Fiona Wylde and Connor Baxter Win The Gorge

Its almost a bit like good old times in the SUP Racing scene in the US, despite the Downwind SUP Foil craze, Fiona Wylde and Connor Baxter both paddle the Gorge Challenge on a traditional SUP and they win. Unfortunately the competition surrounding SUP Racing at downwind destinations has dwindled over the last few years. Also not helpful was the fact that the organizers decided to put their event right in the middle of Downwind Month July in Hawaii. This event was traditionally in August after the M2O and all the athletes moved on from Hawaii to Oregon.

This past weekend, the Gorge Paddle Challenge celebrated it’s 12th year. Since the beginning, the Gorge Paddle Challenge has always been about competitive racing, community engagement, youth progression, and having fun celebrating the world class conditions of Hood River, Oregon.

Steve Gates, the owner of Big Winds, the Head Coach on the Big Winds JET Team, organized and planned this race. The idea was to always combine a downwind race on the world famous Viento Downwind Run with a course race. Professional paddlers from every corner of the globe descended on Hood River for more than just a weekend of racing, they came here for an experience. 

Fast forward to the Gorge Paddle Challenge in 2023, times have changed, the event has morphed, but we are still here in Hood River racing! The weekend kicked off on Friday with a free kids event called Fiona Friday Funday! The awesome team at Wylde Wind & Water worked hard to put together an epic two hour program for the 75 kids kids from their local our community.

Starboard Dream Team rider Fiona Wylde I won the overall title at the Gorge Paddle Challenge by winning the Downwinder (long course) and second in the Technical Course race. Here’s Fiona’s recopa of the event;

Downwinder Race

Saturday was the downwind race from Viento to the Hood River Waterfront Park. In years past, the Elite Women started first. It was exciting because that meant the women were the first to cross the finish line, but it also meant we didn’t get to see the other races. This year we started together with the elite men and we started after all of the SUP Open divisions. For me, this was so cool because so many of our Wylde Wind & Water JET Team paddlers and parents raced in the downwind race and it meant I got to cheer on everybody from the water as I paddled down the course. 

The conditions were lighter than normal for the downwind race, but the bumps were still amazing! It took a bit more effort to catch each bump, making the race more tiring, but when you caught a bump, it had the typical Viento Run glide. Despite our small women’s elite fleet, it was stacked. Four out of the eight women have world titles including, Candice Appleby, Seychelle Webster, Jade Howson, and myself! I knew from this stacked line-up, it was going to be an intense weekend. 

I got a gap from the rest of the fleet and settled into my own pace. After about a kilometer, I had a decent gap and focused on catching every little bump, not matter how big or how small. About half way through the race, I caught up to the first open and junior paddlers on our JET Team. To me, this was one of the best parts of the weekend, cheering on our young paddlers from the water! Then, a few meters later, I caught up to my aunt and uncle who were also racing. I couldn’t help but smile. I crossed the finish line in first place and all of our young Development Team, including parents, family, and friends were there cheering. This is what this race is all about, community on and off the water. 

Technical Course Race:

Sunday was the course racing day. We woke up to white caps galore! This happens when you have a wind dependent race. Sometimes the forecast changes and you never know what you are going to get! I think everybody would have loved to have more wind on Saturday, but it is what it is! 

Following the Groms and Super Groms race was the Junior Women and Open Women’s Course race. 

I got a good start and was in the lead for ¾ of the first lap. Coming into the infamous ‘W’, Juliette Duhaime, Candice Appleby and I were neck and neck. Candice decided to take her Super Lap first and in split-second decisions, I decided not to. A Super Lap allows you to cut off part of the race course, making the race shorter. You can pick when to take your Super Lap, but you can only take it once it the race.

I passed Juliette on the second lap and when it was my turn to take the Super Lap, Candice and I basically came together at the exact same time. The final lap was a complete sprint. I gave it everything I had, but I knew I was fatigued. Candice was about a board length in front of me. My upwind buoy turn was a little slow and that gave her the perfect opportunity to open the gap a little wider. I had energy left for two surges, but it wasn’t enough to close the gap.

I finished in second place, and I am super proud of that! Because of this result, I won the overall title at the Gorge Paddle Challenge for the 7th time. 

Connor Baxter Wins 2023 Gorge Paddle Challenge


The 2023 Gorge Paddle Challenge was an absolute blast and such a classic grassroots event. The weekend kicked off with the famous Viento Road. It’s an 8-mile downwind up-river race that typically has some amazing bumps and glides to catch. Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t cranking for Saturday’s downwinder but just enough to make some fun bumps.

The 2023 All Star was the perfect weapon for this mission paired with my large Lima blade. It was a water start sitting down which always makes it exciting. The red flag went up meaning 3 minutes till the start and I was ready to blast off the start line. As I prepare for the green flag I leaned forward and the anticipation was at all time high. Once the green flag went up and the horn blew I jumped to my feet as quickly as possible in order to have a perfect start. I managed to quickly organize my stroke and start to hunt down little bumps.

The thing I love most about downwinders is that there is no drafting so everyone chooses their own line and is looking for bumps to glide on. I stayed on a good pace and once I was a quarter of the way into the race I managed to have a comfortable lead right in front of Arthur Arutkin. I didn’t get to relax even with the lead and was pushing hard for each and every bump. As the race went on the wind lightened up and the swells started to disappear but at this point I already had the lead, so just needed to stay in front and made sure not to be too close to anyone for the last flat water part.

As I came in I was super stoked and excited to win again here in Hood River but had to already start thinking/ preparing for the next day which was the course race. After a big dinner, good rest I was ready for action and to battle it out on the race course.

The next day I woke and looked out toward the river and the wind was already up and a lot windier then the day before. This made the course race a lot harder but at the same more potential to break away from the pack with every downwind leg. It was a three-lap course with one hot lap, meaning you could take a shortcut on your first or second lap. The course consisted of 6 turns making it very exciting and technical especially with the wind being up. As I lined up on the start line I made to have a good position to shoot for the first turn.

I started in about knee-deep water ready to jump straight to my feet and hammer to the first buoy turn. Knowing that after the first turn I would have to pound into the wind I decided to stay behind Itzel Delgado to conserve a bit of energy and prepare for the downwind section. On the first lap, I didn’t want to give everything I had so I pushed hard while saving a bit of energy for the next two laps. Arthur and I were able to jump in front and now it was a race for first and second. I decided not to take my super lap on the first lap and a few guys did which allowed them to jump into the lead. I was stoked because now I had a target in front of me that I could chase down. The second lap I tried to gain some ground on Arthur but he was able to stay right next to me so this made us take our super lap together and we were back into the lead for the final lap around. I conserved energy upwind in preparation of gunning it for the one downwind section. Once I turn the upwind mark I put my head down and pushed hard to catch every little bump.

I somehow managed to get a small but nice gap on Arthur making it a clean sweep over the weekend and claiming the overall title. Adding another Gorge Paddle Challenge victory onto the list and another fabulous event once again. Big thanks to all my sponsors Starboard, Salt Life and Black Project.