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Producing the Battle of the Paddle

The Battle of the Paddle is the premier event in the world of stand-up paddling, a surfing variant currently sweeping the country and its waterways. The Battle is captured live each year on film and video and delivered online by Soul Surf Media's Chris Aguilar, who explains how he goes deep in the surf to get it done.

Standing on Southern California's Doheny State Beach at six in the morning, I contemplate the task of shooting the Rainbow Sandals' Battle of the Paddle. Doheny is the beach made famous in the line "They're kickin' out in Doheny too" in the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" (1962); "The Battle" (as it has come to be known) is the mecca of Stand Up Paddling races. Stand Up Paddling (SUP) is a sport currently sweeping the country and its waterways. It basically consists of balancing on an oversized surfboard and propelling yourself with a paddle.

SUP's roots stem from Hawaii in the 1930s, but the sport began riding a new wave of popularity when big-wave pioneers Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and Darrick Doerner began using paddles and tandem boards to train in-between swells. As with all things these guys do, everyone else followed. Thus, an industry grew up almost overnight with boards, paddles, and races-and now, as it should be with all great events, video.

About the Battle

In 2008, Rainbow Sandals announced a new race called Battle of the Paddle, and dubbed it a "surf race." Unlike most ocean- and lake-based races up to that point, this one was designed to lead the racers in and out of the surf line, introducing the breaking surf as an element to contend with for the racers. For the spectators, the gnarlier the better.

The first year's event did not disappoint; massive winds made the Elite race a hard-fought prize. Racer Chuck Patterson powered through 20mph upwind conditions to win the 2008 Elite race, while Jenny Kalmbach claimed the crown in the women's competition. I'm not sure that either racer knew what was coming, but those of us on the beach definitely had an idea.

That first year, Rainbow Event Director Barrett Tester hoped to get 100 people to register for the open race. When more than 280 standup paddlers showed up, everyone was surprised. The beach was swollen with spectators and a miniature stand up paddle marketplace sprouted up. Things would change dramatically from 2008 to 2009.

Autumn EventDVLive p9: SUP Stories Kevin Seid from EventDV on Vimeo.

The Explosion

The sport gained some national attention between the 2008 and 2009. The Daily Show had John Oliver stand up paddling in Waikiki; Pierce Brosnan also talked about it on air. Jennifer Aniston was shot in People magazine doing SUP along the North Shore and numerous other celebrities were caught in the act. The race circuit started to formalize and The Waterman League, an invitation only group of 25 Stand Up Paddlers struck out on a world surfing tour.

For the 2009 event, the Rainbow Team went bigger and better. Instead of a one-day event, they created a two-day event. The event would have the invitation-only Elite Race, an Open Race, a Relay Race, and a Distance Race, and my company, Soul Surf Media, on hand to document the event on video.

The Battle of the Paddle
Boards ready for the Battle at Doheny Beach


For me, shooting for our website, The Stand Up Project, the two days of the 2010 Battle of the Paddle would prove grueling. I was fortunate to be working with Rainbow's 16mm film shooter Pat Meyers-the two of us planned to pool our footage for our individual projects. During the relay race (which was pretty much open to anyone), he positioned himself in the water right in the path of the hoard of paddlers. I was sure he was going to get knocked in the head by a paddle, or worse a board. But he lived.

Our shooting plan was for each of to shoot wherever the other person wasn't. Pat was in the water most of the time with his Bolex 16mm cranking away foot after foot of film. He had another shooter on the beach on a tripod, whereas I was roaming. Since Soul Surf Media' shooting crew consists of just me, when shooting events, I cannot be locked into one location. A primary goal I set for myself is to shoot as many different details, angles, and points of view as possible. The routine is to shoot and then move locations and repeat. This works since the footage for events usually ends up being a montage of each part of the day.

One unique to the Battle of the Paddle compared to other SUP event is that it includes a running portion in each lap, so I pre-stage a handheld stabilizer by the chicane (a racing term for an auxiliary slowdown lane). From here I'm able to get some great footage running with the paddlers. For standup events, another goal is to make sure that I am shooting things in motion. Admittedly, for the distance races where the paddler is literally paddling for six to nine hours in the open ocean, it can get a bit redundant.

But that's where creativity really comes into play. For example, maybe by changing the shutter speed and getting the droplets as they fly off the paddle, I'll get some cool effects I haven't captured before. Or maybe I'll try going supertight on a paddler's face, I'll give my viewers some insight into what they are feeling as they paddle. As with any live event, for the Battle, not every shot I imagine is always possible, but these are things that I think are worth trying to see if I can get to add more dimension to the shoot. Otherwise, we will only have the same medium shot over and over of people on boards with paddles.

Autumn EventDVLive p10: SUP Shooting Gear from EventDV on Vimeo.