Waterfronts across the U.S. are seeing plenty of action ranging from kayaking, rowing and dragon boat racing to waterskiing, triathlon, adventure racing and much more.
Even in the full-blown pandemic year of 2020, many water sports recorded banner participation, and the momentum is still strong according to the 2021 SFIA Topline Participation Report. For example, from 2019 to 2020, surfing soared 28.2 percent, recreational kayaking rose 14.2 percent and stand up paddling rose 3.2 percent.
As more destinations add venues, improve access to waterfronts and attract an increasingly diverse array of events, athletes of all ages and ability levels are ready to dive right in. Here are eight locales that are prepared to help water sports event planners make a splash.
Atlantic City, New Jersey
In the spring and summer, this historic seaside town has a large regional draw from large cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Surfing, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, jet skiing, parasailing and triathlons are popular here, and key venues include the Atlantic Ocean and back bays, and the Frank S. Farley State Marina at the Golden Nugget that offers a boat launch, dock facilities, spectator areas and food and beverage services.
“We host approximately three water sports events per year, with plans to increase and broaden our portfolio,” says Daniel Gallagher, director of sports sales, Atlantic City Sports Commission.
The 2021 IRONMAN 70.3 in September has an expected economic impact of $2.7 million. In August, the city hosted the Second Annual Jim Whelan Open Water Festival featuring the 55th Around the Island Swim. Other previous events include the 2019 Red Bull Surf and Rescue, the 2018 Challenge AC triathlon, and the 2017 Pro Watercross jet ski racing competition.
“The sports market continues to flourish in Atlantic City, and we are delighted to welcome a variety of events and visitors to the destination,” says Gallagher. “We are well-positioned to host indoor and outdoor sporting events that encourage new visitation and increase the economic impact to our destination.”
Lake Conroe, best known for its bass fishing, is home to the Faith Angler Fishing Tournament and the Conroe Bass Tournament and has also hosted the Bassmaster Classic and Big Bass Tour. However, Conroe is eager to attract all water sports lovers to the area, including kayakers and other boating enthusiasts.
“Almost every weekend, Lake Conroe has an event happening, whether it be a tournament or a boat parade,” says Jodi Willard, marketing manager, Visit Conroe. “Conroe is always looking to add new events to the area.”
At the center of the action is the 100,000-square-foot Water Point Center shopping area, featuring the Waterpoint Marina that offers boat slip rentals and yacht charters. The marina’s prime location on Highway 105 along the southern shore of Lake Conroe offers easy access from the area as well as from Huntsville, The Woodlands and even Houston.
“Lake Conroe is the perfect location for an exciting adventure. The Visit Conroe team highlights the lake as the premier destination location for all water lovers,” says Willard. “To learn more about what Lake Conroe offers, or if you are interested in hosting an event, please contact Visit Conroe.”
With its location on Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay, Erie is an active host of triathlons, kayaking, boating, sailing, jet skiing, swimming and a wide variety of open water competition.
“Typically, showcase and spectator-based events have been extremely popular in this area, but our region is primed to host water sports events that appeal to any demographic,” says Mark Jeanneret, executive director, Erie Sports Commission. Toward this end, permanent and portable docks are available, and there are multiple boat launch areas with direct access to Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay. The largest marina in the area offers 250 slips.
One of the most popular water events each year is the Erie Poker Run that presents high-speed powerboat action in which participants make five stops at establishments on the shores of Lake Erie to complete a poker hand. The annual contest draws up to 60 powerboats and hundreds of spectators.
“The Erie Sports Commission is always seeking to add new events to its calendar. We’re always looking for ways to better utilize our waterfront. With direct access to both Lake Erie and the protected Presque Isle Bay, Erie is well positioned to host a great variety of events,” says Jeanneret. “Because the Bay is protected, we’re also regularly pursuing water sports like paddleboarding, kayaking and kayak fishing and water polo.”
Gulf Shores, Alabama
This destination boasts many venues for water sports events, such as Gulf Place Public Beach and Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion, Gulf State Park’s freshwater lakes, Little Lagoon in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach’s back bays and Ole River, as well as a number of area marinas.
“We facilitate around 120 events per year, many of which are water-based,” notes Michelle Russ, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events. “Given our location and natural water resources, we are always looking to grow current water-related events and seek new water sports business, particularly outside of the peak summer season. Competitive kayak and paddleboard events would be a great growth area, with several location options available.”
This September, Gulf Shores will host the annual Brett/Robinson Alabama Coastal Triathlon and Tri-It-On sprint triathlon. The sprint event can take place individually or as a relay with friends and family, and there is a virtual option available, too. (The 2019 iteration resulted in an economic impact of $286,650.) Other premier events include the Flora-Bama Gulf Coast Paddle Championship as well as numerous competitive fishing tournaments. “From tried and true fishing events to kayaking, paddleboarding, powerboating and wakeboarding, we hope to continue to grow water sports events,” says Russ.
Lake County, Florida
Boasting more than 1,000 lakes as potential venues for a variety of water sports events, Lake County currently hosts competitions in bass fishing, sailing, water skiing, rowing, canoe and kayak sprint, open water swimming, triathlon, motorboat and jet ski racing, MotoSurf, and more. Premier event and training venues include the Harris Chain of Lakes (Leesburg, Tavares and Mount Dora), Clermont Park and Victory Pointe, Lake Louisa State Park and Clermont Watersports Complex.
“We host all types of events from adult and youth amateur competitions, sailing regattas, national professional leagues and international championships,” says Steven Clenney, interim director, Visit Lake County Florida. This October, the destination will host the International World Waterski Federation World Waterski Championships at Sunset Lakes at Jack Travers’ International Tournament Skiing.
Clenney points out that Lake County typically hosts 15 water sports events annually, and is open to discussing new opportunities and welcoming events and visitors during the summer and fall months. On average, water sports events in the locale attract more than 2,000 total visitors, resulting in economic impact of nearly $2 million.
“Lake County, Florida is a natural choice for water sports events and team training opportunities because of amazing natural venues and resources, all located 30 minutes west of Orlando,” says Clenney. “Our diverse venues, sport offerings and weather make it possible for our destination to host events any time of the year.”
A plethora of marinas and venues along the state’s 3,748 miles of shoreline can accommodate an array of water sports events, from boating competitions of all types to adventure racing and surfing. Presently in the works is the Run of River Project in Skowhegan, a recreation initiative within the downtown of Kennebec River and its environs that will feature a whitewater play park with enhanced rapids and waves, plus a comprehensive four-season trail system.
Recent water sports events in Maine have included Bates College men’s and women’s rowing competitions (each team has won multiple NCAA national titles), the 2021 Riverfest Regatta, the 2021 Camden Classics Cup Youth Regatta, and the Paddle Battle in Southern Maine.
This year is bringing the SailMaine Regatta and Festival in August, and the 4th annual Wildlands Adventure Challenge (part of Strong Machine Adventure Racing) in September. The 55th Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race (the largest paddling event in New England and one of the largest in the country) is slated for April 2022.
“As organizers of a 24-hour adventure race that covers more than 100 linear miles and needing a completely new course every year, we still have barely scratched the surface in terms of fun and beautiful locations to send our racers. The permitting process is always smooth, and the support from the state and entities like the Maine Sports Commission is invaluable,” remarks Cliff White, president of Strong Machine Adventure Racing, co-director Maine Summer Adventure Race, Wildlands Adventure Challenge.
“Maine offers fans of water competitions a variety of year-round sports venues and events for paddlers, rowers and boaters of all styles,” says Sheila Brennan Nee, director, Maine Sports Commission. “Come experience a place where historic sailing, lobster boat races and endurance kayaking are all offered on our calendar.”
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
This destination is a water sports Mecca, offering canoeing, kayaking, rowing, stand-up paddeboarding, dragon boat racing, adventure racing and more.
Located on the Oklahoma River in the city’s downtown, is the Boathouse District, a $100 million development that boasts a row of iconic boathouses, the four-story Chesapeake Finish Line Tower with high-tech race technology, and RIVERSPORT Adventure Park that features RIVERSPORT Rapids, a $45 million whitewater rafting and kayaking center.
There is also the OKC National High Performance Center, an official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site. On the river, there are three courses providing 4,000 meters of racing, and it is the only sanctioned venue that is fully lighted for night racing events.
The city hosts a broad array of water sports events for athletes of all ages and ability levels, including adaptive teams. Recent marquee competitions have included the 2021 ICF Canoe Sprint Super Cup, the 2021 ACA Sprint & Slalom National Championships, the Oklahoma Paddlesports Festival, the annual Oklahoma Regatta Festival, OGE NightSprints, Stars & Stripes River Festival, the 2021 USRowing Central Youth Championships, and the OKC Junior Invitational. The biggest events draw approximately 2,000 athletes, and a three-day event often attracts about 50,000 spectators.
“Hosting national and international racing events is core, and with every season we’re exploring new opportunities,” says Mike Knopp, Executive Director, RIVERSPORT OKC. “We’ve always been known as innovators in the way we approach our races and festivals. We pioneered night racing, added music and pyrotechnics which are a huge hit with both athletes and fans, and we’re not afraid to push the envelope.”
Wakeboarding, wakesurfing, kiteboarding, rowing and mini hydroplane racing are all popular events here during the key season of June through August. Lake Stevens is the destination’s largest lake, home to two rowing clubs and offering seven 1,000-meter lanes. The Lake Stevens Rowing Club’s Lake Stevens Spring Sprint Regatta and the USRowing PNW Masters Regional Championship have each been held here.
Lake Tye Park has a 42-acre lake that is ideal for wakeboarding, wakesurfing and paddleboarding. The MasterCraft Pro Wakeboard Tour and the Supra Boat Pro Wakeboard Tour have both been held here, as have the 2018 and 2019 Nautique WWA Wakeboard National Championships. A third venue, Jetty Island, near the Everett Marina, has hosted several kiteboarding competitions including the Jetty Island Light Wind Olympics, held from 2017-2019 and slated to return in 2022. Also popular are events such as the Silver Lake Regatta-Mini Hydroplane Races, held on Silver Lake in Everett.
“With the Puget Sound waters bordering Snohomish County, our destination is perfect for a variety of water sports competitions,” says Tammy Dunn, executive director, Snohomish County Sports Commission. “Lake Stevens is well known for rowing, with two rowing clubs having their boathouses at the lake. Lake Tye Park receives rave reviews from wakeboard competitors as the lake is shallow and has a great spectator area.” SDM