Learning to Look Up: Race report from the De Fuca Downwinder by Austin Kieffer
Though most of the country was under a heat advisory warning last weekend, with over twenty states breaching the 100-degree mark, this was not the case at the Olympic peninsula. The beautiful area surrounding Port Angeles was cold, windy, and overcast. The De Fuca Downwinder, “brainchild” of US sensation Gabe Newton, seems to be a race as rare as cold weather this summer. In a sport where surfski paddlers drive miles and miles, wait days for prime conditions, and spend hours setting shuttle, this weekend’s race is one of the sport’s very few “true dowinders”. Despite the race setup giving the people exactly what they want and need, many local racers failed to show up. Indicating that some racers in the area would rather chase upwinders than race a true downwinder.
The race conditions were not as big as some competitors were hoping for, but it was certainly no flatwater race. De Fuca drew some of the top regional competitors, including Gabe Newton, Greg Barton, DJ Jacobson, Don Keisling, and Eric Borgnes. Though the starting race line-up was a bit confusing, as soon as the race horn sounded athletes charged off into the waters of the strait. DJ “hot off the gun” Jacobson took an early lead pushing the pack to the first buoy at Angeles point. Gabe and Greg both charged hard chasing down the Jacobson rabbit and for a while it was a three horse race. Being the newbie racer that I am, I made some key tactical errors right off the bat. Enticed by the waves and energized by the quality of the competition, I took off from the start, heading downwind with something to prove. Unfortunately for me, the only thing that I proved was that surfski racing is much more than just head-down flatwater. After 30 minutes of tearing downwind I looked up to find the entire pack over a mile out to my left. I had followed the direction of the waves in an attempt to cut the most direct line to the buoy and inadvertently left the faster line far to my left. The plan seemed reasonable until I hit the mouth of the Elwah River and the currents cut my speeds of 9s and 10s to 6s and 5s. After that it was a brutal slog out to the finish as I watched the wiser athletes pull steadily away in the wind and waves. Meanwhile up at the front, Gabe and Greg both had something to prove, pulling slowly ahead of Jacobson. The two athletes pushed hard to the finish, closing in on the final buoy with less than a boat length between them. In the last 50 yards, however, Gabe caught a small wave and surged ahead pushing his Fenn SL ahead, gapping Greg’s Epic V12 by a few boat lengths as he crossed the line. Jacobson held strong in third, finishing under two minutes behind the leader. In the 15-knott conditions, Brandon and Heather Nelson dropped their Stellar double for a bit of a dryer design and decided that what may be quick on flat-water might not be the best option in the chop. The couple learned their way around the new boat, finishing behind DJ in fourth place overall. Don finished behind the duo coming in fifth, fourth amongst the single skis, a few minutes behind DJ. Eric Borgnes closed out the top five single skies finishing a few minutes behind Don.
After slogging my way through the slower line, I finally saw a ski in the distance and was determined to catch what turned out to be Eric Grosseman. Luckily, Grossman was not paddling a Fenn SL and as a result I was able to inch him out by catching a wave in the last stretch to the finish.
All in all it was a fun race, but the race conditions will only get better as everyone eagerly anticipates the approach of the Wildside and all the excellent surfing the Columbia Gorge has to offer.