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?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Great Stone Dam Classic: Apples and Oranges

Despite being an undeniably flatwater race (I measured) during ocean racing season, the Great Stone Dam Classic has become an essential stop in the New England surfski circuit.  Hosted by the Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program, co-chaired by Francisco Urena and Shawn Burke, and staffed largely by an enthusiastic army of student volunteers, it's no secret why the GSDC has become such a favorite.  Sure, it's an appealing venue - a magnificent boathouse set on the verdant shores of the Merrimack River.  And yes, participants enjoy the warm glow that comes from helping to fund a wonderful youth program.  The real reason most of us show up, however, is our shared respect and esteem for Francisco.  And by "respect and esteem" I mean, of course, "fear".  After all, Francisco has some very powerful friends.  Skip this race and you just might wake up one night to find Governor Baker preparing to smother you with a pillow.

Robin was quite tolerant of Mary Beth in the tandem, despite the fact that (based on first-hand K2 experience from our past) she consistently does everything completely wrong.
The GSDC is a classic out-and-not-quite-back-and-out-and-over-and-back course totaling 8.2 miles.  From the boathouse dock, we head upriver 3 miles to turn around Pine Island, then return towards to the start.  But wait, there's more!  With the finish line tantalizingly close, we must reluctantly turn around a "No Wake" marker, head back upstream to round inflatable buoys on each shore, then finally head back to the boathouse to be put in a medically-induced coma until the burgers are ready.

The forecast indicated that a band of storms would move through Lawrence prior to the 11am start, leaving us with breezy but mostly clear conditions for the race.  As we milled about and tweaked our equipment, a disturbing band of dark clouds that had been gathering intensity over the last fifteen minutes off to the west suddenly hurtled in our direction.  Having recently painted our house, I still had the Benjamin Moore color-chooser app on my phone.  Pointing it at the sky, it reported a hue halfway between Deep Charcoal and Impending Apocalypse.  Just as a helpful competitor pointed out that a deadly tornado had swept through Lawrence back in 1890 ("Touched down just over there, if I'm not mistaken!"), the first drops of rain started to fall.  After ensuring that my boat was securely strapped to the car and quickly scanning the heavens for tell-tale flying cows (clear), I high-tailed it for the boathouse.  From there, we watched as the passing storm whipped the Merrimack into a white-capped frenzy while - based on the sound, at least - smaller livestock thudded down on the roof.

Given the likelihood that the raging waters of the Merrimack would soon sweep us all away, the gang was remarkably cheery.
Within fifteen minutes, the squall had passed through with no damage.  With the radar showing no significant threats heading our way, racers started launching their boats and massing for the on-water captains meeting.  In a rush to join them, I tucked my GoPro (which I call GP - short for George Parker) in my PFD pocket, grabbed the V14 from the car, and waded into the river.  I had intended to mount the camera on my boat during launch, but in the adrenaline-fueled excitement, I found myself up the river without GP saddled.  Was that a groan I heard?  Hey - nobody is forcing you to read this. 

Let's skip ahead and get right to the important lesson I learned a few moments later.  It's actually two lessons.  First, that I'm 90% bonehead.  Preaching to the choir on this point, doubtless.  Second, that everything Archimedes said about GoPros was indeed true.  They do lack sufficient volume to displace a weight of water equal to or greater than their own mass.  And they should always be tethered.

As an unblinking witness (and inveterate blabbermouth), GP has captured (and heartlessly disseminated) many of the more thrilling (and humiliating) moments in my life.  Although we often locked horns over what was appropriate for public consumption, I was saddened to think of my friend documenting his final frames from the forgotten depths of the Merrimack.  The cosmic irony of not being able to broadcast this particular blunder would not be lost on him.  Some time after the race was over and we perhaps were enjoying lunch, the fight to carry on would just be too much for GP.  Battery exhausted, his recording indicator light would courageously flash until the dark curtain fell at last.  Blink...  Blink...  Blink...  The rest is silence.

[I'm going to leave an open space here so that I can insert a jubilant coda when GP is ultimately dredged from the river and returned to me in 2087.]

Shaking off my recent misfortune (after all, it only ranks about 7th on this season's pre-race bloopers), I surveyed the field of 25+ skis.  Chris Chappell had brought a shiny new toy to the race - one of the first reinvented Nelo 560s to find its way to the Americas.  Designed to slip between individual water molecules, the boat is ridiculously tiny.  Chris spent most of the morning looking for it after inadvertently setting the boat in the grass near his car without first activating its locator beacon.  Despite its meager 18' 4" length, all reports indicate that the 560 is as fast as a grown-up ski.  I figured this made Chris my biggest threat.

I also had to be concerned about the Human Alphabet, Andrius Zinkevichus.  If his muscular build, imposing accent, and 32 point Scrabble surname weren't intimidating enough, the guy can paddle.  I had beaten Andrius at the Nahant Bay Cup a few weeks earlier, but that was on choppy ocean waters.  This time, he'd be in an ICF boat and in his more natural flatwater milieu.  He'd also bulked up since the last race, adding an entire second paddler.  David VanDorpe would only be contributing 14 points to their combined total, but his impressive paddling resume would more than compensate.  To make matters worse, the duo would start in the heat ahead of me.

The double kayaks, which included Mary Beth (in her first-ever doubles race) and Robin Francis, were sent off first while the skis and ICF boats paced nervously in the on-deck basin.  Less than a minute later, we were ourselves underway.  Poised atop his micro-ski, Chris jumped to an early lead, with Francisco and Wesley in earnest pursuit.  As Francisco told me after the race, since he's been too busy nobly working to improve the lives of Massachusetts' veterans to actually train, he sprints at the start so that he can be in the lead pack for at least a little while.  That guy... always making the rest of us question whether we add any value to society (when he's not sending the governor out to settle scores, that is).

We keep telling Kirk it's "hands high, chin up, back straight, elbows down", but all he ever seems to hear is "tongue out".
After the first few hundred meters, Chris started to pull away from the field.  As a member of that field, I took umbrage at the cavalier attitude with which he was abandoning us.  No over-the-shoulder cry of "Good luck, chaps!" or wistful look back at his former comrades.  I imagined him sneering in contempt ahead.  Watching Chris recede over the next few moments, this expression started to sound increasingly appealing.  Adopting a pay-it-forward approach, I separated myself from the field with a similarly callous disregard for esprit de corps.  I sneered as well, but the only contempt I felt was for [melodramatic pause, followed by breaking voice] myself.

Chris had started out perhaps four to five boat lengths ahead, but I quickly closed the gap to three to five boat lengths, then to two to five lengths.  I figured if I left some ambiguity in there, he wouldn't feel as threatened as I (possibly) crept up on him.  When I eventually I reached the lesser end of zero to five boat lengths, there's was nothing he could do about me snapping concretely onto his stern draft.  After resting for a moment or two - the legendary wash that the Bunyonesque Chris provides is notoriously difficult to give up - I reluctantly pulled around to take the lead.  Of course, he didn't take this move sitting down.  Extraordinary balance, I must say.  He yoked himself behind me and inexplicably shouted out, "Whoa there, Big Blue!  Almost got away from me!"

I tried to free myself from Chris' pitiless grip several times, but he would not be thwarted.  When I've been pulling someone, I try not to look back too often to ascertain if they're still there.  When the situation is reversed, I always interpret the back-glance a sign of weakness.  Sure enough, whenever I succumbed to temptation, I could see Chris smirking at my vulnerability.  Well, I couldn't see much more than a vague shape in my periphery, but since I've already started ascribing facial expressions willy-nilly, let's say he was smirking.

After a mile of this, a quick peek back revealed that I had wiped that smug expression off of Chris' imagined face.  I had finally gapped him.  Shortly afterwards, I passed the last of the doubles, excepting Andrius and Dave.  They were still toiling well ahead, but I was definitely closing on them.  By the time we rounded the upstream end of Pine Island, they were squarely in my sights.  Having seen me so close behind at the turn, I figured they'd scramble away rabbit-like and the chase would commence in earnest.  They weren't into playing the prey, however.  Like a viper, they reared back as I approached, then sank their fangs into my port draft.

I haven't mentioned that we had been bucking a headwind on the upstream part of the course.  We now enjoyed a stiff quartering breeze behind us.  At the next turn of the river, we'd be going dead downwind.  Figuring the two boats had roughly the same sail area (that is, one upright paddler silhouette's worth) but mine had roughly half the weight, that's when I would try to pry myself loose from the tandem.  It was a plan backed up by hard science, but two attempts at super-maximum intensity intervals failed to produce noticeable results.  Presumably the guys had set out a jib or spinnaker or something.  Finally, on my third attempt, just as I was about to go into the light, I heard a slight pop as Andrius and David disengaged from the draft.  Evidently Andrius, stewing in the skirt-covered front cockpit, had overheated and called off the pursuit.

The remainder of the race was painful, but mostly uneventful.  Surprisingly, I found the downstream turn-around marker without problems, and wasn't slammed in the chest by either of the remaining two inflatable turn buoys.  As I approached the finish, a roar rose up from the dock.  The volunteer kids were cheering me home!  Unused to such outbursts from spectators (or, for that matter, spectators), I was quite startled, but managed to stay upright - narrowly avoiding an embarrassing photo finish.

I don't recall doing multiple tequila shots after the race, but that pose is unmistakable.
Chris finished (grinning, let's say) in an easy second, with Tim Hudyncia taking third.  Kirk Olsen and Bruce Deltorchio rounded out the top five (despite Bruce taking the "No Wake" turn buoy a little too seriously by giving it 75 meters of leeway).  Jenifer Kreamer and Leslie Chappell battled the entire race for the women's lead, with Jen eventually earning the win.  Of course, Andrius and David claimed the tandem crown.  Afterwards, we enjoyed burgers and dogs while Francisco gave out awards and liberally distributed bags of fruit (to the great disappointment of those of us who were told there were donuts and Twinkies inside).  Thanks to the Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program (which should consider adopting a cool acronym, like GLAWCOBOP), and to the many volunteers who made the race possible.

The Lighthouse to Lighthouse is this coming Saturday (register at PaddleGuru by 11pm on Thursday, 9/15).  It's also the East Coast Surfski Championship, with $2,000 in prize money split evenly between men and women paddlers.  Is it going to be competitive?  Let's see.  Austin Kieffer.  Jesse Lishchuk.  Reid Hyle.  Rob Hartman.  Erik Borgnes.  Apparently the men's places start at 6th.

Check out the drone footage from the GSDC.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nahant Bay Cup: Ramblings

The Nahant Bay Cup traditionally marks a break in the summer surfski season.  The savvy paddler will collect enough momentum in Mike McDonough's race to carry him or her into the September races, coasting smoothly over the doldrums of late August.  The rest of us just thrash around in Nahant Bay until we find ourselves beached in Swampscott, panting heavily and praying that some good Samaritan doesn't try to push us back to sea.

Mike told us we should head "over their" and then "down they're" and then "back to hear".  I would've corrected his spelling, but I didn't want to be that guy.
Say what you like about Mike (and there's been a lot said since he hasn't been around to stop us), you can't deny that when it comes to energetic pointing during a captains meeting, he stands alone.  We, the nearly-blinded, have learned our lesson.  With Nahant Bay as his canvas, Mike finger-painted a course for us in emphatic strokes.  With an anemic zephyr from the southeast forecast to quicken to a hearty gale by the afternoon, he sketched a new route in the hopes of introducing a bracing downwind leg.  From the pier at Fisherman's Beach, we'd head across Nahant Bay for 2.5 miles to Egg Rock, then turn back into the bay to a cluster of orange buoys off of Red Rock Park, roughly 2.5 miles downwind from the island.  We'd then reverse our course, ending on the beach adjacent to the starting pier.  After a few extra jabs at the sky for good measure, Mike commanded us to storm (off) the beach with one final, imperious gesture.

At this point, Dave is more drink tube than man.
After a brief warm-up, an orderly start broke out off the end of the pier.  A lead group consisting of Eric Constanzo, Andrius Zinkevichus, and Chris Chappell quickly pulled ahead of the field.  A half mile into the race, I caught the trio and filed a formal petition to join their ranks.  Admissions officer Chris told me (exclusively via non-verbal cues) they'd get back to me in 6 to 8 weeks with a decision.  And that this decision would definitely be that I "go to Hell".  Having already visited that infernal region at last week's broiling USCA Nationals, I wasn't so keen on returning (although I hear it's much nicer in late October, what with most of the demons on earth-side holiday).  Fortunately, I had toughened myself against rejections through a rigorous acclimatization program in high school (with some follow-on university training), allowing me to shake off this latest brush-off with a minimum of tears.

I had little choice but to forge ahead on my own.  This hadn't worked out so well at the Narrow River Race, where I led the entire field around an improvised course, but that was a tricky "straight line in a tiny river situation".  Here I'd only have to locate a small set of buoys in four square miles of choppy ocean.  I was optimistic.  Mike had provided us with a landmark to key off of after rounding Egg Rock - a Christian Science church in Lynn with a white steeple and a pastor who answers to the name of "Snoopy" (a result of which is that his dog, the disastrously named "Reverend McAllister", ends up officiating a lot of weddings).  Fun fact: The fall that would set Mary Baker Eddy on the path to founding Christian Science happened in Lynn.  They still haven't fixed that pothole.

I wasn't sure exactly what was happening, but all of a sudden, everyone started paddling. (Photo courtesy of Chun Yang)
I couldn't quite make out the denomination from Egg Rock, but I was 90% sure that I was lined up with the right steeple.  When I eventually saw the parson relieving himself on the front lawn of the church, I knew I was in business.  After poking around the offshore area a little, I spotted the turn buoys.  Having enjoyed a pleasant downwind ride, I wasn't looking forward to the grind back to the Rock.  Surveying the stream of skis still making their way to the turn, I took some solace in the fact that I had a decent lead over Andrius, who appeared to be in second place.  For the next couple miles, I bounced my way back upwind.

Absorbed daydreaming about how I would spend the award money (torn between a V10 GT and cosmetic surgery to finally get rid of my fingernails), it took a few moments to register the surfski up ahead and to the left.  Must be in a different race, I figured initially.  Probably the Swampscott Ski Shootout or the Nahant Paddle Paradox.  But hold on a second, that looks like Eric.  Didn't he start out in our race?  So much for loyalty!  Wait, though.  Eric wasn't wearing the mandatory Shootout safety goggles (and didn't appear to have a paint gun). And the Paradox only allows paddlers older than the median age of the field.  I was relieved that Eric wasn't two-timing us, but appalled at the prospect of a continued life with keratin-tipped fingers.

Our paths merged just as we reached Egg Rock, with Eric perhaps a dozen boat lengths ahead.  I had chased that New Jersey devil down at the start of the race, but that was in relatively flat water.  With a decided edge in downwind conditions (which we'd see again after Egg Rock), catching Eric would be like bottling greased lightning - messy, painful, and likely to induce heart failure.  Fortunately, the confused conditions behind Egg Rock didn't sit too well with his new V14, allowing me to halve the gap before we cleared the island. 
Rounding Egg Rock in the reflective chop can be quite disorienting.  It's the surfski equivalent of that old college game where you blindfold someone and spin them around a few times before shaving their head and leaving them naked in the woods.  Now that I think of it, I never did hear back from the brothers at Alpha Sigma Sigma.  Emerging on the north side of the island, I carefully assessed my navigational options.  Failing to reach a consensus as to where to aim on the extended shoreline ahead, I decided to just follow Eric.  If I caught him, perhaps we could pool our ignorance to make some shared bad course decisions.

Eric was charting a path that was roughly 30 degrees to the right of the prevailing wind for me, but seemingly dead downwind for him.  I can't say I understand this conundrum, but the evidence was overwhelming.  I was zigzagging madly at 100% effort trying to catch Eric, while he rode a razor straight line, lazily dipping a paddle blade in the water from time to time.  It didn't seem fair, but the scales of cosmic justice are notoriously biased in favor of the skilled.  Despite working from such a disadvantage, I was slowly closing the gap between us.

When I finally caught Eric, he immediately expressed concerns that we had turned on different buoys at the halfway point.  This made some sense, given that we hadn't seen each other until we got back to Egg Rock.  Perhaps we were in different races after all.  If so, he was the clear leader of the very exclusive Costanzo Invitational.  I was pretty confident that I had rounded the McDonough-sanctioned buoy cluster, and had witnessed many of the other paddlers headed the same way.  I suggested that we wait to sort it out after the finish, but could tell that his heart was no longer in the competition.

Only Eric and I found the bonus turn buoy...
Finding the finish was proving to be a challenge.  For a while we pursued a course towards a rocky point that I argued would lead us around into Fisherman's Beach - a route that was actually angling us closer to the turn buoys than it was to the actual finish.  Eric expressed concerns that we were heading too far port.  I insisted we were fine.  Eric pointed out that the extensive field of moored boats we had picked our way through at the start was absent from the shoreline ahead.  Perhaps the entire Swampscott fleet had been commandeered for an impromptu attack against arch-nemesis Marblehead, I replied.  It was only when Eric called attention to the array of boats moored off to our right that I relented.  Evidently their raid had been successful.

Having identified the finish, we both picked up our pace.  I made the decision to pass to the right of a large moored sailboat, while Eric headed behind it.  Even with a strong incoming tide backed by the wind, I was surprised by the strength of the current.  Despite turning increasingly into the flow, I was in real danger of being side-swept into the sailboat.  My heart rate was already within a few beats of its theoretical maximum, but a fear-based shot of adrenaline now sent my pulse to eyeball-bulging levels.  As catastrophe loomed, I made one final push to avoid bisection.  After slipping just in front of the vessel, I finally realized I had made a serious frame of reference error.  I wasn't being swept sideways by the current - the sailboat was actually underway.  And doubtless wondering why an idiot kayaker seemed intent on impaling himself on their bow.  Oops.

When Mike told us the race would have a dance finish, I knew those Charleston lessons had finally paid off.  (Photo courtesy of Chun Yang)
With the ink of my new lease on life still wet, the remainder of the race was a joyful celebration of continued existence.  I pulled into the beach finish several seconds before Eric to take the celebrated (but wholly metaphorical) Nahant Bay Cup.  There was an actual traveling cup awarded at one point, but the Department of Public Health shut that down.  Given how demoralized Eric was at the prospect of having cut the course, I figured there was a pretty good chance he was just going through the motions of finishing hard so that I didn't feel bad.  I'm OK with that.  Out-sprinting someone is satisfying even when they're not racing.  But not quite as satisfying as the subsequent trash-talking.

Unfortunately, Eric was correct about turning on the wrong church-adjacent buoy, resulting in disqualification and - in an unusual cross-promotional arrangement - excommunication.  Second place therefore went to the winner of an exciting sprint between Andrius and Tim Dwyer.  Although Tim had managed to catch and pass Andrius at Egg Rock, the latter took a cleaner line to the finish to claim silver by two seconds.  Kirk Olsen pulled in alone before Wesley and Tim Hudyncia reenacted the Zinkevichus-Dwyer sprint finish, with Wesley taking fifth by half an Echols.  Mary Beth selfishly claimed victory for the women.

If it wasn't for Andrius' quick thinking, an improperly ballasted Francisco would have floated away completely.  (Photo courtesy of Chun Yang)
After a wonderful lunch prepared by Carol McDonough, Mike got down to the business of giving out awards.  The coveted "Bad Ass" title was given to mild-mannered Kirk Olsen (I assume ironically), while Bill Kuklinski was bestowed the "Baby Bad Ass" honorific (and accompanying ceremonial head gear) for wiping the ocean with competitors half his age.  Many thanks to the McDonoughs and the Staffords for a marvelous day in Swampscott.

You may be wondering why I failed to mention Swampscott local Matt Drayer.  Unwilling to risk the humiliation of defeat on his home surf, Matt cowardly opted for a leisurely day paddle from Cape Cod to Cape Ann.  Some have described this first-ever 43 mile jaunt as "historic" and "ground-breaking".  However, I'm pretty sure this circus stunt will quickly be forgotten, while the winner of the 2016 Nahant Bay Cup will remain engraved in our collective memories forever (because, remember, there is no actual cup).  If you must, read about Matt's trip here.

Worried about the recent increase in US shark attacks, Bill figured he'd play it safe at the after-party. (Photo courtesy of Chun Yang)
We all look forward to the day when robots will relieve us of the burden of slogging through these reports and making our own toast.  But for now, we've earned a break.  At least on the blog front.  Assuming Elon Musk doesn't make any immediate breakthroughs, we'll meet back here in three weeks, after the Great Peconic Race (register at PaddleGuru) and the Great Stone Dam Classic (no preregistration required).  Those will be excellent warm-ups for the biggest east coast surfski event of the season - the Lighthouse to Lighthouse (register at PaddleGuru - the price goes up September 10).

Friday, August 19, 2016

USCA Marathon Nationals: Flattened

The USCA National Championships were held in Northfield, Massachusetts this past weekend.  I competed in the K1 Unlimited class on Friday.  Although I finished well, I felt about as lousy as I've ever felt after a race.  It's been a tough week to put together this blog entry, what with work, family commitments and having to watch all the team handball consolation matches.  And, honestly, this isn't a race that I'm eager to write about.  Through poor decision-making and boat handling, I inadvertently knocked a competitor from the field.  I'm embarrassed.  And sorry, of course.  As a result, this is going to be a quick-and-dirty summary in "just the facts" mode.  I'll return to my standard "facts optional" mode for the next report.  This will be dry, so remember to hydrate frequently.

Bottleneck at the launch.
There was an impressive field of more than 50 kayaks on Friday, including many of the Northeast's best ocean and flatwater paddlers and a healthy infusion of racers from further afield.  This latter group included two former Olympians (Mike Herbert and Roei Yellin).  Although the Unlimited class is open to all kayaks, the vast majority of the competitors were on surfskis.  That being said, several of the fastest paddlers - including Mike Dostal, Mike Herbert, Jim Mallory, and Hugh Pritchard - chose to race in their ICF boats.  The 13 mile course on the Connecticut River would send us downstream for 0.5 miles before turning on a pair of buoys, then upstream 6 miles to the Route 10 bridge (passing to the right of Kidds Island) before returning to the start.  To add a bit of technical challenge, we'd make a counterclockwise curlicue around Kidds Island on our downstream route.

From the starting line, the first turn buoy looked to be disturbingly close to the left shore.  Fortunately, there was just enough distance for me to overcome my typical leisurely start and get into a respectable position entering the queue for the turn.  A pack of four paddlers - Mike, Mike, Roei, and Jesse Lishchuk - had quickly separated themselves from the field and were threatening to salt the race away in the first mile.  Chasing were Hugh, Steven Rankinen, Jim, myself, and Dave Thomas (and presumably others behind Dave that I couldn't see).

Start of Open, Master, and Senior groups.
With the lead group continuing to pull away, 1.5 miles into the race I figured it was time to push the pace of our pack.  Fresh off a clinic in which Sean Rice discussed the superiority of riding side wash over riding rear wash, I decided to pull up along the right of our line, catching side drafts along the way.  I made it past Jim, but struggled to move up to Steve.  Obviously, what I should have done was to move well outside of Steve's wake to the right, pull up into drafting position, then ease my way back onto the draft.  Or just have sucked it up and moved past both Steve and Hugh to take the lead of our group myself.  What I actually did was bounce around sloppily off Steve's rear quarter trying to climb onto his side draft.

This wouldn't have been an issue if Steve's stern draft was unoccupied, but of course Jim was sitting in that spot.  As I veered to the left, Jim's paddle nicked my boat.  I apologized but stupidly kept to my plan.  Unsurprisingly... same action, same outcome.  This time our paddles hit, then Jim's paddle hit my boat (or, rather, vice versa), then our boats thudded together.

While such negligent maneuvering would have normally earned me a well-deserved upbraiding before we both carried on with our race, the repercussions of this collision were more serious.  Having suffered a pothole-induced bike crash last summer, Jim required surgery to repair his wrist tendons.  While he's now able to paddle without pain, unexpected flexions - such as having your paddle jammed by a boat - are trouble.  Although I didn't realize it at the time, the crash caused enough ongoing discomfort that Jim was forced to withdraw from the race - the first DNF of his long paddling career.

Naturally, I'd feel terrible about knocking anyone out of a race - let alone a legendary competitor who had a shot at the title.  In gentlemanly fashion, Jim left my name out of it when explaining to people why he didn't finish the race.  We spoke afterwards and he graciously accepted my apology.  I also promised to avoid risky maneuvers until I have enough skill that they're no long risky.  I'm relieved to report that Jim's weekend wasn't entirely lost.  He downshifted to a V8 and dominated the K1 Sea Kayak class on Saturday (winning by over 7 minutes) and paired with Matt Skeels to take the K2 Unlimited crown on Sunday.  Those wins underscore what a threat he would have been in Friday's race.

Back on the water, I offered an embarrassed apology, slowed to let Jim get on my wash, and resolved to pull him for as long as I could as a kind of penance.  I thought he was with me over the next mile, but obviously it was someone else (perhaps Dave).  Although the flow of the Connecticut River was anemic, everyone was sticking to the river racing game plan - bouncing from bank to bank to stay out of the current.  Cutting across from left shore to right in preparation for a rightward bend, I took a shallower angle than Hugh and Steve.  With a hard interval, I was able to merge just ahead of them.  The four leaders continued to pull away ahead, while Hugh latched competently onto my side draft.
Over the next couple of miles we picked our way through the women's C2s that had started a few minutes prior to our heat.  At times the leaders were out of sight around bends in the river, but at one point when they reappeared in a straightaway, I noticed that Roei had dropped off the back of the group.  With an obtainable goal ahead, I put in another strong interval to drop Hugh.  With a little under a mile left to the bridge turnaround, I caught Roei and we commenced working together.  We had no hope of catching the lead group, but perhaps we could limit threats from the lurking horde behind us.

At the bridge turn, the Elites were roughly 2 minutes ahead of us.  They'd add another 4 minutes to that gap before we were done.  I had been looking forward to turning downstream so that the slight breeze would be in my face.  It was some relief but wasn't as invigorating as I had hoped.  I had been forced to tap into my strategic vigor reserve to catch Roei in the stifling heat, leaving me with nothing to work with in the second half of the race.

I wasn't aware until after the race that Roie was such an accomplished paddler (competing in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics), but it was obvious at the time that he was operating in a different realm of efficiency.  In one stretch I measured our cadences from my GoPro.  He was at 72 strokes per minute, while I was at nearly 100.  And this was when he was pulling me.  I didn't like my long term odds of staying with him.

Roei and I remained together until we hit the bottom of Kidds Island.  On the upstream paddle I hadn't even noticed the island, making me eventually wonder if I had DQ'ed myself by failing to pass to its right (Hugh and my GoPro verified after the race that I was weaving through canoes at the time, apparently filtering out such trivial details as the "river" narrowing to 1/10th its former width).  As we started our counterclockwise turn of the island, Roei and I took different lines.  By the time we rounded the upstream end, he had a clear lead that he would never relinquish.  I had gotten several glimpses of Steve close behind me while circumnavigating the island, but was able to narrowly hold him off to take fifth place.  Of course, if Jim had been able to continue in the race, there's a good chance we'd be looking at a different top five.

Tight finish between Jesse and Mike Herbert.
Up ahead, realizing that he couldn't out sprint his rivals closer to the finish, Mike Dostal made his move with a mile still remaining, separating himself from Jesse and Mike Herbert.  He held on to win by 20 seconds, with Jesse nipping the other Mike by a half boat length.  The top 10 was rounded out by Doug Howard, Joe White, Hugh, and Dave. Congratulations to age group champions Mike (Open), Steve (Senior), Joe Shaw (Veteran 1), Bob Capellini (Veteran 2), Dave Grainger (Grand Veteran 1), and John Stover (Grand Veteran 2).  In the women's K1 Unlimited race on Sunday, champions included Hype Mattingly (Overall, Senior), Sara Jordan (Open), and Jen Kreamer (Master).  In Sunday's ICF race, Jesse dispatched the Mikes to take the overall crown.

The once and current champions.
 That's it.  Nahant Bay next.