Tahoe paddle legend looks to hand off world’s oldest race to next generation
KINGS BEACH, Calif. — For nearly two decades Ernie Brassard has helped to spark the eruption in popularity of stand-up paddle boarding on Lake Tahoe.
Every year, hundreds of professional and amateur paddlers gather at Kings Beach for the Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival and to compete in the world’s oldest paddleboard race.
“We were the first and we are the oldest,” said Brassard, organizer and founder of the Ta-Hoe Nalu. “It’s the oldest stand-up paddle race in the world. We were the original ones.”
This year the event was canceled due to a number of vendors pulling out and a lack of signups within the events several race divisions. After dealing with COVID-19 in 2020, wildfires in 2021, and this year’s event, Brassard is looking to pass the event on to the next generation of organizers.
“I can’t say enough of how much I have enjoyed being a part in this amazing sport, and want to Thank My partners, Chris Hollingsworth, Bob Pearson, Barrett Tester, Rick Thomas and to Chris Carnevalle that we have lost to cancer,” said Brassard in a Facebook post. “Also to all the great volunteers. We were a part of history here on Lake Tahoe. Inventing a new sport.
“I believe that Ta-Hoe Nalu will rise again and reinvent it to meet the needs of the new paddlers. We have some passionate folks that are keeping the vibe alive and want to possibly take over Ta-Hoe Nalu.”
Brassard, 76, has been organizing the event for 16 years. He said coming off two down years due to COVID and wildfires, the expectation this year was for a big return with hundreds of racers and two to three thousand event goers. In April, he said responses from manufacturers and vendors was positive, but as time went on many began dropping out.
“Everybody was all excited, and then as we got into it, I started invoicing people,” said Brassard. “It was one after another that started dropping out.”
Brassard said reasoning for vendors dropping out ranged from cost of driving up for those that operated out of Southern California to a lack of staffing resulting in businesses choosing not to participate in as many festivals as usual.
Additionally, Brassard said signups for the festivals variety of paddle races were down as well with a little more than 20 people signed up three weeks before the event. Typically, Ta-Hoe Nalu has more than 100 athletes preregistered and doubles that number with day-of-signups.
“I was blown away that we had so little,” said Brassard.
Brassard cited changes in the industry with more paddlers opting for inflatable boards, which he said has shifted newer paddlers away from competing and toward a more recreational approach to the sport.
“What’s happening is the people that used to compete in those are getting older and are not competing,” said Brassard. “There are less hard boards being sold than in the past. It’s become a total recreational sport and that’s where the competitor side of it has died down. I still think if it wasn’t for the economy and the cost of living and everything right now, we would have had a pretty good-sized event. People are just really insecure about what’s going on in the world right now.”
Brassard said an event last month in Dana Point, had just nine stand-up paddlers sign up for a race that usually attracts a couple hundred athletes.
Leading up to this year’s Ta-Hoe Nalu, Brassard said he’d spent about $12,000 in advertising and marketing, but with a lack of vendors and racers, he was forced to cancel the festival a couple weeks ahead of its scheduled date.
“I didn’t want to cancel it but there was no way around it,” he said. “This was going to be the comeback year.”
Following the cancellation of the event, Brassard was able to get permission from Kings Beach State Recreation Area to hold a beach barbecue and paddle.
“The outpouring of locals on Facebook was just amazing,” he said. “They were so sorry it wasn’t going to happen, so I started thinking, ‘you know, I’ve already spent all this money. I’ve got a little money in the coffer. Let’s just throw a party for people that are here.”
Brassard said the barbecue, held on Aug. 6, attracted around 200 people. He was able to sell T-shirts and other donated items, and ended up raising roughly $500 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Brassard indicated he will announce the person or group that will be taking over Ta-Hoe Nalu in the coming weeks, and said the festival will remain on Lake Tahoe.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of the Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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