by Anna Rabhan
Jacksonville has a wide, tidal river running straight through its scenic heart, a downtown marina with a brewpub next door, a promenade perfect for spectators, and a huge plaza with the beautiful Friendship Fountain as a backdrop for vendors and exhibitors. With such an ideal setup, it’s difficult to believe that there hasn’t before been a downtown paddle race in this city! First Coast Outfitters (www.firstcoastoutfitters.com) is going to change all that on Saturday, May 5, with the first (and, hopefully, annual) River City Challenge (www.rivercitychallenge.org).
The Challenge actually consists of two separate races that begin and end at the St. Johns Marina Boat Ramp next door to River City Brewing Company. The three-mile race to the piling at Bishop Kenny High School and back is designed for novices and recreational paddlers. The eight-mile race course, which has paddlers circumnavigating Exchange Island, is designed for intermediate and advanced paddlers. Race chair Joe Crespi, owner of First Coast Outfitters, says, “The St. Johns River is a tidal river with a swift current, making for an interesting competition.” The $40-per-person racer registration fee ($50 on race day) includes a swag bag of items donated by sponsors and other businesses, a River City Challenge t-shirt, and the chance to win the $500 cash prize for overall fastest boat, the $200 cash prize for the fastest in the two remaining age divisions, and some really cool paddling gear. The race will start at 10 am, and the awards ceremony, on River City Brewing’s deck at 2:30 pm, will be followed by a celebration featuring the music of the Mobros and Saltwater Grass.
In addition to the race, spectators will enjoy the race festival from 9 am to 4 pm. An exhibition of traditional Chinese long rowing boats, called dragon boats, is sure to wow. There will also be live music, food and exhibitors. Vendors will be on hand at Friendship Fountain to sell equipment, provide instruction, and educate people on paddle sports. Specifically, there will be kayak and paddleboard lessons and demonstrations, kayak fishing clinics and educational clinics led by MOSH and the Guana Preserve among many other activities. Crespi says, “It’s an opportunity for all of the local clubs, businesses, and nonprofits involved in paddle sports, nature education, and land protection and preservation to get together and celebrate what we do.” The Riverkeeper (www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org) will be there educating people about protecting our region’s precious water resources. The North Florida Land Trust (www.northfloridalandtrust.org) and the Conservation Resource Center (www.conservationresourcecenter.com) will also be spreading the word about protecting and preserving land along our waterways.
In fact, the Challenge is a benefit for the North Florida Land Trust, with the majority of the proceeds going to support their efforts. NFLT Executive Director Bonnie Barnes says, “If we don’t buy the land, we can’t protect anything. The Land Trust has a unique opportunity of buying land that creates kayak access that gives people access to the river. We’re trying to develop a strategic plan that will actually do restorative work in some of our impaired tributaries to the St. Johns, so [the RCC benefit] will help us fund that plan and also do restorative work. We certainly appreciate First Coast Outfitters and the whole committee. There is an incredible committee of people working on this.”
This race has attracted some really high-profile sponsors in the paddling world. With such big names as Sea Kayaker magazine, Canoe & Kayak magazine, Epic Kayaks, and the American Canoe Association involved, the demonstrations, merchandise, and just the chance to connect with these folks will make the festival really worthwhile to Jacksonville’s massive paddling community as well as to the merely curious. Both Greg Barton, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and co-owner and president of Epic Kayaks, Inc., and Epic co-owner Oscar Chalupsky, 11-time Molokai World Surf Ski Champion, have contributed race training tips to the River City Challenge website.
Another good reason to come out and support the event is that visitors who see that residents care enough about their community to show up will also care about it. With the community’s support, Crespi believes the River City Challenge will grow to be a huge annual event that draws visitors to Jacksonville. “I really wanted to put together a world-class kayak race,” he says, “that could someday evolve into a paddle sports festival like the East Coast Canoe and Kayak Festival. We want people to see this place as somewhere to vacation with their families and enjoy everything from spending a day at the beach, kayaking one of our many waterways, and experiencing Downtown for all it has to offer.”
Come enjoy the River City Challenge, Jacksonville’s first-ever downtown paddling race and festival, on May 5. All the information you need on sponsorships (and there are a wide variety of sponsorship opportunities), racer registration, or just where to park on festival day is on the RCC website: www.rivercitychallenge.org. Get ready for a day filled with excitement, competition, camaraderie, festivities, great food, music, and, of course, great paddling!
by Anna Rabhan