Downwinding is one of those disciplines of standup paddling that has always escaped me. I’ve wanted to try it for some time now, but the logistics are tough for a solo paddler. You need a car at both ends, plus the safety issue. Not only that, there aren’t many people doing it on the East Coast, so it’s hard to find people who can teach you the basic skills. For years it remained an unfulfilled dream.
I finally got in touch with a couple of local people I knew through StandupZone, Yuval and Robert, both of whom were experienced downinders. They had already done Hudson runs and were looking for additional locations. We decided to meet up recently on a cold windy November day. The winds were perfect, northwest at about 20mph, for a Bear Mountain to Peekskill run. Right in my backyard!
There was only one hitch: it was pretty cold, right above freezing. Conditions were going to be intense.
I met Robert and Yuval in Peekskill on our appointed day and the winds were indeed blowing hard. We were getting a situation with the northwest winds I call Anthony’s Sneeze. This is a hyperlocal effect where the winds are funneled through the Hudson Highlands, past a peak called Anthony’s Nose, past Bear Mountain, before bursting into Peekskill Bay. I used to windsurf back and forth through this section. Now we were going to ride the sneeze in some of the craziest conditions I’d been in.
We packed our three boards onto Robert’s truck and drove to a launch site in Fort Montgomery. I’d never used it before, but my Hudson River guidebook said it was fine. After some threading through local roads we found it. A little rocky, but it would serve our purposes. Yuval’s ride was a 14’ Blue Planet and Robert was on a 14’ SIC Bullet, both really good downwinder boards. I had packed Ghost, my NSP 14’ Race — not the best ride for downwinding. It doesn’t have much rocker, plus there’s the sharp, piercing nose. Zippy on flatwater to be sure, but I was going to have to work to keep that nose out of the water
All geared up
We suited up in layers of blubber. Robert mounted a GoPro on his head. I pulled on my old O’Neil Mutant 5/4 wetsuit, which I hate. Makes me feel like a sausage, but it was the safest choice for the run. Then we launched.
It was a beautiful autumn day, despite the cold. The leaves were mostly gone from the hills but the light on the mountains was golden. The winds were light along the rocky shore, but once we pushed into the middle of the Hudson, they picked up nicely. Robert coached me on catching the swells. Paddle, paddle, paddle, until you feel the wave take you along. It was weird feeling my big board get carried along. The board moves with those swells and you just need to catch them and guide your ride. I started to get the hang of it.
As we got further down, the winds picked up and I started to fall. Have you ever reached this point when you’re doing something tough? Your nervousness starts to grow, and soon you just start screwing up. It’s not about your skill but your head. That’s what was happening to me in the middle of the river. I got nervous, and the falls begat falls. I sprained my ankle too. But I wouldn’t give in to that. I kept going. There was no way I was going to give up on this first run! So back on the board, and try again. And again. I kept further back on the board to keep the sharp nose out of the water. I got some nice rides. Sometimes my board pearled, and sharp nose would catch the water and I couldn’t turn.
But even with that, I kept going.
I switched boards with Robert after a few more falls. His SIC wasn’t any more stable than my NSP, but it caught the swells beautifully! Now my rides were twice as long. Now I got it. This was sweet! Yuval and Robert pulled ahead. I could see how elegantly they were surfing those huge boards. It was humbling to watch. I was grateful too when I pulled into Peekskill landing. I was a little beat up, but glad as hell for getting through that first experience.
Robert and Yuval wanted a second run. Their instruction and patience got me through that first one, but I was done. I happily shuttled them back to Fort Montgomery though. Got some nice pics of them shoving off, those barren hills and the Bear Mountain Bridge looming in the background.
I was also happy for a couple of things. One was making new paddle buddies. For a paddleboarding loner, that’s a big deal. Just as awesome was doing a downwinder in my home waters. I always associated these with Hawaii or those awesome downwinder vids coming out of Australia. But now I could enjoy this exotic treat right at home.
Next time, I’m going to take Yuval’s advice. His idea was to try on something that’s more stable, and with that very short-period chop we get on the river, a smaller board will be fine. Something like my 11’ Pau Hana. That got me even more excited about my next run. I needed to experience some downwind chops, and something a little wider would help a lot. I’m not so proud that I won’t downgrade in order to build some skills. So next time Anthony’s Sneeze starts firing away, I’ll be ready. I might be on the shortest and widest downwinder board in the crew, but you won’t miss that smile on my face.