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Wet Inc.

Oceans, Lakes and Rivers Play Starring Roles in These Seven Water Sports Destinations
Aug 30, 2022 | By: Michael Popke

Of all the factors that drive sports tourism, water is near the top. Its natural beauty and economic benefits trickle down to communities large and small, coastal and inland.

The following seven destinations can help you make a splash with everything from triathlons to kayak fishing, from powerboat and canoe races to personal watercraft competitions, and from waterskiing championships to paddleboard/kayak endurance events.

We’ll lead you to the water, but what you do when you arrive is up to you.


Maine  |  Photo courtesy of of Threlkeld Outdoor

It may be known as The Pine Tree State, but those pines surround plenty of lakes, rivers and ocean water.

“Coastal and lake community destinations set the stage for sailing, boating and triathlon competitions during the summer months,” says Sheila Brennan Nee, director of the Maine Sports Commission. “These areas are accustomed to an influx of tourists, though it’s strategic for event organizers to plan events before or after the height of our summer tourism season.”

Sailing and boating competitions abound throughout the summer, including windjammer, yacht and canoe races, plus multiple regattas. Fishing competitions also are popular, such as Bassmaster events, as well as a newer fly fishing showcase. Maine is home to several triathlons, too — from the IRONMAN 70.3 Maine in the capital city of Augusta to others with cool names like the Lakeside Norway Triathlon, the Lobsterman Triathlon and the Pumpkinman Triathlon. Additionally, a proposed whitewater recreation area in the Kennebec Valley region of the state would be called Run of the River. Plans call for a whitewater park with enhanced rapids and waves, terraced seating, a four-season trail system, a riverfront promenade and fishing waters.

And Maine definitely has room for more rowing, surfing and swimming events to the state, adds Brennan Nee. “Our college [rowing] teams perform well at the national level and would embrace an event in Maine,” she says, noting that the Maine Sports Commission has been in discussions with the World Surfing League about holding a surfing event in the Maine Beaches region in September or October. “Maine also would make an ideal outdoor destination for USA Swimming competition, as well.”

Erie, Pennsylvania

Erie, Pennsylvania  |  Photo courtesy of Erie Sports Commission

Fun fact: Erie is Pennsylvania’s only Great Lakes port. And with direct access to both Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay, Erie offers “endless” water sports options, according to Chris Rosato Jr., events and marketing manager for 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. The park is a National Natural Landmark and features a shoreline popular with recreation enthusiasts. Because Presque Isle Bay is protected, it offers consistently calm waters for fishing tournaments such as the B.A.S.S. Nation Northeast Regional Championship and the Bass Federation’s District 10 National Semi Finals, plus open water competitions like stand up paddleboarding, triathlons, rowing, waterskiing and sailing, Rosato says.

Speaking of fishing, Lake Erie is often referred to as the “Walleye Capital of the World” and ranks among the top bass lakes in the United States, he adds.

Kayak fishing also has become an increasingly popular activity in the region, providing a more affordable and accessible option for newcomers to competitive fishing. Once again, Presque Isle Bay’s calm waters make for an ideal location and allow kayak fishing to take place regardless of the weather. The Erie Sports Commission is hosting four kayak bass fishing events in 2022, including the Pennsylvania B.A.S.S. Nation Kayak Series State Championship.

No wonder water-related sporting events in Erie County have generated more than $3.5 million in economic impact and attracted thousands of visitors from across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.

Lake, Florida

Lake, Florida  |  Photo courtesy of Visit Lake

Water sports activities always seem to be taking place in Lake County, thanks to favorable year-round weather and water conditions.

Groveland attracts elite waterski competitors and is home to the Jack Travers Waterski School and Swiss Waterski Resort, which features quiet lakes — some that are even man-made. And Lake Minneola in Clermont, branded the “Choice of Champions,” is home to an Olympic-style buoyed rowing course, which also can be used for kayak and canoeing competitions, according to Ryan Ritchie, director of Visit Lake.

Meanwhile, the Clermont Boathouse is utilized by the Lake County Rowing Association and hosts college teams during the offseason and during preparation for major races. For example, the University of Michigan women’s rowing team trained in Clermont prior to competing in the 2022 NCAA Division I National Championships. Clermont is a popular destination for triathlons, too. In the northern half of Lake County, sailing, jet skiing and boating sports take place year-round.

The International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation hosted the World Waterski Championships at Jack Travers Sunset Lakes in 2021, the triathlon portion of the 2022 Special Olympics took place in Clermont and Tavares has hosted multiple Hydro-Turf HydroDrag World Championships for personal watercraft.

“We have the capability to host many more sporting events,” Ritchie says. “Lake County would love to see more rowing, waterski and canoe/kayak competitions [and] bring in wakeboard, pro watercross and competitive dragon boat events.”

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga, Tennessee  |  Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Tourism Co.

The scenic Tennessee River winds through the heart of Chattanooga, complementing a vibrant downtown and waterfront area that is within walking distance of several hotels, restaurants and attractions. As such, it has become a destination for several water sports competitions.

IRONMAN, which hosts full and half triathlons in the city (in September and May, respectively), calls Chattanooga “triathlon’s best kept secret,” while the Head of the Hooch Rowing Regatta in early November is hailed as “the last of the great fall regattas” and is considered one of the world’s largest. The Chattajack 31 paddleboard/kayak endurance race, meanwhile, will take place on Halloween, as participants paddle 31 miles downstream through the Tennessee River Gorge.

North of the city is Chester Frost Park, situated on the banks of Chickamauga Lake with many spectator-friendly viewing areas for fishing tournaments and high-profile events such as the 2022 Outboard Drag Boat Racing World Championships, slated for late September and early October.

“This community is very fortunate to have the ability to capitalize on its natural landscapes and resources, as well as fantastic community partners, to make all of it a success,” says Brant Donlon, business development director for the Chattanooga Sports Commission. “Over the last two years, we have added a few new water sports events to our portfolio. We’ve definitely seen an uptick in activity and look forward to the continued increase across all water sports.”

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Watersports are a natural fit along the Alabama Gulf Coast, with a variety of saltwater, freshwater and brackish waterways, according to Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events.

That makes water-related sports events a vital part of the Alabama Gulf Coast region’s lifeblood. Sportfishing and boating events typically take place in the City of Orange Beach, where the majority of marinas in the area are located and have access to the Gulf of Mexico and back bays. Kayaking and paddleboarding events take place in the City of Gulf Shores on Lake Shelby in Gulf State Park, which Russ notes is one of the closest bodies of freshwater to saltwater in the world.

Between June and August, Orange Beach hosted no fewer than four high-profile water sports events, including the Flora-Bama Fishing Rodeo at the Flora-Bama Marina, the Blue Marlin Grand Championship at The Wharf Marina, the Orange Beach Open fishing tournament at The Wharf Marina and the Flora-Bama Gulf Coast Paddle Championship at the Flora-Bama Marina/Ole River.

Russ notes that kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing and fishing events have vast potential to attract large spectator crowds, adding that her organization hopes to enhance its longstanding water sports events with new ones that showcase natural waterway venues.

“Alabama is home to the largest artificial reef programs in the country, and Orange Beach has one of the largest charter fishing fleets on the Gulf Coast,” she says. “So the infrastructure is primed and ready for new events.”

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri  |  Photo courtesy of Lake of the Ozarks CVB

Move further inland and you’ll find that the Midwest is home to some of the best non-ocean waters around.

Take the Lake of the Ozarks, a 54,000-acre body of water in south-central Missouri that runs 92 miles from end to end and offers 1,150 miles of shoreline. It is considered one of the largest man-made lakes in the United States and can accommodate multiple events on the same dates.

“Watersports at the Lake of the Ozarks are strong and will continue to grow each year, due to our location, the body of water we offer and the affordability to compete here,” says Lagina Fitzpatrick, executive director at Lake of the Ozarks Tri-County Lodging Association.

The lake hosted a Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour event in May, one of more than 500 fishing tournaments held at Lake of the Ozarks every year; Fitzpatrick notes that she’d like to host more kayak fishing tournaments on the lake, too.

Other events on the 2022 calendar include the Offshore Powerboat Association’s Lake of the Ozarks Lake Race in June; August’s Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, which is considered the largest unsanctioned two-day power boat racing event in the country; the Big Bass Bash, a pair of two-day bass fishing events that take place in spring and fall and attract more than 3,000 anglers; and spring and fall Harbor Hops, in which boaters draw cards at more than 40 locations around the lake to make a winning poker hand.

Rockford, Illinois

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

Look at a map, and Rockford — located about 20 miles south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border — doesn’t appear to be surrounded by much water. But looks can be deceiving. 

The Rock River, which winds throughout the entire community and is a tributary of the  Mississippi River, provides several water sports opportunities. They include the Head of the Rock Regatta, a 3.2-mile rowing race sanctioned by the United States Rowing Association that attracts more than 5,000 spectators every year. This year’s regatta is scheduled for early October.

In nearby Loves Park, Shorewood Park is home of the Ski Broncs, an all-volunteer waterski show team. It is the site of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports championships on a consistent basis, according to Lindsay Arellano, vice president of sales and service for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, including the 2022 Indmar Marine Engines Division 1 Show Ski National Championships in August.

In the past, Rockford also has hosted one of the country’s more unusual boat races: the Rock River Anything That Floats Race. True to its name, the 1.6-mile race featured any homemade vessel that floated — including a bathroom-themed raft and a picnic table on barrels. Organizers canceled the 2022 event, citing a lack of “person power,” time and “the skyrocketing costs of building supplies.” They hope the race will return in 2023.

In the meantime, local sports tourism officials are seeking to bring additional water-based competitions to Rockford.

“We’d love to see more rowing, waterski and wakeboarding events,” Arellano says. “We are looking forward to hosting successful water tournaments and using our success to introduce the Rockford region’s water scene to even more competitions.” SDM

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