Kentucky may be landlocked, but that’s not stopping one Frankfort resident from bringing a bit of surf culture to the Bluegrass.
Gerry James, organizer of the Kentucky Waterman Series, says surfers use the term “waterman” to refer to elite watersports athletes. Through his series, now entering its second year, James is hoping more “watermen” are attracted to Kentucky’s waterways.
For years, Kentucky has played host to a number of kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard races that catered to small groups of local enthusiasts. James, a stand-up paddleboarder and founder of eco-tourism promoter Explore Kentucky Initiative, saw the potential for more.
“I realized that when you market together, it makes it more powerful,” said James, noting the similar phenomenon experienced by Frankfort’s own “Frankfort Striders” foot-racing series.
The 27-year-old, who spent part of his childhood on the Jersey Shore, raced in as many of Kentucky’s existing paddlesports races as he could find, then contacted their organizers. Would they be interested in having James market their race to out-of-towners as part of a statewide series?
Last year, more than 550 people participated in the inaugural Kentucky Waterman Series, according to James. They came from all around: Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, Tennessee, “freaking Maine,” Indiana and Missouri, recalls James, who says they marveled at the beauty of Kentucky’s little-known waterways.
“They didn’t realize the potential,” James said of the local tourism boards and race organizers he convinced to join the series.
This year, the Waterman series has picked up a new presenting sponsor — Breaks Interstate Park, on the border of Kentucky and Virginia — as well as a sponsor for its buoys. Race buoys will bear the logo of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, a nonprofit that fights pollution in the state’s waterways. James says he hopes the series will continue to help convince locals to protect their waterways.
The series opens with the Bluegrass River Run on May 12 at Fort Boonesborough State Park and concludes Oct. 6 with the Big South Fork River Dash at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
As James prepares for the 11-race series — James paddles 40 miles per week — he says Frankfort, where he moved in 2016, continues to be the best place to locate his increasingly water-centric business.
“There’s not that many places in the state or in the country, to be honest, where you can live near a waterway for an affordable price,” said James, who lives less than five minutes from the Kentucky River. “The river was a large part of why I moved here.”