Waves of change: Oldest stand-up paddleboard race making come back after years of setbacks
TAHOE CITY, Calif. – In 2007 a few dozen stand-up paddlers raced from Tahoe City to Tahoe Vista in what would become the Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival.
Now as the two-day event, believed to be the world’s oldest running stand-up paddleboard race, heads into a 17th year, founder Ernie Brassard is handing off organizing duties to friend and surf legend Bob Pearson.
“I can’t say enough of how much I have enjoyed being a part in this amazing sport, and want to thank my partners, Chris Hollingsworth, Bob Pearson, Barrett Tester, Rick Thomas and to Chris Carnevalle that we have lost to cancer,” said Brassard in a Facebook post. “Also to all the great volunteers. We were a part of history here on Lake Tahoe. Inventing a new sport.
“I believe that Ta-Hoe Nalu will rise again and reinvent it to meet the needs of the new paddlers.”
The event has been canceled the past three years due to COVID, wildfires, and then last year due to low registration numbers. In past years, the Ta-Hoe Nalu has attracted hundreds of racers and two to three thousands event goers. A year ago, however, Brassard said he began seeing a drop off in the number of manufacturers and vendors that were registering for the event.
“As we got into it, I started invoicing people,” said Brassard. “It was one after another that started dropping out.”
Brassard said reasoning for vendors dropping out ranged from cost of driving up for those that operated out of Southern California to a lack of staffing resulting in businesses choosing not to participate in as many festivals as usual.
Competitors didn’t sign up in the numbers they traditionally had in past years either, and with a little more than 20 athletes signed up three weeks before the event, prompting the cancellation of last year’s Ta-Hoe Nalu. Instead, he was able to use connections with the Kings Beach State Recreation Area to hold an informal beach barbecue and paddle. The barbecue brought in around 200 people, according to Brassard, and ended up raising roughly $500 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
The Ta-Hoe Nalu is now set to return to Kings Beach on Aug. 12-13.
Modern paddleboarding has its roots in Hawaii and was later brought to California by surfer Rick Thomas in 2000.
As the sport began growing, legends of surfing like Laird Hamilton and Pearson, a board shaper, began to take notice.
“Years ago this buddy of mine, Laird Hamilton, started talking to me about this new thing he wants to try and do, and it was standing up on a board with a paddle,” Pearson said. “I said, ‘alright, let’s talk, let’s build a board.’ I had a bunch of tandem boards for two people, I said, ‘hey I can break a couple of boards down.'”
Pearson said the first time he saw Hamilton paddle into a wave was during a surf trip to Point Dume. He and four-time Super Bowl champion Bill Romanowski had been surfing a couple hours when Hamilton showed up “on a tandem-type board,” said Pearson.
“I was just cracking up, just laughing,” added Pearson. “I go, ‘what a crazy guy, he doesn’t care what he rides.’ Then he caught a wave and made a section [the parts of a breaking wave that are rideable] that I couldn’t make, and I’m a good surfer. He made a section, and I was like, ‘it must have been a freak wave.’ Then he went out there and did it again. He did three sections in a row that were unmakeable on a normal board. I jumped and went, ‘let me try that.'”
From that point on, Pearson — who owns Arrow Surf in Santa Cruz — said he was hooked.
“I went home that night and couldn’t believe how my body hurt everywhere,” he said. “The workout was insane. I couldn’t believe how good it was for the core, the legs, the arms, and everything. Because it was so fun and an incredible workout, I went, ‘there’s something to this.’ I made myself a board. Next thing you know we have a dozen guys on our boards.”
Brassard was living in Lake Tahoe at the time and during a surf trip to the coast, he ran into longtime friend Thomas, who was out using a stand-up paddleboard.
“We used to go on surf trips every year and he started bringing this big monster board, and I didn’t want nothing to do with it,” Brassard said.
That would change in 2004 when Brassard invited Thomas and his son to Tahoe for mountain biking. Aside from their bikes, the two showed up with a stand-up paddleboard strapped to the roof of their car.
“There was a day when the wind was howling and I go, ‘let’s take that big board of yours and see if we can catch some waves,'” said Brassard. “So, we were over at Agate Bay, and we were actually catching waves, taking turns on his board. That was the first time I ever got on a stand-up board, and we did it for surfing.”
In 2007, as the sport began to grow in popularity along with the opening of the first paddle-board shops like Tahoe Paddle & Oar, Pearson and Brassard began toying with the idea of putting a lake crossing together.
“I said, ‘Ernie, let’s get up here and paddle around and get a bunch of guys on these,” Pearson said. “We called it, Ku Hoe He’e Nalu, basically in Hawaiian it meant stand-up surf paddle. It was all about getting some exercise in on the beautiful lake, then we said, ‘let’s call it a race.’ The next year we did it again, and every year we do it.”
The race would be the beginning of the annual Ta-Hoe Nalu festival, which started with roughly 30 participants racing from Tahoe City to Tahoe Vista. The race began with a party at Jake’s on the Lake, and the following morning 31 racers, including nine people from Tahoe, paddled from Commons Beach to Tahoe Vista.
Soon, the event grew to a two-day spectacle with exhibitors, vendors, food, music and various classes of racing that include different distances, age groups, and categories for stand-up, outrigger canoes, surf skis, and others.
Competitors can now choose from several races including a Grom kids race, 2-mile, 5-mile and 10-mile courses, as well as a non-competitive paddle tour.
The festival has had difficulties the last few years, with COVID and wildfires. The event was canceled in 2022 due to low attendance.
Following the cancellation of the event, Brassard was able to get permission from Kings Beach State Recreation Area to hold a beach barbecue and paddle.
“The outpouring of locals on Facebook was just amazing,” he said. “They were so sorry it wasn’t going to happen, so I started thinking, ‘you know, I’ve already spent all this money. I’ve got a little money in the coffer. Let’s just throw a party for people that are here.”
Brassard said the barbecue, held on Aug. 6, attracted around 200 people. He was able to sell T-shirts and other donated items, and ended up raising roughly $500 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
In September, Brassard announced he was stepping down from organizing the festival, and that Pearson would be taking over the Ta-Hoe Nalu.
“It’s time to pass the baton, and Bob Pearson and his team of professionals will be there to bring some exciting changes for 2023,” said Brassard in the announcement.
Brassard indicated he will announce the person or group that will be taking over Ta-Hoe Nalu in Spring 2023, and said the festival will remain on Lake Tahoe.
Registration for this year’s Ta-Hoe Nalu is open and can be done at Tahoenalu.com
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