Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Jamestown Double Beaver: Sandwiched

As a final tune-up before the Gorge Downwind Championships, I had to make this year's Jamestown Double Beaver count. I was feeling pretty good about my stamina - this would mark my seventh race of the season - but my technique has been sloppy. Rather than pushing myself to new heights, I'd been falling back on lazy habits from past years. I'd have to swing for the fences. Damn it! Cliche. Next thing you know, I'll be throwing in a filler joke at Bill Kuklinski's expense. Or leading my readers down one path, only to unexpectedly flip the meaning around. And in such a clumsy fashion that I'll have to explain that I've been referring to writing rather than racing. It's OK, Lesher, just get it out of your system now.

Since race director Tim Dwyer would be heading out the next day for a hectic schedule of racing in the Pacific Northwest, he opted to shorten the course slightly to an even ten miles. We'd head out from the dock of Conanicut Yacht Club, cross Jamestown Harbor, pass the House on the Rock and Fort Wetherill, slice diagonally across the bottom of Conanicut Island to the Beavertail can, then reverse our course. Jamestown local Bob Wright indicated that earlier in the day there had been a little bump off Beavertail. With winds increasing from the southeast throughout the day, we could expect slightly more challenging conditions by the time we got to the turn-around.

Surveying the field of 16 paddlers, I found myself in a classic Goldilocks situation. If it was too rough, downwind glutton Eric Costanzo would eat my porridge. If it was not rough enough, flatwater whiz Mike Dostal would, uh... short-sheet my bed? I could only pray that the race would go better than this dead-end analogy.

Nobody's really comfortable with Tim's pre-race "Tickle Test", but it's a long-standing Double Beaver tradition.
Once Tim had briefed us on the course and absolved us of our sins (just in case), we hit the water. At the Sakonnet River Race, I had let Mike get away at the start and spent the next 45 minutes trying to close the gap he had established in the first half mile. That chase turned out to be fruitless, of course, since after I caught him, he proceeded to open up a new and lethal lead. At Jamestown I was determined to limit the number of times I watched impotently as Mike receded into the distance to just once. Upon further reflection, it would have been easier to just get that over with at the start and then not bother trying to catch him, but at the time it seemed important that I hang on for at least a token span after the gun. I couldn't. Fortunately, Eric and Andrius Zinkevichus could. Through a series of desperate lunges, I managed to catch on Andrius' wash. I warmed up in the on deck position for a moment before sliding into home base of a diamond draft pattern.

I had just tucked my paddle under the bungees in preparation for a quick nap when Andrius got picked off at first base, causing our now-unstable diamond to collapse into a line - Mike, Eric, me, then Andrius. A few moments later, when it looked like Eric's dedication to keeping me in contact with Mike might be wavering, I pulled ahead into the second slot. That's how we stayed until reaching the House on the Rock. With teary promises to write one another, we separated to pursue our individual destinies.

Just seeing the gentle waves in Jamestown Harbor, Mike felt so woozy he had to take a seat.
Tim had coerced his son Finn into photographing the race for posterity from the Dwyer runabout. "For posterity" is usually just an expression, but if past Jamestown races were any example, no currently living human would ever see these pictures. We can only hope that some historian will uncover them in the far future, using them to bolster his controversial theories regarding the geriatric hobbies of early 21st century New Englanders. Up ahead, the camera boat awaited the approach of the lead pack.

I've always been confounded by those competitors who always manage to throw a jaunty smile the way of the photographer. Mid-race pictures of Francisco Urena at the Blackburn, for example, always look like something torn from an adventure-oriented sportswear catalog. Photos of me, on the other hand, are used in training manuals to desensitize battlefield medics. Ancient Egyptians used a hook to remove the brains through a pharaoh's nose prior to mummification. In race photos, my expression looks like I suddenly woke up during such a process. Since Francisco wasn't there for his glamour shot, I decided to do my best to emulate his example. Lacking the raw materials (as Mary Beth is fond of reminding me), I was really going to have to sell it. As I passed the camera boat, I dialed the charm up to 11.

(Photo courtesy of Finn Dwyer's distant descendants)
I think you'll agree... I was looking in the general direction of the camera. Now get out there and save some lives!

After rounding Bull Point, we had to haul ourselves upwind on the 3.5 mile open-water trek to the Beavertail can. With no real hope of ducking out of the headwind, the smart navigation choice was to take a direct line. Or - even better - to swing out wide left to catch a ride on the outgoing tide. Seeing a chance to seize home field advantage prior to the race, Wesley had cleverly dissuaded competitors from choosing this option by loudly mocking the "clueless losers" that had taken a similar line in 2016. He may not have used those exact words, but I, for one, was not going to risk belittlement at next year's race. I tried to stay on a straight line, but my GPS shows that I consistently drifted right to avoid Wesley's scorn.

Mike started out even more skittish, staying closer to shore. Emboldened by my example, however, he soon angled over to join me. Paddling side by side (ish) over the next three miles, I found it increasingly difficult to understand why Mike refused to yield to my characterization of him as a fair-weather, flat-water, fancy-pants ICF paddler incapable of managing real ocean conditions. The sea was getting livelier by measure as we approached the Beavertail can, yet there he was, doing a serviceable impression of an actual surfskier. The other possibility - that we were equally deficient in rough water skills - briefly crossed my mind, but was dismissed by my ego as ludicrous twaddle. After all, isn't nearly 5% of my training on the ocean?
As Mike rounded the can a couple of lengths ahead, I graciously conceded that he was nearly as fast as me in confused upwind conditions. But downwind... surely that's where the men would be separated from the boys. And, seeing Eric's predatory V12 take the turn less than a minute behind us, I feared both Mike and I might be the ones marched off to the iPad factory. From repeated examples, I know how fast Eric can close a downwind gap.

After the turn, it seemed that Mike's facade of ocean competence might be cracking. I managed to catch a few runners and pull a couple of lengths ahead. The natural order was being restored. Confidence swelling, I started calculating how much of a lead would be sufficient to hold off Mike once we reached the calm waters of Jamestown Harbor. While struggling with the long division, I looked up to notice that I was no longer in the lead. This, of course, simplified the problem. With Mike slowly pulling away over the course of the next mile, I could concentrate all of my efforts on holding off Eric.

Based on this one instant from my GoPro video, you should go ahead and assume that I spent quite a bit of time in the lead.
Although there were plenty of runs to be had, the opposing tidal current siphoned most of the satisfaction from them. My treasonous GPS was all but ignoring my surfing efforts, registering a consistently sluggish pace whenever I glanced down. Panic was setting in. I expected to see Eric nose into view at any moment, and started calculating how much of a handicap I could afford to grant him entering the flat final stretch. Despite triple-checking the math, the answer kept coming out "diddly-squat". Given how easily Eric had stayed with Mike and me on the outward leg in Jamestown Harbor, I couldn't count on out-distancing him on the return.

I never caught sight of Eric behind me, but he told me afterwards that he had closed to within a few lengths on the downwind. With Mike perhaps a minute ahead, I rounded Bull Point and passed by the House on the Rocks. I thought I might be able to make up a little time by plotting a course through the mooring field rather than skirting outside as Mike was doing, but ended up ceding another 30 seconds in the final mile. Eric finished less than 45 seconds behind me, followed soon after by disturbingly-poised rookie Chris Quinn. Reaping the benefits of his Blackburn training program (and having reserved the best navigational lines for his personal use), Wesley took fifth place. Mary Beth swept the women's division, while John Redos took home the OC-1 crown.

In a private awards ceremony, Eric was promoted to Vice Admiral of Beverages.
All other things being equal, I'd have little choice but to formally rescind all the defamatory statements I've published about Mike's open-water abilities. And also a bunch I've written on motivational Post-It notes around the house. However... After the race, Mike asked me how hard I was able to push during the rougher portion of the race. When I answered "90 to 95%", the crest-fallen look on his face revealed the bitter truth. His effort was much lower! Mike was more unstable in conditions, but he's got so much extra power that he still trounced me. I'm not sure exactly why I should take solace in this, but I do. And all my previous statements still stand!

Tim and Bob had prepared engraved pint glasses for all the participants. And since you can't spell "laser-etched" without "lesher", the design thoughtfully included my silhouette. I'm truly touched by the gesture. And I assume the royalty check is in the mail. With pizza, chips, cookies, and shandies flowing liberally on the beach, the after-party quickly deteriorated into a wrestling match for the door prizes generously donated by Epic. Mary Beth and I fight dirty, so we walked away with a new paddle, a $100 gift certificate, and two of Kirk Olsen's toes.

I captured this picture just seconds before Andrius was whisked away.
Thanks to Tim and family. They've yet to learn that if they keep treating the paddling community so well, we're just going to keep dropping in. Like, say, in three weeks. Dibs on the sun room!

While some of us will be heading out to Oregon to race in the Gorge, the Blackburn Challenge beckons the rest. You can still register through July 19. While you've got that credit card out, might as well preregister at PaddleGuru for the Battle of the Bay on July 29 (at $15 it's the bargain of the season). And since you're now officially on a spending spree, you'll want to sign up for Sean Rice's half-day Saturday clinic or full-day advanced Sunday clinic. Details at PaddleLife, registration at Eventzilla.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Casco Bay Challenge: Spring Tide

Eric McNett introduced the Casco Bay Challenge in 2013, welcoming the paddling community into his magnificent backyard playground. There's no denying Maine's beauty. But nobody could have imagined that they would deliberately keep signing up year after year for a 16.5 mile race that arrives at about the point in the season where an extended Saturday nap would be more appropriate. Yet here I stood with Chris Sherwood and Joe Shaw, about to embark on our fifth trip across Casco Bay. Mary Beth, having skipped the inaugural year to give the fog a chance to dissipate, was looking at her fourth voyage. We'd be paddling from Willard Beach in South Portland to Mere Point Boat Launch, a few miles south of Brunswick. You're channeled in more-or-less the right direction by a series of islands, but that doesn't stop you from second-guessing your navigation decisions until your boat's on the car at the finish.

You may not have read the telegram, but Maine recently split from EST/EDT to form their own time zone.
In the days preceding the race, there was some concern that afternoon thunderstorms might put the kibosh on the competition. Given the man in charge, however, any apprehensions on this front were baseless. If an bottomless 500 meter wide whirlpool opened up in the middle of Casco Bay, Eric would simply rename the race the Maelstrom Classic, shoo us off into the vortex, and yell ambiguously that he'd see us on the other side. Fortunately, the forecast lightened as the race approached, ultimately resolving to a beautiful day with partly cloudy skies.

With 9 surfskis, 10 outrigger canoes, and a SUP, the Casco Bay Challenge would be a cozy affair this year. While the race has drawn as many as 25 skis in the past, all that talk about maelstroms has apparently scared off all but the heartiest paddlers. This just goes to show how poorly people evaluate risks. With only three lost paddlers in the first four years of the race, you're more likely to be maimed in a moose-related accident on the way to the race than you are to disappear at sea. So come on up next year and help stem the population explosion that has downtown Portland overrun by antlered menaces.

You don't usually see this kind of fashion sense among paddlers.
Two years ago, a horde of well-mannered Canadians swept down upon the race in an attempt to silence their unruly neighbors. Flatwater specialists Neil Lang and Robert Lang finished fifth and sixth that year, despite my chants of "USA! USA!" from the vaunted seventh position. Robert returned this year, driving down with four-time Blackburn veteran Tim Milligan. Given that Robert will be representing Canada in the 60-64 age group at the Marathon World Championships this fall, he seemed like the man to beat - even in ocean conditions. I also couldn't rule out Joe, for whom 16.5 miles is a light pre-breakfast paddle.

Turning on my GPS after launching my boat, I was startled to find that I was technically dead. Until I realized that I had just forgotten my heart rate strap - an uncharacteristic oversight. Since I rely heavily on heart rate to gauge my effort (I'm likely to answer "10" to any question about perceived effort, even while lounging on the sofa), I'd be paddling blind. Or, at least, paddling dumb.

Tim and Robert ignored my pleas to "do something Canadian" for the photo. Or did they?
After sending the lone SUP out as a sacrificial offering for any bloodthirsty ferry captains on duty, Eric pointed us in the right direction and dispatched us on our way. We were starting an hour after spring tide. As Chris helpfully pointed out beforehand, this meant that as we approached the finish in a couple of hours, we'd be struggling against a massive outgoing current. Although Max Ebb would start pummeling us soon enough, in theory we'd enjoy a tidal boost for the first few miles.

The initial mile was a bit confused from boat wakes, but I was able to work some small runners to hop out to a quick lead. I noticed that quite a few people were angling towards the Diamond Islands, but I stayed out closer to Peaks Island. As we gained protective cover from the open ocean, the Bay flattened out and my speed started to drop. Given that the tide was supposed to be on our side and yet I was operating a few tenths of an mph below my expected flatwater speed, I suspected weeds. I stopped and back-paddled a few strokes. Much like my 11th grade career aptitude test, the results were inconclusive (unless you count "nothing that involves sharp edges" as definitive). This was to be a recurring theme. I had on a larger rudder than usual and there was a fair amount of floating vegetation, but I'm guessing that at least three-quarters of my dozen or so stops were for phantom weeds.

I could see a line of paddlers back a few lengths way to the left, but I could never quite convince myself that they were on a better line. I made a couple of half-hearted efforts to veer in that direction, but since I never committed to a full-out course change, ended up cutting a middle path among the islands. The water was now very calm. With little else to work with, I had to get resourceful in exploiting the occasional boat wakes that came by - timing my deweeding breaks so that I could recycle those waves.

For no apparent reason a following current picked up when I was adjacent to Long Island, along with some glassy swells. With the sun reflecting off the wobbling and glossy surface, concentrating too hard on identifying the crests and troughs was a recipe for nausea, so I had to paddle mostly by feel. My steady-state speed jumped by more than a mile per hour. Within ten minutes or so, however, the helpful current started turning on me. I fought desperately to keep the pace up, my heart pounding hard enough to register a signal on the GPS even without a transmitter. Fish started floating to the surface, stunned by the concussive beat, but the effort was to no avail.
Only five miles into the race, and now the spiteful current was wholly against us. Despite my earlier (and later) speculation that staying left was the better route, I angled closer to Chebeague Island on the right to escape the flow. Nope. And I had to waste more effort swinging wide to avoid the shallows around Division Point. I'd estimate the current at around a mile per hour from mile 7 to 12, stepping up gradually from there. I wasn't going any slower than I would have been paddling into a strong breeze with a neutral tide, but because there was no tangible evidence as to why I was having trouble breaking 6 mph, it felt much more dispiriting. Also, it was hot and I hadn't packed enough water. By mile 13, I was downright listless.

The entrance to Merepoint Bay was guarded by two vast unbroken arcs of seaweed, separated by perhaps a half mile. The Circles of Hell. I had sworn earlier that I'd be damned if I let Robert catch me again, but seemingly this was one of those do/don't invariant scenarios you hear about. I searched anxiously for a breach in the first of these floating barriers, but ultimately had to plow through and immediately deweed. When I got back up to speed (such as it was) and saw the next barricade curving ahead, the last few drops of my morale evaporated. Momentum was the one thing in life I could call my own, and now that too was going to be taken from me. An unrefreshing wave of despair washed over me. Speed bleeding off with each stroke, I made it through the flotsam. After reversing to remove the bountiful harvest from my rudder, I looked around from a stop to get a rough estimate of how many people would be passing me in the final mile. I saw nobody, but that was hardly a relief. It just meant that I'd have to suffer a hard push before being caught unaware by a descending fleet.

As it turns out, none of that happened. The hard push was more of a lethargic drag. And the fleet graciously waited until I had finished to come pouring in. It took me 25 minutes longer than last year, in a time only marginally slower than my fastest Blackburn. Indefatigable Joe was the second ski to finish, with Robert claiming third. On the women's side, Kathleen McNamee won and Mary Beth took the silver. In a year in which almost every other repeat paddler added 15+ minutes to their time, Luke Rhodes topped the OC-1 field by shaving 8 minutes off his 2016 time, taking the second overall position. Mark Lessard and Andy Hall repeated as OC-2 champs, while Mark Preece persevered on his SUP.

Attempts to resuscitate me were met with grumpy refusals.
While professing empathy, I was inwardly delighted to find that many other paddlers had also wallowed miserably on the course. The current, the heat, the weeds, and the mesmerizing stretches of glassiness had taken their toll. Even a sighting of the happy-go-lucky seals on Bustins Ledge elicited only the merest blip of cheer. There was a general consensus that the suffering was less acute along a left course line, but if half the fun of a race is complaining about it afterwards, those foolhardy competitors short-changed themselves. If complaining isn't half the fun, I may need to rethink my life strategy.

Thanks to the McNett family for carrying on the tradition of hosting us for a memorable day in Maine.

On to the next race! Due to climate change, the Jamestown Double Beaver will be blossoming several weeks earlier than usual. You must preregister for the July 8 race through PaddleGuru. Even if you have no plans to race, why not throw a few bucks in the pot so that Tim can upgrade to an open bar at the after-party?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ride the Bull: The One That Got Away

Back in 2013, Wesley and Tim took advantage of Rhode Island's generous tax incentive program to bring the Ride the Bull race to New England's 6th largest state ("Small in Stature.  Big in Hea... Hey, give me back my lunch money!").  Situated in the tempestuous waters off the southern coast of Conanicut Island, this race is designed with a single goal in mind - to test our ability to follow complicated navigation directions.  No, wait, that can't be right.  Where's that brochure?  Ah... right. To prove our rough water mettle!  It's the Tough Mudder of surfski racing, without quite as many electric shock obstacles.

Despite its reputation as being little more than the wattle of Massachusetts, Rhode Island does have its charms.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)
Due to a temporary shortage of area paddlers (note to those lily-dippers who skipped the race due to "family obligations" - no kid ever grew up to say "I wish my father would have been there when I woke up from brain surgery"), we were forced to take drastic measures - shipping in replacement racers from central New York.  John Hair, Todd Furstoss, and Jim Mallory emerged blinking from their crates, having been carefully packaged the previous day.  In an unfortunate delivery blunder, Hawaiian Ed Joy also found himself in the wrong island state.

Twenty years ago, Ed was a regular at the Blackburn Challenge, notching up four wins over a six year period.  Before the race, he confided to me that he would trade all those wins for a more prestigious Ride the Bull crown.  It turns out that was hollow bluster, however.  Efforts to swap my 2016 RTB win for a single Blackburn triumph were rebuffed, even when I sweetened the pot by throwing in a couple of second place finishes at Sakonnet River, a seventh place at Lighthouse-to-Lighthouse, and a hard-earned DNF at the now defunct Kettle Island Run - a real collector's item.  Based on his past East Coast performances and more recent finishes in Hawaii (with Borys ahead, but within a half-dozen coconut throws), Ed was the odds-on favorite on Narragansett Bay.  However, I also anticipated strong performances by Jim, John, Chris Laughlin, and Mike Florio.

Wesley's off-color jokes at the captains meeting fell just four paddlers short of being an unqualified success.
Conditions on race day were mild for the area, but still more challenging than anything we had raced in yet this season.  Last year I had wisely opted for my V10 Sport, and I was seconds away from pulling out of our driveway with the Sport again.  But when an urgent text from Tim informed me that in his 73 years (he looks good, I agree, but based on his grandpappy-level of technological ineptitude, you shouldn't be too surprised), he had never seen water so calm.  Seeing the text over my shoulder, Mary Beth threw herself on my V14 like a sergeant taking a hand grenade for her squad.  I'd have to make her proud in the V10.

In its short four year history, Ride the Bull has included twenty-seven different courses.  This, of course, is due to the race organizers' progressive "pick your own route" policy.  Paddlers were free to wander where whimsy directed them, provided that no more than 15% of their journey was of the spiritual variety.  Times have changed, however.  In an authoritarian effort to stifle originality and drain all the joie clean out of our vivres (without anesthetic, I'll add), Wesley and Tim insisted that all paddlers stick to the designated course.  To ensure that everyone complied, we'd complete two laps in a constrained area where a surveillance boat could more easily monitor us for creative route adjustments.  In an act of futile (but satisfying) rebellion, during the captains meeting we collectively feigned idiocy in failing to comprehend the instructions.  An increasingly frustrated Tim only caught on after the fourth question about whether we should keep buoy G7 to our left, our port, or just round it in a counterclockwise direction.

Was I the only one who wasn't filled with confidence by this?
The course would take us out of West Cove, around a rock inside Mackerel Cove, outside of buoy G7 (huh - none of those options), around buoy G11, and back inside the rocky island at the mouth of West Cove.  We'd then repeat that.  The course would take us out of West Cove, around a rock inside Mackerel Cove, outside of buoy G7 (huh - still none of those options), around buoy G11, and back inside the rocky island at the mouth of West Cove.  We'd break out of this cycle of despair after the second lap and zoom/limp out around G7 (paddlers choice) before returning to the launch area to finish.  Although this path would take us just shy of 9 miles, you'd never be out of narking distance of a fellow paddler should you be tempted to defy authority.

Sixteen paddlers soon assembled in West Cove for a rolling start.  There was some polite jostling as we made an immediate right turn around Start Rock (not yet the official name, but Wesley is calling in a few favors), but no permanent damage was done.  After the turn, Jim, Chris Laughlin, and Andrius Zinkevichus formed one pack on the right, while Tim led his own squad further from shore. Nobody was quite sure what the hell Ed was doing, but he was doing it alone out front.

Despite the extra miles it entailed, Jim, John, and Chris were pleased that they opted for the "Architecture of Jamestown" tour.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)
Initially, Ed was on a line that would take him into the shallow bay preceding Mackerel Cove.  After a couple of us yelled "Left!  Left!", he turned nearly 90 degrees in that direction.  As near as I could tell, his new heading would have him exiting Narragansett Bay and making landfall in Cuba by mid-August.  Naturally, a couple of us hollered "Right!" Which brought him shooting back diagonally across the front of the pack.  Was he pranking us?  Incapable of incremental adjustment?  Drunk?  For the safety of all involved, we stopped shouting instructions.

I managed to pull ahead of Jim, Chris, and Andrius as we approached the turn into Mackerel Cove.  I was able to trap Ed between my boat and the shore, which effectively kept him wandering too far off course.  We'd spend the next seven miles within a few boat lengths of one another, trading the lead a half-dozen times.  Although our conversation was mostly one-sided - me providing information on the next way point during the first lap - I feel like we truly bonded during our time together.  Not quite so much that I need to send him a Christmas card, but enough to ensure we have a place to stay the next time we want to spend a couple months in Hawaii.

Ed, me, and the only buoy in Narragansett Bay that we were strictly prohibited from rounding.  I'm pretty sure all that background activity was added in post-production.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)
I'm happy to say that while accompanying Ed around the course, I also cracked the mystery of his seemingly erratic behavior after the start.  Lobster in the footwell.  We locals are accustomed to dealing with the vexing crustaceans, but Ed has been away a long time.  I jest, of course.  It's like riding a bike.  With claws.  It turns out that his right-angle turns were only coincidentally related to our shouted directions.  Ed is just 30 degrees more aggressive than most of us when it comes to chasing runners.  And better at catching them.  Him angling out and shooting ahead was a frequent refrain during our travels.
The remainder of the first lap passed uneventfully.  During the stretch from G7 to G11, we got an assist from the incoming tide along with a few pleasant rides.  As we neared the House on the Rock, the hard edges on the water got smoothed out in a disconcerting way.  Flat and glassy... fine.  Lumpy and glassy... unnatural and nausea-inducing.  At the G11 turn, I could see that Chris L, John, and Jim were in pursuit.  During the second lap, I struggled more to keep up with Ed - particularly in the beamy section between Mackerel Cove and G7 - but managed to pull even again as we returned to the House on the Rock.  At the second G11 turn, Jim was now in third, but it seemed like we had widened our lead a bit.

Patches of floating weeds were abundant along the course.  Although you could avoid some by planning ahead, others were too extensive to maneuver around without DQing yourself.  One particularly large mass near Bull Point supported a significant population who were in the process of applying for statehood.  Several paddlers were forced to deweed themselves, none in more dramatic fashion than Mike.  Unable to shake a virulent clump via conventional means, he dismounted to manually remove them, only to have the rudder harness slip off while the boat was inverted.  Without steering, Mike was forced to withdraw.

Through careful analysis of my video, I finally discovered the reason for the power asymmetry in my stroke.  Elbow too low on the right.
My weedless rudder kept its promise, but it provided no protection against a more insidious foe. While passing the pier at Fort Cove on the second lap - about 1.5 miles from the finish - I caught a fluorescent fishing line with my paddle.  I quickly untangled myself, but apparently the mono-filament had also caught on my rudder.  A dozen stroke later, I had taken up the slack in the line, the fisherman on the other end set the hook, and the fight was on.  Although I couldn't see him, I'm guessing this guy was strapped into a fighting chair on the pier, because my attempts to pull him in were futile.  I tried back-paddling to free myself, to no avail.  Unless I got help fast, I'd soon find myself mounted and hanging in a Jamestown bar.  Some of my surfski buddies would show up occasionally to toast my memory ("I'm right here guys!  Just help me down!  Guys!"), but they'd gradually forget me, I'd grow dusty and maybe lose a couple of fingers, and when the bar gets converted into a yoga studio twenty years down the road, I'd end up in a dumpster fending off raccoons.  Fortunately, Ed rescued me from this musty fate, rafting alongside and prying the line free.

With jeers and curses following from the jetty, we eventually moved onward.  Although Jim had drawn within a few lengths during the fishing line delay, I assumed that the lively seas would continue to throw him off his game enough that he wouldn't be a threat.  With Ed slowly pulling ahead in the final out-and-back leg to G7, my concentration was in keeping him close enough to be able to comfortably use the phrases "nipped at the line" or "nosed out" when writing about my inevitable defeat.  Let's say 20 lengths or less.  During the upwind run to G7 I got the peripheral impression that Jim might not be complying with my assumptions, but I couldn't afford to divert my attention from Ed ahead.

Having lost their way, Tim and Chris search frantically for the course.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)
By the time I hove around the buoy, Jim was finally within spitting distance.  In retrospect, that effort to demonstrate my scorn at his open-water abilities kind of back-fired.  A highly motivated Jim proceeded to school me during the half-mile downwind back to the finish.  In our matching V10s, he looked more comfortable than I felt.  For a time I worried that by stoking Jim's competitive fire to such a degree I might have actually endangered Ed's lead (which seemed a harsh repayment for his sportsmanship), but the latter held on to snag the victory.  Only twenty seconds after I claimed third place, a hard-charging Chris L pulled in, with John less than a minute behind him.  Mary Beth easily took the top spot among woman.

Despite the mellower-than-usual conditions, the latest course was a success.  Everyone agreed that being able to track the progress of their fellow paddlers along the loop course somehow fostered both competition and esprit de corps (to replace that lost joie).  It's a shame that the bylaws require that a novel route be devised for 2018, but what can you do?  Get involved.  Write your local race organizer.  Change begins with you!  That's not really relevant here.  But stasis also begins with you!

Wesley starts the third lap.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)
Thanks to Wesley and Tim for launching us into the summer season with pizzazz.  And to photographer Pat Sheehan, who captured the beautiful on-the-water shots highlighted above (and many more - check them out).

Next up on is Eric McNett's 17 mile pleasure cruise through the magical islands of Maine's Casco Bay. Remember, if you just keep heading northeast, you'll probably end up back on the mainland.  That's June 24.  Register for the Casco Bay Challenge at PaddleGuru.  We then have a weekend off before Tim's Jamestown Double Beaver on July 8.  Guess where to register...  That's right, at participating Taco Bells.  If you can't find one, try PaddleGuru.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sakonnet River Race: Catch and Release

With Mary Beth away on her annual June pilgrimage to "where you're not", I was desperate to recruit someone to fill my open Goodboy rack for the trip down to Wesley's 10th Annual Sakonnet River Race and Pizza Jamboree.  If I couldn't find a willing passenger, I'd be forced to bring both the V10 and V14.  A regrettable race-time decision would inevitably follow.  I ultimately had to offer $500 and a couple of meal vouchers, but I finally convinced Bruce Deltorchio to join me.  I was looking forward to some lively conversation, but he told me that'd be an extra $250.  When I protested that I was out of cash, he slipped on his noise cancelling headphones and worked on a Sudoku for the entire trip.

Up until a couple of days before the race, it looked like the Rhode Island economy would be suffering a harsh blow.  With nearly two-thirds of its tourist revenues derived from surfski racing, the prospect of only a half-dozen out-of-staters showing up at the Sakonnet had the governor slashing quahog subsidies left and right.  Fortunately, a slew of  (drunken, I'm guessing) late night registrations pushed the state ledgers back into the black. With the top 5 finishers from the Narrow River Race (Mike Dostal, Mike Florio, Jan Lupinski, Chris Quinn, and me) meeting again, the race promised to be challenging.  Especially for those of us dipping our toes into the Grand Fogey class.  Despite the fact that any of those guys might beat me, I was focused on Dostal.

It's tough to say when exactly our sport was taken over by bad-asses, but for those of us who remain stubbornly awkward and self-conscious, it can be a little intimidating.
Heck, these outlaws even got their own walking-towards-the-camera-in-slow motion shot.
OK, now.  I feel like things may be getting a little out of hand.
Dorky, wizened, and virtually lipless.  Now that's a New England surfskier.
I've raced against Mike D ten times previously.  In four of those races, he was in an ICF boat.  And, based on our relative performances, I have to assume that I was in an anchored barge.  In the other six ski-to-ski meetings, however, I emerged victorious.  Granted, that was partly due to teaming up with Ben Pigott to dump Mike in the Annisquam River during last year's Blackburn.  But mostly due to the fact that Mike spends more time standing atop podiums at the National Marathon Championships than he does sitting in a surfski bucket.  Unless conditions picked up considerably (or Ben made a surprise visit), however, my Dostal defeating streak was in real jeopardy.

I was busy taking photographs during the brief captain's meeting, so I didn't really catch many of the details.  There were plenty of wild gestures and dire warnings, of that I'm confident.  I believe the gist was this: From McCorrie Point, paddle 6.25 miles towards the ocean, turn on Mooring Buoy 114 (you gotta try their calamari), then return back to the start to get ready for the 2018 race.  We grabbed our boats and hit the water, eager to show off our comprehension skills.  Unfortunately, Jim Hoffman suffered a pre-race rudder failure on the beach.  As the rest of us arranged ourselves at the starting line, he circled helplessly in the sand like a three-flippered turtle.

While gesticulating during the captains meeting, Wesley inadvertently called in a drone strike.
Wesley soon gave us the one-minute warning, followed by a pair of thirty-second warnings (I might have heard one of those wrong), a ten-second warning, some advice on cleaning cast-iron pans, and the start signal.  Mike D seized the immediate lead, quickly separating himself from pursuers Andrius Zinkevichus and Jan.  Playing it cool (let's say), I hung back to see how the field would develop.  Once I had a pretty good sense of who had better starts than me, I got to work erasing those deficits.  I slowly moved past Chris Q, Mike F, Tim D, Chris Chappell, Joe Shaw, and Chris Laughlin to get to open water behind the three leaders.  Although I didn't realize it at the time, the entire field behind me was cutting shoreward as I successfully pursued and passed Andrius.

Mike and Jan seemed to have established a wary truce at 6 or 8 lengths apart, with Jan perhaps 10 lengths ahead of me on a wide line.  Having now caught a glimpse of a train of skis I guessed was being led by Mike F or Chris Q on an inner line, I decided to split their paths.  When we reached Black Point, 3.5 miles into the race, we'd all necessarily be forced together to follow the shore towards the Third Beach turn-around.

I caught Jan and eased alongside just before Black Point.  We didn't speak, but simply exchanged somber nods.  We knew what it would take to catch Mike.  We'd be plumbing the depths of our courage and resolve, but in the end, we could take pride in knowing that we gave our everything to the chase.  We would no longer be able to physically hold our heads high by the time we completed the race, but perhaps someone could prop us upright and jury-rig some type of neck braces.  I knew they'd also draw obscene pictures on our faces, but hoped they'd spare our eyeballs.  I took the first pull.

By the time we caught Mike just after mile 6, Jan had provided me with a veritable stroke clinic.  My own private one-on-one lesson.  And, thoughtful an instructor as Mr. Lupinski is, he positioned himself so that 100% of his tutorial was recorded on my backward-facing GoPro for later review.  Unfortunately, the accompanying audio track was pretty much ruined by an off-camera ventriloquist griping about "good-for-nothing freeloaders".

After the race, impressed with my ability to maintain a wildly inefficient rate of 106 strokes per minute, Jan told me I had the heart and paddling technique of a horse.
A lot of you scoffed when I had those guys from MIT install a laser interferometer in the bow of my boat.  Although more generally used for quality control during microchip fabrication or for detecting minuscule shifts associated with gravity waves, I figured its nanometer-scale accuracy would come in handy when inching up on competitors.  Mike remained stubbornly fixed ahead at 51.2063283 meters for several minutes before the distance finally started to tick down.  51.2063282, 51.2063281, 8.8888888 (saltwater and delicate electronic equipment - a bad combination), 51.2063280.  You get the idea.  51.2063279.  I needed to step it up a notch if I wanted to catch him before the sun ran out of fuel.

Eventually, some of Jan's peripheral instruction must have taken hold, because we began to close on the leader at a rate that a mobility-impaired slug would have found respectable.  During this phase I made sure to stay hydrated - leaving that mucus trail really depletes your liquids.  To his credit, Mike contributed his fair share to our gains.  He insisted on taking lines that angled him away from the direct path along the shore, periodically missing a stroke to look over his shoulder for the pursuit team's approval of his route.  My mouth offered steadfast support ("Looking good!  Might want to bear a little more away from land!") but my body language ("I'm paddling in a different direction than you!") apparently spoke louder.  Picking up on these non-verbal cues, Mike would temporarily adjust his course.  His saw-tooth track helped us to ratchet closer, however.

After a particularly long stay at 6.2601148 meters back - apparently stuck on the first harmonic of Mike's wake - I finally eased onto his wash.  Jan, his lesson plan complete, slid from my side draft to a stern draft.  He lingered there for a few moments, but the slime made it difficult for him to maintain a grip and he slipped off.  I was only able to enjoy few hundred meters resting behind Mike before I suffered the same fate.  As we swung around the turn buoy in less-than-graceful arcs, he managed to accelerate away from me.  I was chasing again, but this time without Jan's reassuring presence.  I held steady at a couple lengths back for perhaps a half-mile, but was soon falling further and further back.  The interferometer reading was eventually increasing at such a fast rate I felt compelled to periodically douse it with water lest it melt down.
The trip back to McCorrie Point was frustrating.  Although a mild incoming tide should have been helping us, attempts to exploit this flow were met with wind resistance.  After tapping my GPS to ensure the needle wasn't stuck, I determined that a better strategy would be to tuck out of the wind.  I quickly discovered how difficult it is to paddle while curled into a streamlined fetal position, so instead cut left to let the shore break the wind.  During this process, I noticed the dark silhouette of Jan's boat gliding smoothly on an even further inside line, back a dozen lengths or so.  Jan himself was nowhere to be seen, which gives you some idea of just how effective a paddler he is.

Mike continued to surge ahead on a more central line.  Now that I was no longer directly behind him, I had to use seat-of-the-pants estimates of how fast his lead was increasing.  Only by applying some creative trigonometry during these assessments did I manage to maintain a splinter of morale.  When Mike passed McCorrie Point, however, I suspected that it would be difficult to make up a 400 meter deficit in the 200 meters left in Mike's race (barring a fortuitous spearfishing incident up ahead, of course).  I attempted to ramp up to the necessary 24 miles per hour, but fell just shy of the mark - practically handing Mike his first surfski victory.  And me my 6th consecutive second place finish at the Sakonnet.

Mike explains the finer points of bait-and-switch racing - get their hopes up in the first half by paddling out front at 70% effort, then crush their spirit by ramping up to 75% for the return leg.
After finishing, I looked over my shoulder to see how close Jan was, only to be surprised by Mike F. charging across the line to take third.  Nearly two minutes behind at the turn, he made up all but 25 seconds of that in the return leg.  Jan and Chris Q filled out the top five spots.  Leslie Chappell took the women's crown, with Olga Sydorenko close behind.  In an ultra-competitive doubles race, Mark Ceconi nosed across the line slightly ahead of Sean Milano - that despite the latter's last-minute attempt to clamber over the mid-deck into the lead.

As we enjoyed pizza and cookies, we compared our notes on the race.  Despite mellow conditions and a favorable slack tide, it was not a particularly fast year.  Everyone was in agreement that they, individually, had taken the worst line.  Not being one to rock the boat (at least, not intentionally), I joined the chorus in singing the deficiencies of my route.  My heart wasn't in it though.  I couldn't be too unhappy with my performance given the result.  Thanks to Wesley and Betsy for hosting another successful race on their backyard waterway.

If Mark and Sean don't make you smile, there's something wrong with you.  Or perhaps you just know too much about their dark past in the koala fighting rings of  Perth.
It's time to separate the wheat from the chaff.  On June 17, we'll toss a bunch of skis into the turbulent waters of the Ride the Bull course and see who floats to the top.  I'm hoping for that sweet spot - just rough enough to throw the Mikes off their games, but not chaotic enough to launch Tim D or Jim H onto the podium.  Wesley and Tim ask kindly that you sign up beforehand at PaddleGuru.  It's free.  If you fail to pre-register, you'll only be allowed to race if you bring me a sleeve of  Fig Newtons, something made out of jade, and five Susan B. Anthony dollars.  Why me?  Why those items?  Who can say.  But I'll remind you that this blog has always maintained, at best, a tenuous relation with reality.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Essex River Race: Timing Glitch

Although it's theoretically possible that a team of mathematicians, horologists, and astronomers could work through the byzantine calculations necessary to predict the exact date of the Essex River Race, I prefer to rely on the time-tested folk adage:  If Bob Capellini is standing on your porch holding a half-dozen home-made pizzas, it's the eve of the race.  I'd spent the last few weeks running to the front door every twenty minutes before, finally, the dinner-toting harbinger arrived.  I'm not sure exactly what Roger Gocking's subsequent appearance that evening presaged, but I wouldn't be surprised if we had an excellent tomato harvest.  Or a plague of starlings.  That's the fundamental problem with portents.

I've heard people say that the key to a successful Essex River Race is training.  Others maintain that navigation skills are more critical, given the estuary's shifting web of shallows.  Poppycock!  The next thing you know, somebody will be touting the advantages of proper stroke technique.  Or of not falling out of your boat seconds before the start.  No, the decisive factor to Essex performance has always been...  getting a good parking spot.  Having recently mastered the delicate art of securing the single best parking spot for the race (I don't want to get into details, but let's just say that town alderman Lionel Johnson has finally solved his "rabid possum in the mailbox" problem), I figured victory was all but assured.  While everyone else was trudging back and forth to their vehicles, I'd have my feet on the dash, eating cotton candy and listening to the inspirational comedy of the immortal Nipsey Russell.

So you can imagine my horror when I learned that the race venue had shifted to the Riversbend Restaurant ("Clams so fresh, you'll think you just harvested them yourself!  Because you did.  Here's a shovel.") at the Essex Marina.  My competitive advantage wiped out!  Not knowing the parking situation at the new location, our only hope was to get there Wednesday at around lunch-time and hope for the best.  Maybe bring along a couple o' possums as bargaining chips.

At first it's kind of cool to have curious paddlers hanging around where you can get a close look, but eventually you get tired of them crapping all over everything.  Hold on.  I may be thinking of geese.
The narrow residential road leading to the marina is festooned with colorful signs warning drivers that excessive speed will not be tolerated.  After nervously passing the fourth or fifth notice hinting at the kind of neighborhood vigilantism that might end up with me a foot shorter, my speedometer needle was somehow resting on empty.  Just to be safe, however, I put the car in neutral, pulled back just a smidge on the emergency brake, and had Mary Beth push the last half mile.

Despite the nostalgic skepticism of traditionalists who remember when the Essex race entailed building your boat on-site and then rushing to claim the prime clamming flats, the new venue turned out to be an improvement.  There was ample parking, sweeping views of the river, and better areas for milling about.  Additionally, the isolated location prevented restless competitors from drifting into Essex's many antique shops, where they'd inevitably miss the race while trying to find just the right weathervanes.  Of course, progress always leaves some behind.  I watched sadly as Bill Kuklinski aimlessly wandered in search of the tarring area, caulking mallet and oakum in hand.

Some people prefer to race against the best possible field, even if it means being soundly beaten by superior paddlers.  That's what motivates us to improve, they say.  Those people are fools.  Improving hurts.  Since losing also hurts, however, we're in a conundrum.  A logical solution to this dilemma is to just avoid competing against faster paddlers.  Do that and further improvement... well, that's just showing off.  So it was fortunate that Ben Piggot and Mike Dostal somehow got the impression that the race had been cancelled due to recent piranha activity on the river.  And that Jan Lupinski spent the weekend quarantined due to a bubonic plague scare.  And that Jesse Lishchuk was busy earning a spot on the national sprint team at the trials in Georgia (and also now appears on the no-fly list). Regrettably, Mike Florio never got the message that he needed to pick up his lottery winnings in Providence that morning.  And Hugh Pritchard?  Apparently he casually disregards dire fortune cookie warnings that mention him by name.

The backup at the ramp wasn't all bad.  It least it gave us extra time to work on our acts for the talent portion of the competition.
I don't know Hugh well, but he seems a decent chap.  He is soft-spoken, but an engaging conversationalist.  He dresses smartly.  If I were to ask you which paddler would be most likely to show up to race in a bow-tie and use the word "whomsoever", you'd invariably guess Hugh.  Then you and I would do a few minutes of cheesy "Hugh's on first" patter and maybe ridicule his accent, because that's the kind of shallow people we are.  I like Hugh.  I'm beginning to suspect, however, that Hugh may be evil. I can't put my finger exactly on why I feel this way, but it probably has something to do with his pre-race trash-talking.  Trash-talking is usually loud and coarse - the comic exaggeration is what makes it fun.  But as executed by Hugh, the disparagement is so subtle and so deftly administered that you don't even realize you've been mortally wounded until you look down and see the hilt of the dagger protruding from your ribs.  And there he stands, an amiable smile making you wonder if you've imagined the whole thing.  Also, I'm pretty sure I saw him strangling puppies in the parking lot.

After resolving a brief (and ironic, as it turns out) scare in which it seemed that the HPK division would be split into two heats, we were ready to race.  The marina has a single boat ramp, however, necessitating a regimented launch schedule.  When we finally got on the water, warm-up time was limited to a couple of brief runs under Route 133 and through the upriver marsh.  With most of the field heading to the start, Tim Dwyer and I decided to do one more pass under the bridge before turning to join everyone else.  Oops.

As Tim and I chatted leisurely rounding the final bend leading to the staging area, we were alarmed to see all of the other skis already arranged in starting positions up ahead.  Resisting the instinct to immediately tumble out of my boat, I checked my watch.  With six minutes to go until our scheduled 10:05 launch, I had plenty of time for my traditional ablution.  Tim yelled out "Hey guys, wait for us!" (which, for the purposes of this report only, you should imagine as being intoned in a little brother nasal whine) and then the field was off.

Tim and I paid a little extra for the platinum-level personalized start, but it was worth it to avoid the crowds.
We pursued.  Passing the starting line around 20 seconds later, the starter yelled out that we would be awarded our own personal times.  While I'll admit that did make me feel kind of special (I was hoping for 1:32am, but I'd be happy with almost anything), I didn't relish having to work my way through the pack in the winding, tide-narrowed river.  As it turned out, however, the skis spread out fairly quickly, and holes opened up where I needed them.  A few minutes into the race, I had pulled even with Kirk Olsen and Bruce Deltorchio, with a disheartening span of open water in front of us.  Finally getting a chance to look more than a boat or two ahead, I could see that Hugh and Mike had a significant lead on a chase troop consisting of Chris Quinn, Matt Drayer, John Hair, and Ben Randall.

Concentrating on scoping out the front runners in the distance, it took me a few seconds to register that the red blob in the foreground was the first of the massive six man rowing boats heading back towards the finish.  I angled right while Kirk and Bruce veered left, allowing the red juggernaut to continue plowing inexorably down the center of the channel.  Seconds later, I heard a lot of yelling.  A half-dozen boat lengths behind me, Tim Hudyncia had looked up to find himself about to be furrowed.  In the resulting mayhem, he capsized, had his paddle knocked from his grasp, and weathered the salty rebukes of the rowing crew.  With an assist from Chris Sherwood, Tim was able to recover his wits (and paddle) and continue racing.

Over the next five minutes I managed to reel in the chase pack.  And five minutes after that I exploited a slight navigational blunder by Mike to slip into the lead.   I had hoped by the time he and Hugh saw me sneak by an inside line that I'd be far enough ahead to prevent them from jumping on the draft, but that's not how things played out.  For the next mile, I had uninvited company on my stern.
Rounding the far point of Cross Island, Hugh made a bold move by cutting through rock-infested waters while Mike and I were forced to swing ridiculously wide after being caught on the wrong side of a conservative boat from an earlier heat.  Continuing to hug the shore, Hugh doubled down on his boat shredding gamble, parlaying it into four length lead.  A minute later, Mike tried to ride Hugh's winning streak, cutting inside a boulder to get on his inside line, only to grind to a momentary halt on an underwater ledge.  The house always wins.

A mile later, I had again caught Hugh.  As we paddled side by side, he launched into what I believe may have been a rehearsed monologue.  It was tough to make out over the pounding of my heart and my frequent cries of "Why, God?  Why?", so you'll (and Hugh'll) have to forgive me if the interpretation isn't spot-on accurate (or even all that close).  He seemed to be narrating an account of the competition in third person, with the announcer amazed that Pritchard - despite virtually no training and paddling at only 70% effort - was leading this far into the race.  The color commentator then jumped in to add that flawless technique and genetic superiority doubtless were contributing factors, especially in comparison to his troglodytic "rival" (setting down his paddle to actually gesture the air quotes).  Like I said, probably evil.

Hugh seemed entertained by our Verdi medley, but secretly he couldn't wait to get back to his lair.
Midway through his human interest background segment (I knew about the Olympics, but single-handedly eradicating hookworms in Ghana?), I finally managed to pull safely out of earshot.  I'd occasionally catch fragments of his elaborate taunt as we snaked through the Essex, but I made it to the finish before being overcome by demoralization.  Hugh and Mike came through in 15 second intervals to take the other podium spots.  In the women's race, Jen Kreamer edged Mary Beth for her inaugural win of the season, with first-time racer Olga Sydorenko taking third.  Bill, who has taken to retirement like a duck to a roasting pan, posted a convincing win in the SS20+ category over Ken Cooper and Bob. Another racing debutante, Karen Pischke, claimed the corresponding women's title.

We wrapped up the day with pizza, clams, and bacon-infused corn bread provided by Riversbend.  Apparently the bowls of melted butter were meant for the clams, but I found that by soaking the corn bread for a few minutes, I could cram a year's worth of cholesterol into just a couple of bites.  After a refreshingly brisk awards ceremony, a select crew of paddlers retired to an after-party at our nearby home, where we tricked them into painting our dining room.

With all the fresh blood at the Essex this year - Olga, Mike, Chris Q, John, Max, and others - the piranhas were in a real lather.
With ocean temperatures now warm enough to afford you up to 90 seconds of shivering lucidity after immersion, we've officially completed the river racing season.  So it's on to the Sakonnet River Race!  June 3.  You must pre-register at PaddleGuru.  Also.... If you find yourself on a Tuesday afternoon wondering how long you'd be willing to sit in rush hour traffic just to get in some gut-busting time on the ocean, why not find out?  Join us at Lynch Park in Beverly for the 12th season of the confusingly named Salem League.  Even if you're not planning on being a regular, it's a great chance to hone your racing skills and see Bill at peak grumpiness (don't worry, we confiscated his mallet).

Special thanks to Tim H, who, for the second year in a row, perceived that I was ill-prepared to start on the Essex, and pleaded fruitlessly for a delay.  That's the kind of gesture that makes me wish I could stop making fun of his culinary choices.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Run of the Charles: History Repeats

While a few masochistic hold-outs still suffer through the longer 19 and 9 mile courses of the Run of the Charles, the more portage-averse of us have settled into the 6 mile race like a long-lost shoe.  With 30+ surfskis participating, this would be the largest ever junior ROTC enrollment.  The entire graduating class of 2011 reunited for the occasion - former ski-cadets Chappell, Echols, Capellini, and Urena.  Francisco even brought his original boat, which is the oldest Stellar still on active commission in the New England fleet.

Your 2017 Run of the Charles field.  (photo courtesy of Bill Lesher)
Starting from Christian A. Herter Park we'd wind 2.5 miles down the Charles turn on a buoy, return a half mile past the start, then round a second buoy to head for the finish.  On the downstream leg of the race, you pass under 5 bridges.  Depending on your fatigue level, that number may increase dramatically on the upstream trip.  Remember to report discrepancies to the timekeeper after the race - you'll be credited for any extras.  With a light current and few opportunities to tuck out of the wind, navigational strategy at this race consists mostly of avoiding bridge abutments and staying clear of the odd duck (which is what we call Bill Kuklinski when he's out of earshot).

Before the race, I heard defending champion Jesse Lishchuk discussing a recent trial with the new Braca Xi (not sure if the model is a reference to the 14th letter in the Greek alphabet or the current president of China).  In praising the paddle, he mentioned that he was able to maintain 12.8 km/hour at his cruising pace of 85 strokes per minute in his ICF boat.  I don't know about you guys, but I need to get revved up to a turnover of at least 100 spm just to hold my position against a slight breeze.  Last year I obtained a Motionize sensor.  Not knowing about Eric McNett's inadvertent give-away promotion at the L2L, I paid full-price like a sucker.  I realized I had stroke power issues when the meters/stroke reading was displayed in scientific notation.  And not in a good way.  Fortunately, you can adjust the units.  It was too dispiriting to change to millimeters per stroke, so I went with meters per kilostroke.  I'm happy to report that after intensive strength training, I'm close to breaking into double digits.

Happiness is a pre-race ham and cheese sandwich.  And regret is that too.
Craig Impens and Ben Pigott - both of whom normally would be serious threats - had independently assured me that their early-season training had been perfunctory.  It seemed odd that they'd use that same term, but I took them at their word (and also put a down-payment on some can't-miss Jersey real estate that Craig was pushing).  Eric Costanzo had run the Bay Bridge Paddle in Maryland the day before (as had Jesse), so with any luck he'd still be recovering from crab cake withdrawal.  Jan Lupinski and Mike Florio - from them, I expected trouble.

Mike loomed large in my nightmares after a disconcerting 3rd place Narrow River finish in his debut surfski race.  It may take him a while to find his sea legs, but on the flat he'd again be a formidable fighter.  Exploiting the mystery surrounding himself as a newcomer, Mike holed up behind the tinted glass in the backseat of a car before the race, only to emerge into the chilly afternoon in his shorts moments before the race, letting his purple satin robe drop to the ground while throwing intimidating shadow strokes.  After the race, he'd reverse this process - returning to the car and declining all interview requests.  His publicist would later claim that this gamesmanship was actually indicative of Mike's lack of discernible body fat, combined with the fact that he forgot to bring long pants.  Only the most gullible among us bought this "I was cold" justification.

Quarantined to the car until the one o'clock race time, Mike was showing clear signs of cabin fever by 11:15.
Dodging the first wave of canoes to finish the 19 mile race, we warmed up and made our way to the starting line for an on-time departure.  Jesse immediately took point, with wing-man Jan in tow.  One of my New Year's resolutions - along with using fewer asides and parentheticals - was to stay well right of the left-leaning crowd on the initial bend of the ROTC.  Having embroiled myself in the bitter infighting along the left bank for the past three races, this time I'd take a more conservative route.  As one might expect, Tim Dwyer attempted to shepherd me back to the flock by angling gently to port in front of me and firing a few cutting Facebook posts across my bow.  I unfriended him, skipped a few strokes, and ducked behind his stern to liberty.

My dad hasn't quite gotten the hang of panorama mode. (photo courtesy of Bill Lesher)
Shortly before reaching the first bridge, I pulled ahead of a tight formation consisting of Craig, Eric, Chris Chappell, and Mike to move into 5th position (which was wreaking havoc with my circulation).  Jesse and Jan were already a good half-dozen lengths out front, with Ben and Andrius Zinkevichus giving independent chase.  A half mile later I had passed Andrius and pulled alongside Ben, sizing him up to determine exactly how much time that two-month old back at home had sapped from his training.  Thinking I saw some distinct signs of lethargy, I confidently made my move, only to find him locked onto a torpor-free starboard draft.  It took a half-mile and several concerted intervals to pry myself free from his grasp.  He would still manage to finish 5th, so I expect that once the kid is old enough to bungee to the back deck, father and son will be tearing up the race circuit.

Jesse and Jan continued out ahead by about ten lengths.  Although Jesse had been pulling for the first mile or so, now Jan was leading the pair.  Despite my efforts over the next mile, the stubborn gap between us remained constant.  After the turn, Jesse retook the lead.  As I straightened out to head back upstream, I glimpsed Mike charging towards the turn.  Given how fast he had closed on me in the final stretch of the Narrow River, I wasn't thrilled to find that he was within striking distance.

After duking it our for nearly an hour, Mary Beth and Jen decided to settle things on the race course. (photo courtesy of Bill Lesher)
Within a couple of minutes after the turn, Jesse had gapped Jan.  Over the next mile and a half, I whittled down Jan's lead by slowing carving off pieces from my life expectancy.  When I finally caught him at mile 4, I knew that it was critical to pass him with authority.  I couldn't let him know how much I was hurting.  While enjoying a brief rest on his draft, I girded my loins for the upcoming battle.  Apparently I was a little fuzzy on the meaning of "gird", because punching myself in the groin did nothing for boat morale.  Nevertheless, I peeled off to port and hurled myself directly into a stiff interval.  It was working!  I felt one eyeball bulging dangerously out of its socket and I was in real danger of suffering a kilostroke, but I managed to move along the shore inside of Jan into second place.  By forcing myself to maintain the interval until I was well into megastroke range, I hoped to ensure that he wouldn't grab my draft.
Chasing after Jesse seemed futile, but not every task needs to have a rational purpose driving it.  Shuffleboard.  Sudoku.  Showering.  And that's just the S's.  At least this pointless pursuit would keep me occupied until a minute or so from the end.  I'm going to try to avoid thinking of that as a metaphor for life.  As I passed the finish line on our way to the upstream turn, I heard cheers from the shore.  My parents, who insisted on attending the competition to "see if those years of piano lessons paid off", had overcome their disappointment at discovering the nature of the event to root me on. They remarked afterwards that I had always played with "a lot of passion", and that they were glad they could apply the same platitude to my paddling.

I was surprised to find that the second turn buoy was being patrolled by a sleek fishing boat with an electric trolling motor.  I'm no ichthyologist (at least, not since the state licensing board revoked my credentials following those sardine-marlin hybridization experiments - with my vast legions of daggerfish, I would have ruled the seas!), but I'm pretty sure that giant orange buoys aren't the kind of habitat that attracts sports fish.  And yet here was this bass-cracker circumscribing tight circles around the marker.  Underestimating his capacity for obliviousness, I had to correct my course at the last moment when it became clear he was going to block my direct line.  And that's how Jesse beat me by 47 seconds rather than 45.5 seconds.

This is why I'm sorry they cleaned up the Charles.
Some of us geezers remember when you could buy a nickel's worth of sweets for 4 cents and you could guarantee yourself a win by breaking 50 minutes at the ROTC.  Probably because of all that cheap candy everybody was eating.  Since 2016, though, you'd better break 48 minutes if you want to stand next to Jesse on the podium.  With a time of 46:34, a race-weary Lishchuk broke his old course record.  I finished at 47:21 and Jan at 48:02, meaning the newspapers could save a few bucks on film by reusing last year's podium photo.  Mike, Ben, Eric, Andrius, Craig, Tim D, and Chris C followed to fill out the top ten.  On the women's side, Mary Beth and Jen Kreamer sparred over most of the course, with MB ultimately getting the win.  Leslie Chappell took the final podium spot.

Invariably, after I've had a solid finish someone will come up to me and say "Great job."  Hey, thank you.  Then he'll add, "I don't know how you do it." Well, by putting in the bucket hours, I guess.  Then he'll stare off into the distance, shaking his head slowly to underscore that my performance literally defies his belief.  It's difficult to not take some offense at this - at least until I get home and watch my technique on the GoPro video.  It goes without saying that all of the above, including the head-shaking disbelief, is delivered with a pronounced Polish accent.

Tim glumly reminisces about his days appearing on the upper results sheet.  He finished 9th, so perhaps he should instead be reminiscing about days of better eyesight. 
The rains that started halfway through the race tapered off just as the Capellini's barbecued meat reached optimum temperature, proving once again the power of pulled pork.  Of course, there was other food as well.  Tim Hudyncia is legendary not only for an encyclopedic knowledge of semi-poisonous foods, but also for his willingness to broaden this culinary sphere with the help of unwitting test subjects.  I haven't been able to remember my middle name or comprehend US politics since last year's Hudynciation.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that he and Jen had brought chocolate ice cream to the pot luck.  Evidently Tim had made a sudden about-face to conventionality.  It was only afterwards I found that the ice cream was made from dolphin milk and home-regurgitated cocoa beans.  Wasn't half bad.

I hope somebody remembered to take some food to car-bound Mike.

We have a few weeks off until the Essex River Race.  Check the site - same course, different registration venue.  Come brine your feet in preparation for open water season.  As usual, liquid, solid, and gelatinous refreshments will be available at our house following the awards.