CAPE MAY — The biggest challenge competitors faced in the second annual Cape to Cape Paddleboard race wasn’t the wind or the currents.
Fewer than five miles into Sunday’s 17-mile trek across the Delaware Bay from Lewes, Delaware to Cape May, the 18 prone and standup paddlers encountered a giant barge chugging across their path.
“That thing was as big as the Empire State building,” said Chuck Piola, of Sea Isle City. “It was huge. It looked like it wasn’t moving at all, but it was probably going 50 miles an hour. We all just sat there and let it go by.”
Once the racing resumed, Ship Bottom lifeguard Johnny Skolnick and Annapolis, Maryland, resident Brian Meyer pulled away from the 16 others to earn victories in their respective divisions.
Skolnick, a 29-year-old prone paddler, was first across the finish-line buoys in the ocean off the Queen Street beach. He finished in 3 hours, 12 minutes, 4 seconds to win the overall title and the 18-foot unlimited prone class. Meyer, also 29, was second overall and first in the standup (SUP) division in 3:22:45.
Dan Grothues, a lifeguard in Spring Lake, Monmouth County, won the prone stock division and was sixth overall in 3:54.44.
“I did this race last year and finished fourth, so I wanted to give it another try,” Skolnick said. “I was in better shape this year, and I also knew what to expect this time. Last year, I didn’t know where I was going.”
Meyer, who owns the paddleboard business Capital SUP in Annapolis, made an even bigger improvement over his 2015 performance.
In last year’s inaugural race, he was among the dozen or so competitors who were forced to withdraw due to dehydration, exhaustion and/or mental fatigue.
“I gave up after 12 miles last year,” Meyer said. “I used a different board, and I didn’t prepare at all. This time, I trained and I was ready for what was going to happen. It’s easy to lose focus in this race because there’s a point where you don’t see land. I just put my head down and kept paddling.”
The biggest ovation from the spectators on the beach was reserved for Josette Lata. The 46-year-old from Pine Beach, Ocean County, became the first woman SUP competitor to complete the race. She finished 16th overall in 4:19.
Her feat was more impressive because it came just two weeks after she became the first woman to circumnavigate Bermuda on a paddleboard. She completed the 45-mile Devil’s Island Challenge in 11 hours.
“That was the toughest race I’ve done,” Lata said. “It was like paddling through a washing machine. This one was much nicer. I saw some dolphins and turtles. I really enjoyed being out there by myself without having people bothering me. It was beautiful out there, at least until I got to the (Cape May Point) Lighthouse.”
All the competitors mentioned the lighthouse as the toughest section of the race.
Although it’s fewer than two miles from the finish, it marks the turning point from the bay to the ocean known as The Rips. Going against the current makes for a maddening, frustrating experience.
“I looked at that lighthouse for over an hour,” said Lew Ostrander, a prone paddler from the Marmora section of Upper Township who finished third overall. “It just wouldn’t go away. You paddle and paddle, and you don’t go anywhere. It’s such a mind-blower. Last year, it actually gave me terrible anxiety.”
The solitude of the event can add to the mental challenge, though race organizer Chad DeSatnick made this year’s edition easier to handle by adding more boats and personal watercraft to escort the competitors. Ten racers were outfitted with Spot GPS systems that enabled them to alert support staff if they were in need of water or medical attention.
Ostrander and others also made it more bearable by changing their strategy.
Ostrander trains each day with Ocean City residents Jason Chew, Sean Duffy and Chad Gallagher. Those four and Cape May’s Todd DeSatnick, Chad’s brother, decided to work in tandem for most of the event. Chew even hired a private boat to follow them.
“It was a lot safer that way,” Gallagher said. “This race is just so different from all the others we do. When you’re in the Paddle for a Cause (a 22.5-mile race around Absecon Island), you can always just paddle into the beach if you get tired. In this one, there’s nowhere to go. It’s just you and deep water.”
The race served two purposes.
Proceeds go to the DeSatnick Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps people with spinal-cord injuries. Chad DeSatnick founded it in 2001 after shattering two vertabrae in his neck in a surfing accident in Cape May.
Competitors also made memories that will last a lifetime.
“I have a 10-month-old son,” Duffy said. “And one day I’m going to be able to tell him that his dad paddled across the Delaware Bay.”