paddle race just stuck,” said Gallant, shortly after sending off some 40 competitors for his South End Surf ’N Paddle’s inaugural Polar Paddle on Saturday, Feb. 4. “This gave us an excuse to do something fun in February. Why not, right? It’s awesome. I’m just glad it’s not warm, or else we couldn’t really have called it the Polar Paddle.”
With the temperature hovering near freezing and a stiff, 15-mph wind blowing from the west, a mixture of male and female standup and prone paddlers set off from the docking area at the west end of Pearl Street in Beach Haven. Once launched for the start, competitors paddled through the channel along the eastern side of Mordecai Island.
Beside the competitive paddlers – who completed a “short course” of roughly 2.2 miles or a “long course” of about 4.5 miles – some simply enjoyed a leisurely, and brisk, 1-mile paddle.
“We have a good turnout of paddlers,” Gallant said. “And even better, we have an equal or higher amount of people here to support and watch. We have emergency service and water rescue crews ready in case somebody gets into any trouble out there, and it’s all done for a good cause, so that’s what makes it really cool.”
Megaphone in hand, Gallant announced the competitors’ times as they cruised to the finish. First out of the bay was Barnegat 26-year-old Todd Page, who cleared the short course in just over 23 minutes to win the under-35 standup race. He was followed in the standings by Zachary Weiner and Paul Dungee.
“I do a lot more kiteboarding and I’m not a prone paddler,” Page said. “But I really liked the idea of getting out on the water for a race in February, so I decided to go standup. It was a bit annoying with the west wind, but otherwise it was a pretty nice day for a race. I’m glad I did it.”
Not far behind Page was local guy Zeke Hill, who won the over-35 prone race on the short course and was followed by John Henkes.
“This race was a good way to get ready for paddle season,” said Hill, a Harvey Cedars lifeguard. “Kenny puts on some good events during the year, so I knew this would be well organized and done right. And anytime we can support ALO, it’s a good thing.”
And while everybody watched from afar to see who would grab the lead in the long-course prone race – the favorites to be near the lead were local stars Jonny Skolnick, a Ship Bottom lifeguard, and Billy Webster, a Harvey Cedars guard – Tyler Hunter chugged his way toward the finish as the long-course standup winner, a few hundred yards ahead of Mike Fithian.
“Anywhere there’s a paddle race, I try to get to it, and this was a great opportunity because it’s February,” said the 27-year-old from Cape May, who officially won the under-35 standup category. “This was the only race in a two-month period, so it wasn’t a hard choice to come up here for it. I was looking forward to it. The paddling community is kind of close-knit and really friendly, and it was nice being a part of this event. It was cold and windy, but it was fun.”
Behind Fithian, who officially was deemed the winner for the over-35 long-course standup race, were Richard Cubelo andd Kevin Kahihina.
Not long after several more standup paddlers cruised to dock, Skolnick hit the home stretch and ended up finishing several minutes ahead of Webster. Skolnick officially won the under-35 prone category, with Mark Spagnulo in second, while Webster was the over-35 prone winner.
“This is the first race I’ve ever done in February, and I was hardly thinking about being competitive,” said Skolnick, an elite paddleboarder who last summer won the grueling, 17-mile Bay to Bay Paddleboard Race and finished third in the 25-mile SEA Paddle NYC. “You know, Billy’s the best waterman on the Island, and just being out there with him was awesome.
“But the whole event was awesome. Really. This was so cool, because it was just about getting people out here to paddle in February. And look at this. We’ve got a bunch of people from the paddling community together. We’re having fun and supporting ALO. This is awesome.”
Not that the results mattered much, but it’s worth noting that Ron Panetta was atop the standings for the over-35 short-course standup men, while Tim McCool was second. In the under-35 short-course women’s standup, Gabbie Sacco was the winner, while Caroline Unger, Colleen Panetta and Sheryl Paynter were the top three for the over-35 short-course women’s standup category, and Andrea Kahihina won the over-35 long-course women’s standup race.