2012 US Champs Update
We had the privilege of having Austin stay with us for two weeks in Bellingham followed by two weeks with him chasing waves at the Columbia Gorge. He returned to US Champs after his debut performance last year with a little more experience and proved his potential by placing 15th overall/ 4th American finisher. I think we will enjoy having Austin as the ‘rabbit’ for years to come.
This August marked the tenth anniversary of the US Surfski Championships. A race that despite its distance from the surfski Mecca’s of the world, like South Africa and Australia, drew quite an international field. For the tenth anniversary of the US Surfski Champs, the race organizers honored the wishes of last year’s champions and made the course a downwind race from Rodeo Beach to Berkeley. For many American athletes, however, this new start meant more than just a different race line; it meant a treacherous beach launch. The shore break at Rodeo Beach was by no means big, but for myself and many other athletes, the idea of a beach launch was a bit of a novelty. As a guy who prefers to launch from the dock, even when he paddles on the lake, I dreaded making a fool out of myself when forced to attempt a beach launch in front of everyone. Now some might say I was suffering merely from nerves, but what you don’t know is that I had reason to be worried.
When I first got to San Francisco, Don Kiesling and Gabe Newton took me out with a few other paddlers to practice the racecourse. When I first saw the waves, my confidence soared. I thought, those puny waves? Everyone must be joking about being worried. So, filled with the confidence of reckless youth, I plunged out into the water as Don waited calmly beside me. I bobbled my first mounting attempt and while I held my boat waiting for the waves to pass and try again, the rip tide overpowered me. Much to my shame and embarrassment, the water pulled my boat out in front of me and turned it completely sideways. The next wave picked my boat up and fully close-lined me off my feet back onto the beach. As I laid there, covered in sand, submerged in freezing pacific water, my boat laying on top of me, I look over to Don. Much to his credit, he only cracked a smile, refraining from fully laughing at my epic failure. Turning back to the waves he said, “its all about patience. Don’t rush in, but wait and time your entry precisely between bigger sets of waves.” With that he effortlessly tosses his boat into the water, hops on, and paddles out through the waves.
I shook my head, chuckling to myself as I removed the majority of the sand from within my shorts. Patience you say? I guess I’ll give it a shot. And sure enough I make it out on my second attempt. But for me the challenges were not quite finished, the ocean out past Rodeo Beach turned out to me a tumultuous mass of chaotic slop. Paddling my surfski on lake water and predictable wind waves this summer had not prepared me for this undulating unpredictability of the ocean. I whiffed strokes, braced constantly, and moved at snail pace for the majority of the course. The rest of the paddlers easily dropped me on our Aerobic paddle!
So, suffice it to say, I was a little nervous on morning of the race. However, it seems that a little practice went a long way and things were quite different come Saturday.
On the day of the race, the wind and waves were up at Rodeo Beach. There was a decent swell coming in to the beach and it was rebounding quite effectively off the rocks cliffs on either side, accompanied by a stiff headwind blowing to the beach. The racecourse started, parallel to Rodeo Beach, facing the ocean. My warm-up was quick because I wanted to line up early with the South Africans and make sure that I didn’t miss a beat if there was an early start. Sure enough, the internationals jumped early off the line and minutes before the scheduled start, the race was afoot. It started out slow, but as more and more people realized what was happening it became a sprint. The line of athletes left the organizers back at the start blowing horns and yelling in protest, but no one seemed to care. However, half way to the first buoy, the safety boat (fueled by more than just man-power) came charging up and ordered everyone back to the start. Reluctantly the charging line slowed and turned back to line up again at the start.
On the second attempt everyone waited for the horn and when it finally did blow, the pack was off. I gritted my teeth, determined to go out hard to the first buoy and see if I could hold on. The first stretch was tough truly testing my balance. The water was choppy and the wind was blowing head on, but I somehow manage to hang in there. As athletes made it to the first buoy I realized that I was still very much in the mix. I was certainly towards the back of the fast pack, but I hadn’t been dropped. I finally relaxed, I was capable of racing with these guys and the first hard push was over. As I rounded the buoy, snot dripping from my nose, and breathing hard, I couldn’t help, but smile. There was nothing I had to lose and more importantly, nothing I would rather be doing. And with that I charge after the pack to Point Bonita.
For the second leg, the wind and swell were crashing at our beam, but I was able to relax a bit and started finding a rhythm. I could see the waves coming and therefore predict what would happen. I reeled in and passed two athletes in front of me before rounding the Buoy and turning east to face the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, the waves and wind were going in my direction. The waves were fast and difficult to see, but I had the energy and I had people to pass! The fast pace became rhythmic cycle of sprinting, surfing, and gliding. I passed Rich Sprout, Carter Johnson, Greg Barton, and Reid Hyle. I passed under the Golden Gate Bridge to the Fenn Hotspot surrounded by Tiva Mooria (Tahitian), Corey Hill (Australian), Reid Hyle, and someone I didn’t recognize at the head of the pack.
As we passed the hotspot, the waves died and we entered the flatwater of the doldrums. Again, I found myself smiling. This was like all the lake paddling I had done this summer and this stretch was just another workout. I set my sights on the lead boat and gave chase. The fog picked up after the hotspot and completely obscured my vision save for the brilliant orange shirt of the kayaker I was following.
After a few minutes of charging, the fog cleared momentarily and I suddenly realized that my target had lead us completely off course. We were heading towards Sausalito and as I glanced to my right I saw all the people I had worked so hard to pass pulling ahead on a direct line to the next Buoy. I veered off my line and reoriented towards the next checkpoint. I noticed that the racer I had been following changed course too, but because of our altered course, I managed to edge ahead of him. That didn’t last long, however, and after a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of a boat beside me. The other racer drew up even to me and for the first time I recognized him as Dorian Wolters, the record breaking 2012 Blackburn Champion. We didn’t stay even for long and he powered ahead. I picked up my pace to follow, but he managed to get just out of drafting range. As we came out of the doldrums and some small wind waves picked up, but despite my altered pace, Dorian hovered two waves ahead, just out of reach. I surged twice to try and catch him, but he held his lead. And for the third time that race, I couldn’t help but smile. For even if I never managed to catch Dorian, I could do worse that battle it out with an athlete as fast as Dorian.
As Dorian and I rounded the Angle Island Buoy, I could see Carter, Reid, Rich, and Greg about 500 meters ahead. The wind waves had finally picked up to respectable size and it looked like there would be good surf all the way to Berkeley. With only a few miles to go, it was time to put the surfing I had learned from two weeks at the George to the test. I surged ahead and caught Dorian. For a few seconds we were surfing the same wave, looking over at him I could see he was anything, but tired and it looked like I had a proper fight to the finish on my hands. He then charged ahead, regaining his lead and I followed suit. Over the next fifteen minutes we surged back and forth, switching leaders and catching runners as we slowly, but surely ground down the gap between ourselves and the other Americans. Every time I thought I had put forth a sufficient effort to catch him or jump ahead a few waves, Dorian would accelerate right back and catch up to me or pass. As Berkeley neared, however, there seemed to be a as subtle shift. Before, Dorian had been leading and I chasing, but now it seemed that I was the leader and he the chaser. Could he be fatiguing? With about a mile to go I realized that the others were close enough to catch and if I wanted to go for it, my window was closing rapidly. So I went for it. I pulled ahead of Dorian and this time it was for good. Each time he made a move to catch me, I would accelerate again. I finally began to gap him and as a result I pulled up on the other athletes. First I passed Hyle, then Sprout, and then I pulled up to within just a few waves of Carter. I could see Barton a bit ahead, but I knew that with only a couple minutes left he was out of my reach. So, Carter was my goal. I gave it everything I had and drew up even with him, his bow just a few feet in front of mine. Carter, however, had more in the tank than I and as we rounded the finish buoy to the line, he caught a wave and pulled ahead. My top end speed was sapped from the last thirty minutes and Carter crossed the line fifteen seconds ahead of me and six seconds behind Barton. Rich Sprout finished right behind me and Dorian crossed the line only twenty seconds after me. Though it had been an absolute battle, I crossed the line overjoyed. I had placed fifteenth overall and fourth American, less than thirty seconds away from second. The race had its ups and downs, waves and flats, but most importantly it was a tight competition the whole way and I loved every minute of it.
As for the race beyond my personal struggle, the South Africans from Fish Hook claimed the top four spots and proved they were not to be trifled with. Dawid Mocke defended his title and was crowned king of the 2012 US Champs as well as the hotspot.
And it wouldn’t be a proper race report if I didn’t celebrate the achievement of the American Champion, Gabe Newton! Newton, an Ocean Paddlesports sponsored athlete, claimed the title and honor of American Champion in 2012 in a Fenn SL, putting a proper hurting on the American field. Newton cruised in almost two minutes ahead of the nearest American competitor, Greg Barton, and realized his three-year goal of being crowned the fastestAmerican at the US Champs. Congratulations man!!
Now its time to start training for next year!