Thursday, June 21, 2018

Ride the Bull: Tidal Race

Like many New England paddlers, I awoke this past Saturday with an inexorable compulsion.  A mysterious beckoning against which there could be no resistance.  In a trance-like state of compliance, Mary Beth and I loaded a couple of skis on the car and started our migration south.  Navigating by the invisible lines of the Earth's magnetic field, with the occasional assist (seems there's a anomalous vortex just outside of Providence) from Google Maps and an indignant gas station attendant ("Does this look like 2004 to you, sir?"), we finally emerged from our stupor to find ourselves at Fort Wetherill Park for the 6th episode of Ride the Bull.

John and Wesley marvel at the future magnificence of this picture.  (Photo courtesy of Max Yasochka)
In addition to the regular cast of susceptible locals, the call of Rhode Island was strong enough to summon Guy Gilliland clear from Hawaii.  Last seen wandering around Essex in 2016 looking fruitlessly for a true ocean race, Guy was anxious to immerse himself in the healing waters of the Atlantic.  Figuratively, one assumes - the thermal shock might well kill him.

Guy wasn't the only notable exotic paddler.  John Hair was bitten by the RTB bug back in 2016.  He pulled through, but has since had to make the yearly drive from Rochester (NY) for his booster shot.  The last time we met, John and I had duked it out for silver in the fog of Nahant Bay, so I knew I'd have to keep a close eye on him.  New recruit Kurt Hatem joined us for his first surfski race, liberating himself from the FSK class to impress in a V10.  We may need to send him back in undercover to extract Roger Gocking.

As has become his pre-race tradition, Ed breaks a paddle over his head to psyche himself up.  Needless to say, this practice has taken its toll. (Photo courtesy of Max Yasochka)
I had concerns about Andrius Zinkevichus, racing for the first time this season.  Based on recent Facebook posts from his Brača-sponsored tour of Europe, he was obviously getting in some quality flatwater training.  However, it was the outlandish green Team Lithuania unitard that he wore to the race that really had me worried.  You don't risk merciless Kermit-on-steroid taunts unless you're pretty confident you can hop on your boat and paddle your opponents into submission.  The bulging muscles - they probably also help limit the ridicule (at least until some anonymous coward gets back to the safety of his or her computer).  I just hoped that rough water would keep the Grinch from stealing the win.

The nine mile course would essentially be the same as last year's, with some minor simplifications to accommodate the fact that, collectively, we're not all that bright.  From the start in West Cove, we'd proceed to Mackerel Cove, rounding a mooring buoy just beyond the rock we usually turn on (tough luck, rookies).  After heading out of the cove to the next turn at buoy G7, we'd skim downwind (ish) past the House on the Rock to buoy G11 before returning to the mouth of West Cove.  This we would then repeat.  As a final kicker leg, we'd head from West Cove directly to G7, returning to finish in our launch bay.  If Tim and Wesley can just manage to hold a steady course for a couple dozen more years, we may just get it memorized.

Given the virtual certainty of uncomfortable conditions somewhere along the route - they don't call it Lounge on the Sofa (although I would absolutely attend that race) - I opted for the V10 Sport instead of the V10.  I made this decision back at home, but John had to make a game-time call between the same choices, having brought a brace of Epics.  He went with the V10.  Fortune favors the bold.  From personal experience, I'd say it's also a favorite of Calamity, Comedy, and Comeuppance.

"Safety first, guys!  Then hygiene.  Let's run a clean race.  [chuckles] And finally, if you have time, spiritual enlightenment." (Photo courtesy of Max Yasochka)
After a refreshingly brief captain's meeting which mostly consisted of Wesley repeating the mandatory PFD rule while looking pointedly at Chris Quinn (who was doubtless wondering where the hell Lupinski was when you needed him), we launched our fleet of 19 boats. With theatrical cries of "Hold the line!  Hold the line!" (worked for me - I was getting goosebumps), Wesley counted us down to a slow rolling start.  Rounding the rock at the mouth of West Cove, the early lead was captured by John, Andrius, and Wesley.  Guy, Chris, Tim and I formed the next echelon, after shaking free of a hard-charging Timmy Shields.  After a few minutes, Wesley fell off the pace and I managed to catch the lead drafting pair.  John and I wrestled for the lead for a moment before I pulled a couple of boat lengths clear.

I often have hubristic visions of greatness early in the race.  By the time we reached the first turn in Mackerel Cove, I figured that most of the field would have dropped out and headed back to their cars - too demoralized by my dominance to carry on.  Rounding the turn, I scanned the cove anxiously to confirm my suspicions.  Not sure if I overestimated my ability or underestimated everyone else's demoralization threshold, but it turns out that being back a half-dozen boat lengths doesn't really send anyone home crying.  In addition to John (still only a few seconds back), Andrius, Chris, Wesley, Tim, Guy, and Kurt were hot on the chase.  The wily fellows had turned the tables on me, as I now fought off my own wave of disheartenment.  This was going to hurt.

Heading out past Kettle Bottom Rock on the way to the turn on G7, conditions got a little beamy.  For the first time, I was happy to be in my Sport.  And John wasn't happy to not be in his Sport.  Or, perhaps, he wasn't not sad to be in his non-Sport.  In any event, he first thoughtfully dropped back several lengths so I wouldn't be alarmed by his wailing, then dropped himself into the drink.  Chris, probably thinking this was some kind of drill, followed suit.  Having only a second-generation V12 to choose from, however, he had to content himself with not being non-unhappy, period.  Both guys were quickly back on board and in pursuit, but I had a little more cushion to work with.

Is it just me, or has Timmy been about 30% more chipper than usual?  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
The run back past Fort Wetherill towards the House on the Rock was enjoyable, with some usable waves heading in the right general direction.  When I got past the rock off of Bull Point, however, the conditions took an unfriendly turn.  A tidal race had pitched itself in the stretch from the point to G11, converting this area into a broken seascape of standing waves, rife with unpredictable currents and swirling eddies.  Superimposed on this was the added texture of wakes from a healthy stream of motorboats cutting unnecessarily close to the channel marker.

At first I tried to read the water, attempting to catch some rides, or at least to avoid the most turbulent sections.  But it was an indecipherable babble.  From the tone, however, I could tell it was hostile.  I quickly abandoned technique and activated survival mode.  You'd get a small head of steam going, only to find yourself stalled on a standing wave, abruptly turned in an unhelpful direction (with upside down being a distinct directional possibility), or translated laterally by an invisible hand.  Doubtless it would be excellent practice to put in an hour or two paddling in such mayhem, but I was hoping to spend somewhat less time there during the race.  Eventually I made it to the buoy, only to have to repeat the dangerous traverse going the other way.  Comparing notes after the race, it seems that nobody was able to find a peaceful path through the turmoil.
Did anyone else notice a rainbow-colored splotch in the sky during the second lap?  At the time, I figured that I was probably just suffering a wee bout of stroke.  In Google-aided retrospect, however, it may have been cloud iridescence.  Brain malfunction or atmospheric phenomenon - regardless, it was kinda cool.

I spent most of the loop back to Mackerel Cove and G7 devising a better strategy for negotiating the tidal race on my second visit.  At the turns I could see that the Green Monster had separated himself from the rest of the pursuit team and was less than a minute back.  Apparently the Nelo 550 was the right boat for him.  All too soon I found myself once again in the bewildering waters off Bull Point.

The last 20 minutes of scheming had failed to produce an attack plan more sophisticated than "stay upright and continent".  As luck would have it, though, enough water was sloshing through my bucket that I could concentrate solely on the former.  By maintaining a vice-like grip on the paddle and taking the occasional tentative stroke, I slowly dragged myself to G11.  Any leg drive or hip rotation was purely the accidental result of spasmodic attempts to maintain my balance.  My rounding of the buoy was so sluggish and so tight that, had I the proper tools, I could have scraped off the rust and slapped on a new coat of marine paint.  The trip back to Bull Point was slightly less arduous, but for a moment it appeared that my weaving cross-current path was destined to intersect with Guy's similar meanderings from the other direction.

With other concerns occupying me, I hadn't got a good read on how close the competition was at the turn.  Heading out to the final run around G7, I passed Mary Beth going the opposite direction on her second lap.  She relayed some back-handed good news - "Despite your slouch and that atrocious stroke, you have a 30 length lead."  I'm a pretty unreliable narrator, so there was no need to take the criticism to heart.  But that also meant I had to question MB's estimate of my lead.  I decided that it was prudent to start my final sprint immediately.  That lasted a full 15 seconds, after which I transitioned smoothly from "sprint" to "wheeze", where I remained for the last mile of the race.

Strong finishes by Chris and John.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
Shortly after I finished, Andrius coasted in, looking disquietingly jolly after such a tough race.  I'm not sure I want to live in a world where this is what he can do after a few weeks of training strictly on flatwater.  Yeah... probably I still do.  But check back after he beats me in our next race.  Chris nabbed the final podium spot, with John in talkative tight pursuit.  Tim took fifth.  Kurt was awarded the "Uh-oh, this guy is going to be trouble" award after finishing sixth in his first ski race.  Watching him pull in, I couldn't help but be struck by the uncanny similarities to my first race.  Capsizing an S1-R fifty meters from the L2L finish to derisive gales of laughter from shore... Eerie.  Mary Beth took the women's crown.

We had ridden the bucking Bull, but once again failed to break the sucker.  Fortunately, nearly all the injuries sustained were superficial - even for those four pour souls unceremoniously ejected from the course.  Ever optimistic, we'll be back next year to again make questionable boat decisions.

Andrius is just a purple Cadillac shy of being a late 70's pimp.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
There are two races coming up on June 30.  In the Casco Bay Challenge, you'll paddle (endlessly, if you're not careful) among the beautiful isles of Maine as you cross the 17 miles from South Portland to Merepoint.  It has the potential to be the longest US downwind race outside of Hawaii, but will the weather cooperate?  For those who remain quarantined in Rhode Island with an infectious case of surfski fever, why not check out the Narragansett Bay Regatta?  If you're old enough to remember the Jamestown Counter Revolution in those multiple years when it wasn't (in Jamestown... or a revolution), you'll be familiar with the course.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Sakonnet River Race: Hot Streak

Unless you wanted to spend the entire month of August in Rhode Island making up for missed credits, attending the Sakonnet River Race was a must to keep on pace to make quota.  Now in its 11th year, this Echols-branded event always attracts a rowdy band of paddlers anxious to throw off the shackles of flatwater and mix it up... in a partially-protected ocean inlet.  You don't want to jump in over your head.

I car-pooled down to the race with newcomer Ryan Bardsley.  I'd previously made the trip with fellow old hands Bruce Deltorchio and Bill Kuklinski.  Although I tried to steer this year's drive-time conversation to Metamucil, hip replacement, and DNRs, Ryan kept bringing us back around to concerns of the younger generation.  Touch-tone phones.  Corduroy.  Mumenshanz.  Man, did I feel ancient.  I don't yet know Ryan well enough to feel comfortable gently mocking him the way I might Bill (as a random example).  So let's just say he has some surprising views on on human-goat hybridization.

Wesley's insistence on maintaining a "minimum safe distance" seemed odd until we got a whiff of one another after the race.
A win at the Sakonnet has proven... elusive.  For the past six years I've finished in second place - beaten by a veritable Who's Who of non-me paddlers.  Dostal, Lishchuk, Lupinski, Markin, and Costa.  Not a single one of those me.  Over the years I've called in a bunch of favors to have the champions transferred out of the area, enrolled in college, infected with the hantavirus, etc.  But someone else always seems to step up.  And, of course, Jan is cockroach-like in his tendency to appear, alive and kicking, despite having a polonium-laced serum injected into his thorax.  This might be my year, however.  Since Jan had just returned from his stint as nauseous race commentator on Borys' chase boat at the Molokai, with any luck he'd still be reeling from jet lag, sea-sickness, and acute radiation poisoning.

I had some grave concerns about Chris Quinn.  It's always the guys that are quiet, even-keeled, and ridiculously fit that give you problems.  My only solace was that he'd be in a second-gen V12 rather than his habitual V14 - perhaps a slight disadvantage given the baby-butt sea conditions.  And there was Matt Drayer, who has been religiously following a before-work training schedule that has him making his daily devotion before monks have even hit their snooze buttons for the first time.  Chris Chappell has also been doing hard time on the water this year, and with flat conditions might just try to break out on the Sakonnet.

I may have discovered the source of the navigational problems we seem to face at every race...
With the possibility of thunderstorms moving through later in the day, Wesley took the precaution of modifying the course to keep us in a more contained area closer to McCorrie Point.  That way the authorities could more easily skim us collectively from the surface like dynamited fish.  Instead of heading to the mouth of the bay, we'd head south 3.5 miles to Black Point, return 3.1 miles back in the direction of the start, return down to Black Point, then finish up back on the beach.  To break up the typical Where's Waldo monotony of turning on a specific mooring buoy within a field of indistinguishable alternatives, the northern turn would be on a lone moored motorboat.  I was tempted to dart out before the race and cut his fuel line to prevent a mid-race escape, but figured the resulting sea of flames might make it just as difficult to find the turn.

The day promised to be hot and humid.  When you find yourself in a cold-water/greenhouse-air situation, it's always challenging to choose the right apparel.  We told Ryan that paddling in a scuba suit under these conditions was overkill, but he just winked and adjusted his regulator.  The rest of us were still shedding clothes as we boarded our craft for the start.

By implicit mutual consent, the field eased off the line with Jenga-worthy deliberation and cautiousness.  With little wind and growing mugginess, there was a legitimate danger of total collapse if you charged pell-mell out of the gate on your 13.2 mile trek.  By encouraging drafting, the glassy water further helped hold the field together.  I had a typical mid-pack start, but at least the collegial spirit of the field helped allay my usual apprehensions about my languor.  Jan and Chris C took the early lead, but remained within hailing distance should we need to recall them.  A minute into the race, Matt sprinted by me and headed out to join the scouting party.  His ease in overtaking me was a tad worrisome, but I figured he'd burn through his youthful zest pretty quickly.

I'm starting to suspect that Olga is sweet on Max.  In any event, I've discovered the sure-fire way to feature in her photos is to stick close to him. (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
Over the next few minutes I overtook a drafting clump of pursuers, gradually slipping past Wesley, Max Yasochka, Tim Dwyer, Chris Laughlin, and Chris Q.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make a clean escape.  I got a little too close and ended up with a Quinn stuck on my port draft.  A fading Chris C angled over and latched onto the other side.  Jan and Matt were working independently four or five lengths ahead on different lines.

I tried various maneuvers and intervals to shake off my drafters.  Chris C fell for a head feint to the right and dropped off, but Chris Q remained a thorn at my side.  Finally, I managed a short sprint that brushed him back to my stern wake.  From there it was a simple matter of bursting a few superfluous blood vessels in my head and neck to drop Chris completely.  I was hoping for a "blown out of the airlock" kind of separation, but had to settle for a gentler "lost grip on the module hatch" departure.  As Chris drifted lazily back, I concentrated on catching Matt, who seemed to be on the more direct line to Black Point.

A few minutes into the race, Matt had a four boat lead on me.  I had since been whittling that down. It took me twenty minutes to cover the 100 foot gap - a whopping closing speed of 0.05 mph.  A garden snail can't even manage 0.03 mph, so I think you'll agree I was putting the hammer down.  By the time I slid onto Matt's draft at around mile 3, Jan had fallen back a few lengths, where he was joined by Chris in the chase.

Typical show-off Canadians. (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
Approaching Black Point, I started to get nervous about identifying the proper turning buoy.  I wouldn't exactly say that I had tuned out during the captains meeting, but I did keep picking up an NPR program on silkworms (nature's tailors!).  Matt and I began a discussion on the relative merits of the various choices, finally settling on a spiffy white-and-blue job 150 meters ahead.  We were feeling pretty good about this decision when indistinct shouts from behind cracked our veneer of confidence.  The four lead boats stopped paddling to assess the situation, ultimately deciding to follow our hearts rather than the incoherent ravings of some lunatic.  Turns out it was Wesley, frantically directing us to the buoy we were in fact heading for (although from his angle, he couldn't tell that).  So following the ravings would have gotten us to the same place.

I rounded the buoy just ahead of Matt, with Jan and Chris perhaps another 4 lengths back.  There was still a lot of confused yammering going on, but a lot of that may have been me chastising myself for making such a wide, lazy turn.  We'd spend the next few miles heading back into the wind.  Although later in the day we'd get slapped around by its aggressive bluster, at this point the gentle caress of the breeze soothed our blistered skin.  Or, in Ryan's case, cooled the gooey contents of his wetsuit back to a mostly-solid state.

The 3 mile trip back to the upwind turn-around was relatively uneventful once I'd retroactively edited out all of the terror-filled glances over my shoulder to see who would soon be overtaking me.  I'd installed a Geiger counter app on my phone prior to the race, so at least I'd have some warning if Jan was sneaking up on me.  I never saw anyone distinctly (because, remember, I didn't look) and the headwind helpfully swept away any scent of impending doom, so (to the syncopated clicks of intermittent cosmic rays) I began to think perhaps I would finally break my runner-up hex.  The subsequent downwind leg back to Black Point scorched away that hope, along with all others.
I had about a 35 second lead over Matt at the upwind turn (which, remarkably, was still attached and afloat).  Chris lagged behind him by a few lengths, with Jan a half-dozen more back.  With the wind now surgically tuned to match my exact speed, I could finally appreciate the full swelter of the day.  Despite shedding a half-dozen pounds in my cockpit sauna, I felt increasingly leaden as the miles to the next turn trickled by.  My target pace was slipping so often that I was forced to switch over to target deceleration.  Some quick calculations (and they say you never use calculus in real life...) indicated that I'd actually be going backwards by the time I reached Black Point.  I must have integrated incorrectly, though, because I actually had some residual velocity as we approached the turn.

Blinded by sweat and tears, heat blasted, and mentally exhausted from all the math, I was finally about to round the buoy when... again with the yelling from behind.  Given that he was only a few lengths behind at this point, Matt could have used his inside voice, but he must have sensed that my befuddled mind was only capable of responding to intense stimuli.  The fact that I was now paddling canoe-style and yelling out "hut" on side changes probably tipped him off that I needed some hand-holding.  In any event, he managed to redirect me to the correct buoy.

I was still in the lead, but watched Matt and Chris take the turn together - now only 20 seconds back.  Given my depleted state, I was done for.  Noting that Jan had dropped off the pursuit, I dreamed that I might salvage a third place finish from the charred wreckage.  Amazingly, however, it turns out that everyone else was also suffering on that past leg.  And that my seemingly debilitating fatigue was as much mental as physical.  It took only a few minutes of wind-in-the-face therapy to reinvigorate my hopes for a win.

While Chris prepared a hasty exit to avoid the press throng, I graciously stuck around to provide an hour-long Q&A session (mostly A, now that I think of it) with my deck camera.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
My upwind execution was sloppy, but the glee of being freed from the downwind kiln powered me back towards McCorrie Point.  About halfway home, I noticed one of the two chase boats back about a dozen lengths on an inside line.  He didn't seem to be gaining, which allowed me to concentrate 100% of my anxiety on the guy I couldn't see.  I hate that guy.  With a mile to go, a mischievous squall descended on the Sakonnet.  With an almost perfectly head-on wind, however, negotiating this final obstacle was more annoying than challenging.

I reached the line a half-minute ahead of Chris, with Matt taking third shortly after that.  Jan and Tim completed the top 5, with Leslie Chappell paddling away with the women's title.  After rehydrating (I'd forgotten my IV saline drip so I had to do things the old-fashioned way - guzzling seawater), we headed up the road to the Echols' house for the after-party.  Once you fought your way through the crowd of surfski pilgrims genuflecting towards The Garage, it was a pretty good spread.  Many thanks to Wesley and Betsy for a great day.  And a special thanks to guest lecturer Jan, who gave a sobering scared-straight presentation on the perils of the Molokai.  Or, at least, the perils of being on a chase boat there.

You know the angel/devil that pops up to provide advice in cartoons?  Apparently that's a real thing.  Minus the costumes.
Due to popular demand, we're all booked for a reunion tour in Rhode Island on June 16th for Ride the Bull.  Poring over navigational charts, tide tables, and unholy grimoires, Wesley and Tim are already hard at work summoning the latest incarnation of the cruelest course in New England.  Please preregister at PaddleGuru.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Essex River Race: Hard Luck

It's not often that you can step out your front door directly into a top-tier ski race, but with an assist from Mary Beth (who needs to work on her fireman's carry, truth be told), that's exactly what I enjoy each year at the Essex River Race.  For the second year, the race was being hosted by the Riversbend Restaurant at the Essex Marina rather than at its ancestral home at the Shipbuilding Museum and public launch.  Fond memories of scrambling for parking, dodging traffic, and replanking my ski persist, but apparently the future is all about convenience and composite fibers.  Can't wait to see what they do with the remake of Pinocchio.

Despite the venue change, we'd still be running the traditional 5.75 mile lollipop course - heading out the Essex River, rounding Cross Island, and returning back up the river.  With high tide occurring just before the start and a light breeze out of the east, times would likely be fast.  I expected Chris Chappell and Jan Lupinski to be near the pointy end of the 23 ski pack from the get-go, but hoped that I might finish at the apex.  Glancing warily at the overcast sky, we wondered if the rain would hold off until we were soggily eating our pizza and burgers at the after-party.

There were significant polarity issues prior to the start.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
At last year's race, I had missed the start while in a deep discussion with Tim Dwyer about the epidemic of tardiness in the younger generation.  The year before that, I fell out of my boat 10 seconds before the gun while trying to turn on my GPS.  While most racers aspire to a fast start on the Essex, my bar is set at "uninteresting".  I'm sure everyone was anxious to see what kind of exuberant pre-race shenanigans I would be up to in 2018.  Not me.  I started my GPS on shore, dropped Tim as a friend (Facebook and otherwise), and double-checked that I wasn't wearing any flammable clothing.  Even with such extraordinary precautions, I wasn't optimistic.

Fortunately, within-tolerance longitudinal alignment was achieved prior to the gun.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
I positioned myself on the right side of the line so that my inevitable fiasco would take out as few other paddlers as possible.  My anxiety grew as the starter counted us down, but at "Go!" I found myself inexplicably upright, holding a paddle, and not choking on a nectarine pit.  Success!  In fairness, I did suddenly realize that the paddle wasn't the one I had actually intended to use, but that seems like quibbling.  I even thought I got off the line relatively quickly.  That is, until after the race when Tim asked me why I missed the start this year.  Ouch.  I knew there was a reason I unfriended that guy.

Chris was off the line with characteristic flair, seizing the early lead but unable to keep a pesky Jan from hanging off his port draft.  Francisco Urena had an excellent start as well, trailing the two leaders by a length or so but easily separating himself from the rest of the pack.  I worked my way by Wesley and a rejuvenated Timmy Shields, catching up to Tim and Hank Thorburn a few moments later.  Francisco, having consumed an hour's worth of calories in the first two minutes of the race, had throttled back to a more reasonable burn rate, but his still-glowing paddle blades were emitting clouds of hissing steam each time they hit the water.  I managed to slide by with only minor scalding.  Three or four lengths ahead, Jan and Chris continued to lead the charge through the winding estuary.

That's me on the far right.  Probably not my best early showing, but like they say: Any start you can walk away from is a good one.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
With Jan pulling Chris around successive bends, I settled into an uncomfortable chase position.  I wasn't losing ground, but neither was I getting any younger.  Mindful of last year's Hudyncia-on rowboat collision, I warily followed the leaders as they negotiated through the field of oncoming behemoths finishing from their earlier heats.  Roughly a mile into the race, I finally managed to snag a seat on Chris' stern wake.  As anyone familiar with his linebacker physique will tell you, that's the First Class of drafting positions.  And I'm talking Emirates, not Delta.  All of your cares evaporate.  I had finished the fois gras and was just about to order my complimentary foot massage, when sudden turbulence forced me to bail out from my cushy post.

At low tide, the Essex River consists of a sinuous navigable channel.  You follow the river, you're necessarily following the channel.  At high tide, the river consists of a sinuous navigable channel cruelly concealed within a featureless expanse of semi-navigable flats and soul-sucking shallows.  Cutting a corner too tightly (spoiler - that's foreshadowing), Jan had led us into one of the latter.  I saw the first thin stems of grass emerging from the water just before my paddle started striking the muddy bottom.  Thanks to Archimedes displacement principle, Chris found himself in an even stickier situation.  I was therefore able to take advantage of the situation to sneak by, carefully matching Chris oath for oath in an attempt to disguise my glee at this unexpected windfall.

With proper cropping, the inescapable loneliness of man becomes apparent.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
Jan had managed to break free while this was transpiring.  By the time we were back in deep water, he was three lengths ahead.  Chris had dropped back slightly, but since he was taking a different line towards Conomo Point, it was difficult to tell just how much I had been able to pull away from him.  As we approached the gap separating Cross Island from the point, a modest headwind picked up, which thoughtlessly slid over to our beams once we turned up the east side of the island.  The resulting side chop could be measured in inches, but I feared it would be enough to throw me off what little game I had on my V14.  Doing 95% of your training on a tiny wind-protected lake may not be the smartest surfski practice, but it's the only way I know.  So it came as a pleasant shock that I was able to maintain pace with Jan along this unsteady stretch.

I took stock of the situation as we neared the halfway point of the race.  Once we rounded the northeast corner of Cross, we'd enjoy a brief downwind section before rounding into the lee of the island and heading back up the estuary.  We'd perhaps receive a little boost from the wind along parts of that return trip, but the ebbing tide would be giving some push-back.  Jan would probably open up his lead a bit on the short downwind run, but I figured I'd have a good chance of passing him during the grind to the finish.  In speaking with him afterwards, he sincerely doubted that latter proposition.  Apparently we both could benefit from some humility lessons.

We never got to discover which of us had the goods to back up his bluster.  As I mentioned above, I'm no stranger to race-day mishaps.  Jan, however, is in a league that most of us can only have nightmares about.  Leaking boats, malfunctioning rudders, magnetic anomalies throwing off his internal compass... I'd provide a complete list of misfortunes, but I don't want to incur data overage charges for those of you reading on mobile devices.  Jan is undoubtedly snake-bit, but occasionally you wonder if his spirit animal isn't one of those two-headed vipers you might see at a carnival - there's always the distinct possibility of a self-inflicted fanging.
After repeated harsh empirical lessons, it'll eventually come as no surprise to paddlers that a point of land is often accompanied by a rocky shelf extending outwards some distance underwater.  On the other hand, it is a bit surprising that this would be true of the low-lying muddy northeast point of Cross Island.  Back to the first hand, we've all raced here before and seen the rudder-destroying rocks around this point.  But throwing it over one last time to the second hand, at high tide it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect these obstacles to be several feet under water.  Jan, perhaps juggling these conflicting factors in a reasoned cost-benefit analysis or perhaps just letting race-time adrenaline pull him along, cut within a boat's length of the point.

Probably the only reason Jan wasn't thrown clear of the wreck was that his sacrificial hull gradually scraped off most of his speed before his rudder finally smashed into the rock.  When I close my eyes, I can still hear the crunch of carbon fiber, the piteous wails, and - barely discernible over the other sounds of devastation - the licking of chops.  Blood was in the water.  Although I hadn't planned on cutting the point quite as close as Jan, I was far enough back that I could use his example to adjust my course further out.  Even so, I was forced to hold my breath and grimace while watching various rocks slide just beneath my rudder.

It initially appeared that Jan might have miraculously escaped his grounding with just superficial damage.  He freed himself and continued paddling.  A few moments into the downwind section, however, it became clear that he had serious mechanical issues (coincidentally, the exact thing he says about me when analyzing my stroke).  Steering compromised by a bent rudder shaft, Jan was forced to pull over to the island to attempt field repairs.  During this time, Chris and Tim moved into second and third positions.

I had no idea how long Jan would be side-lined, so I maintained an appropriately high-level of anxiety that he'd be appearing again any moment.  I tapped into this fear, along with bursts of short-term incentive provided by picking off boats from slower classes, to push through for the win.  In an impressive recovery, Jan straightened his rudder shaft enough to restore steering and chased down first Tim, and then Chris to take silver.  Chris finished third less than 10 seconds later, with Tim an equal distance behind him. Wesley took the fifth spot.  In the SS20+ class, Bill Kuklinski was the repeat winner, with Ken Cooper and Dave Grody sharing the podium.  Paddling what I believe to be the first double ski ever raced at the Essex, Gary Williams and Robin Francis established impressive precedence.

This poor sap has no idea he's about to be swept off his board as Leslie and Mary Beth fly by in their battle for glory.  (Photo courtesy of Olga Sydorenko)
Despite the isolated drama in the men's race, the real excitement of the day was in the women's ski competition.  After having to be physically separated several times in the parking lot before the race, noted hot-heads Mary Beth and Leslie Chappell were hungry to get back in the buckets after their knock-down, drag-out fight on the Charles River a few weeks previous.  Leslie had emerged victorious in that bout, so Mary Beth was anxious for on-the-water payback (once I had talked her out of a shiv-related payback, of course).  They exchanged leads several times during the race, but Leslie nosed out MB by inches at the line.  First-time ski racer Jean Kostelich took third.  As Chris joked afterwards, "If Leslie had been in a 540 rather than a 550, it would have been a tie!"  And as Mary Beth similarly, er, joked, "If you had just let me stab her in the eye, things would have been different!"  It'll certainly be fun to see how this rivalry evolves over the season.

Scientists are still baffled by the "rafting" behavior of paddlers, but pray to God that it doesn't have anything to do with reproduction.
Everyone seemed in high spirits as we recapped our races (with appropriate sound effects and embellishments) while overlooking the estuary.  Despite the fact that Bill and his band weren't providing post-race entertainment this year, I shouted requests at him every few minutes, and slipped a fiver in his g-string at the end of the festivities.  Some traditions will never die.  After the awards (and do we really need separate classes for each individual feather angle/paddle length combination?) a select crew - consisting mostly of those who, as children, frequently found themselves eagerly climbing into unmarked vans - helped Mary Beth carry me back to our place for additional race analysis and supplemental alcohol.  As always, thanks to Chris Sherwood for serving as the beer sommelier for the occasion.

For those of you tired of short races in protected water, have I got a deal for you!  We'll be reconvening on June 2nd at Sakonnet River Race down in Rhode Island.  It's 12.5 miles in some of New England's most inscrutable conditions (could be calm, could be not).  You must preregister at PaddleGuru.  And for those interested in joining the most prestigious Tuesday night racing forum in the greater Beverly area of Massachusetts, the 14th season of the Salem League is starting up on May 22.  For 15 consecutive weeks, you'll be developing your skill set under Bill K's curmudgeonly tutelage.  Don't forget tip money!

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Run of the Charles: Holding On

The Run of the Charles offers the perfect early-season opportunity to get your feet wet without too much risk of the rest of you following.  With water temperatures still in the 40s, I'd decided to bump my first accidental dousing to May.  Still not sure if I'll go with "fiddling with the bailer" or "trying to remove crab from the bucket" though.  Those of us familiar with the 6 mile race would be paddling the 5 mile down-and-back course while trying to forget that someone - apparently out of pure malice - had tacked a 1 mile up-and-back course onto the end.  We dutifully taught the newbies the mnemonic our forebearers had drilled into us to remember the bridges we'd be passing under: "Eliot, Harvard, John Weeks, Western, and Cambridge, you idiots."

Tim and Jen made some compelling arguments for switching over to SUPs, but in the end, most of us decided to stick with our 401k plans.
Although attendance was down slightly from 2017's record-setting field, 25 skis would be running the race.  With the two champions from the past three years absent - Jesse Lishchuk and Jan Lupinski - there was a lot of pressure on Chris Laughlin and me to maintain alphabetic consistency.  Unlike Chris, however, Jebediah Lesher here was willing to get his name legally changed just prior to the race to get tradition fully on his side.  I expected noted iconoclasts Chris Chappell, Chris Quinn, and Craig Impens would be hell-bent on defying custom.

Wesley's ability to identify a surfski's serial number using only the sound made by a sharp rap on the deck never ceases to amaze. 
Despite the occasional canoe from the 19 mile race cursing headlong through packs of inattentive 6 milers warming up, we managed to line up without any major incidents for our 1:03 start.  After three minutes of silence in remembrance of the missing dragon boats, we were sent on our way.  The course starts with a gentle left turn, so many of the faster racers group to that side of the line.  I stayed well right.  I was willing to give up a length or two in the hopes of getting through the first minute of the race with all my teeth.  Seemed likely that I'd need them for gritting during the final 5 miles of pain.

As expected, Chris C bounced to an immediate lead, with Chris L glued to his stern.  Craig has an atypical combination of explosive starting speed and grind-you-down long-distance consistency.  I hoped that in this short race the latter wouldn't be a factor, but the former was on full display as he started way right on the line, sprinted diagonally across the leading edge and latched onto Chris C and Chris L.  By the time the rest of the field was up to speed, this trio was a solid three lengths ahead of everyone else.  As I worked my way up to the chase pair of Wesley and Tim Dwyer, this lead doubled.  I've evolved over the years from a tortoise to, say, a porcupine or groundhog, but I hoped the adage would still be legally binding.

The starting gun provoked something of a panic.
For reasons not entirely clear, race officials in a rowing launch plowed ahead of us as a kind of pace boat.  I've seen these craft advertised as "wakeless".  This is true, but only if you're rounding to the nearest foot.  The launch outpaced the leaders approaching the first bridge, with the resulting absence of wake splitting the group.  Impens veered to head under the rightmost arch of the bridge with some help from the non-wake, while Chappell and Laughlin elected for a central span.  Captivated by his zig-zag style over the opening half-mile, I followed Craig.

At the reunion a moment later, Craig was out in front of Chris C by a couple of lengths, with the Lves (as some of us had started calling ourselves) back as far again.  Chris C quickly made up his gap, settling only momentarily on Craig's side wash before throwing down a blazing interval to pull cleanly free.  A minute later, I made my own watered-down version of this move, with considerably fewer flames as a result (as seen in Craig's video).

It took me another couple of minutes to pull alongside the leader.  We settled into a wary truce for the next five minutes.  Naturally, I was suspicious of Chris.  Having lured us most of us into buying Brača paddles (I chose the economically named "Brača XI Van Dusen '92" - a fine local vintage with a full body and a crisp finish), it could only be a matter of time before his motives became clear.  A cunningly planned time-delayed deterioration of the blade cement was my best guess, but who knows exactly what nefarious sabotage might await us?  Perhaps something related to that weird accent over the c?  Also, to those of you not already waiting for the hammer to fall, visit for all your paddling needs!
Due to the protected nature of the course, I was paddling my flatwater boat.  The adjective is not so much a description as it is a prerequisite.  When I'm paddling my V14, I insist that any deviation from a perfectly smooth water surface be best measured in ångströms (holy cow, it's diacritic day here at Full Tilt).  If the perturbation is all the way up at "hair's breadth"... well, that's trouble.  So when the aforementioned launch swerved across our bows, the mighty ripple of its unwake threatened to upset the détente that Chris and I had established.

Fortunately, Chris was also in his flatwater boat.  And, while it's theoretically possible to paddle the V14 in rough water (there's video proof!), I'm not sure the same can be said for the Mohican.  Despite a disconcerting wobble, I was able to use the brief flatwater disruption to break away from Chris.  Going into the turn (beyond which the launch was now anchored, its crew doubled over in hysterical laughter), I had a tenuous lead of a length and a half.  As I gradually pointed my nose back upstream - you don't want to rush these things - I saw Chris Q in dangerous pursuit, with Craig, Chris L, and Tim not far behind.

Fortunately, the camera adds 10 lengths.
Although the paddle back to the start was superficially uneventful, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being followed.  The occasional sing-song taunt of "We're gaining on youuuuu!" from behind failed to ease my anxiety.  As I passed under each of the twenty-six bridges on the upstream leg, I made a point of throwing a wild-eyed over-the-shoulder glance to alert my pursuers to my growing panic.  I'm sure they could already smell the fear, but why not take every opportunity to further inflame their blood lust?  During one of these precarious peeks backwards, I managed to determine that Chris Q had passed Chris C and was now perhaps a dozen lengths behind.

Finally reaching the upstream turn (taken luxuriously wide, of course), I marshaled my strength for a final whimper to the finish.  If there's one thing I've learned about Chris Q over the past year, it's that everyone thinks he's a nice guy.  Quiet.  Polite.  Respectful of those a dog or two's life older.  I'm here to tell you that he would have passed me without compunction had he his druthers.  As fate would have it, however, his lack of time for actual training left him a couple short.  At that day's druther exchange, that translated to 35 seconds.  Apparently Chris C has managed to carve out adequate time on the water, on the other hand, as he took an easy third shortly after.  This was the same podium order as at last month's Narrow River race, but the 4 minute spread down south had now shrunk to under a minute - a worrying trend, to say the least.

Maybe if I had told Mary Beth about the things I had overheard Leslie saying about her before the race, the results would have been different.
Craig and Chris L filled out the extended podium.  On the women's side, Leslie Chappell and Mary Beth stayed together for the whole race, until Leslie nosed out Ryan Bardsley in the final sprint for the win.  Not exactly sure how he got in there.  Francisco Urena and Matt Beaton, paddling together for the first time, took the doubles crown.  In the 19 mile race, Ed Duggan was the first ski across the line.

Of course, the ski racers don't show up at the Run of the Charles for anything as mundane as the thrill of the competition or the camaraderie of their fellow paddlers.  Heck, those are the reason that Rhode Island was invented.  No, the ROTC marks the start (and finish, sadly) of the Capellini pulled pork season.  As we gathered greedily around the precious pot of manna, memories of past years flooded back.  The piquant sharpness of the pork in 2014... The playfully spongy buns of 2017...  And, of course, the Despair of 2016, when Bob and Linda were detained at the NY border for exporting seasoned meat without a license.  Needless to say, the seized pork mysteriously disappeared from the evidence room prior to trial.

A surprising number of participants at this year's race had never seen a camera before.
In our next installment, we'll be discussing the pros and cons of the Essex River Race.  With Tim Hudyncia sitting this one out, it's anyone's guess as to which lucky paddler will get decapitated by a rowboat this year.  As stipulated by the "within five minutes of the venue" clause of the Surfskis United charter, all competitors are invited back to our home after the awards to share grossly exaggerated accounts of their races over beers and snacks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Narrow River Race: Open Season

Although there were no celebratory banners, brightly colored balloons, or Procol Harum tribute bands to commemorate the 10th running of the Narrow River Race, the mood among the 20 participants seemed particularly festive.  I had spent the drive down alternating between honing the delivery of my twelve hundred stanza memorial poem ("Depth Be Not Proud") and being told that if I didn't shut the hell up, so help me God, there'd truly be something to memorialize at the 11th annual race.  Ha!  Like Homer, I expect it'd take a few hundred years before anyone realized my true genius.  Unfortunately, we'll never find out who was right.  Within seconds of starting my oration, Kirk Olsen jammed a sugar-bomb donut in my mouth and thus impoverished future generations.

The good thing about the New England surfski crowd is that you can count on everyone getting the Procol Harum reference.  Heck, half the field probably saw them in concert on their first American tour.  The bad thing is that their biggest hit is an alarmingly apt description of our group, especially in March.

As part of his initiation, Ryan eats a heaping spoonful of "Narragansett Relish".  As of this writing, he hasn't yet sprouted swimmerets.
Usually the New England racing season kicks off earlier in March at the Snow Row.  This year, however, the surfskis were unceremoniously booted from that competition for violating the dress code.  Our colorful onesies drew sneers from the cotton-clad rowers, but I expect it was the unfashionable vests that ultimately got us barred.  Or perhaps our superior rough water skill and self-rescue abilities?  In any event, the joke was on them as the paddlers got dibs on the majestic soup and chowder spread.

Many of the top finishers from the 2017 race returned for an encore performance on the Narrow River, including Mike Florio, Jan Lupinski, Chris Chappell, Chris Laughlin, and Chris Quinn.  With Chris Sherwood also racing, you couldn't swing a cat without some Chris or another calling the SPCA on you.  To prevent confusion in future races, I'm recommending a strict three-Chris limit.  Some will argue that even this is more Chrises than anyone really needs, but we can always start calling one of them "Buddy" or "Old-Timer" (not saying which).  Let's instead focus on preventing another lamentable Mike or Tim bloom.  In addition to the usual crew, we were joined by newcomers Ryan Bardsley, Scott Samuel, and Jim Tomes (in a kayak).  Sorry guys - no take backsies.  You're in.  I assume someone taught you the secret signs.

Once again, nobody took up Chris' challenge to "settle this, right here, right now."
After a couple years of experimenting with alternative courses, we'd be reverting to the classic route.  More or less.  We'd head up the river for 2.75 miles, return back past the start (casting wistful glances at Kirk's box of donuts), head downstream an additional couple of miles to a turn near the mouth of the river, then finally hustle back to those donuts.  The rowing club at the northern end of the course, apparently having grown irritated at the swarms of paddlers buzzing ceaselessly around their floating markers in search of the wrong one to turn on, took their buoys and went home.  As a reprisal, the upstream turn was moved to just off the end of their launch dock.  Not exactly a horse head in their bed, but I think they got the message.

I've spent the better part of my adult life attending captain's meetings run by Wesley or Tim, but this is the first I remember that featured a hand-drawn (and colored!) map that would evoke pity from the other parents should it be posted on a kindergarten wall.  And now, thanks to my smart mouth, we'll never again know where to turn in a Rhode Island race.  Based on the number of on-the-fly course adjustments made by paddlers in the past, however, I'm really just doing my part to preserve a time-honored tradition.

Before we had too much time to contemplate the forthcoming discomfort, Wesley thoughtfully counted us down to a rolling start.  To a person, we had each taken advantage of the pre-race mingle to disparage our conditioning, provide graphic details about chronic injuries (can we all agree to avoid the word "suppurating" in the future?), and off-handedly mention that we hadn't actually paddled a boat since the Carter administration.  Jan went so far as to claim that he had only awoken from a six-month coma just that morning.  So the almost aggressive torpor of the field at the start came as no surprise.  With only modest exaggeration, Chris C and Chris L could be said to have jumped to an early lead.  The rest of us languished our way into the race, creaking and groaning as befitted our advanced stage of alleged deterioration.

After drawing the short straw, new guy Scott was suited up as our official "seal proxy" in case of a shark sighting.
A couple of minutes into the race, I started remembering the four key elements to a fluid and powerful stroke, but by centering myself mentally and using advanced breathing techniques (known colloquially as "gasping"), I was able to tamp down these intrusive thoughts and get down to flailing the water with abandon.  This effort paid off as I soon caught Chris L.  As I like to think the Romans liked to say, however, "L is less than halfway to C".  In my imagination, they could never quite figure out those crazy numbers.  Or Latin.  In any event, the other Chris (you know, the XL one) was still forging ahead with a III length lead.

A few minutes later, I had bridged the gap and was challenging Ole 100 for the lead.  Chris, I mean.  Not the Danish rapper.  After resting for a few seconds on his draft, I optimistically thought I could cruise by him with a quick interval.  Apparently being more of a glass half-empty kind of guy, however, Chris wasn't playing along.  For the next mile or so, we paddled side by side.  Only as we approached the bridge leading us into the lake-like portion of the race did I manage to break free.  I'm not sure how much the wake of the random motorboat that had been jockeying to pass us for the previous couple of minutes had to do with it, but I'll ask cousin Roger at the next family reunion.

The incoming tide had been giving us a boost in the protected river, but in the wider lake we had to push against a northerly wind.  Minutes stretched to what seemed like, I dunno, a quarter of an hour?  It was actually only 12 minutes, so you can imagine how unpleasant it was.  Despite the wind's best efforts, I arrived at the rowing dock in relatively high spirits.  Here we were nearly half-way through the race and... hold on... 2.75 divided by 9.5... Could it possibly be that after all that effort we had only completed 28.947% of the race?  I knew bringing that slide rule was a mistake.  Although I tried to enjoy the subsequent downwind paddle back to the river, I couldn't help but keep coming back to that one key question - how could we make Wesley's and Tim's grisly deaths look accidental?
Back in the river proper, I was acutely aware of the incoming tide.  A reliable staple of the Narrow River Race report has been jokes about just how shallow the river is.  I had been crafting a variant on the old one about two guys relieving themselves from a bridge (A: "Water's cold.", B: "Yeah.  Deep too.", A: "You've revealed yourself as both a liar and as someone poorly endowed.  Aaargh!  Plover!" - still working on it), but I must admit that depth was a limited factor in this year's race.  In fact, I was often able to find a sweet spot in the shallows where the eddy current was strong enough to offset the drag from the bottom.  Regardless of whether that's actually true, I plan on sticking with that retroactive justification for my line.

I know everyone - even non-paddlers - will be able to relate to this.  I'm minding my own business when an improperly velcroed pogie threatens to derail my day.  While I see now that stopping to adjust the now-dangling pogie in a composed manner might have been the wiser course of action, I went a slightly different route - tearing rabidly at the offending pogie to detach the blasted thing.  Once I had thrown the inevitable last-second brace to keep from capsizing, I placidly resumed my course.

My request that the guys make another pass for a better composition were met with surprisingly strong remarks about my parentage.
The downstream turn on the Narrow River is on a small American flag positioned inexplicably 10 feet off the sandy shore.  Getting around it gracefully in a 21 foot boat isn't really a viable option, but with an incoming tide helping to push the bow around, my ungainly maneuver only drew mild snickers from people walking on the beach.  Since I'd had them rolling in the sand in previous years, I count 2018 as a great success.

From a quick glance backwards after the first bridge heading downstream, I was aware that Chris Q was chasing me down.  I hadn't been able to summon the courage to check his progress on that endeavor, but heading back to the finish I couldn't help but notice that he was having some success.  My lead was perhaps 90 seconds, but this felt less than safe with a tough upwind paddle against the tide ahead of me.  As other paddlers flew by heading downstream, I frantically asked each how far the scourge was behind me.  A little too frantically, apparently, since nobody seemed to understand what I was spluttering.

Sometimes we tell Wesley he won just to savor his child-like glee.
I was left with no choice but to imagine the worst, which explains all the screaming as I repeatedly heard phantom splashes just behind me.  My fears probably also sparked just enough fire to keep my tired arms pumping for the remaining trip back to the start.  Chris Q, who had some fatigue issues of his own in the final stretch, came in shortly after, followed at an equal interval by Chris C.   The next three spots were hotly contested, as Chris L fought off Mike and a surging Tim.  Wesley, Jan, Kirk, and Bob Wright completed the top ten, with Mary Beth taking the women's top spot.

It's this... excuse me, I'm tearing up a little... it's this kind of thing that make all those hours of training worth it.
As per custom, after joyfully hoisting the boats on our shoulders in celebration/stowage, we retired to the Oak Hill Tavern.  We had some trouble working out the bill, so regardless of whether you were there or not, just give Mary Beth everything in your wallet the next time you see her and we should all be square.  Thanks to Tim and Wesley for a fine day on the water.

Having been appropriately chastised by the Narrow River, we now have a month to address our individual deficiencies before the Run of the Charles.  That's not a lot of time to correct a lifetime's worth of pettiness, egotism, and mispronunciation of the word "enmity", but I'm willing to give it a shot.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Lighthouse to Lighthouse: Sin of Omission

Under the stewardship of Gary Williams, the multi-craft Lighthouse to Lighthouse race has served double-duty as the East Coast Surfski Championship since 2014.  Gary is held in such high esteem for his untiring efforts on the L2L that some of us true believers have erected shrines to him in our homes, where we make ritual sacrifices to celebrate his benevolence (and, perhaps, curry favor in case of disputed rule interpretation).  The 2017 installment of the race promised to be a humdinger, reuniting many of the contenders in this year's Blackburn, while sprinkling in locals who missed that race out at The Gorge.  Toss in a couple of wildcards from Michigan and a rising star from down south, and you have the most anticipated race of the New England season.

Here's a little known fact.  The amount of black pipe wrap tape Mary Beth and I use on our skis technically qualifies us as licensed plumbers under Massachusetts Department of Health and Public Safety regulation 104-CR-833.
Within hours of completing this year's L2L, I was hustled into the back door of a black SUV by a group of masked hooligans.  As the chloroform and/or day's fatigue took its toll, I slipped into a deep slumber to the sound of roaring engines.  Confused and disoriented, the next morning I awoke to find myself on a family vacation in Scotland.

I had hoped to be able to find time to write this report while on the road, but I failed to take into account the fact that I'd spend the majority of my time abroad unconscious.  My skull now bears the historical imprints of neolithic tomb ceilings, medieval castle lintels, Renaissance arches, and post-modern skylight cut-outs.  And the corresponding secondary floor strikes, of course (including a splendid impression of Roman tile-work).  Whiskey may have been involved in some incidents.  I don't have many photos of the trip, but once the bandages have been removed, I'd be happy to provide interested parties with a phrenological tour of my Scotland experience.

Back to the race...

Like buzzards to the fly-covered corpse of an antelope, the sharks of the Great Lakes region have stampeded to Long Island Sound.  In addition to L2L veterans Rob Hartman, Erik Borgnes, and Denny Paull, we were joined by fellow Gregs Greene and Hintze.  In chatting with the midwest guys before the race, one of them asked me how I thought the race might play out.  I speculated that Rob and youngster Nate Humberston would duel for the win, added that predicting third place might be a trickier proposition, and then, in comically self-defeating fashion, failed to shut up.  As curator of the SurfskiAmerica database, a spreadsheet junkie, and a quasi-lovable loser with few outside interests, it’s safe to say that nobody is more obsessive about the relative performance of North American paddlers.  I haven’t been in a race in the past five years for which I haven’t tabulated a top-to-bottom predicted finish order.  And, sadly, I don’t just mean in my head.

Given that they had to rescue a stranger from a burning car on their way home from the race, it was a real stroke of luck that Dave and Andrius decided to debut their superhero costumes at the L2L.
So naturally I couldn’t resist a chance to vomit out my musings when offered a chance.  I retained enough sense to obscure the order, but I predicted that Erik, Craig Impens, Jan Lupinski, and myself might contend for third.  Obviously I had miscalculated on Erik, who easily out-paced everyone else.  And had left Paul Facteau off the list, mostly because I'd never even heard of him.  But the big mistake was omitting Denny Paull, who was standing four feet from me at the time.  Giving the guy you edged out the previous year that little extra motivation to settle the score… that’s a recipe for sweet, sweet comeuppance.  To make matter worse, the man arrived with two first names and an extra L.  So you know he means business...

The course would be the same as preceding years.  We'd start offshore from Shady Beach, proceed outside an initial turn buoy, Sprite Island, Peck Ledge Light, Goose Island, Copps Island, and Sheffield Island before rounding Greens Ledge Light and returning the way we came.  The forecast was for minimal wind and flat conditions, but race veterans weren't falling for that meteorological ruse.

I can only hope that Jim and Steve were focusing on Gary.
After a captains meeting in which Gary emphasized sportsmanship, safety, and stoicism in the face of a malign universe (the Three S's, as he called them), 57 skis launched into the becalmed waters.  Coming into the race, I had been feeling optimistic.  Several excellent training sessions in the last few weeks and a season-best performance at the Great Stone Dam Classic the weekend before had led to raised expectations and pride-goeth-before-a-fall levels of self-confidence (see above).  At the starting line, however, anxiety and doubt flooded my system.  Stomach pounding and heart churning, I desperately tried to remember Gary's centering exercises.  No good.  I'd have no choice but to abandon all the S's.

Despite my nerves, I’d rate the start as my best ever in a big race.  Which is to say, I didn’t spend the first five minutes brining in the collective paddle spray of half the field.  Within a hundred meters, I had established a place in the top dozen skis.  As expected, Nate and Rob seized the early lead.  I was alarmed to see that Jan had matched their initial sprint to latch onto their wash, but forced myself to concentrate on hanging with the chase group.  Erik, Paul, Tom Murn, Steve Rankinen, and myself made the first buoy turn together, but by the time we reached Sprite Island, Erik was threatening to declare his independence from our once tight-knit coalition.  Tom and Steve fell off the pace a bit, but Paul and I managed to prevent a clean secession by latching on Erik's draft.  At some later point Denny petitioned to join our federation, and - against my strong dissenting vote - was granted provisional membership.

Although Jan had held with Rob and Nate up front for the first mile or so, by the Peck Ledge Light he had fallen off their draft and was pursuing an outside path on his own.  Although we'd briefly merge rounding Goose Island, he declined to join our train.  He drifted off to our left and eventually started to fall back.  I heard hushed rumors afterwards of a dodgy rudder and severe chafing problems - pretty much the standard hurricane of confusion and innuendo that whirls around Jan.  Meanwhile, it was taking everything I had to stay with Erik.  To keep him ignorant of my hanging-on-by-a-thread status, I'd occasionally yawn loudly to suggest that his pace was barely sufficient to keep me awake.

The last known picture of Jan with nipples.
It was at about mile 2.5 that I realized that while somebody might challenge Erik for bronze, it wasn’t going to be me.  This came as a great relief.  I could now abandon that gnawing sense of guilt that came from freeloading on the wash of a peer for so long, and replace it with a glowing sense of pride that I was hanging on the wash of a superior for so long.  From tactical weenie to strategic genius, just like that.

I couldn't allow myself the luxury of looking behind me too often since I'd inevitably lose a couple of feet on Erik and would have to scramble frantically to get back in yawning position.  To help me out, Denny made the occasional bold foray outside of the wash to alert me to his continued presence.  I couldn't be positive, but it seemed that we might have misplaced Paul somewhere along the way, as one sometimes does.

I continued to concentrate on Erik's stern as the miles ticked by.  The fact that my exertion was at hour-long race level in a contest that was nearly twice that duration was of some concern, but I hoped that the Borgnes boost would provide me with enough of a head start to hold off predators looking to take advantage of my weakened state.  As we cleared the end of Sheffield Island, the sea became slightly more agitated.  Combined with my growing fatigue, this was enough to finally provide Erik his sovereignty.  I wasn't too keen on being newly autonomous, but Denny made sure that I would stay that way by pulling cleanly around me as we neared the light at Greens Ledge.

Although Erik had achieved escape velocity and would soon be invisible to the naked eye, perhaps I could keep Denny in my orbital range.  He was a couple lengths ahead as we began to round Greens Ledge Light, but due to a fortuitous (and completely unplanned, unrehearsed, and uncompensated) turn of fate happened to hit the only tight turn of the race just behind the double ski manned by my dear friends, Sean Milano and Mark Ceconi.  Not only would Denny have to maneuver around the tandem, he'd have to do so while fending off Sean's enthusiastic attempts to engage him in good-natured chit-chat.  During this struggle, I managed to briefly catch Denny, only to have him slip away again while I myself was engrossed in a delightful conversation about Parmesan cheese.

We began to retrace our strokes back towards the start, now paddling into wind and waves that had kicked up unexpectedly during our 30 second rounding of Greens Ledge.  Figuring that the low-lying islands would provide very little wind protection, I chose an outside line to take advantage of a mostly hypothetical outgoing tide.  While watching Denny widen his lead on a more moderate line, Paul reappeared and also started pulling ahead.  Not today, good fellow.  I vowed to stick with my new nemesis no matter what.  The power of that conviction lasted nearly 5 minutes, but in the end, I figured it'd be simpler to get a new new nemesis.  Or, better, eliminate the hassle of cultivating a fresh rivalry and just renew the time-honored struggle against a tried-and-true antagonist.  I looked over my shoulder to see if Jan was available, but no such luck.
Paul moved ahead, but didn't have the common decency to put himself out of conceivable reach.  For the next few miles, I watched as he slowly closed the gap on Denny, the two of them perhaps 20 lengths ahead.  Rounding Goose Island, I decided it was finally time to make a token effort at catching these guys.  Doubtless it'd become apparent after a couple of minutes that I had no hope of overtaking them, at which point I could shut it down and coast into a sixth place finish with a few arteries still unburst.  To my cardiologist's dismay, however, my final push bore some fruit.  I was making up some ground.

Based on some cockamamie theory that my under-oxygenated brain had concocted regarding the curvature of space-time, I became convinced that the shortest path from Peck Ledge Light back to Sprite Island was a graceful arc of significant radius.  I watched in scoffing contempt as Denny and Paul opted instead for straight lines - unquestioningly following the rigid constraints of Euclidean geometry.  I imagined their looks of awe and wonder when they found themselves inexplicably behind me... victims of my superior inter-dimensional navigation skills.  While basking in the warm glow of this delusion, I happened to notice another conformist on the "direct" route, some lengths back.

No.  Not him...  The black boat.  The fierce visage.  The impeccable musculature.  Craig was coming for me in his dark ski of doom.  I had been scrupulously checking for signs of the fiend since the turn-around at Greens Ledge, but he's notoriously wily.  With a mile left in the race, he was coming for me with Terminator-like implacability.  Eyes bugging out due to witless panic (with an assist going to off-the-charts blood pressure), I threw myself into catching Paul on the off chance that Craig would be satisfied with an alternative victim.

Unbeknownst to me, both Paul and Denny were doing what they could to help me improve my position.  Paul had been cramping since the last lighthouse and Denny had driven his rudder through his hull on the rocks off Sprite Island.  Denny had a little too much of a lead for his sportsmanlike gesture to pay off (I appreciate the effort, nonetheless), but by the final buoy turn I had closed to within a half-dozen lengths of Paul.  Trying to disguise my lurking presence in the final straight-away, I positioned myself on the far side of an outrigger we were overtaking.  If nothing else, it prevented him from glancing over, seeing how close I was to expiring, and digging just a little deeper to deliver the coup de grâce.

Having pulled even with Paul, I let one last wave of Craig-induced terror propel me through the final hundred meters to squeeze into fifth place.  Denny, Paul, me, and Craig had finished within a span of 41 seconds.  Given Craig's rate of closure over the final few minutes, the order surely would have been different had the race been much longer.  Up ahead of our group, Rob had powered to a convincing win, while Nate held on against a hard-charging Erik to take silver.  Behind us, Eric Costanzo finished just ahead of Matt Drayer for eighth, with Jan rounding out the top ten.  In the women's race, the podium spots went to Pam Boteler, Fiona Cousins, and Leslie Chappell.  Entering his fourth decade of dominating the SS20+ class, Bill Kuklinski took home yet another win.  Retirement, along with a healthy dose of what I can only assume are equine-caliber steroids, agree with him.  Finally, Joe Shaw and Doug Howard won the doubles category with the fourth fastest overall time.

As part of our hazing ritual, first-time racer Ryan was subjected to probing questions about his favorite Mocke, Rice, and Chalupsky brothers.
Thanks to all the volunteers and sponsors for continuing to make the L2L the preeminent East Coast surfski race (with special acknowledgement to Stellar Kayaks and for providing prize money).  I'm already looking forward to next year's festival weekend, in which a dedicated doubles race will debut on Sunday.  Gary, remind me again... chicken entrails or goat blood?

Erik, Rob, and Nate (with Stellar Kayak's Dave Thomas)