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 grĂ¢ce.

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 FastPaddler.com 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)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Nahant Bay Cup: Socked In

With a couple of Rhode Island races shifted into July to avoid the hustle and bustle of kraken season (and, sure, the boat-chomping too), the Nahant Bay Cup remained as the only August race in New England. Despite retiring from competitive paddling back in the mid-teens, Mike McDonough was on hand to host the 10th running of the race. Harpoons were optional this year, but infrared goggles were mandatory.

The forecast called for overcast skies with light winds, clearing as the day wore on. But those gathered at Fishermans Beach in Swampscott watched with impotent horror as thick fog stole over the ocean. As successive landmarks of Nahant Bay were lost to view, Mike was forced to repeatedly improvise new course proposals, aided by a cacophony of suggestions, opinions, and casserole recipes (I got confused in the excitement). Paradoxically, the course options became more convoluted as the viable race area decreased. One proposed course required that we find the blue key to unlock the secret passage that would lead us to the kidnapped princess (after killing the Squid King, of course). By race time, our world had been reduced to a white-walled region adjacent to the beach, barely a half-mile across.

Bruce may have uttered some choice phrases later on, but his last words heard by anyone else were "It doesn't seem so foggy to me!"
Calmer heads prevailed when it came to defining the race route. Starting from just off the beach, we'd round an unoccupied mooring buoy, curve out around the mooring field, turn on a red nun, return to the mooring buoy, repeat the nun-buoy loop, head back to the nun, then turn into shore for a finish on the beach. At a semi-sprint distance of just over 3 miles, this would be the shortest surfski course many of us had ever raced. I'd have to abandon a cherished tradition of early-race lollygagging to have any chance at winning. Paddlers with fast starts, like Andrius Zinkevichus and Matt Drayer, would have a clear advantage. I also had concerns about upstart John Hair.

In our innocence, we initially welcomed Rochester paddlers as friendly tourists to our New England races. With their funny accents and quaint ceremonial headgear, these in-lander heathens were more to be pitied than feared. Oops. If we had known then what we know now, we would have blown the bridges over the Hudson (sorry, Jan - collateral damage) to prevent the conquering horde from gaining a foothold. I suspect they might have eventually flanked us by paddling down the St. Lawrence, but at least we'd have bought ourselves some time. John was the lone representative at this race, but his recent Blackburn performance was sufficient to unnerve us. And also his necklace of human ears.

Although he's developed into a fine paddler, John remains a clumsy saboteur.
Twenty minutes before the scheduled start, a hushed murmur raced through the anxious racers. Jan Lupinski was on his way! Swooping in at the last second - often sans some important piece of equipment, like a boat or pants - is kind of his trademark. "Classic Jan," some chortled. "What a character!" said others. I, on the other hand, walked a few minutes down the beach, shook a resentful fist at the heavens, and cried out "Lupinskiiiii!!!" Based on the odd looks I got after rejoining the crowd, I perhaps should have moved a little further off before this outburst. In earlier flatwater races this year, I'd spent the first 5 miles or so chasing down Jan. Which meant in Nahant I'd catch him about the time of the awards ceremony.

Once Jan had arrived, Mike marshaled us to a quick start. With the initial 90 degree left-hand turn less than a quarter of a mile into the race, it seemed likely that the field would still be clumpy at that point. In a rare moment of tactical foresight, rather than pushing for the lead I concentrated on maneuvering to the right side of the pack so that I could swing wide and remain clear from any turn-induced mayhem. Of course, with just a little more advanced planning, I needn't have started from the far left side of the line. Next time maybe I'll splurge and get the extended foresight package.
I executed this rudimentary plan flawlessly - to the point that scarcely anyone cursed at me during the sweeping turn. Heading out around the mooring field, Andrius, John, Chris Chappell, Tim Dwyer, and Wesley Echols were ahead in a pack on a tighter line. Matt and Jan had chosen to swing wide, mostly by dint of unwisely being caught outside of me. Rather than cutting back and working through the lead pack, I stayed out and tried to pass them in clean water. During this slow-motion move, John and Andrius pulled free from the others.

When it became apparent that my original plan of leaving everyone in the dust prior to the first 180 degree turn wasn't going to pan out (insufficient resources...), I settled alongside of John. Not taking the hint that we were looking for some alone time out front, third paddle Andrius stubbornly continued to draft between us. After making the turn around the nun, our awkward trio fell apart briefly, but we shortly after returned to our established roles. Every time I thought perhaps we had ditched our unwanted chaperone, he would nose forward to remind us that we weren't alone. One time, when Andrius thought John and I were getting a little too cozy for his comfort, he had some stern words for us. I couldn't exactly understand what he said (I think it might have been in Lithuanian), but the gist was clear - we needed to stay at least a paddle length apart.

Despite Andrius' warnings, as we approached the next turn buoy, there were a couple of instances of literal friction between paddlers as John and Andrius got tied up with one another. The rebukes were definitely in English now. Although it takes two flanks to execute an effective pincer movement - even if inadvertent - I managed to deflect most of the blame by whistling non-nonchalantly while surreptitiously pointing at John. After the turn, our formation came permanently unglued as John made a nice push to seize a solo lead and drop Andrius and me.

At the last couple of turns, I had noticed that Jan and Matt were closer on our heels. At this buoy, Lupinski must have spun his 560 around on a 10 Groszy piece, because almost as soon as John took the clear lead, Jan relieved him of his duties. Panicked that the two new-found partners would sail off together into the mist without a designated guardian, I ratcheted up the intensity (should I be worried that there's now an actual creaky mechanical sound associated with that metaphor?) and grabbed onto John's stern wash. We'd stay in this rough drafting arrangement through the next couple of 180 degree turns, although with each change of direction the gaps between us would temporarily accordion out a couple of boat lengths. In general, I was getting a cleaner draft off of John than he was of Jan. Any guilt I might have felt about not taking a turn pulling John was alleviated by an almost total lack of conscience.

Rub his belly once and you've got a friend for life.
We hit the nun for the third and final time in a tight draft line, Jan throwing a quick glance over his shoulder to assess the state of the field. With less than a half-mile to the finish, the sprint commenced immediately after the turn. Jan quickly opened up a gap of a few boat lengths, which John and I narrowed by taking a line tighter to Lincoln House Point and paddling slightly harder. With a quarter mile remaining, I pulled even with John. We remained abreast for the next half-hour, neither one of us able to seize the advantage. Finally, by dint of louder grunts (that's right - I just broke all the rules of writing etiquette by doubling down on "dint") I was able to convince John that I was actually paddling faster than he was. The stalemate broken, I move ahead to chase down the leader.

Unfortunately, Jan was less susceptible to the illusion of my speed. Although I managed to trick him into giving up a boat length of his lead, he had enough in reserve to beat me to the line by a couple of seconds. John was about the same distance behind me. I had convinced myself that the three of us had dominated the race, but Matt, Andrius, and Tim belied this conceit by finished within the next minute. The most exciting finish of the day was provided by women's champion, Mary Beth (paddling her new foggy conditions boat), who passed Bob Wright as he fidgeted with his leash on the beach. The most exciting acceptance speech of the day was provided by Bill Kuklinski, who, upon receiving the Legends award from Mike, grumpily yelled at us all to get off his lawn.

Not content with walking away with just the title, Jan also had to take the last of my remaining dignity.
We had only paddled a third of the distance of a normal Nahant Bay Cup, so it only made sense that we triple our typical post-race caloric intake, gorging ourselves on the bountiful spread provided by Carol and Mike. Was I suffering a sausage and cookie induced hallucination, did the third course consist of pickle sandwiches? Many thanks to the McDonoughs for adapting to less-than-ideal race conditions.

Take some time off. It's been a long slog through this season's races (not to mention race reports), but now it's time to recharge. You'll need to be at full capacity for the 20 mile Great Peconic Race (September 9, register at PaddleGuru), the flatwater Great Stone Dam Classic (September 10, no need to pre-register), and the paddler-packed Lighthouse to Lighthouse (September 16, register at PaddleGuru).

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Gorge Downwind Champs: A Thousand Times

Since my unnerving at the 2014 US Surfski Championships in San Francisco, I've been content to frolic about in the friendlier waters closer to home. While I can generally hold my own in purposeless rough seas (mostly by dropping a notch or two down on the boat stability ladder), downwind conditions continue to flummox me. If the stars line up just wrong and we accidentally end up with a genuine downwind race, the regional guys with surfing mojo will mop the ocean floor with me. Having suffered through several such crash courses, it was time to get serious about my downwind education.

With Carter Johnson at the helm, the Gorge Downwind Championships has quickly become the pre-eminent race in the New World. Driven by temperature and pressure gradients between the east and west sides of the Cascades, the consistent summer wind funnels east up the dramatic Columbia River gorge, interacting with the outgoing current to stack up eminently surfable waves. That would be enough to make this a world-class downwind destination, but let's also throw in warm freshwater, sunny skies, convenient direct-line shuttle options, numerous safe take-outs, little boat traffic, spectacular scenery... it's actually kind of surprising that we haven't all just moved there. It's the perfect venue for realizing the extent of your downwind deficiencies. And, for those so inclined, getting to work on fixing them.

Somehow these friendly denizens of the Columbia River didn't make it into the Gorge promotional materials.
The Gorge is more of an extended paddling festival than anything else. With daily shuttles providing superb 7.5 mile runs, colorful paddlers from across the world, and $2 craft beers - the race itself was only one facet of the event. Despite the mind-bending logistics of accommodating over 500 registered paddlers (between skis, OCs, and SUPs), 94% of everything went smoothly - a good 30% better than most twenty-person races I've been to. I never once had to wait in line for a port-a-potty, so that starts it out at a B+ right there. I'd refer to Carter as indefatigable, but I'm pretty sure he and his crack team of volunteers just did a good job of hiding the fact that they were running on empty by the end of the week.

Mary Beth would be accompanying me to provide solace and resuscitation, as necessary. Although we'd try to squeeze in some hikes and other team activities while in Hood River, there was a clear asymmetry in the vacation-ness of the trip. As part of the pre-Gorge negotiations, I had already ceded the expansion of her celebrity cheat list from 5 to 20 members, although I questioned whether "that yoga instructor at the Y" met the necessary qualifications. Turns out he's got like 170 followers on Instagram, so I guess I can't really argue with that. Additionally, I had agreed to certain upgrades to my personal hygiene regimen and to stop embellishing race reports. Despite our understanding, each time I watched a glowering Mary Beth recede from the rear window of the shuttle, I could feel the balance of household chores shifting.

The importance of staying hydrated cannot be overstated.
A significant fraction of the Northeast contingent at the Gorge boarded at a spectacular house procured by Jim Hoffman and his family. Tucked away in the middle of a pear orchard just out of town, the estate featured postcard views of Mt. Adams to the north and Mt. Hood to the south. And vacuum-assisted toilets that, should you accidentally trigger while still perched, would also eliminate the next day's meals. Joining us in the house were northeast paddlers Tim Dwyer (along with his long-suffering daughter, Gaelyn), Mark Ceconi, Steve Delgaudio, and Timmy Shields. Other Gorge paddlers from our neck of the woods included Kirk Olsen, Jan Lupinski, Eric Costanzo, Hugh Pritchard, and Mike Alexeev (not technically from our area, but some region needs to claim Columbus) - none of whom managed to pass Jim's onerous entrance exam. I knew all those hours spent on adult coloring books would eventually come in handy.

Another failed attempt to gather a quorum for breakfast.


Jim is a cross between your favorite uncle and a mostly-shaved Sasquatch. You'd want him on your side in an old-fashioned rumble - heck, the rest of the gang could just workshop their nicknames during the melee (I'm thinking of going with either "The Nose" or "Bleeder"). But he'd be too busy saving the children to be any help in a knife fight with carnies. Guests at our exclusive Hood River retreat were privy to certain executive benefits. As a result of graciously hosting dozens of paddling dignitaries at his New York home, Jim is connected. This meant that during the course of the week, we got to dine with luminaries like Austin Kieffer (who, improbably, is actually friendlier than he looks) and Oscar Chalupsky (who, improbably, is quite the unicyclist).

Mary Beth and I arrived in Seattle on Friday to do a little sight-seeing prior to arriving at Hood River. It's a bit of a blur now, but 90% of our photos include wildflowers, pints of beer, and/or marmots, so I'm assuming we had a pretty good time. We were the final guests to arrive at the house Sunday evening, which you'd think would have given everyone adequate time to hang the celebratory bunting and prep the fireworks. As it was, our gala welcome consisted of Mark glancing up momentarily over his book. And - I'm pretty sure - frowning. Might have been a grimace. He got his comeuppance, however, when he fell victim to a classic taco scam at the Mexican restaurant we dined at later.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but we were asked to never return to the Sixth Street Bistro.
The next morning the crew made its way to Waterfront Park to sign-in and get our rental boats sorted. Indemnification is kind of my specialty, so I breezed through the necessary waivers and joined the registration line with my paddling peers. I'm sticking with that characterization, even though Jasper Mocke was a few places ahead of me.

I found myself next to Eric Mims in line. Nice guy, Eric. On the surface. We reminisced about how, almost exactly a year ago, he had kicked my ass at the Blackburn Challenge and speculated on how soundly he was going to thrash me at the Gorge. That may have just been in my head, now that I think about it, which goes to show you just how devious a competitor Eric is. He did, however, relate a tale about paddling a river down South where the banks afforded no take outs. You'd slowly sink knee-deep in black ooze, while razor-sharp shells embedded in the muck would cut your legs to ribbons. I've awoken screaming and clutching my calves pretty much every night since. Of course, Eric's ham-handed attempts to throw me off my game were completely unnecessary (or, alternatively, extraordinarily effective) - he'd finish 57 places ahead of me later in the week.

Kenny insisted that I demonstrate a half-dozen remounts before he'd let me take the boat.

After registering, I found Kenny Howell at the Epic tent to pick up my rental boat - a brand new V10 Sport, still enveloped in shipping film. After we cut it free, I proceeded to sheathe it a protective coat of pipe tape so extensive that it now appeared to be some type of well-disguised prototype ski, its true lines hidden from competitors' eyes. Anxious to get in my first run, I hoisted my mystery steed onto the next available shuttle to Viento State Park.

My paddling buddy for most of the week would be Kirk. I've competed against Kirk in nearly 100 races over the past six years, so I figured to have a pretty good assessment of his skill set. He's a solid paddler who's perhaps 30 seconds a mile slower than me in average New England conditions. So, naturally, watching him consistently surf away while exerting half of my effort was pretty damned annoying. Fortunately, by over-clocking my heart to a medically unsafe tempo, I was mostly able to match his pace. There was even a proud moment when I pulled cleanly ahead, his cry of "Hold up, I need to take this call!" fading in the wind.

Within a minute of getting out in the Columbia, we were in better downwind conditions than I had seen in many months of paddling back home. And not just because I mostly train on a lake with a fetch only slightly longer than my boat (hey, it's 90 seconds closer than the ocean). I couldn't match the ease and grace with which every other paddler was surfing, but I still whooped it up - almost as if I wasn't seething with envy. Even a downwind bumbler couldn't help catching thrilling rides, although I'd advise such a hypothetical bumbler to hold off on the Carter Johnson-style paddle showboating. Over the course of a half-dozen runs during the week, I noticed distinct improvements in my skills; it'd almost be impossible for this not to be the case given the ideal learning conditions. I skipped lunch to squeeze a second run in Monday. Hitting the beer tent immediately afterwards, I spent the rest of the evening figuring out how to work a folding chair.

Tim and Jim spent most of the day hanging around at the take-out, loudly bragging about the legendary runs they had just completed through Swell City.
With people arriving Monday and getting slowed down checking in and configuring their rented boats, the shuttle situation was manageable as a do-it-yourself affair. On Tuesday however, with one of the four buses out of commission due to mechanical issues, more strict enforcement of the deli-style take-a-number system was required. Apparently down on his luck, five-time world champion marathon kayaker Ivan Lawler was forced to accept a volunteer position governing the shuttle queue. Standing in the dusty parking lot for the entire afternoon, the no-nonsense Brit ran the operation with ruthless efficiency. A whiteboard was involved. Latecomers who had missed their number were relegated to the back of the line. Confused patrons attempting to order a half-pound of pastrami were instead put to work tying down surfskis and outriggers. Ivan leveraged his outstanding performance reviews at this task to climb the organizational ladder, from charity auctioneer that evening to announcer on race day. He was last seen trying to wrestle the bullhorn from Carter to take charge of The Gorge 2018.

The Tuesday shuttle shortage caused quite the back-up, but fortunately I had my trusty Baudelaire to while away the hours.
I'm sure the vast majority of paddlers at the event went the entire week without spilling gracelessly from their boats. A base level of surfski competence? Not really my style. Despite the temptation, however, I limited myself to three wet exits. Spread out over perhaps 10 hours of paddling at 30 seconds per event, that represents 0.25% of my time on the river. So I can count myself damned lucky that one of these spills was captured on video while under the ad hoc tutelage of Sean Rice.

Just after entering the area known as Swell City on Tuesday, three black Think skis came surfing by Kirk and me, captained by Sean Rice, Kenny Rice, and Mackenzie (Macca) Hynard. Sean pulled up and started offering some downwind instruction, filming from alongside via a handheld GoPro. The astute reader will correctly infer from this that little paddling was required to pace me. I've taken 3 clinics and a private lesson from Sean over the past few years, yet he stubbornly refuses to give up on what he privately refers to as "my greatest failure". Would that my parents had been so persistent. After talking me through a few runs, Sean felt confident enough in my abilities to frame himself in the foreground and shout out "Downwind coaching! Woohoo!" - just as his hapless pupil slid ignominiously into the Columbia. My one chance at non-blooper related stardom, and I had blown it.
If you insist on humiliating yourself in front of a world-class athlete, I can't recommend Sean highly enough. He complimented me on my remount, chatted for a moment about upcoming clinic #4 (in Rhode Island the following weekend), and just generally acted like I had no reason to feel sheepish. After dinner, we ran into the Rice brothers and Macca at the ice cream stand. When the topic of the video came up (I owe you one, Tim), it became clear that the Think gang had watched it. Kenny made some cheery comments about how perfect the timing of my slow-motion dismount was. The whole encounter was so sweet-spirited that I rate the good-natured ribbing as one of the high points of my week.

We discovered on Wednesday that the race would be held on Thursday. Mary Beth and I did some low-impact touring at the Bonneville Dam in the morning. Kirk took the opposite tack, hiking up a rough trail to a waterfall and then jogging back down. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Kirk mentioned to me that he had run 3 kilometers - the furthest he had managed since ACL surgery last fall. Given this, running a couple of miles down a steep and rocky trail didn't seem like the ideal rehabilitation strategy. Although he suffered no immediate after-effects, by the end of our sole afternoon downwind from Viento, his knee had the size, firmness, and odor of a ripe honeydew. When the swelling hadn't subsided by the morning of the race, he was forced to withdraw.

In addition to holding the world record in the K1 1000m, Taneale Hatton is also a licensed EMT. She kindly agreed to look at Kirk's swollen knee. Her professional recommendation? "Suck it up, wuss."
Race day dawned with uncharacteristically overcast skies. Arriving at Home Valley Park on the Washington shore, an astounding collection of more than 400 boats greeted us. With 185 of these being skis, this would by far be the largest ever surfski race in the Western Hemisphere. Not content with that regional record, Carter pulled out all the stops to also also break the world record for longest captain's meeting. By the third hour of his filibuster, twenty-six competitors had DNF'ed due to exhaustion, but nobody could complain that we weren't fully apprised of the brewing process used for the the after-party beer. I noticed several desperate paddlers googling "Washington physician-assisted suicide" on their phones, but to the best of my knowledge nobody got much beyond the psychiatric consult stage.

I know everyone says it, but in this case it happens to be true. We did not park on the railroad tracks.

Sean and I are now practically inseparable.

I wanted to join Steve, Jim, and Mark for some pre-race camaraderie, but they warned me away, saying there were "too many bees". Odd. Same problem as at dinner the night before.
Eventually, however, Carter's vocal cords gave out and the meeting trickled to an end. With the start pushed to 2 p.m. to give the wind adequate time to freshen, we still had nearly two hours to ponder our game plan. I had a strategy for the race, and that strategy consisted mostly of being a coward. On flattish water I'd have a legitimate shot to finish in the upper mid-pack. Aided by some judiciously targeted sabotage (loosening a foot plate or sawing three-quarters of the way through a paddle shaft leaves too much to chance - I'm thinking more along the lines of sliced Achilles tendon or fork to the eye), maybe even lower upper-pack. In a downwind race, however, lower mid-pack seemed optimistic, even with liberal maimings. My only hope of doing reasonably well (and avoiding extensive prison time) was to play to my strengths. That is, to find the flattest water possible, then flail about like a hyperactive wind-up monkey until either I hit the sand at the finish or my torsion spring gives way. You might ask "But doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of coming to the Gorge?" In response, I would slowly come to the realization that my life has consisted of an endless series of misguided decisions. And then Mary Beth would read this, be terribly hurt even though that's not what I meant, and it's good-bye Greg, hello yoga instructor. Or possibly Matt Damon. So just let me make my mistakes, unchallenged.

As the start time approached, an endless stream of boats launched from the small beach and made their way downriver (or upwind) to the staging area. The four starting heats would be SUPs, women's skis and OCs, men's skis, and men's OCs - sent off in 5 minute intervals. There's been some debate about whether the men's surfski start was technically a "debacle" or a "fiasco", although a vocal minority insisted that it was, in fact, a "clusterflub" (or something to that effect). It's hard to blame the race organizers. The various heats started exactly when they were supposed to, and the serious competitors found themselves at the starting line at the right time. So what happened with the rest of us?

Sure, it seems pretty flat. But when in doubt, legs out.
Working from the web diagram of the start (as reinforced by Carter's interpretative dance), I was under the impression that everyone would meet in the protected waters at the mouth of Wind River, moving to the front for our respective heats. Finding that shallow area littered with tree stumps and rock piles (and too small to accommodate so many boats), however, confusion clouded my already-foggy judgement. A large number of paddlers headed well downstream to keep clear until their start, so I lemminged along behind them.

From this distant perspective, it became impossible to tell what was going on with the orange and pink spangles back near the start. It wasn't until I noticed the growing dimness of the pink contingent that I suspected that the first two heats had already been launched. I hadn't heard the start siren (previewed for us on land), nor any directions from the officials' boat, but I leisurely made my way towards the ragged line of skis ahead. As I got within a couple hundred meters, I could finally hear faint but agitated murmurings through a megaphone. It sounded like something exciting might be about to happen, but given that nobody around me was in any great hurry, I thought perhaps the raffle winners were about to be announced. Despite being only a hundred meters away from the line a few moments later, from my upwind position I barely heard the muted siren that sent off the skis. I was fortunate to be only 30 seconds or so back. Probably half the surfski field was behind me. Tim Dwyer was so far off the line that he was practically being cradled by the warm ama of a fourth-heat OC before he finally figured out the rest of the skis had already started.
Based on the weeks' scouting reports, it seemed like the best bet for minimal current and flatter conditions would be to stick close to the Washington shore for the first few miles, then jump across the river to the Oregon side for the remainder. And that's what I did. During the first couple of miles, I hammered past a couple dozen slower paddlers who had gotten off to better starts. But then it started to get too downwind-y for me to maintain a steady cadence. For the rest of the race, hammer became nail as I tried ineffectually to claw my way through the waves.A steady stream of late-off-the-line competitors surfed by me on a more central line, each taking a whack at my self-confidence. Finally the OCs came by from the final heat to seal my coffin.

A housemate had reminded me before the race of one of Oscar's maxims - If you're not 99% sure you're going to get on wave, save your energy to jump on its sibling right behind you. That unfortunate advice became something of a self-fulfilling spiral of wave skipping as my confidence waned.

Yes. I am aware that outriggers are generally slower than surfskis. And that they started 5 minutes behind us. And that the outrigger guy appears to be in his 70's. But thanks for pointing all that out.
Perhaps to prevent weasels like me from side-stepping the bigger conditions, prior to the finish we had to round a buoy anchored mid-channel. I plied my lonesome path along the Oregon shore until mile 12, when I finally angled out to intersect the marker. Shortly before I reached the buoy, yet another ski passed me, close on the right. My initial frustration was replaced by an unexpected hopefulness when I realized I knew this paddler. It was southern California paddler Brian Kummer. Even if Brian had gotten a bad start, hadn't been training regularly, and had gorged himself on three pounds of Tillamook cheddar immediately before the race (at least the first two factors turning out to be true), the fact that I was (formerly) ahead of such an accomplished paddler gave me the morale boost I needed for the final leg. I was doing ever-so-slightly better than I had anticipated!

While Brian took a straight line towards the finish beach, I arced shoreward to escape the current. When our paths merged a few minutes later, he was a half-dozen lengths ahead. He seemed to be flagging, but with only 500 meters left I doubted I could catch him. Just as I was about to give up hope, a Fenn cruised by (carrying Bob Woodman, it turns out) and I was able to grab a ride, passing a disinterested Brian in the final 30 seconds. Of course, I had ceded a place to Bob in this process, but I'll take my meaningless victories where I can get them.

We were supposed to carry our paddles with us past the finish line, but damned if I was going to let that extra weight slow me down.
I'm pretty sure I'm shrinking.


I had finished as the 83rd ski (75th male) at 2:02:03 - 30 minutes behind overall winner Kenny Rice and 15 minutes behind women's champion Rachel Clarke. The best showing from the Northeast contingent was Jan's 1:57:21 (despite a very late start). Eric had also finished ahead of me, but my dubious strategy had keep me in front of my housemates. I had done about as well as I could expect, but regretted not just seeking out bigger surf and enjoying the conditions, even if it meant dropping a a couple dozen places.

Fortunately, the week wasn't over. After taking Friday off to visit with friends in Portland, I had one last magnificent run on the final day at the Gorge. With Kirk on his way back home (he recovered from his honeydew ordeal with no permanent damage, by the way), I buddied up with Tim. It wasn't the biggest conditions of the week, but everything finally came together. As I told Tim during the run, Awoooooohaaaaaa! Where's Sean when you need him?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Jamestown Double Beaver: Sandwiched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Casco Bay Challenge: Spring Tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ride the Bull: The One That Got Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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