Bright white spotlights illuminated the 3-gate wave against the contrast of the evening's darkness. The weir bridge was lined with spectators and tunes were blasting from the sound system. Big screens showed a live feed to more excited spectators in a spacious marquee on the river bank, where scores and rankings were being updated LIVE on another big screen. Hundreds more were tuned in from the comfort of their homes, thanks to a live online feed. Hidden away, the judges were using live-streamed multi-angle cameras to decide the hugeness and cleanness of the moves being thrown down by some of the world's best paddlers, from all over the globe. A super final by any definition, and the culmination of an awesome weekend!
This year's Hurley Classic was a truly epic, world-class event with something for everyone. Youngsters could paddle with their favourite super-star pros, there was a retro old school event, a mega boater-x (with cash prize) and the main event was done a friendly jam format, with paddlers being separated by experience, age and gender at a later stage for the results. I can't think of many other events with over 220 competitors, showcasing the best of the past, the present and the future of freestyle!
Saturday was mostly dedicated to the 'Paddle with the Stars' where loads of kids of all abilities not only got to paddle with their heros, but they learn how to use coach's eye for video analysis, mental rehearsal, effective boat outfitting, got a a check for surfer's ear and took part in a fun SUP challenge on the wave! A busy fun-filled day for all involved!
The fun continued with the Old School competition, seeing paddlers of all ages taking to the water in craft and outfits pre-2000. It was hilarious to watch and everyone was having an absolute blast. It was like watching freestyle through the ages: from 70s fibre glass to 90s neon. Watching Tim Thomas and Matt Tidy cartwheel and blunt their retro slicy boats gave me the same sense of awe I had when I first watched them do that as a teenager. Palm's own Tim Thomas even took home the win...
The evening's water-based activities continued with the heats of the much anticipated Palm Equipment & WWTCC Moving Target Boater-x. Paddlers were set off in heats of four from a steep ramp. They had to race head to head around a course that took them accross the wave and battling the wave train, manouvering around buoys and sprinting to the finishline downstream... but it wasn't that simple. There were 8-ball blockers (paddlers who's job it was to generally get in the way) and a powerful hose manned by a sadistic young man to spice things up.
I totally loved this event! Adrenaline, speed and accuracy with a good dose of argy-bargy and randomness. I had my boat and kit rigged up with EL-wire for a film project, so took to the races lit up and with a Tron soundtrack - amazing! Despite being lit up like an actual moving target, and having wires and batteries all over the place, I managed to qualify in 1st place in every round and eventually went on to take the win in Sunday's finals. The Mens event was hard faught throughout, and it was eventually fellow Palm paddler Bren Orton who took the win. We both bagged £100 cash prize, thanks to the event sponsors White Water the Canoe Centre & Palm Equipment.
Photos by Seth Ashworth
After all that excitement it was time for a "showcase final" with invited hot-shot boaters and past winners from around the world giving us a taste of things to come the following day. Saturday evening saw even more precision organisation as over 250 hungry paddlers and helpers were fed and watered before an interesting presentation by Mariann Saether about dams around the world, the pros and cons, and what we can do to make a difference. The Thames Valley Freestylers annual awards were also given out - a great mix of rewarding those who have progressed, given back to the paddling community and a few silly ones. At an internationally attended event, it was great to see the local paddling community was still at the heart of it, without feeling exclusive.
Sunday kicked off bright and early, with over 200 paddlers wanting to take part and show what they can do, it was a tight schedule. River levels were rising rapidly, making constant work with the lock-keeper essential to try and keep the wave as consistant as possible. Jam heats of mixed ability and age gave everyone plenty of rides with a supportive environment - rather than the traditional 45 seconds of all or nothing. Live feed screens for spectators were fantastic, and live score updates really upped the excitment. People were living their mates' rides with them - the volume of cheers and sighs told of the size of the move, or whether it had flushed!
After 8 hours of heats, the final scores were in. The wave was adjusted to a foamy 3-gate formation. It was time for the top 10 men and top 5 women to take to the water once more to battle it out to be crowned king and queen of Hurley Classic 2014. Back in the two rides of 45 seconds formet, the pretty was really on. Tie to go big, or go home. Flushing in your 45 second ride would mostly likely hand the title to someone that didn't, but the "safe" moves don't score much.
In the ladies event, we had an all-GB final (Mariann had to leave early to catch her flight home to Norway). In fact, looking at the list you'd be forgiven for thinking we'd gone back in time a few years with 2009's GB Ladies Team line-up (myself, Emily Wall (now Ward) and Fiona 'Flea' Jarvie) all taking our place against the new generation of Jen McGaley, Sophie McPeak and local girl Mandy Chan. Flea showed us that you never forget how to rip by putting together a great ride using both the hole and wave features on offer to take the win. I placed 2nd with Emily close behind - go team 2009!
The mens final was absolutely mind-blowing with rides linking together some of the top scoring moves in both hole and wave, including airscrews, helixes, pistol flips, pan ams, mcnasties, space godzillas and huge, totally clean head-dry loops.
In the end, Nick Troutman (CAN)'s snappy style got him the win, putting last year's winner Stephen Wright (USA) in second and Sebastien Devred (FRA). There was a good showing from the British guys too with Gav Barker, Pringle and Brandon Hepburn all throwing down some impressive rides.
In summary this was a fabulous event for young, old, pro, novice, local or expert. It showcased our sport as fun, exciting and impressive to a wide audience (including visiting Lords and BCU chiefs as well as being shown on ITV news). Whatever your paddling background, I highly recommend coming along next year: get involved or just come to see the show!
All photos by Dave Wortley unless otherwise credited.