Stand-up paddlers brave Mississippi River current

The mighty Mississippi proved no match for David Leach.

With a little help from the current, Leach needed just one hour and 46 minutes to paddle 13 miles downriver — good enough for third place overall in the inaugural Big River Regional Stand Up Paddle Race.

“I thought I was going to dehydrate around mile 9, but I got a little bit of liquid in me and re-energized and finished up pretty strong,” said Leach, 55, of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., who travels thousands of miles with his wife to participate in races.

“It was a great race with great conditions,” added Leach, who like other racers left the river with Mississippi mud caked to his legs.

Seventy-five people participated in Saturday’s race, which began in downtown Baton Rouge and concluded near the L’Auberge Casino & Hotel. Promotional information for the event said the course would “showcase all walks of Mississippi River life, from the industrial to the natural.”

“There are very few opportunities to race on the Mississippi River,” said Dustin Branton, 36, of Slidell, who finished the race in a tandem kayak. “It was a beautiful course.”

Stand-up paddleboarding is a rapidly growing sport that has also drawn a local following. Part of the sport’s appeal is the ease with which beginners catch on, said Julio Garcia, of Auburn, Ala., who has participated in several races since he began paddling in April.

“Anybody can get on a paddleboard right away and just get going,” Garcia said.

Walker Higgins, one of the race organizers, said he was pleased with the turnout and support from the community. The event required months of planning as organizers coordinated with local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard to ensure participants’ safety with support craft.

“We’ve got people from all over who have taken this as the challenge of paddling the Mississippi,” Higgins said.

“Overall, I think it’s going to be something the community’s proud of, and next year we could triple in size.”

The race, which also included canoes, outriggers, prone boards and surf skis, was a World Paddle Association championship event that awarded qualifying points to winners for national paddling events.

The muddied racers were entertained by a concert on the lawn behind the casino after the race.