Community Sports

Human-powered craft challenge turbulent Narrows in open-water race

Posted on October 14th, 2021 By:

Dozens of paddlers will battle swift, roiling waters in the Narrows Challenge Saturday.

People propelling all sorts of human-powered craft will participate in the event organized by the Gig Harbor Canoe & Kayak Racing Team’s masters group. There have been open-water races between Gig Harbor and Tacoma in the past, but this is the first to run up the Tacoma Narrows, where conditions can be tricky, said Tod Cole, race director and masters coach.

Linda Murdock practices in her surfski in the Tacoma Narrows. Mount Rainier in background.

Linda Murdock practices in her surfski in the Tacoma Narrows. Photo courtesy of Tod Cole

Advanced paddlers can tackle a 12-mile course from just outside the Gig Harbor entrance, under the Narrows bridges to Point Fosdick and back, while the less experienced or ambitious can opt for the shorter, calmer 6-mile route to and from Point Evans.

“There’s a certain section, like on the Tacoma side, you stay away from,” Cole said. “The majority of people stay within 200 yards of shore. More experienced ones go out to the center to catch the faster current, but they’re very used to those conditions.”

The weather shouldn’t exacerbate conditions for the expected 80 competitors. The forecast for Saturday predicts partly cloudy skies, winds 10 to 15 knots and a high temperature of 63 degrees.

A variety of boats will be entered, from six-person outrigger canoes to sea kayaks to stand-up paddle boards to surfskis, Cole’s craft of choice. Surfskis, surging in popularity, are long, skinny, sit-atop kayaks that can handle rough water but take time to master. Once achieved, however, they can be propelled to well over 6 mph compared to 1 or 2 mph of regular kayaks.

Tod Cole

Tod Cole is the Gig Harbor club’s masters coach and is directing the race Saturday. Photo courtesy of Tod Cole

“It’s like taking a bicycle cruise along Ruston Way versus going through the trails of 360,” Cole said of mountain bike trails on Key Peninsula.

Cole, 60, picked up surfskiing seven years ago after living in Gig Harbor amid all of its surrounding waters and wanting to get out and enjoy them. It’s easier on the knees than running and doesn’t result in flying over the handlebars like mountain biking can.

“You’re rotating with your core and driving with your legs, so it’s full-body impact that’s not hard on the joints,” he said.

Among the racers will be Greg Barton, a sprint kayaker who competed in three Summer Olympics, winning two gold medals and two bronzes in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Games. Also on the Seattleite’s mantle are four golds, a silver and a bronze from the Canoe Sprint World Championships.

Aaron Laird, Mike Peterson and their sons paddling out of the harbor.

Aaron Laird, Mike Peterson and their sons paddling out of the harbor. Photo courtesy of Tod Cole

The 61-year-old will be competing against the Gig Harbor club’s hotshot teenagers, who dominated the American Canoe Association national championships in Oklahoma City last month. It was their eighth national title in nine years. About 10 of them will race Saturday in the open water as opposed to their typical sprints.

Cole hopes the event helps to continue to establish the club’s adult or “masters” program and give the youth athletes the opportunity to compete in longer distances.

“Everybody’s used to the youths,” he said. “Many people don’t know we have a masters class for adults 35 and over.”

Cole often gets queries about his surfski, and with race proceeds, the masters hope to buy club boats to have available for people interested in learning about them.

Groups set off Saturday between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

There’s still a short time to sign up. The entry fee is $45 per person or $250 for teams of six or more. Registration will be open until 10 a.m. Friday at There will be no in-person or day-of-race registration.

An awards ceremony will be held at Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard at about 4 p.m. Prizes will be issued to first-, second- and third-place finishers for all categories with three or more participants from a $1,500 purse.

The club thanks the city of Gig Harbor for a lodging funds grant that helped in staging the event.

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