Cool Spots | Sports Destination Management

Cool Spots

Water Sports Destinations are Looking to Make Even Bigger Splashes
Sep 06, 2023 | By: Michael Popke

The hottest temperatures ever recorded scorched the globe in early July. In subsequent weeks, major swathes of the United States baked in temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and reports of melting shoes and third-degree burns from contact with pavement made national headlines.

As a result of the intense weather, literally one of the coolest places to be this summer was on or in the water. Whether offering boating, fishing, swimming or kiteboarding opportunities in rivers, lakes, gulfs and oceans, destinations from coast to coast played a major part in helping Americans naturally beat the heat.

Many of the locales featured in this article aren’t done yet, either, as they continue to seek new and collaborative ways to increase their water sports offerings.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL | Photos courtesy of Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events

“Water sports is an area we can continue to grow in and accommodate, because of [our]  venues and various bodies of water,” says Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events.

The Gulf of Mexico, for example, is ideal for triathlons and open water swims, as well as shoreline and offshore fishing tournaments. And the area’s back bays and lagoons attract kayaking, paddleboarding and inshore fishing activities. Lake Shelby, located in Gulf State Park, is one of the closest freshwater lakes near saltwater in the world, and it can host kayaking and paddleboarding competitions. Meanwhile the Wharf Marina and other marinas in the area offer terrific sportfishing sports.

In July, The Wharf hosted the Blue Marlin Grand Championship of the Gulf (hailed as “the greatest show in sportfishing”), which ranks among the highlights of several annual fishing tournaments in the Gulf Shores region. Triathlons are big, too, with the Brett Robinson Alabama Coastal Triathlon slated for September 9, which was preceded by the Flora-Bama Mullet Man Triathlon in April.

“We expect water-related sports tourism to continue to grow as we enhance our annual events and look to book new business,” Russ says.

Corpus Christi, Texas

Corpus Christi, TX
Corpus Christi, TX | Photos courtesy of Visit Corpus Christi/Corpus Christi Sports Commission

As another Gulf Coast city, Corpus Christi’s most powerful natural resource is water, which is one of the primary reasons the city launched a sports commission in 2022 and now is actively seeking a variety of water sports competitions.

The Corpus Christi Municipal Marina and Corpus Christi Yacht Club likely will be integral partners with the sports commission in boosting sports tourism efforts on the water, according to Joey Jewell, executive director of the Corpus Christi Sports Commission.

Corpus Christi Bay ranks as one of the few natural harbors on the Texas coast, and average windspeeds of 17 miles per hour contribute to ideal conditions for sailing, windsurfing and especially kiteboarding.

“We’ve got a huge local community for it, and we know there are people from all over the U.S. who travel down to experience that here,” Jewell says. “Our goal is to capitalize on that, as we have an opportunity to develop that sport as a destination, with the appropriate launches, so that we can start going after some big events or creating our own. Kiteboarding is going to be big for us.”

Additionally, the Corpus Christi Sports Commission is looking to bring in national events and world championships for sailing and other water sports.

“Our mission is to become the ‘Gulf Coast Capital for Sports,’ and we’re aiming to be that,” Jewell says. “We’re trying to make waves.”

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Oklahoma City, OK
Oklahoma City, OK | Photo courtesy of Visit Oklahoma City

The capital city of Oklahoma is landlocked compared to the state’s Gulf Coast southern neighbors, but it has nevertheless become a destination for major paddle sports competitions, thanks to RIVERSPORT, a manmade whitewater facility that is designated as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site for both rowing and canoe/kayak. The venue hosts everything from regatta festivals to Olympic trials and international championships.

“RIVERSPORT has led to the development of Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District, one of the world’s premier urban outdoor adventure and water sports venues,” says Adam Wisniewski, vice president of sports development for Visit Oklahoma City, adding that RIVERSPORT has become a model for how other communities can embrace and bolster outdoor culture.

The venue gained greater international clout when it hosted the 2022 Canoe Sprint Super Cup and the 2022 International Canoe Federation Stand Up Paddling World Cup, both events that previously were awarded to Moscow and then relocated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“We can anticipate events of this scale and larger coming to RIVERSPORT in years to come,” Wisniewski says.

Rockford, Illinois

Rockford, IL
Rockford, IL | Photo courtesy of Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Lake Michigan may hug the Chicago shoreline, but the Rock River (a tributary of the Mississippi River) runs through the northwest corner of Illinois and provides ample water sports opportunities in the aptly named city of Rockford. Rockford itself is located about 20 miles south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border.

“The Rock River provides a multitude of recreational opportunities, scenic beauty and historic and cultural assets,” says Lindsay Arellano, vice president of sales and service at the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For example, the Ski Broncs (an all-volunteer water ski show team that performs free shows for the community) host several events that include the National Water Ski Show Association’s Division 1 and Division 2 National Championships and the Central Region Championships. Shorewood Park, home of the Ski Broncs, recently received upgrades that included replacement of existing staging with a new and expanded stage.

Another high-profile Rockford event is the Head of The Rock Regatta, which attracts more than 2,000 rowers from across the country and more than 5,000 spectators. The 3.2-mile race is sanctioned by the United States Rowing Association and the Head of the Rock Regatta has evolved over 35 years into one of the Midwest’s premier rowing events. Clubs have traveled all the way from Alaska to compete, according to Arellano.

Other Rockford-based Rock River-related news this year involves the return of the Rock River Anything That Floats Race in August. The annual event (which wasn’t held in 2022, in part because of the high cost of building materials) features more than 50 homemade rafts that take to the river’s 1.65 mile course. Donations raised support local efforts for the Ski Broncs and other local nonprofit groups.

Erie, Pennsylvania

Erie, PA
Erie, PA | Photos courtesy of Erie Sports Commission

Summer is Erie’s most popular tourism season, whether for leisure travel or water sports participants, according to Chris Rosato Jr., events and marketing manager for the Erie Sports Commission. That’s in large part thanks to Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay.

Presque Isle Bay is nearly six square miles with water an average of 20 feet deep, and it is ideal for sports that require calm, open water because it is protected by the Presque Isle State Park peninsula. The bay, Rosato adds, provides direct access to Lake Erie and gives event directors the best of both water worlds.

With that backdrop, it’s no wonder Erie hosts triathlons (including the historic Presque Isle Triathlon, which sold out this year one month before the event), kayaking, boating, sailing and a wide variety of open-water competitions. A highlight of the summer calendar each year is the Erie Poker Run, drawing powerboat enthusiasts to Erie’s bayfront to see some of the flashiest boats in the region up close before they set off on a poker run around Lake Erie.

Erie also hosted July’s inaugural Bay Frog Open, which featured a one-mile open-water swim across Presque Isle Bay as part of a weekend of festivities to raise money for military veterans, first responders and their families.

“The Erie Sports Commission is always looking to add new events to our calendar, and many different types of events have seen success in Erie,” Rosato says.

Greater Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts

Merrimack Valley, MA
Merrimack Valley, MA | Photo courtesy of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Greater Merrimack Valley is a bi-state region along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It is comprised of 21 cities and towns, and the 117-mile-long Merrimack River begins in central New Hampshire and winds southward to Newbury, Massachusetts. It is not only the fourth largest watershed in New England, according to Rick Lofria, executive director of the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, but it also hosts high-profile watersports events.

Highlights include the 2024 US Rowing Northeast Youth Championships next May in Lowell, Mass; the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, which celebrates the cultural heritage of Southeast Asian Americans in the area and includes a boat race; and the 2023 Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race, an annual STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) event in Lowell in which human-powered, all-terrain kinetic sculptures made from new and repurposed materials race over streets, water, mud and sand.

State of Maine

Maine | Photo by Jennifer Bechard

Keep heading north, to Maine, and then pick any number of destinations with lake, river or ocean access. Boothbay Harbor, for example, offers lobster boat races in a seaside village setting, Rangeley hosts the annual BiKaRu (bike, kayak and run) Race, and Moosehead Lake welcomes the annual International Seaplane Fly-In. There’s also the Ödyssey Casco Bay SwimRun in Portland, an epic endurance event inspired by races in Scandinavian countries, and the IRONMAN 70.3 Maine in Augusta. The Kennebec River made for record swim times in 2022, the first year Maine’s capital city hosted the event, according to Sheila Brennan Nee, strategic director for the Maine Sports Commission.

“Each destination has its unique beauty and various local attractions, inspiring athletes, participants and spectators to enjoy the area and extend their stay,” Nee says, noting several  bass fishing, sailing and even surfing competitions. “Many communities are eagerly seeking new opportunities in various water sports.”

One such community is Skowhegan in central Maine, where a planned whitewater park intended for recreational and competitive use is expected to eventually host canoeing, kayaking and surfing competitions.

Tri-Cities, Washington

Tri-Cities, WA
Tri-Cities, WA | Photo by Jeremy DeHart, Wild West Bass Trail

On the other side of the country, in Washington, are three closely linked communities (Kennewick, Pasco and Richmond) collectively known as the Tri-Cities. The destination is located at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima Rivers and offers “an aquatic playground second to none,” according to Hector Cruz, vice president of Visit Tri-Cities.

The Tri-Cities area features two tournament/event-quality marinas: Kennewick’s Clover Island Marina and Richland’s Columbia Point Marina. Both have multiple ramps, remodeled restroom facilities and easy walking access to multiple lodging and dining options. Other major parks in the region that host events include Howard Amon Park in Richland, Pasco’s Chiawana Park and Wade Park and Columbia Park in Kennewick. Events range from high-profile fishing competitions to a variety of triathlons.

“We are looking to attract more triathlons and open-water swimming events,” Cruz says. “We are working with our local 3 Rivers Road Runners [the area’s running club] to expand their participation and attract more people to our vast waterways. The Tri-Cities’ moderate climate and hundreds of sun-filled days creates an ideal destination for water activities.” SDM

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