What started out as a day with high expectations and anticipation, left some top stand up paddle athletes feeling frustrated and unheard as the APP World Tour makes a controversial decision about a safety boat that took paddlers off-course during a world tour event in Santa Monica this past weekend.
Heavy Fog & Race Delays Lead to Contentious Decision
It happened on Day#2 of the Santa Monica SUP Open, the kick off for this year's APP World Tour and opening leg of the U.S. SUP Open hosted by the APP. On Day #1, the Sprint Racing went off without a hitch and Connor Baxter and April Zilg were crowned sprint champions at the end of an epic day of racing.
The controversy came during the Distance Course on Day #2 when dense fog made for extremely reduced visibility on the race course. Here, some discrepancy ensues as top athletes Michael Booth and Arthur Arutkin (both former APP World Champions) heard directives at the pre-race safety meeting that due to the deteriorating race conditions they were to follow the lead boat that would guide them along the correct line of the course.
As Arutkin says in Booth's video recap of the event (below), "If we didn't follow the boat in those conditions it would be extremely dangerous." Booth agrees and adds that his visibility was limited to about 500 meters. From the buoy line where racers were paddling, they could not see the coast. They were paddling blind through the fog.
'Extreme Safety Concern' for Outrigger Upsets SUP World Title Race
However, around mile 5, the lead boat veered off-course during the race due to an 'extreme safety concern' drawing male front runners Michael Booth (APP World Distance champ 2019), Arthur Arutkin (APP Overall World Champion 2018) and notable other athletes 6km out to sea. Booth, sensing the change in course, attempted to hail the boat but to no avail. Thus, following the race directive, he stayed on course with the boat - a decision that ultimately cost him the win.
Mo Freitas, another renowned APP SUP racer posted on social media, "Fog made for an interesting race. Couldn't see the coast for the whole race and the lead boat took us off course for like 4-5 miles. The guys on the inside line won by a lot and we had to correct, adding another 30 minutes or so to the paddle!"
Further inside, two younger racers, Itzel Delgado and Bodie Von Allmen tracked their course not on the lead boat but on their own GPS technology. Their inside line took them directly to the course finish where Itzel (Peru) and Bodie (Hawaii) crossed the finish line for 1st and 2nd place respectively.
Originally Deemed 'No Contest', Race Organizers Reverse Decision
After the race, Booth & Arutkin both contested the results claiming they had followed the race guidelines and had been misled off-course and out to sea by the lead boat. According to Booth, they were directed both in the safety meeting at the pier and then again later pre-race on the start line, they were told that two boats would be escorting the field due to the fog. Later, on the water, Booth was also directed during the race to keep following the lead boat by the Race Director who stated, “You are going the right way. Keep following us. We will set the line.”
After hearing their arguments, race director Anthony Vela and APP World Tour CEO Tristan Boxford allegedly deemed the race 'no-contest', meaning no points would be awarded due to the error and the prize money would be distributed to the qualified APP athletes in ranking order of finish.
Michael Booth said he was comfortable with that decision even though it didn't benefit him in any way.
"All I want is a fair race with rules," says Michael Booth who was leading the front pack at the time of the incident. "I was following the race director's direction from the safety meeting."
Booth Clearly in Lead at Time of Boat Veering Off-Course
The APP even cited Booth's lead in their social media channels from the event saying, "Your current leaders for the US Open of SUP distance race are at the half-way point. Michael Booth has a commanding lead over the men but Candice Appleby is battling with sprint champ April Zilg for the lead of the women."
Booth reported that the confusion happened somewhere around mile 5. He says that Danny Ching, also in the lead pack, waved over safety boat #2 and were led by that boat's GPS back towards shore to find the finish; however, no one told the other racers, including Booth and Arutkin.
No-Contest Decision Reversed: Athletes Upset
The original decision by Tristan Boxford to label the race 'no-contest' was later contested by other athletes who felt they had crossed the finish line fairly and had won their points and podium spots respectively. An hour after deeming the course 'no-contest', Tristan Boxford reversed his decision.
"We were dismissed as punters," says Booth. "We do this for our jobs and both Arthur and I had come a long way to compete in this event, I understand that the other athletes felt they deserved to win based on they felt they were best of the day, but race officials who give rules and make a decision and then change them are arbitrary."
Booth, a new father and husband, traveled from Australia to be at the APP US SUP Open event in Santa Monica. "I have a family and a young son now," he says. "So, every time I'm going to be away from them, it has to make sense. It has to be a fair competition."
Arutkin traveled from France to be at the Santa Monica Pier race. Both athletes pay for their travel in order to compete.
'We Need to do Better': Where is the Rule Book?
According to an insider on the APP World Tour who requested to remain anonymous, the sport of stand up paddling under the APP World Tour currently has no rule book to follow. Sanctioned by the ISA, Standup Journal reached out to ISA officials to get some clarification but, as of yet, has not received a response.
Is the professional side of stand up paddling - even with multiple world championship tours - still adrift due to lack of comprehensive guidelines to ensure paddlers, race directors and organizers know and abide by the same rules?
Booth goes on to say, "While I was paddling, I waved down the boat and asked 'are we going the correct way?' He (the Race Director) said, 'Yes, keep following me.'"
On the sand, things got even more confusing when according to Booth, "They handed down a decision of no-contest. Results and points would not stand. Prize money would be distributed to the qualified APP athletes which was a decision that was fair even though it didn't help me at all. Once given out, a few athletes .... started yelling and carrying on. Then the APP officials said they hadn't made a decision yet... Then, they went away and came back with their new decision that the points and prize money would stand according to when racers hit the beach." It was a complete reversal of decision. "We've got to do better," he said.
APP Releases Statement: Rankings Stand
Last night, the APP released the following statement:
"Yesterday at the U.S. Open of SUP in Santa Monica, CA, the lead boat in the distance race attended to a safety concern in the middle of the race, thus not staying on course. This was an unfortunate incident which caused confusion and affected the performance of some of our competing athletes, but the safety of our competitors will always be our top priority.
The Association of Paddlesurf Profressionals (APP) accepts full responsibility and sincerely apologizes for what occurred. APP competitors are world class athletes who work tirelessly at their craft. Their focus should only be on their performance and they should not have to worry about course management or other logistics.
The APP is committed to a detailed review of all rules and regulations, and to further developing best in class race management and safety processes. The APP will learn from this incident and take steps to ensure that a situation like this doesn't occur in the future.
All results from yesterday's distance race will stand."
Unfortunately for world champion racers Michael Booth and Arthur Arutkin, this statement only further aggravates their concern over rules and regulations. Both have agreed to step away from the APP World Tour and put their attention on the competitive sport of stand up paddling elsewhere.
We have to do better.