Today was the “Tupper Lake 9 Miler” canoe and kayak race. (The name is a bit of a misnomer – my GPS says it was only 7.21 miles, but evidently it used to finish in Tupper Lake rather than in Simon Pond.) I was really looking forward to this race, because it’s mostly on the Racquette River with very little lake travel so therefore not a lot of waves to deal with. My calm water speed is somewhere around 6.0-6.2 mph, so factoring in the stream speed and the extra effort you put in a race, I was hoping to do something around 6.2 to 6.4 mph. Dan figured that Paul D and I could work together and take turns pulling up front alternating with riding the other’s wash. Paul D had different ideas – he figured he was going to go all out at the beginning and see how long he could hang with Mike or Steve, and then probably fade, so I figured I wouldn’t kill myself to stay with him and maybe catch him after he faded and trade pulls.
The river is narrow at the start, so they started us off in waves, with the slowest types of boats going off first and then faster and faster. The first wave was guide boats and recreational kayaks (lots of Saranacs and plastic boats), then the C-1s (1 person canoes, both little black carbon fibre rockets and less extreme boats), then us in the touring kayaks, and in some order I didn’t really pay attention to, unlimited kayaks, C-2s and K-2s, and war canoes.
There were a *lot* of touring kayaks in a tiny little stream. I got to the start immediately after the previous wave left, so I got a good position, but then a bunch of people pushed up to the front line. With a few seconds to go, one guy was poised to go with the upper blade of his paddle about 2 inches from my face. Another guy was lined up at about a 45 degree angle to the rest of us in a WSBS boat of some sort. As you might expect, the start was total chaos. After a few seconds, I was about two boat lengths behind this guy in a yellow Epic touring kayak and trying to catch his wake when Mr. 45 Degrees came up on my left, and immediately started veering towards me. I thought he was trying to squeeze me out of that wake, but instead he continued to cross in front of me. Because it was my first race and I didn’t want to be a total douchebag, I slacked off a bit to try and not hit him, but with my weight it didn’t work and momentum carried me forward. My bow hit his stern and pushed him almost 90 degrees to the current, causing somebody else in a WSBS boat to T-bone him, losing the innocent WSBS guy a bunch of time. I felt bad about that, but it really wasn’t my fault. Mr. 45 Degrees might not feel that way, but he should not have been cutting across from my left to my right without making sure he had room.
Just then Paul D showed up on my left and said “grab my wash”. I did, and when I said I was on he started hammering. My speed immediately started shooting up over 7 mph, with bursts up to 8 mph, and my heart rate went way to high. Paul D got onto Steve’s wake, and that was even worse – Steve is a *much* faster paddler than me. He is a minute faster than me in the 2 mile time trial, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going 30 seconds per mile faster on longer distances as well. So I dropped off them and decided to try to do my own race, slowing down to about 6.3 mph. But less than a minute later, this guy in a Nelo touring boat started coming up on my left. I decided to try to grab his wash and see how long I could hang on. I got within about 2 inches of his stern and held it there, and was amazed to see that we were actually catching Steve and Paul D. We weren’t catching them quickly, but we were definitely catching them. The guy I was following was taking a line that took him into slow shallow water (or “suck water” as we’re apt to call it), and his speed was varying up and down, but we were going *way* faster than I could have on my own. Most of the time, we were going about 6.6 to 6.8 mph with “gusts” over 7. He didn’t seem the slightest bit tactical – Dan taught us lots of strategy to scrape off somebody who is riding your wash, and how to avoid being scraped off, but the guy I was following never seemed to do any of those things.
After about 2 or 2.5 miles, Nelo Guy and me caught and were passing Steve and Paul D, and Paul D was leaving Steve’s wash to get on ours when suddenly Steve dumped. Sorry, it’s a race, I’m not stopping to help you. I’d now been on Nelo Guy’s wash for 2 miles, which is about 1.5 miles more than I’d expected to hold it, and wondering how long this would last. Then something happened that I was sure was going to knock me out of this train – I went to take a drink and my Camelbak must have kinked or something because I couldn’t get any water, even though I knew I had plenty left. Oh oh.
I knew Paul D was on my wash because he yelled a warning about a tree in the water on one side – I think he was expecting Nelo Guy to try to scrape me off on it. But Nelo Guy wasn’t even trying. A few times I left his wash to try to take a corner further out in the deep fast water instead of following him into the suck water in the inside of the corner, but I soon got back on his wash – there was still no way I could maintain that speed without his help. I could see Mike and his big rival (“Belarus”, I think he calls him) up ahead, but we weren’t gaining on them. I didn’t expect to gain on them, as I’d expected to lose sight of them several miles back. But even more surprising, I looked back and saw that Paul D wasn’t with us any more.
At about the 5 mile mark, there was a very low bridge. Just like the bridge that you go under when leaving Baycreek to go into the bay, I adjusted my stroke into a low sweep on both sides. But Nelo Guy kind of stopped paddling, and while I tried to match his slowdown, my momentum carried me forward and I tapped his stern with my bow. Twice. He half turned in his seat to glare at me and I yelled an apology. After all, I hadn’t meant to do it, and up until this point I’d been 2 inches from his stern for 4.5 miles without tapping him once, so I thought I was doing a pretty good job, and I really didn’t want to lose my meal ticket. A while later, with some other boat wakes throwing us around, I tapped him once more, and once again he turned to glare at me.
Around that same time, the guy who’d beaten Dan at Long Lake came trucking on through. I expected Nelo Guy to try to catch his wash, but he didn’t even try. Then Dan came through. I saw him and called out a “hello”, and he yelled back “AVAST” (he’s on a pirate kick recently.) Dan told me afterwards that he didn’t want to say too much because he didn’t want Nelo Guy to know too much about me and what I was doing behind him. Not long behind Dan was a guy in a really nice looking bright red sprint boat.
After the bridge, the river widened out hugely and there were a lot of boats ahead. We were threading our way between C-1s and rec kayaks and guide boats. The wind was also pretty horrible in our face. Nelo Guy slowed down so much in the wind I wondered if he was losing it, so I pulled out beside him and we paddled side by side for a few minutes before I decided that I’d had enough of that and got in behind him.
Now, again I was thinking about how much of a douche I wanted to be on my first race, so I had already decided that I wasn’t going try to out-sprint Nelo Guy at the end. That’s Dan’s standard advice, that after you ride somebody’s wash for the entire race and make him do all the hard work, you sprint past him the last 200 metres and beat him. Maybe in the future, but not on my first real race.
As we got to Simon Pond, a couple of motor boats came up between the middle of the boats making a huge wake that was throwing us around a bit. And then we turned towards the finish and the wind should have been at our backs but it didn’t seem to help at all. If anything, it was slower. And Nelo Guy was pulling away from me. Even if I’d wanted to sprint him, I couldn’t have. I was beat. I had no sprint left in me.
I started my GPS clock at the “30 seconds to go” call, and I forgot to hit the stop button at the finish, so I don’t know my real time, but I think it was about 1:09. I ended up 3rd in the under 50 class. Paul D finished less than a minute behind me, and he ended up 3rd in the over 50 class. Dan won the over 50 unlimited class, and Mike was second in the over 50 touring class. I know Mike was disappointed at not beating Belarus, and Steve was mad about dumping (and finishing behind me), but I am ecstatic. It was my first real race, and I held that guy’s wash perfectly and got pulled well beyond what I could have done on my own.
And “Nelo Guy”, if you’re out there, I’m sorry I didn’t come and thank you after the race. After the way you’d glared at me those two times, I wasn’t sure you’d be friendly so I avoided you. But I never could have done it without you.