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Q&A with Tristan Boxford

The Waterman League made its first splash into Asia with a successful event in Japan. Outdoor Japan talks to the world stand-up tour CEO Tristan Boxford about the growth of the sport, the race series and the recent Shonan Chigasaki Pro. 

Gardner: What’s your background in ocean sports?

Tristan: I was a professional windsurfer for many years. European Champion, British Champion, and I reached the Top 10 in the world for a few years. The ocean has been such an amazing playground for me, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do so many ocean sports, and I love them all. 

G: And you come from the surfing hotbed of England…

T: Yeah (laughs) but, hey, it’s an island, a big island surrounded by water, with a rich seafaring tradition. But, yeah, it’s cold and miserable most of the time, not as nice as Hawaii where I live now, with beautiful weather and consistent surf. In England we gotta wait for a storm to get waves. 

G: When did you transition into organizing events?

T: I had always enjoyed the media and event side of things. Windsurfing began to stagnate for me when the races became less appealing in terms of locations and conditions. I began working on a project called The Ocean Games. In 2007, we launched the event in Maui with athletes participating in shortboard and longboard surfing, stand-up, windsurfing, kite, all the ocean sports. 

It was really well received, to the point we were in discussions with ESPN to make it a sister product to the X Games. They had just dropped surfing but still wanted to address the sport…and then the economy tanked in the U.S. 

G: When was The Waterman League formed?

T: It was a quiet couple of years after the Ocean Games, but we re-organized as The Waterman League in 2009 with the goal of being an organizing body covering the spectrum of ocean sports. However, one sport, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), was really starting to bubble at the surface. From 2007 onward, I was personally doing a lot of stand-up surfing in Kauai where I was living. 

Then I went to the most respected Hawaiian watermen, guys like Archie Kalepa, Brian Keaulana and Mel Pu’u, and told them I was interested in creating a world tour for stand-up surfing, and I wanted hear what they thought about it. It was more about surfing at that point; not a lot of people were into distance racing.  

To kick off things with a bang, we held an exhibition at Teahupo’o in Tahiti. I thought it was important to change people’s perceptions of what the sport was about. Many people’s impression of stand-up at the time was of an old man in the lineup with a 12-foot plus board. We wanted to open people’s eyes to the high-performance edge. After the event in Tahiti, we launched a full-blown stand-up surfing tour in 2010 – The Stand-up World Tour.

G: What do you think it means to be a waterman?

T: It’s a really played-out word, but a true waterman is a person who has a lot of experience in the ocean and is comfortable there. They can read the ocean and have fun in the water, no matter what the conditions. Kai Lenny personifies the word waterman. His name actually is Kai Waterman Lenny. His grandfather was named Waterman, and Kai means ocean. He has experience beyond his years.

G: Has the racing series gained momentum?

T: The stand-up surfing tour started with five events in four countries. The following year, it grew to six events. At the end of the season, we held an exhibition race to launch the racing series at Turtle Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, and in 2012 the Stand-up World Series was off and running. The tour has steadily gained momentum, and in the third full season (2014), we launched the women’s tour and crowned a men’s and women’s world champion for the first time. 

G: What is the format?

T: Athletes compete in long distance (endurance) courses and short distance (sprint) courses. Some are faster in the sprint races; others on the long courses, but we wanted there to be one combined champion. The most well-rounded athlete is our world champion. 

G: To what do you attribute the sport’s recent popularity?

T: Stand-up has become popular because it is such an accessible form of surfing. Whether you are paddling on flat water or catching waves, it’s got that “I’m surfing” feel to it. 

Racing is the easiest point of entry for mass participation and has the most growth potential. There isn’t much doubt stand-up paddling will surpass surfing in the next few years in terms of participation numbers. You can do it anywhere. We’ve done races on glacier-fed Lake Gray in Chilean Patagonia, a channel race in Fiji and in the center of Hamburg in front of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s an unbelievable platform.

G: Why do you think the connection to surfing is so important?

T: For me, the sports roots will always be in surfing, and I think it’s important to maintain those roots. Surfing waves is naturally more inspirational than paddling on flat water. However, stand-up is something most people can aspire to. Anyone can jump on a board no matter their physical fitness, age, gender or location. You don’t have to be surfing the barrel in Teahupo’o or the shore break at Huntington Beach to have fun. 

Stand-up paddling can spin off in many different directions, but as long as surfing is at the heart of the sport, it will have a long and amazing life. 

G: How have you seen the Racing Series evolve?

T: At the beginning we went a bit more extreme with the events to create a buzz. Now we are more focused on developing key markets. 

The European Cup is huge.  We have a series of qualifying events in places such as Oleron, France, on the beach in Rome and up in the fjords in Finland. It culminates at the European Cup, which we held in Hamburg for a number of years, but now moved out to Fehmarn, about an hour and a half away in the Baltic Sea. 

Huntington Beach is a huge event, and Brazil is a big market. The Middle East is a bit of an out-of-the-box event, but it generates a lot of media interest. The surf event is in a man-made pool, and the race event happens right below the Formula One track in Yas Marina. It’s Abu Dhabi-style and a cool showcase. 

G: How long has Asia been on your radar?

T: Asia’s been a target for a while; in particular Japan where people are so enthusiastic about sports. I saw it first-hand with windsurfing back in the ’80s and ’90s and how big the market and the events got. Fortunately, Yu Sumitomo and Yukio Yamaguchi came to me last year, keen to do something in the Shonan area. That’s how we ended up in Chigasaki. 

Yu and his father were board builders (surfboards and snowboards), and he and Yukio recently launched a stand-up board and clothing line called NoahNic. They brought Hosoi-san in who is really well connected in the community. The local support was great, and there were things we can build on and do better, but it was a great start. 

G: Are you looking at other locations in the region?

T: We are exploring other places, but first and foremast we really want to concentrate on the Shonan Chigasaki Pro and make it a full-fledged World Championship Tour event with all the top athletes coming next year. That’s step one. Step two is developing other opportunities in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. 

G: Mo Freitas (Hawaii) and Angela Jackson (Australia) were the men’s and women’s champions in Japan. How are they doing on the tour?

T: Angie was leading the World Series rankings since the first of the year but slipped into second after missing an event in Germany, so she’ll be looking to get back on top in Huntington Beach. Mo is fifth or sixth in the world. 

Unfortunately there was another big event that some of the top pros had already committed to before we were able to release the Japan dates. It was a bummer, because guys such as Kai Lenny, Zane Schwietzer and Conner Baxter have committed to our event above anything else, but the other event was in Hawaii, and they couldn’t back out. 

However, it worked out well, bringing over a few international pros so the Japanese athletes can see what they have to do to step up to that level next year. It should be really interesting.

G: What specific skills are important for racing? 

T: It’s interesting, when we started it looked like the really buff guys were going to be best, but that’s completely been thrown out the window. The lighter guys have been really fast on the short and long courses. Conner Baxter, leading the world standings, is light and he has leverage; it’s an ideal combination. 

For the sprint racing, special training includes high revolution paddling. The long course users a different skill set. Stand-up athletes come from a lot of different sports, but it seems the best paddlers come from a surfing background. They have a better feel for how to move their weight around on the board. You can sit on a rowing machine and hammer away at the gym, but if you don’t learn the intricacies of paddling on water, you are at a disadvantage.

Guys such as Kai and Conner have an innate ability to read the water no matter what the condition, and I’ve seen them on all types of bodies of water where they just navigate well. 

G: Are most athletes on the tour focusing just on SUP or other ocean sports as well? 

T: It’s starting to get harder for athletes to be competitive in other sports because stand-up is getting so competitive. The one exception would be Kai Lenny, who is somewhat of a freak of nature. But what we have found is the guys who are dong really well are coming from a multi-sport background. 

Stand-up combines skill sets from multiple ocean sports, which is why you see a lot of windsurfers and surfers excelling. They are used to using leverage, board control at speed and riding bumps and waves when they aren’t breaking, riding open ocean waves…all these things. They are more prepared to adapt. 

G: Who is doing well on both the stand-up tours?

T: Predominantly the Hawaii guys. There are a few European guys who are good, but not great surfers, but in Hawaii we have guys such as Mo, Kai and Zane who have the potential to win a title in either. 

G: How has the women’s tour been going?

T: One of the most exciting things about stand-up is seeing the growth with women. They are enjoying it just as much as men. 

The U.S. (California and Hawaii), Australia, Europe are our biggest growth markets, but Brazil, especially in surfing, has been huge. The world champion last year was Brazilian, and two out of the top three women on the surfing tour are from Brazil. 

G: Were there any Japanese athletes who stood out in Chigasaki?

T: Yeah, definitely. Kenny Kaneko has a lot of potential, and we’ve seen Tomo and Masa a lot on the world tour. They are good athletes, and they need to step it up to get to the top, but they have potential. 

G: What can we look forward to next year? 

T: It looks like a Japan event will be held the last weekend in August. It will be one of the six major stops on the World Series of stand-up paddling with all the top athletes there. We are extremely excited to come back. The warm welcome and hospitality we got in Japan was insane. I think that’s something all the international athletes came away with and why they are excited to be back next year.

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