1) Know the course:
Look at the course map online. Look for landmarks. Pre-visualize the course before you get there. When you get to the race site, review the course map. Get on your board and take a social paddle around the course if it’s short. If you can take a boat ride to preview longer courses, it’ll help also. Look for hazards: mud banks, sand bars, underwater structure, inlets and creeks that will throw current at you, angry birds. Ask a local questions. Are there any channels for current? Where is the fast water? Where are the bars? What is the boat traffic like? Look up or find out what the tides are doing if you are in a coastal race. In the Paddle for Humanity, I didn’t pay attention to where the sand bars were and inevitably hit them, twice (stubbornness and arrogance are not necessarily a virtue).
There have been other races where people missed cutoffs and continued past the turn or who turned too early and got disqualified when they cut the course.
2) Know the rules:
Is there drafting? Can you ride boat wakes? Do you have to round a buoy on the left or right, or do you have to smack a buoy with your paddle? If you break a rule, you get disqualified. The top paddlers have this one thing in common—Danny Ching, Jimmy Terrell, Larry Cain, Annabel Anderson, Candice Appleby, Jamie Mitchell—pay CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE RULES. They are looking for any advantage that they can take or a competitor might try. The discuss the course days if not months in advance of big races and then merge the rules with their knowledge of the course and race day conditions.
In one race I witnessed, the winner didn’t have his paddle when he got to the finish line and had to run back to the water’s edge and grab it, losing 3 spots. In another, a male competitor drafted a female competitor and received protests afterward and public ridicule.
Honestly, if I could have legally drafted Annabel Anderson in the Paddle for Humanity race in DC a few years ago, I would have. She’s faster than I am. And when I passed her, she would have drafted me. Every race has its own set of rules. Learn them. Follow them. Pay attention.
3) Make a race plan and stick to it:
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people are really good in choppy water, others in surf races, others in whitewater, flatwater, etc. If you know your strengths, make a race plan. Plan to avoid the hazards and to take advantage of the currents, tides, and wind.
Drafting adds another element. How fast will you go out? Who will you work with and why, for how long? STRATEGY! Make a plan. Stick to it. Adapt if necessary. But don’t just step on the gas when you’re lost. Make a plan.
When you break from your plan, you are in uncharted territory and everything from nutrition stores to your endurance can crash suddenly.