Staring out my window on Budd Inlet, I can’t help but recall the fully immersive experience of downwind paddling. Budd Inlet has a great enough fetch, roughly 10 miles, and has the desired geography to create suitable conditions for the sport, but it is one of many locations in the Pacific Northwest where downwind paddling has found popularity. Once you’ve had a taste of downwind paddling, you begin to crave its wild abandon, finding comfort outside of your comfort zone, unrestrained in the thick of natural forces.

Downwind paddling is the activity of paddling in one direction with the wind at your back — riding larger open ocean swells coastwise; or on harbors, lakes, and rivers where fetch allows waves to be created. Heavy winds produce swells you ride from one location to another. “Riding” the swells is like surfing, but you are moving in a somewhat straight line covering a long distance, connecting bump after bump.

I have surfed in the Northwest since high school and began stand-up paddleboarding with friends in my adult life — the cold water has always felt therapeutic and revitalizing, and the warmth generated after is a reward for my efforts. Yet, I was unaware of downwinding. Five years ago, on the island of Maui, that changed when I was ‘talking story’ with a waterwoman who began enthusiastically sharing her experiences downwind paddling the Maliko Run. This section of downwinding shares similarities with our famed local downwinding destination of Hood River — when the conditions are right, you are in for the ride of your life. The thought of taking what I love about surfing and being able to add new challenges and techniques in new areas felt like it unlocked more access to the water.

Soon after, there was an event called the Gorge Paddle Challenge in Hood River, and I decided to pack up my van and play spectator. I wanted to see the sport for myself and look into what kind of gear and access was needed. The event was three days long, and after observing the first day and befriending a local, Sara Washburn, I decided to use the buddy system and demo a board on the Viento Run. This is a popular 7-mile section of the Columbia River with a friendly put-in and egress in Hood River. I bought the board, and the rest is history… well, actually future.

Downwinding has introduced me to a community in the Northwest that weaves people of the water together through surfing, stand up paddling, kayaking, surfski, rowing, and outrigger canoeing (insert foil anywhere). Along the way, I have met more than a few individuals who have lit me up and have helped open these spaces and the sport of downwinding — which has come to occupy my mind, body, and soul. As I share my own experiences with this amazing activity, I will also let some of their stories reveal what downwinding is all about.

I did my first Viento run in January of 2022. The water was 40 degrees and the air 38. I was shrink wrapped in a combination of neoprene and ‘exoskin’ with only my face exposed to the elements. The wind was howling, and the river was barren. It was at once exhilarating and terrifying, mostly because I knew I committed to a several mile journey before I could exit. I was instantly hooked. I love the chaos and grandeur of Mother Columbia. She forces you to be present with your every step. She demands respect.

My goal is to do Maui 2 Molokai before I am 50. I have a lot of work to get ready but the nice thing about this sport is that I enjoy the training as much as the race.

– C Davis Parchment

In the Salish Sea, the best time for downwinding is winter. Gear is essential. Wetsuits are better for cold water paddling than dry suits, because you have better mobility. Surfing in colder months demands a 5/4mm (5mm in the body and 4mm in the arms and legs) wetsuit because, unlike downwinding, there are periods of time where you are immobile and out in the cold air. When downwinding, it is game on right off the bat and you are constantly shifting, digging, gliding, and pivoting. You need maximum arm and shoulder mobility for paddling.

Photo by Douglas Fir Photography.

You lose roughly 40 to 50% of heat through your head, hands, and feet. I suggest 4-7mm wetsuit boots with minimal sole, and gloves if needed. When downwind paddling, you should wear gloves that provide dexterity. You move your grip along the paddle and switch hands, and likely need to access gear and food along the way. When I surf, I wear a hooded suit so that, after taking a few icy waves over the head, I can take it off in the line-up and set up for a wave. Same goes for downwinding — you will fall in, everyone does, and it can be a shock. You are also topside and in the elements, albeit exerting yourself, and you might want to conserve some heat. A hood that is attached to your wetsuit allows you to take it off and keep it accessible while also preventing water from seeping down your back upon entry/exit.

I love how the Magnolia cliffs shelter the upwind leg out to West Point, shooting down to Golden Gardens, then using the shelter of Shilshole Bay Marina to get back to the Elks. When there’s a north wind, the loop can be done in the opposite direction. It’s great to have two options at the same location.

– Ivan Storck

I would like to say you can use any paddleboard or paddle for downwind paddling — I don’t like to discourage anyone from getting out there and trying new things — but I won’t. Not only is safety a factor, but proper equipment will help you start comprehending how to move with the water and tap into the synchronicity of the board, the environment, and yourself. Preparation is key when interacting with these forces. Having a coiled leash is preferred (doesn’t drag in the water), but have a leash regardless. A PFD is a must as well — personal preference, but I’ve found a waist belt is good for some scenarios and a vest for others depending on duration, conditions, access to egress points. Research and ask fellow paddlers or local shops, and don’t undersell yourself on your gear — you can grow into the board. Invest in a good paddle, it is preventative medicine literally and figuratively.

Prior to starting SUP, I had been doing outrigger canoes (flatwater racing OC6s/OC1s in the PNWORCA circuit) for almost a decade. I had been downwinding an OC1 in the Gorge between Stevenson, Washington and Hood River, Oregon.

My first 3 years of SUP, I was always solo… since I hadn’t discovered social paddling. I started meeting people on the water around Spring 2017. I’d actually never heard of SUP downwinding and, coming from an OC1 background, I was stoked to know more about it and give it a try. Friends invited me to join a Viento Run so I could get a taste. On paper, it said 8-10mph winds with gusts 15-20… it was almost double those numbers while we were out, I had no business being out there!

Being my first time, I was both very frightened for my safety as well as so happy to be there, exposed to those elements. Afterwards, I reflected on the experience, and I knew immediately that I wanted to come back and do it again, and again, to be great at it. I will never stop learning, which is part of what I love about it.

Downwinding SUPs is difficult and challenging. I love the feeling of accomplishment after every session. I pass on my wisdom and knowledge to friends when given the opportunity. I once initiated an invitation to a couple friends to do the Viento Run, and next thing I knew, the group became 17 of us total! Unforgettable. I met lifelong friends that day.

– Manny de Leon

It is wise to downwind with a friend or group, both for safety reasons and so that you have witnesses to your epic adventure, “It was how big?!” A downwind run usually requires shuttling, so friends make that easier.

Always bring both a mobile phone in a dry bag and a handheld VHF. Even on shorter runs you will get dehydrated. Bring water either in a waist/back bladder or somehow attach a bottle to your deck. Longer runs may call for breaks along the way, sitting on your board and letting everyone regroup and check-in is the perfect time for a snack. Other safety devices (conditional on the scenario and weather): small deck repair kit (I use Gorilla Tape), whistle, personal EPIRB, waterproof flare(s), mirror for signaling, and a towline. Once you get to know other downwinders, they will have preferences aplenty and some great tricks of the trade.

There are reputable companies that offer services for your growth and safety, like Seattle’s Salmon Bay Paddle, and Hood River options such as Stoke on the Water and Fiona Wylde’s Wylde Wind and Water.

Downwinding is just special. It has been tough for me to speak to how emotional the experience can be. You are not out there fighting against nature, there is a diplomacy between you and the environment — a focus on breath, rhythm, relaxation, and a glimpse into your own possibilities.

Erica Lichty is the founder of the nonprofit SEASTR, a 501 ©(3) that promotes women who adventure in the Pacific Northwest. SEASTR offers downwind retreats in Hood River, Oregon several times per year. Erica is also the new Education Coordinator for Seattle’s Maritime High School. Learn more at