Last Saturday morning, March 24th, the Marina del Rey main channel was alive with a smorgasbord of paddling craft all taking part in the annual Malibu to Marina Championships sponsored by paddleme.com. There were men and women aboard stand-up paddleboards, lie-down paddleboards, surfskis (kayaks), and one- and two-person outrigger canoes, competing in the largest and most prestigious race of its kind on the West Coast.

From all over California, 174 paddlers gathered at Mothers Beach in the Marina for the final installment of an eight-part series of races ending the season.

There were two courses — an inside track for paddleboarders, stand-up paddleboarders, novice one-person outrigger canoes (OC 1), novice two-person outrigger canoes (OC 2) and novice surfski riders (high-tech kayaks) and there was also an offshore track for more advanced OC 1, OC 2 and surfski paddlers.

The inside course was a circle that went from Mothers Beach, off Palawan Way, through the Marina del Rey main channel, out to a mark in the ocean just past the Marina del Rey breakwater and back.

Paddleboarders powering themselves with just their hands were inches away from the towering and looming stand-up paddleboarders balanced with their long paddles while surfskis and mini-outriggers (OC 1s, OC 2s) all pulled at the water as hard as they could, fighting for another half a knot or boat length.

To the unknowing, it appeared like a parade of the unsynchronized — a gaggle of men and women of all different ages and shapes in an assortment of similar, but separate crafts splashing their way through the channel, but in reality they were all moving to their own smooth and specific rhythm in near perfect time.

The outer course, a 16-mile open-ocean marathon from Malibu to Marina del Rey, was packing some of most dominant paddlers in the world. The competition was stiff and since this event was acting as a state championship, the racers came to win.

In the OC 1 Class, a local from Redondo Beach, Danny Ching, 23, is said to be one of the fastest paddlers in the world and was favored to win the contest. Ching has come in third twice in the World Championships and won this race three times, and he is the course record-holder with a time of one hour and 43 minutes, a record many feel won’t be broken for a long time.

While some others were poised to threaten, the muscular young Ching had home-court advantage and was simply the superior athlete on the course that day.

“There’s always a chance [someone else could win], but when it comes to California, I have a step up on most of them,” said Ching of the afternoon’s competition. “I’m not really worried about them right now. It’s more when guys from Hawaii come over that I really have to worry.”

The tactical approach for the Malibu long course depends upon the conditions of the day. The racers prefer an afternoon with ample wind and a following sea so they’re able to strategically surf and simultaneously paddle down the course. Without the assistance of a friendly swell, wind and current, it becomes a pure rhumb line power exercise ñ and Saturday’s contest was just that.

Ching, like the rest of the fleet, would rather have surfed his way to the finish line in a 15-knot breeze and five-foot swell, but he was more than confident in the given conditions.

When he compared himself with other champion paddlers in the world from Hawaii and Tahiti, whom he considers his peers, he admitted that they could often outperform him when it came to the surfing element of paddling, but he felt he had the edge in flat conditions, when sheer power is the key.

“I know the course because I’ve done it a few times, so I know, when it’s windy you want to stay out and surf in at the end, but when it’s flat like that — it’s a straight line,” said Ching, “there’s no major currents to watch out for.”

Ching powered his way through the course in two hours and eight minutes.

In the Surfski Class it was a battle between two very dominant competitors — two-time Olympic competitor Rami Zar, and Zfolt Szadovszki, a world champion from Hungary. Zar took the lead early and held it the entire race, but Szadovszki was on his stern and within striking distance the entire 16 miles.

The 30-year-old Israeli, who is currently training for the 2008 Olympic games, where he plans to represent the United States in the K1 class kayak, has competed against Szadovszki before and it’s always a heated battle.

“He’s very, very good paddler,” said Zar. “We go back and forth. He beat me in the US nationals in San Francisco and I beat him here — so it goes back and forth. I started out strong and he waited for me to hit the wall, but I didn’t — so I was real happy with that.”

Race organizer Brad Gains of paddleme.com was delighted with the turnout and with the overall success of the ever-growing event.

Since its inception 12 years ago, the race has continued to build and this year it nearly doubled in size compared to last year. The long course had 101 competitors, up from 76, and the short course had 76, compared to last year’s 41.

Gains took over this grass-roots tournament about six years ago when the original organizer didn’t want to put it on anymore, and he hasn’t looked back.

“It’s a tradition,” said Gains, who now organizes the huge production with just his wife. “I didn’t want it to disappear, it’s the best race of the entire season. We just couldn’t let it disappear, so we picked it up and ran with it.”

As the sport of paddling rises in popularity, Gains hopes to see a continuation in the high-level competition and big turnouts, and he hopes for more sponsorship.

“It’s a lot of planning and a lot goes into it,” Gains said smiling after the race, “but it’s always well worth it.”

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