When the squall hit Belle Isle, 14-year-old Tristan Ferrara was paddling furiously up the Detroit River, against the current.
Not for survival in torrential rain and wind gusts of up to 30 miles an hour, but for position.
Ferrara, now a ninth-grader at Lakeview High School in St. Clair Shores, was competing in the August 2016 OABI (“Once around Belle Isle”) race for paddle boarders, kayakers and surf skiers.
His thoughts as the wicked weather engulfed the island and waters around it?
“I can ride it out and move up (in the race),” recalled Tristan on Wednesday inside the Great Lakes Surf Shop, 9 Mack Dr. in St. Clair Shores. “No one was trying to paddle much in the pelting rain. I figured I could catch a lot of people.”
He did, finishing second in class in the six-mile event, in a field of 250 paddlers.
Ferrara has an iron will and warrior’s way that has stamped him as the Midwest’s top standup paddle board (SUP) competitor for his age and one of the best in the country.
The fastest-growing watersports activity in the world, SUP traces its roots to Africa, where armies once used stand-up canoes to ambush enemies in battle; and later to Hawaii in the 16th century, where natives surfed waves on crude wooden boards using paddles.
Over the past decade, SUP has swept the West Coast and has become a popular pursuit on the Great Lakes in the Midwest, no more so than on the east and west sides of Michigan and Up North.
Through the support of his parents, Chris and Cathy Ferrara, and Brian and Melanie LeFeve, owners of Great Lakes Surf Shop, Tristan has emerged as a future pro star of the sport.
Tristan has already competed in the Pacific Paddle Games (PPG) – the World Series of SUP — at Dana Point near San Diego, where he finished third in the 13-14 age group, and is still training in the now-icy waters of Lake St. Clair and Lake Michigan for the 2017 season.
“I got started paddling at 9 because my Aunt Gina got a paddle board and then my mother,” explained Tristan. “I heard about racing and met Brian (LeFeve) and he told me all about the sport. I went out and caught a few bumps (waves) and that was it, I was hooked.”
A few of Tristan’s classmates at school followed him into the water at first.
“But we went out in bad conditions and they decided they didn’t want to do it,” said Tristan, who describes himself as “goofy” and who likes to tell “dumb jokes.”
But for Tristan, training in rough conditions “is just a normal day,” he said. “The rougher the better.”
Standup paddle boarding demands focus and commitment – not to mention balance, core strength, and stamina.
It can involve racing on lakes, surfing ocean and lake waves, and paddling river rapids.
You can also fish from a board if you like.
Boards made of fiber glass and carbon fiber can be as short at 7 feet and as long as 14.
Costs can range from under $1,000 to over $4,000, a carbon-fiber paddle up to $1,500 for the latest and lightest models.
There are an estimated 2 million people in the U.S. participating in some form of SUP, either for plain fun or to race.
Manufacturers of standup paddle boards include Naish, Infinity, Boardworks and Milford-based Pursuit.
Tristan worked for his first board, said Chris Ferrara, 43, who competes too in SUP events, having been a skateboarder and windsurfer in his youth.
“He walked dogs, cut grass and shoveled snow,” said Ferrara. “He didn’t get it for nothing.”
Tristan, who is 5-feet-7 and a lean and muscular 147 pounds, piped in.
“Don’t forget emptying the dishwasher – I hated doing that,” he said. “And remember, our neighbor paid me $5 for shoveling her snow and I lost it in one of the piles.”
For LeFeve, 45, one of Michigan’s elite SUP athletes and surfers, Tristan’s willingness to work for his board was one of the reasons he became his mentor, coach and training partner.
“The fact he wanted to buy his own board,” said LeFeve. “How many 9 year olds want earn and spend their own money. That showed me right there he was committed and passionate about the sport.”
So when Tristan needed to get to the Pacific Paddle Games, LeFeve and his shop, with the help of the Midwest Race Series, helped with airfare and accommodation.
“You could see how much drive Tristan had,” said LeFeve. “It was great we could help him.”
Cathy Ferrara admitted she could hardly watch Tristan’s first race on Lake Michigan.
“It was freezing that day and I was pretty reluctant about Tristan competing at 9,” said Cathy. “He just went straight out on the lake. I was pretty scared.”
Tristan did the one-mile lake race event on a 14-foot board.
“That’s my baby out there,” recalled Cathy. “But he came back in with a smile on his face and a second-place finish.”
Cathy and Chris Ferrara realized Tristan had something special going on with a board and paddle.
“Tristan is singularly focused – he’s a bit obsessive, like me,” said Chris. “He’s determined; he just wants to be the best.”
At school, Tristan is a normal kid.
“I’m not that popular, but I know everyone,” said Tristan. “I’m really in to golf, and hope to be on the golf team. I’m also going out for football next year.”
And a pro SUP racer one day.
“Those are some serious athletes,” said Chris Ferrara of the SUP pro tour. “They go around the world, competing in Hawaii, Australia and Europe. They have a cross-channel race over 30 miles in Hawaii. It would be a wonderful opportunity for Tristan.”
Tristan knows dreams of going pro within a year or two means a ton of work in between now and then, and some good luck and sponsor backing.
In preparation for next season, he’ll hit the waves with his dad and Brian until conditions on Lake St. Clair make it impossible to train on the water and then take his workouts inside to the pool and the gym.
Tristan, who hopes to attend San Diego State University and “train and race out there all year around,” will use the Syphus high-intensity progressive circuit workout that many of the Detroit Red Wings follow.
“It’s great for balance and core strength,” said Tristan.
Tristan is also planning to work and Brian LeFeve and his wife at Great Lakes Surf Shop soon, selling product and giving SUP and surfing lessons.
As Brian closed up the shop Wednesday evening, he and Tristan shared the “Shaka” pinky finger-and-thumb Hawaiian sign for “hang loose” until we hit the waves again, which will probably be this weekend.
“Our favorite time to go out there are when conditions are at their worst,” said Tristan. “I can’t wait.”
What: Standup Paddle Boarding (SUP).
Where: Ocean, lakes, rivers and canals across the U.S including strong Midwest representation in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
Who: More than 2 million recreational and race participants in the U.S.
Manufacturers: Naish, Infinity, Boardworks and Milford-based Pursuit.
Costs: New paddle boards from $1,000-$4,000 and up; paddles up to $1,500; used equipment considerably lower.
Michigan paddleboard/surfing hotspots: Port Huron, Lexington, Lake St. Clair, Grand Haven, Alpena, Frankfort, Sheybogan, Marquette.
Visit Great Lakes Surf Shop (23517 Nine Mack Drive, St. Clair Shores) for more information at www.greatlakessurf.com or call on 586-359-6951.