IN THE BOAT with: ANA SWETISH
Ana Swetish is a living example of the changing state of surfski.
She has the skills and speed to match the best female paddlers in the world – but unlike the rest of her elite contemporaries, she isn’t from Australia, South Africa or New Zealand.
Yes, along with Austin Kieffer, Ana Swetish is helping to put the United States of America on the surfski map.
And as she explains in this In The Boat article, this new wave is likely to deliver plenty more stars.
Sitting on the start line of The Gorge in 2018, I felt surprisingly relaxed.
I was only 16 years old, and it was the biggest race of my life, but there was one thing that ensured I was feeling comfortable surrounded by the world’s best paddlers.
Hood River is only 5 hours south from my home in Bellingham, just north of Seattle and has long been a familiar training ground.
I had my first taste of downwind racing three years earlier when I was 13, and had the opportunity to race with Carter Johnson in a double at the Canadian Downwind Champs in Squamish, BC.
Carter is a “wave ninja” so sitting behind him as we surfed down the runs was an incredible learning experience.
And he’s super fun too.
Watching him do paddle spins in the air while we were sliding down the waves was the best way to finish my first big race experience – and I learned that having fun and surfing well often went hand-in-hand.
Even just before that 2018 instalment, I was able to spend a week training in The Gorge with Austin Kieffer.
One day springs to mind, our last of the week… and it was blowing!
The 40 mile per hour winds whipped up some of the biggest waves I had witnessed on the river, but having Austin there looking out for me made me feel super comfortable.
Fast forward six weeks, and those same conditions greeted us on race day.
And I knew I could handle it.
I was so excited to get out in these conditions.
I had never even been in the front pack of a race before, so I felt zero pressure.
And the longer the race went, the more paddlers fell away. Then, with three kilometres to go, I realised I was pushing for a podium finish.
I was stoked about being able to dice with those paddlers: world champions Teneale Hatton and Michele Eray, Molokai winner Rachel Clarke and ironwoman legend Naomi Flood.
But I was also just happy to get to be out on the river in the big wind, doing what I love.
I ended up finishing third that day and I was humbled to share the podium with these amazing women.
They were all so welcoming and supportive that I felt comfortable and part of the group.
But I am not going to lie, I was stoked and proud to beat paddlers who I know were stronger and fitter than me on flat water.
It made me realize that if I continued to work hard on my paddling base and hone my surfing skills, I had a chance at being competitive on the international stage.
That flicked the switch. I knew this was what I wanted to do.
The surfski community in Bellingham is very different to the likes of South Africa and Australia.
Because we don’t have any surf lifesaving clubs, most of us began in kayaks.
I started paddling when I was 11 years-old with the newly-founded Bellingham Canoe and Kayak Sprint Team.
I soon made some good friends and I had a great coach who made paddling super fun.
I have always loved playing on the water, so starting out with these crucial elements made paddling enjoyable.
After learning the basics of the forward stroke, my dad started taking me out on Bellingham Bay in a surfski.
My dad had worked in product development for one of the larger recreational kayak companies here in the US, but I was never really interested in his work… or at least not in the fat plastic boats that he developed.
But a few years before I got involved in the kayak club, my dad made a “foamie” ski for himself and really started getting into paddling in the waves.
Once I got the basics on flatwater, he started taking me out every chance we got.
And instantly I fell in love.
I loved the patterns that I was able to find in the waves, and they energy they provided.
A 10-second burst can launch me down a wave face and all I have to do is steer the boat for the next 30 seconds.
I loved that surfski was just as much about using my brain as it was about using my strength, and that allowed me to keep up with people I couldn’t on flatwater.
The fact that you have to keep adapting to new conditions is something that had me hooked, and appealed to me far more than flatwater.
The whole Bellingham surfski community spends a lot of time on the bay anytime it is windy, so there were always people out there that were willing to help me learn how to surf and gain confidence.
I was usually the only kid out there, because there are not a lot of opportunities for juniors to get on the bay unless they have a parent who will take them out – thanks Dad!
Wave skills are not something that a lot of people are taught here – most people just get out on the bay and figure it out.
Despite what some may think, we do get some really good surfski conditions here.
In summer, we get one or two days each week of surfable waves on the bay, while in winter, storms usually roll through whipping up wind three or four days a week.
The conditions aren’t exactly welcoming – the water temperature is around nine or 10 degrees celsius year-round, while the shoreline is rocky – but a good wind will still bring 30 paddlers from town with it.
Bellingham Bay is completely sheltered by the San Juan Islands from any open ocean swell, but we have 25 kilometers of open water that can build up some good-sized waves when the wind blows the right direction.
Downwinds inside the bay are super accessible as well, which means that I can do two or three in a single day – often when it’s blowing upwards of 30 knots!
There are also a few technical locations.
One we discovered more recently is Deception Pass, which is less than an hour from my house in Bellingham.
It is a one-kilometer wide tidal stretch in between two islands, and on a run-out tide with an opposing wind, it creates super steep waves.
Everyone who has been out there agrees that it is some of the wildest water they have ever been in!
The hours I have spent at this pass have given me skills and confidence in messy and unpredictable water.
Not to mention surfing waves against a 7-knot current is a challenge from a strength and power perspective.
And an added bonus… it’s a pretty photogenic place too! It has been a goldmine for social media content!
I got a lot of help from guys in the community who were willing to paddle with me and share what they knew, but we didn’t have any programs or clubs that allow kids to get out and learn any wave skills.
In 2016, Austin Kieffer came to Bellingham to coach the sprint team for the season.
I had met him previously at The Gorge and other times he had visited Bellingham, so he knew I was going to be getting into the waves as well as the flat.
Austin was always super supportive and wanted to help get me excited about surfski… his enthusiasm is so infectious, that it’s not hard!
He was such a great coach and every training session with him was a blast.
It was around this time that I was starting to get more competitive too.
I paddled with Austin in the waves and he was able to point things out to me with my downwind technique and teach me more about racing.
One of my favorite experiences ever was a big wind day on Bellingham bay. It was blowing around 50knots and as much as I wanted to go out, I did not have the experience or skills.
But Austin texted me, asking if I wanted to go out in double with him and there was no way I could turn down that offer.
We ended up doing two downwind runs and it was still some of the most fun I have had in my entire life.
Austin has inspired me to become the paddler I am today and he has been a mentor, helping me so much with my paddling.
Watching Austin race all over the world as the sole American in a tough field of Aussies and South Africans inspired me to work hard at paddling, so I could be like him and represent America toward the top of the women’s field.
Austin Kieffer (centre) has been one of the key figures in shaping Ana Swetish’s promising surfski career.
The other huge thing that contributed to my enthusiasm is the local community itself.
Because we have a large group of paddlers here in Bellingham, we often have pro’s doing clinics in town, which I was lucky enough to experience in my early years.
When I began to race in larger events like the Canadian Championships and The Gorge, I couldn’t believe how many of them remembered me!
Even now, I am continually floored by the amount of encouragement and support I get from those at the top of the sport.
And that’s the thing that stays with me most, especially when I compare it to the vibe that I got from many of the K1 events that I attended.
Needless to say, I think I’ll stick to surfski!