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.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Narrow River Race: Young Guns

Although the Snow Row is technically the first race of the New England season, it's more of a novelty act than a true race - the juggling pig of the surfski world.  The real action would start with the Narrow River Race, co-chaired by Wesley and Tim.  After being pushed one day into the future by inclement weather, we'd finally all get a chance to see the world of tomorrow.  I, for one, was looking forward to exciting new wine cooler flavors.

Another race day in the northeast...
The Sunday of the race dawned, disappointingly, like any other day.  Maybe a little warmer.  Contrary to what you'd expect from its name, the trademark of the Narrow River is not its breadth, but its depth.  The river is best described as "damp" - a thin glaze of water spread sparingly over a muddy substrate.  Just enough to keep the quahogs clammy.  Locals still talk about the flood of '89, when Joey Larson's water heater gave way up there on South River Drive.  With recent dredging of the shallowest section, however, at least this year we wouldn't spend half the race trying to extract our paddle blades from the muck.

Wesley and Tim have established Rhode Island as the de facto surfski capital of New England through their tireless promotion of the sport.  They've helped build a timeworn community of like-minded competitors that share a certain... dignified maturity.  It seems, however, that we seasoned paddlers are losing our allure.  The reassuring chorus of popping shoulders and the familiar odor of Bengay is no longer enough to maintain the duo's interest.   While Wesley and Tim have drafted some age-appropriate recruits from the sailing community in Tim Hacket and Rob Myles, they've also been cruising the beaches of Narragansett Bay in search of fresher fare.  They found it.  Obsolescence will surely follow.

Bob was dispensing vitamins freely before the race.  I'm not sure whether it was the riboflavin or the niacin, but by the fifth stanza of the race, I was seeing flavors with some truly groovy textures.
Lifeguards at Narragansett Town Beach (conveniently located near the mouth of the Narrow River), Mike Florio and Christopher Quinn joined us for their first surfski race.  Veterans of the state's grueling cross-discipline Lifeguard Tournament and hard-core fitness buffs, these guys were prepared to hit the water running.  That strategy may fly when saving a life (and, come to think of it, might actually work well for this particular race), but after we pointed out that it'd be a serious breach of ski etiquette, they agreed to stick to paddling.  However, requests that Mike tone down his contagious exuberance - similarly uncouth within our circle - fell on deaf ears.  Well, technically, fell on ears with frequency acuity much closer to that of a dog than to most of ours.

At least one paddler came prepared for the future.
Tim had warned me that despite being new to the sport, Mike and Christopher had been training hard and would be immediate podium threats.  I pooh-poohed this foolishness.  Clearly he was just smitten with their youth.  I'd be concentrating on known menaces Jan Lupinski and Mike Dostal.   Like Lyme disease, Jan is a constant and potentially debilitating threat in this region.  Although I beat Mike D at last year's race, at the USCA Championships he had thrashed me, rifled my pockets, and left me for dead on the shores of the Connecticut River.  It seemed unlikely that I could beat him, but maybe if I kept it close, he'd at least return my car keys and Blockbuster card.

Taking visualization to new levels, Wesley competed without a paddle or boat.  He wouldn't have even worn a PFD, but since it was already on when he woke up, he didn't bother taking it off.
At the captains meeting, Wesley and Tim explained that we'd be running a modified course of only 8 miles.  See, guys?  This is what a disciplined whining-based protest movement can achieve.  Sure, we'd been maced a few times and Tim Hudyncia still suffers from Taser-induced incontinence, but we wore 'em down in the end.  We'd head up-river about 2.5 miles, turn on a white mooring buoy ("at least the size of a VW bug" according to Tim), run back past the start an additional 1.5 miles, turn on a set of pilings, and return to the start.  We'd start and finish struggling against the wind, the current, and the tide.  You might think there'd be some joy in the middle section, but no... that'd be crushed by the slogging bookends of toil.

After last year's debacle, the race committee instituted a zero-tolerance policy for course-cutting in 2017.  Any deviation from the sanctioned route would result in an immediate DQ.  Was it my imagination, or were the guys looking right at me when relaying this new rule?  In any event, like everyone else (right?) I turned in the signed and notarized form indicating that I fully understood the implications of the coincidentally-named "Lesher Clause".

As Tim demonstrated, the penalty for cutting the course would be both severe and apt.
It was soon time to moisten our hulls.  I counted 21 boats lining up for the start - a new record for the Narrow River.  What luck.  We'd be running the shortest course ever, with the largest number of skis!  At 0.381 miles per boat, this race would be a piece of cake.  Chris Sherwood pulled me aside and patiently explained the error in my logic.  But still!  Post-race cake!

Wesley soon counted us down to a rolling start.  Youthful experimentation with a home gene-splicing kit having left me devoid of fast-twitch muscle fibers, I'm forced to rely on second-hand momentum from nearby paddlers to ease me off the line.  By then abruptly sticking my paddle into the water, I'm able to pop the clutch on enough slow-twitch fibers to achieve self-sustaining locomotion.  A half-mile or so later, I've steamed up to cruising velocity.

I told Bruce that he wasn't going to sneak up on anyone in a white boat with a fluorescent yellow vest, but he insisted that his ninja training would protect him from detection.
Unsurprisingly, Mike D had jumped to an immediate lead, with Jan and Chris Chappell following close behind.  I gradually worked my way past Wesley, Tim H1, Tim D, Tim H2, and Bruce Deltorchio.  During this move, Mike F kept pace on my right, completely exhausting his energy stores in a valiant effort to stay with me in pursuit of the leaders.  That kid's got moxie.  A few moments later, I caught Chris.  Rather than hanging around, I figured I'd attempt to slingshot up to Jan.  That term implies a more energetic movement than I actually managed (I've lost a lot of elasticity since hitting 50), but I did ease by Chris.  Despite relying on meager fat reserves by this point (perhaps on the soles of his feet?), so did Mike F.  Apparently the guy's got grit too.

With Mike D frequently disappearing around bends in the river, I tried to focus on catching Jan.  Perhaps we could work together to cut Mike's steadily increasing lead.  A half-mile later, I settled onto his stern wash.  I figured I'd just catch my breath for, say, forty-five minutes, then graciously offer to take a turn pulling over the final couple hundred meters.  His new Nelo 560 wasn't providing the comfortable ride I had hoped for, however.  The sweet spot on the draft seemed to be a foot or so behind where you'd expect, and I'm nothing if not unadaptable.  Approaching the low bridge that precedes the widening of the river, I decided to catapult myself past Jan (a move best appreciated at 64x, as in my race video).
I expected Jan would follow, but he dropped back a few lengths as we entered the lake-y portion of the race.  Mike F, running on fumes, stayed with him.  Twenty lengths ahead, Mike D was plowing through the headwind towards the turn.  My hopes for a rough water reckoning and subsequent Dostal comeuppance were dashed.  We were going directly into meager waves - nothing significant enough to disrupt his metronomic cadence.  Mike extended his lead.  At the turn, I caught a glimpse of Jan and Mike F ten lengths behind me. The latter was evidently now drawing energy directly from some other dimension.  Or perhaps it was time to recalibrate my estimates of his ability and rescind the pooh-pooh I had rashly issued to Tim.

It became a point of pride to keep the glint of Mike D's paddle within eyeshot, but it was clear that nobody would be catching him today.  Trying to focus on technique during the downriver portion turned out to be pointless, so I instead concentrated on a growing existential panic - my generation would soon be rendered irrelevant.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but, then again, maybe today.  Despite throwing frequent glances over my shoulder (partially splayed fingers covering my eyes to temper the potential horror), I couldn't get a bead on Mike F until the downriver turn.  The graceful arc I carved around the pilings had a radius about 10 meters larger than the narrowing river could accommodate, but by caroming off a wading fisherman I managed to get headed back upstream.  The next time maybe he'll remember to wear his shin guards and helmet.

Shortly after completing the turn, I saw Mike F barreling towards me.  I had less than a minute lead with 1.5 miles of upwind slog left.  Doing some quick mental calculations, I estimated that if I could just keep my heart rate at X for the remainder of the race, I'd ensure myself of a second place finish.  X seemed more like a number you'd apply to a bumblebee than a person, but what was I saving those beats for anyway?  I pushed my way upwind back towards the finish, turning over all motor functions to my lizard brain so that I could truly savor the growing pain.  I never managed to achieve that target heart rate, but I did work up quite a nectar deficit.

Finally freed from our pogies, Mike and I made up for lost gesture time.
Mike Dostal was waiting for me at the finish line, leisurely sipping tea while checking cricket scores on his phone.  OK.  I got a little lazy there - relying on tired British stereotypes for a titter.  He was actually smoking a pipe and watching snooker.  Just about the time I had regained conscious control of my body, Mike Florio roared by mid-river.  If we hadn't flagged him down, I suspect he might have done a few more laps before calling it a day and hitting the gym.  Jan and Christopher (who had moved up a couple of spots in the home stretch) pulled in a short while later to round out the top five.  On the women's side, Mary Beth claimed the title, followed by Jen Kreamer and Leslie Chappell.

Although Mike D would try to be the first to admit that comparing our performances wouldn't really be fair since he was in an ICF boat, I'm pretty sure I could beat him to the punch.  And, in fact, I loudly inoculated myself from any expectations the instant I saw the K-1 on his car (while silently rubbing my hands together at the prospect of the extra SSR series points).  Of course, the ICF-vs-surfski speed debate is the hot-button issue of these anxious times.  But as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, "by all objective measures, proponents on both sides need to get a life."  Let's just agree that, regardless of the hydrodynamic facts, I feel marginally better about being beaten this way by Mike.  When he shows up in a 12 foot Pungo next race and still inevitably smokes me, that's going to sting a bit.

Remember when I could make a reasonable claim on this being my boat?
Disoriented by the pleasant post-race weather, we milled aimlessly about the parking lot for a while before Tim corralled everyone and pointed us towards the Oak Hill Tavern for lunch.  We were a bit short on cash, so Bruce had to lend us three bucks.  That's not really relevant to this report, but it reflects pretty poorly on Bill.  Guess that kidney donation counts for nothing with you, huh?  Thanks to Wesley and Tim for throwing another great early-season race, and to Tim H1 for providing novelty prizes.  Special congratulations to Mike F and Christopher for jaw-dropping performances after only a few months on skis.  Some advice from a completely disinterested party - might be time to ease back on the training a little.  Don't want to burn out.  Also, have you thought about trying Greenland paddles?

As seen in this "before" picture, everybody arrived at the bar fully dressed.
Upcoming area races include the 15 mile River Rat Race in Orange, MA on April 9 (this coming Sunday) and the 6 mile Run of the Charles on April 30 (the Sunday after 10 weeks from the Thursday before last President's Day).  Best of luck to those braving balmy Florida for the Shark Bite Challenge.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Snow Row: Brain Freeze

You can't legitimately call yourself a misguided idiot unless you've participated in at least one open-water winter surfski race.  And for those of us in New England, the Snow Row checks all of the necessary boxes.  Winter.  Open-water.  Jam-packed with people with little or no sense of self-preservation.  Sponsored by the Hull Lifesaving Museum, the race commemorates a proud tradition of rescuing those without the sense to stay in bed on a blustery March morning.

Boston has been unseasonably warm this winter.  I suspect the Chinese have been pulling a few strings to sell us on their nefarious hoax, but if it means we can sun-bathe in February, I'm willing to play along.  Sure.  Greenhouse gases.  Coming extinction.  Sounds good.  That being said, the Snow Row coincided perfectly with a frigid weekend notch (scheduled maintenance, probably) that sent many of us scuttling off to find some coal to burn.

In the seedier parts of Hull, ne'er-do-well surfski thugs will roll you for your pogies.
As the Saturday race approached, the forecast called for 25 knot winds and temperatures in the mid-teens, with a 70% chance of hypothermic death.  On the positive side, the northwest gales would make for a tidy recovery operation as competitors would all wash ashore downwind in Hingham Harbor.  Fearing that such an outcome might tarnish the reputation of the Hull Lifesaving Museum, the organizers delayed the race until Sunday.  As the race director emailed us, we'd suffer "acceptable losses" but - with temperatures in the high twenties and winds around 15 knots - most of us would probably pull through.

Shivering on the beach looking over Hingham Bay, it was apparent that I'd be returning home with fewer toes than I arrived with.  While the temperature forecast was spot on, subpoenaed meteorological records from the subsequent inquiry would reveal that average wind speeds were 20 knots.  If everything went well, we'd paddle from the Windmill Point Boathouse, skirt around Sheep Island (almost universally referred to as "low-lying", but today I'm going to go with "unobtrusive"), turn on Peddocks Island day marker, and return to the Boathouse.  Even in gentler weather that 3.8 miles can seem like a Blackburn for the paddler coming off several months of intensive couch-based conditioning.

Abandon shore!!!
Sensing a winter harvest of unprecedented proportions, opportunistic members of the Boston medical community passed out organ donor forms at the registration desk.  With any luck, they'd soon have enough pre-chilled livers and hearts to clear out their backlog of transplant patients and make a few bucks on the side selling the surplus to soothsayers and enlightened no-kill zombies.  While applauding their initiative, I can't say the rows of igloo coolers lining the pier helped alleviate my race anxiety.

The surfski contingent started with 16 boats, but by race time whatever the inverse of natural selection is had winnowed the field to 10 paddlers mentally unfit to propagate their bloodline.  In addition to veteran competitors, we were joined by two first-time ocean ski racers - Ben Randall and Tim Hacket.

Ben, a river paddler by trade, made a couple of disappointing ocean appearances last year in a closed-cockpit EFT (the boat, not the newt).  On an unrelated note, and of interest to nobody except - bad luck for you - the one person currently typing, I maintain that eft is one of the most satisfying words in the English language.  Also elver.  The disappointment wasn't in Ben's performance, by the way, but in the fact that a promising young paddler was stuck in his grand-pappy's boat.  For the Snow Row, he'd (mostly) be sitting proudly atop a Think Evo.

Ben was prepared to spend several days submerged if that's what it took to complete his first race in a ski.
Tim is an Australian refugee (fully vetted - no fear) who has made Rhode Island his base for the last twenty years.  He's been under the local tutelage of Wesley and Tim for a while now, but still maintains a trace of his native accent.  I'm not sure exactly what Tim does for a living, but those with any kind of background in competitive sailing ("wind-boys" or "gusties", I figure they like to be called) showed him a level of reverence usually reserved for mafia dons and juggling bears.  Probably something to do with keels.  Tim would be paddling a sensible black-tipped V8, the perfect boat for almost any occasion.

Given the conditions, the race organizers initially insisted that each paddler have a back-up.  Should we be blown off to our icy doom, a proxy could step in for the group picture and the authorities would be none the wiser.  Tim Dwyer successfully argued that, given the unlikelihood of more than a third of us would perish, we should be allowed instead to have a replacement pool.  Figuring that the pool would be considerably warmer (and shallower) than the ocean, Mary Beth, Chris Sherwood, Mike Florio, Sean Milano, and Ralph Abele voluntarily jumped in, with varying levels of enthusiasm. We appreciate your sacrifice.  They also serve who only stand and wade.

That's my one regret about not having kids, incidentally.  Not being able to stand at the back door, yelling for Eft and Elver to come in for dinner.

This is what happens when you give everyone participation medals.
Once we had hermetically sealed ourselves into our cold-weather apparel, a process that for me involves at least two burly assistants and liberal amounts of lubricant, we cautiously launched our skis into Hingham Bay.  Most of us opted for colorful drysuits, although hearty Matt Drayer instead wore a sleek black wetsuit that virtually guaranteed that the rest of us would at least be safe from shark attacks.  He'd end up twice in the water over the next 45 minutes, but somehow managed to avoid both succumbing to the cold and any dead-eyed predators (referring, of course, to homicidal rowers looking to club defenseless paddlers).

Although kayaks and surfskis enjoy a water start, all the fixed seat rowing crafts start their Snow Row from land.  Since the boats are beached bow-first, after hopping in and pushing off from shore, the rowers must deftly execute a 180 degree turn before heading downrange.  Of course, this maneuver must be accomplished in the close vicinity of a dozen other boats, with many of the participants alarmingly deft-free.  I've read that for the inauguration of the Colosseum, the Romans flooded the arena and staged a mock naval battle for the audience.  As the witness to a comparable event in Hull, I can't speak highly enough about the entertainment value of such a spectacle.  In our case, however, somebody apparently forgot to tell the combatants about the "mock" part.  I expect the area emergency rooms saw an unusually pronounced spike in oar-related concussions later that day.
With the cries of the recently fallen still burbling and the lingering warmth of blood-lust pulsing through our veins, we skis picked our way through the burning flotsam to the starting line.  With the wind and current quartering from behind us on the starboard, most paddlers positioned themselves on the upwind end of the line.  A couple of panicked braces later, I decided to stand pat at the downwind end rather than trying to side scull my way into better position.  A short moment later, a cannon blast set us on our way.

Within a few meters of the start, we lost the protection provided by Pemberton Point and had to navigate the waves rushing through Hull Gut - the narrow gap between Peddocks Island and the point.  If you've seen video of a swimming sloth (and consider upgrading from that flip phone and dial-up modem if you haven't), you'll have a rough idea of my stroke through this patch.  Oddly compelling to watch, but profoundly unnatural.  And slow enough for algae to start growing on my underbelly.  I felt slightly less awkward after a few minutes, but couldn't shake the sensation that live broadcasts of me were trending.

When I finally felt comfortable enough to look around, I saw a small group of paddlers pacing me off to the right.  Tim Dwyer was in the lead, and I immediately recognized the malevolent gleam of Hank Thorburn's eyes, but couldn't make out who else was with them.  Tim is always trouble for me in rougher conditions, particularly downwind.  The others dropped off over the next mile as we enjoyed some slightly off-axis runs, but in my periphery I could periodically see Tim nosing ahead. As the waves started wrapping around the end of Sheep Island, I caught a couple nicely aligned runners, but it was clear that Tim was going to be first to the island.

Oooh.  Sparkly.
Despite the strong beam wind, the skis did a reasonably good job maintaining straight-line courses to Sheep.  We'll give Ben a pass for sprinting 45 degrees off course downwind off the start - chalk it up to first-timer exuberant hijinks.  The same can't be said for the rowing vessels.  With significant windage, most of the rowboats circumscribed deeply bowed paths to the first turn.  Indeed, several boats were blown so far off course that they eventually had to be towed back to the start by the Coast Guard.  Those who did complete the first leg had traveled significantly further than the skis.  Despite their head start, only two rowboats were ahead of Tim and me as we rounded the shallow southern end of Sheep.  Usually at this point in the race you're desperately trying to fend off unwelcome advances from rowers intent on invading your personal space with their oars.

With Tim a couple of boat lengths ahead, we started battling our way upwind toward the Peddocks Island day marker.  At least, I hoped that's where we were heading.  Squinting into the wind and the spray, I couldn't be sure.  I could see my Garmin just fine, but a fierce ion storm in the upper atmosphere must have been wreaking havoc with the GPS signal.  How else can one explain it repeatedly entering sleep mode?  No activity detected!?!  At least that span wouldn't be included in my moving average.

By slowly raising my core temperature over the next couple of hours, I was eventually able to lower my arm.
I every-so-gradually gained ground on Tim, passing him like I was standing still.  By the turn at the marker there was enough separation between us that I could no longer tell what kind of body spray he had used that morning (for the record, "Mud Flats").  With Peddocks Island blocking most of the wind and waves, I was finally able to concentrate on the finer aspects of my technique.  Left.  Right.  Left.  Left.  Dammit!  And it had all been coming together so nicely.  Despite my slightly asymmetric form, I managed to keep ahead of Tim to finish in first at 36:29.  That's nearly 8 minutes slower than last year's time, which says a lot either about the conditions or my conditioning.

Tim pulled in second a little over a minute behind.  I'm sensing a ninja wolverine year from him, so remember to watch the shadows and protect your groin.  Tim Hacket placed a decisive third, followed by Ben (despite taking a couple of dips to cool off and getting last to Sheep Island) and Hank.  Filling out the top ten: Francisco Urena, Matt, Tim Hudyncia, Bob Wright, and Rob Flanagan.  Among the reserve pool, I'm awarding top spot to Chris.  Mostly because he sneaked surprise beer into my refrigerator at home (MB swears ignorance), but also because I convinced him to drive up from the Cape to ultimately just watch from the beach.

After this shot was taken, Francisco admitted that he'd seldom been photographed in less illustrious company. (photo courtesy of Tim Dwyer)
In a twist ending, the Coast Guard cancelled the Snow Row after having to rescue a capsized rowboat that wasn't actually in the race.  However, they allowed all competitors already on the course to finish.  Since the rescue happened after the last wave of boats had already started, the cancellation turned out to be a metaphysical conundrum along the lines of "If a tree falls in a forest..."  In any event, remembering the infamous Soup Riot of 2013, the Coast Guard wisely elected not to interfere with the legendary post-race buffet.  All in all, for those of us not waiting for a kidney, a very satisfying day.

Wesley and Tim have given me their personal guarantee that conditions at the Narrow River Race on April 1 will be sunny, warm, and wind-free.  What better way to spend April Fools' Day?  Please register at PaddleGuru (it's free) so that the guys will know how many whoopee cushions to bring.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Glicker Downwinder: Splashdown

I distinctly remember waxing my boat in preparation for the Essex River Race - the first race in the New England Surfski point series back in May.  After that, it's pretty much a blur.  Based on the fact that I was now watching Eric McNett load his trailer in preparation to shuttle skis to the start of the Glicker Downwinder, however, I had to conclude that we had somehow come to the end of another season.  Glancing quickly at my reflection in a car window, this fear was confirmed.  In fact, it seemed that perhaps a half-dozen or more seasons had elapsed.

For the first time in 4 years, the race would be starting in its ancestral home in Kittery.  We'd be heading north-ish from the mouth of the Piscataqua River to Long Sands Beach, 9 miles and one surf landing away.  Our cozy crew of 9 skis was comprised of me, Mary Beth, Jan Lupinski, Eric Costanzo, Hugh Pritchard, Tim Dwyer, Kirk Olsen, Tim Hudyncia, and Jay Appleton.  Rod McClain (OC-1) and Ryan Lundbohm (SUP) also joined us.  A 10 mph wind from the south would be pushing us in the right general direction.

Tim makes some last minute adjustments to the attachment points for his nipple leash.
By returning to Kittery, the Glicker Downwinder reclaimed the dubious honor of having its launch further from the start than any other race in the region.  From Pepperrell Cove to the starting line at the observation pier on Gerrolish Island is a solid half-day paddle.  The pier is tall enough that it remains a visible landmark over the curvature of the earth, so at least we knew where we were heading.  I just wish I had packed a second sandwich and brought some reading material.

Once the pack arrived at the starting line and woke a grumpy Eric from his lengthy pier-nap, we positioned ourselves for a start in the choppy waters at the mouth of the Piscataqua.  The wind and waves were threatening to push the field into the pilings, but that didn't dissuade a certain paddler from taking a leisurely last-minute loop-around while offering disingenuous apologies to those struggling to remain unsplintered.  Just realized that makes it sound like I was the paddler, and that I'm poking self-deprecating fun at myself.  Nope.  I'm poking malicious accusations at Dr. Costanzo, who apparently forgot to take his Hippocratic oath that morning.

It took us about twenty minutes to get Eric's attention.
Of course, I'm joking.  At least, that's what I need Eric to think.  You never know when, God forbid, I might end up in New Jersey with a pulmonary embolism (God also forbid).

A few seconds after Eric completed his utterly necessary maneuver, the other Eric (as he's started asking to be called) sent us on our downwind run.  Heartened by the fact that with a field of only 9 skis there was a pretty hard limit on how far back I could fall with a bad start, I allowed myself the luxury of remaining calm as I slipped cleanly into the bottom performance quartile.  While everyone else went to the left of the free-standing remains of an old pier support, I chose to test the waters on the far side.  This parting of ways allowed me to gain some ground before rejoining the pack a few moments later.  I pulled alongside Hugh, while Jan and Eric shared the lead just ahead.

Old school drone photography - just set your camera's timer and hurl that sucker as high as you can. (Photo courtesy of Eric McNett)
Until we got around the next couple of points, the wind and waves wouldn't be working in our favor.  For the time being, we were sloshing around in beamy conditions.  Any hopes that the more unstable boats of the other three paddlers would give me a marked advantage in this section were quickly dashed.  Although I slowly eased past Hugh - not helped in the least by the vestigial, postage stamp of a rudder on his SES - Jan and Eric remained stubbornly stable, maintaining their pace in the slop.

Eventually I got clear of Eric as well, but Jan continued a boat length or two ahead for the next mile in his blue Nelo.  When I finally passed him, I almost immediately wished he was back in the lead.  The rocky Maine coast refuses to be pigeon-holed by the traditional definition of "the land next to the sea".  It has a nasty habit of reappearing well away from the land, making the "coast" more of a continuum than a concrete boundary.  We had already skirted a few hull-threatening reefs, but at Sewards Point the demarcation between land and sea was particularly ambiguous.  I would have preferred to have Jan be my shoal canary, but I was forced to risk my own feathers picking my way through the rocks.  After the race he mocked the tentativeness I had shown in Hullgasher Passage, an over-compensating taunt I took as a clear sign that he had deliberately ceded the lead to mask his own faintheartedness.  He was too yellow to be the canary.

All I can say is that I'm not proud of all of my tactics.
Once past Sewards Point, we'd head northeast along the so-called coast for the next 4.5 miles to East Point.  With the ocean swell coming from the southeast and the wind from the south, you had to keep bearing right to avoid a premature landing.  While you could take the occasional nip from the bigger waves rolling in from the ocean, lingering too long on such a ride would lead you on a drunken course with zigzag corrections.  I spent about half the time on this stretch attempting to steal some angular momentum from these quartering beauties and the other half trying to resist their salty allure.  In my best moments, I sussed out those intermittent waves traveling in the right direction and locked onto those, ignoring most other temptations.  I spent most of my time, however, worrying about how much better the guys behind me were handling these conditions.  I expected to see superior downwind paddlers like Eric or Tim Dwyer fly by me at any moment, but hurried peripheral glances behind only revealed the same blue splotch about a dozen lengths back.  Jan - you should probably get that checked out.

After East Point, our course to the finish on Long Sands Beach was more northerly.  Although you still couldn't jump on every wave with reckless abandon, that was my initial strategy.  Once I had ascertained that sticking with this approach would leave me beached a mile short of the finish, I tempered my enthusiasm.  Although it felt like I was still catching quite a few good rides, subsequent video analysis depicts runner after runner speeding under me with impunity.  Despite my lackluster downwind performance, however, Jan was unable to catch me.  How was this possible?
Over the last four seasons, Jan has been my most consistent rival.  We've finished next to each other in the standings of 13 races over this span, and within two positions in another half-dozen.  It's no exaggeration to say that when I drag myself out of bed at 4:30 to train before work, the thought of beating Lupinski is what's driving me.  Well, actually I seldom paddle in the morning and would never get up that early.  But if I did, I'd blame Jan.  My secret weapon in our rivalry, however, is that Jan is a modern day Job.  That is, if instead of just being an innocent pawn in a sadistic bar bet between God and Satan, Job also tried to get in on the action by adding his own self-induced trials.  And if he drank and swore a lot more than a god-fearing Uzite ought.  Whether it's a leaky boat, kidney stones, debilitating weeds, running the wrong course, a sticky rudder, shoulder issues, forgetting his clothes, crotch boils (just speculating based on how I saw him walking at one race)... Jan is Fortune's fool.  Or perhaps Destiny's doofus.  In any event, his fate is beyond his control.  At East Point the waves lined up for Jan, but once again, the stars didn't.  The rudder line on his month-old boat parted, effectively ending his race.

The Glicker Downwinder is one of the few New England races to finish on the beach, and the only one with a strong possibility of finishing in crashing waves.  In fact, the net total of my lifetime surf landing experience has taken place at this race, and that experience has been less than entirely positive.  I'm still finding grit in various nooks and crannies after last year's surf-driven sand-blasting, and that was probably the most successful of my finishes.  Given the size of the waves I'd been haphazardly riding for the last mile, I sensed there'd be another mouthful of sand in my near future.

Having exhausted my primary and secondary stability, I tertiaried my pants.
Before I could even get into the surf zone, however, I broached on a steep wave.  This might not have been a problem by itself, but I now found myself wallowed behind a surf SUP waiting for his next ride.  While clumsily attempting to maneuver around him, I was surprised by a cresting wave and went over without a fight.  Tim Dwyer insists that we should makes a point of demonstrating the superiority of surfskis over SUPs at every opportunity, and here I was single-handedly setting us back in humiliating fashion.  "No!  No!", I wanted to yell.  "I'm incompetent!  It's not the ski!"  To reinforce the point, I blew the remount.  "See!?!"

"Vaikobi.  At least they'll find your body!"
Once back on my ski, I tentatively turned down range and started paddling in a last ditch attempt to abandon all remaining shreds of dignity.  Success was swift and inexorable.  After missing two consecutive waves, I inexplicably stopped paddling in the surf zone. I was broached and swept shoreward on a mass of foam, which then unceremoniously dumped me in neck-deep water.  Measuring from the top of my sand-planted head, of course.  Once I had re-oriented myself, spit out a hermit crab, and restored a dislodged surf shoe, I stood and assessed my situation.  Not yet knowing how Jan would be knocked out of this race (I had figured maybe bear mauling during the run to the finish), I was amazed to see that not only was I the first to the beach, but that there didn't appear to be anyone right behind me.  Only 150 meters separated me from victory.

After Eric's unfortunate L2L incident, Gentleman Kirk was asked to make sure nobody walked off with the sample V7.
Figuring there was no reason to leave my boat thrashing in the surf, I started hauling it towards the finish.  I had only taken a few steps, however, when I spotted someone running along the beach from the south.  Costanzo!  I dropped my ski and started a heroic sprint of my own (which, after seeing the GoPro video, would probably be more accurately characterized as an "arthritic waddle").  Given that we were approaching the finish from different angles, I wasn't sure which of us would win (or perhaps expire) until I stumbled in two steps ahead.  Despite limited surf experience, Hugh glided effortlessly in a short time later for third, after which he remounted to frolic in the waves.  We eventually had to wade in and pry him from his ski for the awards ceremony.  Tim Dwyer and Jay rounded out the top five overall, and were joined by Kirk on the Masters' podium (now fully accessible!).

Mary Beth had a long day, but finished in style with what was easily the day's best two-thirds of a ride to the beach - screaming down an incoming wave until she disappeared in a cascade of boiling foam, her riderless ski bolting out of the chaos like a battle-spooked steed.  It would have been even more legendary if I hadn't then witnessed a wild-eyed MB staggering through waist-deep water to get to shore, but we'll omit that part from the epic poem version.

Jan really took offense at being referred to as Destiny's doofus, but accidentally super-gluing rocks to his hands really just underscored my point.  (Photo courtesy of Eric McNett)
After handing out race medals, Eric awarded the New England Surfski point series titles.  I won the overall men's championship again, with Eric taking second and Jan in third.  Mary Beth similarly repeated as the women's champ, with Leslie Chappell in second and Jen Kreamer and Justin Rawley tied for third.  Tim Dwyer also repeated his Masters' title from 2015.  Jan and I are concerned that Tim might be growing a little complacent in the 50+ group, so we decided to age into the bracket to give him some more competition next season.  Wesley won the drawing for the V7 generously donated by Epic, finally breaking Bruce and Bill's stranglehold on free skis.  Thanks to Eric for giving us a memorable race to close out the season.

The die-hards.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Lighthouse to Lighthouse: 15 Lengths

After a record-breaking surfski turnout in 2014, the venerable Lighthouse to Lighthouse race was given a fallow year to regenerate.  Under the indefatigable stewardship of Gary Williams, however, the field was seeded for a fresh harvest this year.  And once again, the L2L would be hosting the East Coast Surfski Championship.  With 66 skis participating in the 7 and 14 miles races, this would easily be the largest surfski race east of the Rockies since the last L2L (sorry, Shark Bite - that was some rotten luck).

There's been a lot of speculation about why the 2015 race was cancelled.  One source told me that there was a permitting issue with the venue while another claimed that an important sponsor pulled their support.  Rather than just asking Gary, I started circulating my own baseless conjecture involving a beach quarantine after the loss of a nuclear sub off the Connecticut coast.  Regardless of the reason, the L2L was about to experience a glorious rebirth, emerging phoenix-like from the watery depths to raze Tokyo.  Wait... that can't be right.  Emerging Phoenix-like from its own ashes to become a popular retirement destination for aged paddlers?  Still not quite right, but close enough.

It's possible that I could have paid a little more attention at the captains' meeting.
From the start line off Shady Beach, we'd skirt outside of Sprite Island, the Peck Ledge Light, Goose Island, Copps Island, and Sheffield Island before rounding Greens Ledge Light and - all of that effort for naught - retracing our path to the finish.  Although billed as a 14 mile race, those who registered with the special coupon code (GARYRULZ) received a 5% mileage discount.  The forecast was for sun with light winds of 5 to 10 mph from the south.  With a lightly incoming tide and calm conditions, it could be a record fast day.

Our ancestors tell of a great paddler from the western frontier who would ply our New England waters every July, returning to his distant wilderness home only after besting our forefathers in ritual competition.  Seeing the mythic name of Erik Borgnes on the registration list for L2L, I looked in vain for a Junior or III qualifier.  Blowing the dust off the old Blackburn Challenge records (I really gotta clean my monitor more often), I was shocked to see that Erik had won that race as recently as 2008.  Hell, I think Wisconsin might even have been a state by then.

Ironically, once he finally got in his boat, Bruce just sat there smiling.
Erik was returning to New England, and this time he was bringing back-up.  And his father, Arne.  Sweeping through the upper Midwest on the way to Connecticut, they picked up Rob Hartman and Denny Paull - two of Michigan's finest paddlers.  With fellow Great Lakes paddlers Joe White, Ulli Sherer, John Hair, Todd Furstoss, and Paul Tomblin also making the trek east, I figured we had a pretty good shot at getting Gordon Lightfoot to write a song about the race should tragedy strike.  Other competitors from outside the immediate area included defending L2L champions Austin Kieffer (2016) and Reid Hyle (2015).

I'd never raced against Erik or Rob, but on paper it didn't look like I had much of a chance of beating them.  I had, on the other hand, raced against Austin, Reid, and Jesse Lishchuk.  On paper or on water - no hope there either.  With Eric Costanzo and Craig Impens opting to paddle together in a double, Mike Dostal competing in the ICF Marathon Worlds, and Ben Piggot resting up for the Josh Billings triathlon on Sunday (it worked - his team destroyed the field), I was able to focus 100% of my stink-eye efforts on Jan Lupinski.  Denny worried me as well, but I didn't want to make him feel unwelcome.

Overwhelmed by stress and sleep deprivation, a disoriented Gary leads us in a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".
Once Gary had sucked all of the fun out of the race yammering on about safety and sportsmanship  (apparently not a Lightfoot fan), the anxious long-race field of 57 skis (including 3 doubles) paddled out into the Sound.  On Tim Dwyer's advice, I took a position on the far side of the starting line.  Although he's not yet fully grizzled, Tim is about as well-seasoned a surfski vet as we have hereabouts.  That's why when he says "you're not extending on the catch" or "put a dash of nutmeg in your water" or "I forgot to put on underwear this morning", you pay heed.

As promised, starting from the outside kept me away from the confused fray and gave a better downwind line.  That perhaps mitigated the damage I did myself during the first couple of minutes, but it couldn't stanch the hemorrhaging.  I hadn't paid too dearly for starting slow yet this season, but this was a field I couldn't afford to let slip away.  And chumming the water with an inviting blood trail was only going to encourage those few sharks I had gotten ahead of.

By the time we reached the first lighthouse, a gap of perhaps 15 boat lengths separated me from the nearest paddler ahead.  I was sitting in 8th place.  Austin, Rob, Reid, and Jesse were up front, followed by Kurt Smithgall and Erik, with Jan in pursuit.  By letting all of these guys get away from me, I had dug my own grave and lain down in it.  Seemed a shame not to just settle in for a peaceful eternity, but maybe my race wasn't yet run.  Perhaps I could rouse myself and catch at least one of those guys.  I just needed to figure out how to claw my way back to the surface

Over next four grueling miles, not much changed.  Austin gradually receded out of sight, while Rob, Reid, and Jesse converted into indistinct flickering blurs.  Erik and Kurt seemed to be working together for a while, but eventually Erik began to move ahead.  Jan had pulled even with Kurt, but was staying on his own on an outside line.  I was slowly gaining on those two, but Erik remained ahead by that magic 15 boat length margin.

Opposite Sheffield Island, something odd was going on with Jesse.  Over the last mile or so, Erik had been steadily closing the gap between the two.  Suddenly, Jesse turned hard to port and started heading perpendicular to the course.  I thought at first he might have seen a reef or mass of floating weeds ahead, but I eventually deduced that he was making a beeline to Jan.  Soon they were paddling alongside one another.  My pulse quickened as I anticipated being waved over to reunite team TripL Threat in a collaborative quest for glory, but the invitation never came.  There would be no Lishchuk-Lupinski-Lesher podium.

Remarkably, as I processed this disappointing snub, I finally managed to run down Kurt.  After chasing him for more than 5 miles, when I finally caught up, I found myself at a loss for words.  Just as well since I didn't really have the breath to voice them.  Finally feeling like I had dialed in my stroke, rather than lingering with Kurt I pushed on towards Erik, catching some adorable little runners in the process.  Glancing back, I was pleased to see that Kurt had let me by without an extended struggle.
Jan and Jesse had dropped back a bit on their outside line.  As I found out after the race, Jesse had asked Jan to clear some stubborn weeds from his (humorously large) rudder.  I continued my endless pursuit of Erik, who at this point was roughly 15 lengths ahead.  Shortly after clearing the end of Sheffield Island, Jesse caught up to me and, after cavorting dolphin-like in my wake for a few moments, pulled ahead on his own Borgnesquest.

Approaching Greens Ledge Light, I saw Reid timidly poke his nose around the far side on the start of his return voyage.  By the time I had rounded the Light, he was plotting a course on an extreme outside line (or perhaps an extreme inside line, given that Long Island appeared to be his actual goal).  Erik was veering out to give mid-Sound chase, while Jesse was angling back towards Sheffield Island.  On one hand, I had no clue which was the better route.  On the other, I doubted these outlanders did either.  Having spent the better part of my life ruled by indecision (the few decisive moments inevitably resulting in fierce regret and/or hospitalization), I felt uniquely qualified to remain in the limbo area halfway between Erik and Jesse.

While the reassuring warmth of uncertainty was still washing over me, I heard an odd noise from behind.  My mind raced to place the sound as it grew louder, but the best that feeble instrument could come up with was... "Some kind of firework?"  The mystery was revealed soon enough, as a low-flying drone zoomed just over my head, paused for a moment ahead, then retreated to its mother-ship.  This would have been fine, except that I possess the violent startle reflex of a slumbering cat.  This reflex is inevitably followed by a three second flash of blinding rage that I'll generously attribute to the "fight" part of the fight-or-flight response.  When a college roommate jumped out unexpectedly from behind a door to frighten me (or, in his telling, "to get the mail"), the only thing that saved me from the big house was the fact that I didn't happen to be carrying a pair of scissors at the time.  That guy later became my business partner, so eviscerating him also would have really hurt me professionally.  The drone elicited the classic response as it suddenly whizzed by my ear - exaggerated flinch, missed heartbeats, involuntary screech, incontinence, blood lust...  Unfortunately, by the time the convulsions had stopped, I had missed the opportunity to unleash an incandescent fury of paddle blows on the drone (and my chance to become a viral celebrity).

Subsequent analysis of my GoPro footage of the incident reveals that hackers tampered with the video to make it appear that the drone was always a safe distance above and to the side.

A drunken Eric tries to find his car among a sea of Goodboy racks.
Erik continued about a dozen lengths ahead and outside, dangerously close to drifting into New York territorial waters.  Jesse, however, was pulling steadily away on the inside.  I attributed this to his ability rather than to his line and therefore held true to my gutless middle course compromise.  The members of a blue ribbon committee dedicated to the topic, however, reached the post-race consensus that sticking close to the islands was the superior approach.  So Jesse is apparently slightly less phenomenal than I gave him credit for.

About halfway back, Erik cut back to a more moderate line, allowing me to get a better gauge on his lead.  Yep.  About 15 lengths.  Some long-period swells were moving in our direction.  I made some quarter-hearted efforts to catch a few, but they were too small to get worked up about.  In the shallows off Copps Island, however, they started to kick up and - with surf goggles now firmly in place - were looking darned attractive.  If I could land just a couple, I might be able to cut into Erik's immutable lead.  Unfortunately, the previous 10 miles had taken their toll on my game.  My tired pick-up attempts were repeatedly rebuffed, leaving me wallowing in the troughs of despair.

Rounding Goose Island and heading back to Peck Ledge, I conceded that there was no way I was going to catch Erik.  All I could do was cobble together enough self-respect to manage an honorable sprint over the final half-mile (which doubtless resembled one of those inspirational Ironman finishes in which the racer crawls down the final stretch, in control of about 40% of his motor functions).  Austin had finished 9 minutes earlier in a course record time of 1:39:37.  With some squinting and constructive rounding, I can convince myself that the next five paddlers finished in a tight pack - Rob, Jesse, Reid, Erik, and myself.  Erik finished 34.79 seconds ahead of me, which, at a pace of 7.4 miles per hour and a 21 foot boat length, translates to 18 boat lengths.  So much for my sprint.  Denny, Jan, Steven O'Boyle, and Matt Drayer filled out the remaining spots in the top 10.

Austin put a good face on it, but deep down, I'm pretty sure he would have preferred a check.
In the women's race, Mary Beth grabbed the lead from Jenifer Kreamer just after Sprite Island and, trading pulls with Chris Sherwood, remained out front for the remainder of the race.  First-time surfski paddler Julieta Gismondi grabbed second while Leslie Chappell took bronze.  Bill Kuklinski, who is Benjamin Buttoning the hell out of this season, was the first SS20+ finisher.  I call "not it" on driving Bill to his peewee football games next year.  Eric and Craig's bid for the overall best time fell just short, but they easily took the double's crown.  In the 7 mile race, Mark McKenzie was the winner.  Austin took the men's hotspot and Mary Beth the women's (which should really help keep our energy costs down this winter).

They can never take Mary Beth's 2016 East Coast Surfski Championship title away from her.  Although, for the sake of household harmony, I wish they'd at least try.
There's a vigorous debate over which paddling event has the best post-race raw bar (although we can probably agree that Ride the Bull isn't really in the running - Wesley and Tim's DIY approach of pointing us at West Cove and saying "Have at it!" doesn't count), but the L2L has my vote.  The rest of the spread was somewhat less decadent (Domestic caviar?  Please.), but still hit the spot.  The awards started about 2 and are scheduled to end next Tuesday - the peril of having a multi-craft, multi-course, multi-gender, multi-age group race.  Mary Beth, of course, has fashioned her two oversized checks into a sandwich board which, due to losing a regrettable wager on our relative race performances, I must wear around the house between the hours of 5 and 8.

The logistical challenges of throwing an event like the L2L are staggering, and yet everything hummed along smoothly on race day (at least from the perspective of a competitor - I suspect at HQ it never feels that way).  I can't say enough about Gary and his crack team of volunteers, so I'll leave it at that.  Thanks also to the numerous race sponsors, with special appreciation for the ECSC cash prize donors - Stellar Kayaks, WomenCan International, Think Kayaks, and Nelo.  I expect you'll be sending someone around soon to exchange the big checks for cashable ones, right?