Whether you’re a competitive speedster or a slow-moving vessel, there’s fun for all aboard.

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WHEN I LEARNED about Monday-night paddle races on Shilshole Bay, it sounded superfun. But my main question was: Do I have to race?

I am competitive by nature, but my competitiveness has limits. Racing in an activity I haven’t done in at least three years is one of those.

I was happy to learn there was a “fun” course for people like me: those who want to get out on the water, but aren’t interested in being timed or trying to beat the group.

Ballard Elks Paddling Club


The day of the race, I noted a constant wind. I have paddled a lot, and paddling straight into the wind is not my idea of a good time.

But the fun course also comes with a guide, so I felt like, at the very least, someone would keep an eye on me.

Racers gathered in the Ballard Elks parking lot. Jim Jarvie, a longtime racer, loaned me a paddleboard. Anyone can join the race, and kayakers and other paddlers are welcome, though stand-up paddleboard is the most popular choice.

We made our way to the beach, where we listened to course instructions. Then everyone got in the water and waited for the countdown. At the signal, there was a flurry of running and jumping onto boards. I hung back with paddleboard instructor Joe McColskey, and watched the pack paddle off. We got on our own boards, and took our time following the group.

I had to remember all of my paddling techniques — soft knees, keeping strokes short and using my core to propel forward. I felt slow compared to the racers; even when I tried to go faster, I kept falling behind.

McColskey gave me a couple tips, and did not seem in any hurry, so I relaxed, looked around at the dramatic clouds and the bumpy water, and remembered how beautiful and fun paddling is. I watched the racers hurry past Ray’s Boathouse, then cross the bay.

We followed, passing some other fun-course participants, who were sitting on their boards, hanging out on the water.

Soon we had crossed the bay, and McColskey asked whether I wanted to head out farther into the rougher water.

“Yes,” I said out loud. Inside, I thought, “Maybe. I think. Wait; is this a good idea?”

He told me that if water came over the front of the board, I should jump back slightly. I remembered the best way to paddle into the wind is directly into the waves. On the way out, my board rode up and down, and I kept reminding myself to relax as I paddled.

Turning was a little tougher, but McColskey talked me through it. Once the wind was at our back, things got easier again.

Once we were back in calmer water by the shore, I looked up. The racers were still way beyond where we turned around. McColskey said they were fighting some pretty tough conditions.

We arrived back at the beach and watched the rest of the racers come in.

Once more racers showed up (the fastest finished the course in about 25 minutes), I realized I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the rough water. A few of them had gone the wrong way, and one guy said, “I was getting hammered.” Another called the bumps “fun.”

To each his own.

The paddlers are a tight-knit group, and socialize after the races at the Elks club.

I was happy I could watch the racers from the water. You don’t need to race to have fun, and if you want to race, have at it. Either way, you get out on the water, and you get to move.