21 September, 2023
Billed as one of the ultimate paddleboard races, the iconic SUP11Cities delivered "heart and soul"
Billed as one of the ultimate paddleboard races, the iconic SUP11Cities had been on my “bucket list” for a year, but first I needed a hardboard and a bit of time to get used to it. The race has cut off times which make the more common inflatable SUPs less attractive as they tend to be a little slower. Having said that the competition is within reach of most paddlers and there is an excellent tour option making this a very accessible race which has attracted quite a few recreational paddlers from the UK.
Paddleboarders are connected with the water and very mindful of ecology and environmental issues. Whether paddling on open oceans or rivers there is always a direct appreciation of the water. Racing 220km. on canals and rivers through 11 cities in the Netherlands provides perhaps the most intimate and relevant way to show how, literally, canals and waterways are interwoven through human life.
The SUP11 Cities event was the brainchild of Anne-Marie Reichman, born in Leeuwarden. As a professional windsurfer her career took her to Maui where she discovered Stand Up Paddleboarding in 2008. A year later she returned to the northern Netherlands and completed the 220km. 11 City route, a traditional ice skating course around the canals of Friesland. The Race was born, fostered on the spirit of Ohana (Maui= family). Anne-Marie gave an emotional opening speech focussing on the enormous positive physical and mental boost provided by paddling but also the sense of community especially after the disastrous fires in Maui. She impeached all the competitors and supporters to share in a sense of global community.
The SUP11 Cities in 2023 (the 15th year) attracted 200 competitors from 15 countries. Some paddled the “Non Stop” others the 5 day. Some both! Alongside standard SUP there was a tandem board and also a handful of prone paddlers who completed the entire event lying or kneeling on the board paddling only with their bare hands.
Alongside the race there is a “Tour” division and also the possibility of weekend entry. It was great also to see some very junior paddlers completing a 7km course finishing with the race in Leeuwarden.
There are a number of iconic competitors in the SUP11 cities. Perhaps non more so than Bruno Hasluyo who won the event for the sixth time this year. He announced standing down from the world stage as a competitor, but pledged immediately to come back to the 11 Cities as a volunteer next year! Perhaps this embodies the heart of the event. Bruno was there to welcome the competitors in at the end of the day, to cheer them on and offer advice.
The mantra of the 11Cities is eat, paddle, eat, paddle, eat, sleep; repeat. Of course there is a huge amount more to it than that!
The race organisation is impressive. Daily skipper briefings are despatched on a competitors WhatsApp group. Hans Schouten, the laconic Race Manager, delivers a further update daily with detail around weather and hazards. His effortless style belies a fantastic coordination of race officials, timing and safety.
On the water, safety boats occasionally have to marshal competitors to stay on the right side of the canals as sometimes large vessels pass by. The safety crews also provide encouragement, direction and when it was blazing hot a squirt or two from a water pistol to cool you down!
The race starts were generally divided into groups (based on gender and age). Time trials came into play on days 3 and 5 creating a wonderful “Pacman” race where the slower competitors who launched early were “picked off and eaten” by the faster crew.
The five days provide a route around Friesland starting and finishing in Leeuwarden. The first day takes you south to Sloten. A tradition of the 11Cities skating race was a “stamp” from each city. In the SUP race this has been replaced by a bell which you ring in each of the cities.
The hazards of the course include bridges (there are countless bridges but I think around 150!) some of these can be quite low and you need to lie on your board to squeeze under. There is also a bit of weed and on the larger lakes there can be some chop. Boat wakes can also catch you out (in my case a spectacular wipeout on Slotenmeer to the applause of the volunteers cruising past on the support boat!).
Eat, paddle, eat, paddle, sleep repeat finds you after the first 47km repeating the schedule for more days with a short 27km time trial on the last day from Dokkum back into Leeuwarden (passing an iconic bridge featuring ice skaters).
The 11 cities organisation is phenomenal in so many senses. The volunteers (over 100 of them) often give up a week of holiday to support the event. Their enthusiasm and spirit is infectious cheering clapping, feeding and supporting the competitors with a mandatory 15 minute stop each day to refuel, and a fantastic array of food and support for all competitors each evening. Racks are erected for board storage, tents, shelter and lots of benches to sit and share experiences.
Competitors store their boards at each finish ready for the morning then head to traditional Dutch barges to sleep (which follow the course), or accommodation which can be booked with return transport.
Marije Elgersma provided an ongoing results service with daily prize giving and updates on results, also great coordination of media and the ever present event photographers and media team. Behind the scenes she worked to promote the great sponsors of the event with Mistral and many others receiving daily coverage and publicity.
I was lucky enough to share accommodation with Bruno Hasluyo and his family, and the Swiss team of Peter Mulhauser 2nd in the men’s open and Andrea Forrer winner of the women’s Grand Diva category. This provided an insight into the top racers preparation and focus. Thanks to them for support!
So heart, yes, every competitor, volunteer and supporter seemed to share and experience a community, an “ohana” of the SUP family and the spirit of the race was unquestionable, for instance Ronald Parker was awarded a mention for clearing the weed from a competitors fin. Everyone encouraged each other and shared in the common goal.
To quote from SUP11cities website about Anne-Marie: “By doing what she loves to do most, she wants to motivate and inspire everyone to follow their dreams and passions in life”. Undoubtably for all of us crossing the line in Leeuwarden this was the soul of the event
There was a strong UK showing at the event Alastair Swinsco and Alison Rennie piloted their tandem to third overall on the non-stop with 220 km completed in 29 hours 27minutes. Alastair noted that despite the hot (32 degree) weather they only consumed around 4.5litres of fluid each.
Craig Sawyer (who had trained for the event with a small 1000 mile paddle on the Yukon!) came in at 33 hours followed soon by Mark Salter and Andy Clark. Overall 4 of the 7 teams or competitors in the non-stop were from the UK.
Team Rennie and Mark Salter had entered both non-stop and 5 day events and again hit the winners podium day by day. At the end of 5 days Team Rennie scooped the team first place in 24 hrs 24min and Mark chasing down and recording a third place in the men’s overall division 24 hrs 22min. Andy Clark also completed the 5 day in the tour category to also notch up 440 km in just over a week.
Niall Colquhoun came through in 14th place in the Grand masters 27hrs 12mins pipping Zoltan Bor (Bruno Hasluyo’s dad). I followed a bit behind! Ronald Parker scored an impressive 8th in the open men’s competition 29 hrs 10mins noting what a privilege it was to share a start line with people like Bruno Hasluyo. Of note a competitor known to many in the UK for his charm and enthusiasm; Michel Keersmaekers-Michiels (top performance at the Norfolk Broads Ultra), posted a fantastic 22hrs 31min time overall in the Masters division.
Overall the line honours fell (for the 6th time) to Bruno Hasluyo with an incredible 21 hour 45min time equating to an average of around 10km per hour! I will be writing a little more about his achievement in a future article but for now..
I have rushed through life gaining experiences, memories, friends and a little knowledge. Its been a snowballing, vertiginous ride collecting layers of culture, stories, anecdotes and the occasional injury.
Working as a professional balloon pilot, doctor, tea packer and Company Director travelling the world with work and meeting the most amazing people has gifted me with unparalelled moments of joy, exhilaration and terror.
I now paddleboard , sail, canoe and walk wherever and whenever I can.
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