Monthly Archives: November 2013
Today was another amazing race in South Africa. This week’s race in the Cape Town Surfski series was held in Strand, a town just about an hours drive along the coast of False Bay. The two days prior, there had been torrential thunderstorms and rain, but on race day morning, the storm seemed to have departed leaving in its wake all the trappings of a miserable race. The weather was cold, everything was soaking wet after the weekend deluge, the morning was dark and cloudy, and, the biggest nightmare for any good surfski race, there was no wind.
The racecourse was going to be a quick 13k (8 mile) circuit, starting at the beach. Racers were to line up in the shallows, jump in the boat at the whistle and paddle out through the breakers. The course would then take a turn around a buoy roughly 1km out to sea and then turn upwind and out to sea for 2-3km. Racers were then to turn around a second buoy and surf downwind back to the original buoy near the start, then make another out-and-back lap, finishing on the beach. Boiled down it meant two 3 km grinds up into the wind and two 3km downwinds back to the start. Unfortunately, all the top guys were away in Hong Kong for the Dragon Run, but there were quite a few good locals, and the Fish Hoek guys who had been kicking my butt in the morning K-1 training sessions, so I new it would still be a fun race with good competition!
And then, just before the race start, the weather turned our way. The sun broke out from behind the clouds, the wind kicked up and we had a proper surfski race on our hands. Strangely enough no one warmed up, but the pace still started out hard! We all jumped in our boats and sprinted off through the breakers. Nervous about getting left behind in the unfamiliar start conditions, I told myself to stay with the leaders, at whatever pace they dictated. On the first leg, from the break to the buoy, I lined up next to a rabbit that shot off the line, tearing his way to the turn buoy. Little did I know that this guy intended to jackrabbit like he was going to win the race, and then die a mere 10 minutes in. All I knew was “stay with him!” As I fell in behind him, I looked around to see where the other fast guys were. To my surprise, I realized that they were 50 meters behind me. I had gone out much too fast and with no warm up I was hurting.
I slowed down to let the lead pack catch up to me and then I tried to fall into their rhythm. We gobbled up the guy in front a few minutes later and then it was a five boat race. The double led the way and four singles, including myself, fell in behind on the first upwind grind. The leg was brutal. After my fast start and lack of warm-up, I was dying and just trying desperately to stay with the group and not get dropped. Unfortunately, I dropped off the end of the draft train before the turn buoy and as I turned around for the first downwind leg, I was disheartened to see that all three single boats were about 100m ahead of me, surfing on the waves. I was crushed.
I thought that the grind was going to be my strong point and my strategy was to not lose too much ground surfing. Yet here I was, behind on the surf and feeling miserable. I clung to the thought that the race was far from over, as I settled into my downwind. The waves were small, I’m sure pathetic for SA standards, but for me they were perfect runners. Despite the surfing I was surprised to find that I was still feeling miserable and making no ground on the leaders. My only hope was to conserve energy and at the moment I was continually paddling and letting the waves do none of the work. I needed to pause and attack, versus just grinding away. As soon as I changed my mindset, my surfing changed. Whenever I was riding a wave, I refused to paddle, breathing deeply and trying to recover from that hectic start. And then as soon as I saw an opening I would sprint, get there as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then rest again. With this new strategy I started feeling better and I began to eat away at the distance separating me from the guy in third. I surfed my way right up to him and passed him as we went around the start buoy, marking the halfway point. The guys in first and second were about 50 meters ahead and the guy behind me was right on my tail.
Then a bit of good fortune came my way. Out of the wind chop a couple of bigger waves kicked up as we turned back out to sea. I just managed to sneak over the biggest one right before it crashed and as I dropped down the back face, I could only imagine what it had done to the guy behind me. Looking back, I could see that the wave had given me an extra 15 feet in my lead and filled his boat with water. I knew I had to capitalize and I took off after the leaders. Finally, I was feeling good and the race began to feel more like a tough threshold workout and less like death. After a few minutes of grinding away, I looked back to see that I had put quite a healthy lead on the paddler in fourth. I was able to turn all my attention to catching the leaders. One down, two to go.
I kept hammering away and right before the turn buoy, I managed to catch them and we turned around for the downwind in a pack. Right off the bat, however, they both caught a wave just ahead of me and pulled another little lead on me. I was churning away to trying to catch them again, but they were just opening the gap on me. I realized that after a comfortable upwind grind, I had already forgotten the pause-attack surfing strategy. As soon as my mindset changed again, I began linking runs and closing the gap. With about half a downwind to go, I drew level with the guy in second and then surfed past, connecting another run. That left only one.
As we closed the distance on the finish line, however, I realized that I was gaining, but not fast enough. With the beach drawing in and the finish in sight, I needed to make a move. This was racing after all and if I was going to hurt myself for the win, now was the time. I went for it. I kept the same surfing strategy, but I told myself, “GO FOR EVERY LITTLE OPENING”. The finish flags were closing in, but he was still managing to stay just a wave out of reach. And then with a bit of luck, he chose a bad wave that broke on him, turning him sideways and killing his speed. That was my opening. I took off and gave it everything I had to get the wave just in front of him … and I made it! The wave built up behind me and I skirted off ahead. I managed to link one more run and had a little extra juice in the tank at the thought of coming in first and I hit the beach, running my boat in for the win!
Winter has poked its head out here in Bellingham & it feels like it’s here to stay. Where else in the world can you surfski on the bay and snow ski all in the same day? Judging by the large numbers of local paddlers surfing out on the bay this morning, it seems like there will be plenty of local paddlers out shredding this winter.
Couple quick thoughts on winter safety when out on a surfski. Jumping on the lake for a flatwater workout in the winter is a completely different game from chasing waves on the bay. All the winter gear is a must; clothing, bomber leash, radio, etc. Also, paddling with others can be good for ‘strength in numbers’ reasons, but the flip side is bad group dynamics can put people in places where they don’t necessarily belong. Though I feel more relaxed in big conditions when I’m paddling with a group, I don’t know how much help strong paddlers really can be in rescue situations in big gusty conditions.
Big gusty conditions we sometimes experience in the winter, coupled with frigid air & water temps, results in an unforgiving outdoor sports environment. Though stepping out of ones comfort zone can be a huge motivating factor which can result in tangible improvements in any sports related arena, I’d like to suggest that winter is the time to paddle well within ones skill level due to unforgiving conditions. It seems like all outdoor sports communities (whitewater paddling, backcountry skiing, climbing, etc) have the conversation that unfavorable outcomes are more likely when poor judgement is a mitigating factor. Defining poor judgement in real time, not 20/20 hindsight, can be difficult – but not unachievable. When poor judgement becomes routine it almost gets accepted as part of the sport. Therefor, I’d like to urge all surfski paddlers this winter to exercise discretion & judgement when enjoying the our sport.
Hope to see you on the water!