Water Sports

On the Waterfront

3 Sep, 2019

By: Judy Leand

From canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddling to sailing, surfing, water skiing and even dragon boat and Hawaiian outrigger racing, water sports are flourishing across the U.S. SUP is riding the biggest wave with a 12.3 percent gain in participation, according to the most recent Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Report.

Nationwide, cities are adding venues, improving access to waterfronts and attracting a broadening array of events and competitions. Here are seven locales on the forefront.

Cecil County, Maryland
Located midway between Philadelphia and Baltimore, Cecil County is packed with scenic waterways including, five rivers, the C&D Canal (one of the busiest in the nation) and the Upper Chesapeake Bay. The area boasts 36 marinas along 200 miles of shoreline.

For water sports lovers, numerous fishing tournaments for all skill levels are held throughout the year, with most occurring between April and October. The most active venue for tournaments is Anchor Marina on the Northeast River, which has hosted Bassmaster, FLW and BFL events. Additionally, Cecil County Tourism has sponsored two Bassmaster Opens, a Bassmaster Elite, and FLW and BFL tournaments at that site.

“We’ve been thrilled with the outcome of the tournaments we’ve hosted. Many of those tournaments had between 125 and 200 boats with 250 to 400 anglers, most of whom stay several days and spend a great deal of money in our communities,” says Sandy Turner, Tourism Director at Cecil County Tourism. “Our anglers are often from the Mid-Atlantic region but can extend well beyond, and we’re always on the lookout for multi-day fishing tournaments.”

For visitors who don’t bring their own watercraft, Cecil County offers plenty of rentals ranging from kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to pontoon boats and large motor yachts. The destination also provides about 1,000 hotel and inn rooms, plus campgrounds and rental houses, as well as 56 locally owned and chain restaurants.

Erie, Pennsylvania
“Erie is Pennsylvania’s only Great Lakes port, and with direct access to both Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay, the options for water sports are truly endless,” says Mark Jeanneret, Executive Director of the Erie Sports Commission. Presque Isle State Park is a 3,200-acre forested peninsula that arches into Lake Erie and forms the protected Presque Isle Bay. It has 13 miles of sandy beaches and provides four boat launches, several ADA accessible piers and restroom facilities. Dobbins Landing, a public dock on Presque Isle Bay, is the hub of Erie’s bay front and has been the site of the city’s most popular water sports events including the SUPcross National Tour. Lake Erie is one of the best fisheries in the country (often referred to as the “Walleye Capital of the World”) and fishing, boating, kayaking, triathlon and stand-up paddleboarding are very popular.

“The Erie Sports Commission regularly hosts and supports nearly 70 events per year, and approximately 15 have a water sports component,” Jeanneret notes, adding that Presque Isle State Park hosts more than 90 sporting events annually. “We are always looking to grow our events calendar, and naturally see our access to Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay as our most notable attraction and one of our greatest opportunities for growth.”

To accommodate the expansion, the Erie market offers roughly 4,500 hotel rooms and a new waterfront hotel is slated to open this fall.
Major events include the HydroFlight National Tour that attracts thousands of spectators annually, and ESC has hosted many national fishing tournaments that have drawn hundreds of participants from across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, resulting in a collective impact of $1.5 million. Kayak fishing is booming too, and ESC hosts three regional kayak bass fishing events annually. Moreover, says Jeanneret, “Water skiing, wakeboarding and sailing are all popular recreational activities that we believe will continue to parlay into sporting events. We also see triathlon and open-water water polo as huge areas of opportunity.”

Lake County, Florida
Located just 35 minutes from Orlando, Lake County has more than 1,000 named lakes and is ready to welcome event organizers and their participants. The locale’s primary water sports venues are Victory Pointe, Clermont Rowing Boathouse, Clermont Waterfront Park and Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont; Venetian Gardens in Leesburg; and Wooton Park in Tavares.

Amenities include boat ramps, spectator viewing areas, staging areas, large, open event spaces for flexible uses and event-ready pad and expo areas. The Clermont Rowing Boathouse provides boat/shell storage, floating docks, an eight-lane, 2,000-meter course, and an eight-lane 1,000-meter course in Lake Minneola.

“We hold approximately six events annually that fluctuate in scope from year to year and we plan to add more water/paddle sports events to these venues and our destination,” says Steven Clenney, Manager of Sports Development, Visit Lake. Peak season for events is September through May, but the destination is looking to bulk up its summer schedule. “Lake County wants to marry the paddle sports venues with one of its other key markets, bass fishing, by hosting kayak bass fishing tournaments,” he explains.

Lake County attracts athletes and teams from around the nation and globe, and showcase events have included the 2017 USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships and the Sunshine State Games Rowing Championships. The destination also hosts a number of state-level and local competitions, and Clermont is the headquarters for Special Olympics Florida. The USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships, held at Clermont Waterfront Park, drew 577 athletes and 1,848 visitors who generated 1,112 room nights and created an estimated $1.3 million in economic impact. Visitors to Lake County will find 2,700 hotel rooms and more than 3,000 vacation rentals.

Lake County, Illinois
Bordered by Lake Michigan and located 30 miles north of downtown Chicago and minutes from southeastern Wisconsin, Lake County’s waterways are a huge draw for paddlers and other water sports enthusiasts. Among the most popular sites are Lake Michigan, Fox River, Lake County Forest Preserves, Independence Grove Forest Preserve and the Des Plaines River Trail.

Most of the venues are equipped with docks and launch sites, and many also offer parks, rental facilities, pools and lakeside dining. Additionally, Waukegan Harbor provides a free handicap accessible kayak launch.

Lake County hosts about 50 events from May through September from all its major communities. Among the happenings are youth and adult fishing derbies, Thunder on the Chain drag boat racing at Blarney Island on Grass Lake, the Fox Lake Bloody Mary Fest and the annual Cardboard Cup Race for kids ages eight and up held at Lakefront Park on Fox Lake. Visitors to the area will find more than 65 hotels (8,500 rooms) as well as hundreds of restaurants.

“Because we’re located midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, within a 30- to 40-mile radius, we get lots of day-trippers. But paddlers tend to spend the night,” says Teresa Lewis, sales manager for the Lake County Illinois Convention and Visitors Center.

“We’re named Lake County for a reason,” adds John Maguire, Business and Communities Development Manager for the Lake County Illinois Convention and Visitors Center. “We’re a getaway for urban dwellers and our waterways link us together.”

Tacoma, Washington
Over the past five years, Tacoma’s premier shoreline has undergone an incredible renaissance for human-powered water sports. “The 10-mile section had become derelict and was one of the first Superfund sites in the country. It has since been cleaned up, and the Foss Waterway is now celebrating its 13th anniversary,” explains Dean Burke, President and CEO, Travel Tacoma, Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission.

Tacoma, which once had no human-powered interest, now boasts three college paddling clubs, two dragon boat clubs, one outrigger club, an ocean rowing club, and a sprint canoe and kayak club. The destination also hosts the Seventy48 race (70 miles in 48 hours) that goes from Tacoma to Port Townsend. In this human power-only event, participants can pedal, paddle or row but are forbidden to use motors, support and wind. The race starts on the Foss Waterway and attracts about 200 participants from the U.S. and abroad.

Burke points out that Tacoma’s shoreline transformation has made the area more attractive to visitors and has translated into an increase in rentals, going from less than 1,000 hours a decade ago to more than 5,000 hours today. “We host about 2,000 athletes annually and about 45 percent are from out-of-town, resulting in an estimated economic impact of $700,000. The usual stay is two to three nights, depending on the event,” he says.

There are currently about 5,800 hotel rooms in the area, and in the next 10 months that number will rise to approximately 7,000.
Looking ahead, the city aims to expand the breadth of existing events, creating larger events and festivals rather than simply flooding the calendar with more dates. “Our priority is to promote growth in human-powered water sports,” says Burke. “This includes boathouse and dock projects and improving shoreline access to bring people closer to the sea.”

Virginia Beach, Virginia
Situated in the Coastal Virginia Region where the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay meet, Virginia Beach is a year-round destination that’s consistently ranked among the best beach locales in the country. Not surprisingly, water sports are a big draw. “Virginia Beach Sports welcomes all athletes and all age ranges. Our bread and butter is in the youth participatory market but we have great success in the adult, collegiate and senior market as well,” says Nancy Helman, Sports Marketing Director, Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The area primarily attracts visitors from the U.S. with an emphasis on the East Coast. In 2017, the city drew 19 million domestic visitors with an average overnight spend of $588 per party. That same year, 408,000 international travelers (44 percent from Canada) visited Virginia Beach, a four percent increase from 2016.

For water sports event planners, the Virginia Beach Oceanfront is an ideal place for a variety of activities such as sand soccer, beach volleyball, surfing, ocean swimming and triathlon. Marquee water sports events include the USLA National Lifeguard Championships (held in Virginia Beach in 2018 and 2019) and the East Coast Surfing Championships. The ECSC have been a Virginia Beach staple since 1963, making them the second-longest continuously run surfing contest in the world. “The ECSC is really huge for us and the sport is gaining popularity, especially now that it has been added to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris,” says Helman.

Wilmington & Beaches, North Carolina
With its 212 days of sunshine and easy access to Atlantic Ocean beaches and the Intracoastal Waterway, the Wilmington and Beaches area is a big hit with paddlers and other water sports enthusiasts. Although the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau books more than 30 events annually, many events book directly, which pushes the total number much higher.

“Many groups max out their registration at sporting events held here, including The Carolina Cup paddle race and IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina triathlon. Sports groups can book off-season event dates from November through March for the best savings,” says Robert Cox, Director of Sports Development for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To accommodate sports event participants, many of whom come from the Southeastern United States, the area offers more than 8,000 hotel rooms and suites and additional new properties will soon include the Aloft Coastline Hotel and two other downtown hotels. Major tracked sporting events most recently have had an annual economic impact of $25 million.

“Sports is the fastest-growing group sales market in the Wilmington area, thanks to good weather year-round, three breathtaking island beaches and a variety of available sports venues and natural conditions,” says Cox. “We are looking to expand our water sports offerings including sailing, kayaking and several other beach sports. Wilmington is also one of the only coastal destinations in North Carolina that can accommodate larger sporting events and competitions.” SDM

South Padre Island: Our Waters Run Deep

For water sports in a destination unlike any other, come to South Padre Island, Texas. This barrier island offers the unsurpassed beauty of the Laguna Madre Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and has a stellar reputation as a host city.

Fishing: We’re already the home of the Shallow Stalker Boat Owners Fishing Tournament, J.J. Zapata Fishing Tournament, the SPI Wahoo Classic and the Elite Redfish Tournament. SPI is renowned for fishing in many disciplines, including bay (nearshore), offshore and surf casting.

Watercross: South Padre Island hosts the adrenaline-packed Pro Watercross National Tour in June 2020, proving that its waters aren’t just for anglers. Our challenging and technical racecourse will bring out the best in your athletes.

Wind Sports: Coming soon is the Wind Sports Park adjacent to the SPI Convention Centre, with ample parking for sporting events and competitions, including windsurfing, kiteboarding and land sailing.

Learn more about SPI at www.SoPadre.com.

About the Author

Judy Leand


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