By Harrison Withers
Last week, on Saturday, August 10, 2019, 20 paddlers lined up between a channel marker and a pontoon boat. The group collectively counted down from 5, and when they hit 1, they set off for a clockwise lap around Belle Isle. This marked the 7th consecutive year that such a paddle has taken place, but this year it was more like the first:
- No registration
- No timing
- No podium
- No classes
- No official results
An outlaw race, sanctioned by no one, approved by no one, and in defiance of regulatory oversight. It was raw, it was grassroots, and it was fun.
This was the event formerly known as OABI, the acronym for Once Around Belle Isle, a crown jewel of the midwest paddling scene and an important part of the competitive history of paddling in Detroit. This is a story about the triumph of spirit and community, and a recap of a really great day.
Last year, the event drew 197 paddlers. At least double that in spectators, it had a huge stage, a line-up of top-quality music acts, and was a full-blown beach festival. This year, they cancelled the event on June 25th.
So what happened?
I’m going to leave it to you, the reader, to answer that question. However, I’m going to break from journalistic tradition and take a personal tone as I describe the rich history of this event, and fill you in on some of the background that has contributed to the demise of the “official” event. This is an intensely personal tale for me as it describes longtime friends and my own personal history of paddleboard racing.
In 1992, I was a student at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. If you find Houghton on a map, it’s in the upper peninsula of Michigan, nestled in the Keweenaw near the shores of Lake Superior. It’s a beautiful place, but it is desolate and remote. As someone who had spent the last few years being pretty active in the Detroit “alternative” music scene, I was homesick for the music. So I did what I could to bring what little I could of Detroit to the UP, seemed only logical to start a Ska band. Skooby and the SKAmatics, was never a great band, and it only lasted maybe 6 months, but I’m still friends with many of the members of that band. The drummer was a guy named Brian Mulloy.
Fast forward 20 years…
After grad school, and highly successful stints in Boston and Silicon Valley, Brian puts his money where his mouth is and moves back to Detroit, not the suburbs, the city. He starts to become the kind of Detroiter that Detroit needs to reinvent itself. Brian also picks up paddle boarding somewhere along the way and is one of the first to start paddling in the Detroit River and around Belle Isle. He meets Dave from Detroit Surf Co. and Matt Reume, and they start paddling around Belle Isle every Saturday.
In 2012 Brian decides to do an outlaw race around the island, Tracey Dryovage suggests calling it OABI. The term OABI comes from the boating world and the Detroit Yacht Club. The club’s commodore’s wife Maureen MacDonald coined the term around 2006 to describe a leisurely cruise “Once Around Belle Isle”. Brian commissions the famous “Black Blade” trophies from a local artist and sticks them in the sand on the beach. The first person to grab the blade out of the sand was the winner.
Fast forward to 2014…
I bought my first paddleboard while I was living in Muskegon Michigan to replace kiteboarding. I was never any good at it and was sick of getting skunked by the wind dying as soon as I got off work. I gather through facebook that Brian is onto paddling and we reconnect. He invites me to do this race he puts on called OABI. I make all sorts of excuses, I’m not doing it for competition, I don’t have a way of transporting my board across the state, etc… Brian counters every point, and offers his board as a loaner, and I’m out of excuses.
Turns out that 2014 is the first year Brian technically isn’t the owner of the event. By this time the event had grown exponentially, and Brian saw it’s potential to grow into something even more. He turned the event over, without compensation, to Joe Choma an live event specialist, and Larry Balone owner of Green Veil Outdoor.
In 2016 they had 205 racers, 2017 they peaked with 219, but had really hit stride with non-paddling beach goers that were there for the festivities and the music.
In 2018 they went all-out. Bigger stage, full concert audio system, known headliner Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. It was a great event; Larry Cain broke the course record setting a 1:02:20 time. It was a critical success.
By 2019, they were shopping for a buyer. The reasons why would be nothing but hearsay or speculation on my part, but in full disclosure I was personally part of a group of anonymous individuals who tried unsuccessfully to take over the event. I don’t believe we were the first or only group involved, but I want to go on the record as saying we had nothing to do with the “Save the Date” announcement, but did request the delay in cancellation while we tried to work out a deal.
I got a crash course in what it takes to run a major event in a State Park, it’s not easy. I think our own John Beausang said it best in the cancellation thread on facebook:
Except for time, money, permits, shirts, race bibs, timing companies, trophies, finisher medals, food, water, bathrooms, safety volunteers, EMS, police, race website, race newsletter, race blog, registration site, bank account and fed tax id #, charity with a 501c #, registration volunteers, a logo, posters, goodie bags, sponsors, parking permits and a year to plan, what’s stopping you?
OABI Lives, In Spirit, But Not in Name
Almost immediately after the cancellation of OABI went out, a little before actually, the plan for a grassroots event started, but there were some definite challenges. First of which is “OABI” is trademarked and owned by the current ownership group which is still looking to sell it. Second, organized events on the island require permits, which there was no time or money to obtain. Any attempt at promotion could be construed as organization and could lead to liability being assigned to that organizer or organization. Not to mention tipping off any interested authorities, notably the DNR and Coast Guard who could shut it down.
In the end, it was just word of mouth. Nobody took charge, it was just understood that we would paddle on August 10th at 9am.
In the 5 years that I participated in the official OABI, one thing has come to mark the event for me, bad weather and difficult conditions. Last year, it was high winds on the backside of the island. In 2016, it was torrential rain while on course. I have never done an official OABI in what I would consider “good” conditions. Maybe there was some luck or divine intervention, but this past Saturday it was sunny, reasonably cool, and winds less than 3mph.
Chris Dyki showed up on his pontoon boat and offered to sweep for safety. A bunch of folks brought food and beverages to share. And oh yeah, we raced around the island.
Though not official in anyway, Brian LeFeve own the race and broke the course record set by Larry Cain. When asked what his time was Brian just said: “Let’s just say it was broken”. I have it on good authority his time was under an hour for the 6.5-mile course. Brian went on to reflect:
So much fun doing this grassroots OABI!! I really think it should continue like this. Nothing but show up and have fun! Hands down the funnest race for me all year! Thank you all
2nd place went to last week’s back-to-back winner of the Chicago races, Alex Sandler. Alex wrote: “Long Live OABI!”
3rd place was Tristan Patrona.
I have no way of knowing the rest of the finishing order, and no one seamed concerned in any regard. Pretty sure Jen Scully Yates was the first woman to cross the line, but I think the only win that mattered to her was that she beat Nick Yates, her husband in the finishing sprint.
Way back in the pack, was a guy named Harrison Withers, who broke his personal record of 1:29 with a 1:17 finish.
And since no one left the water until the last finisher came in, there was a now traditional but water-based paddle arch to salute not only the resilience of the individual, but to honor ourselves and the resiliency of the Detroit paddling community.
Who knows what the future is for OABI, if you’ve got deep pockets, maybe you’re the answer? I haven’t decided yet what role if any I’ll take; it seems like a ton of work to take on. But one thing is for certain, one Saturday every summer, a bunch of paddlers will line up, and someone will say “go”, and we’ll all take a spirited lap Once Around Belle Isle.