Today was the Long Lake Long Boat Regatta, my favourite and unfortunately last race of the year. Two years ago it was my first race outside of the Bay Creek time trials, last year it was my second race in the Thunderbolt where I did surprisingly well, and this year was an awesome surprise.
The weather forecast was horrible – lots of wind, and a fair chance of rain. On the drive up, and after we arrived at our cabin last night, the wind was stronger than I liked, but not horrible, but every now and then there would be a few minutes where it was blowing very, very strong. I have no way to estimate the wind, but when it was blowing hard I wouldn’t have been surprised if they said 40 mph. I was surprised that it didn’t set off some car alarms.
This morning, the wind was pretty much the same – a steady but not really strong wind, and occasionally one of these sustained gusts that was blowing all the boats around. One guy’s boat started rolling down the hill, and Vicki and Susan turned it upside down to stop it from blowing away. The owner of the boat came along, listened to Vicki explain what they did, and promptly turned it back upright and walked away again. Not too surprisingly, his boat promptly stared blowing again, and this time it ran over and broke his paddle. DUH! Another guy was putting down his guide boat and a gust of wind caught it and he nearly dropped it on Paul D’s paddle. I rescued his paddle and PFD and tucked them in closer to his ski so it was less likely to get crunched.
After the racer’s meeting, everybody launched and started milling around. Another sustained gust hit just then, and I was starting to think this was going to really bad. Vicki had convinced me to wear my PFD against my judgment, but at that point I was wondering how long I’d be swimming before a rescue boat picked me up. A woman with a Think surfski managed to swim twice before the starting gun went off, and then decided not to race after all.
They were doing a mass start with the war canoes going up wind and everybody else going down wind. The war canoes had the finish line buoys to line up on, but the rest of us were just told to “line up in front of the seaplanes”, which is so vague as to be useless. To make matters worse, they told us “3 minutes to start” at least three times, and then told us “30 seconds to start” several more times. Meanwhile everybody lined up was getting blown further and further down-lake.
Finally, after yet another “30 seconds to start”, I heard “10 seconds to start” and started my GPS. And probably not much more than 10 seconds after that, I heard “GO” and I started paddling. Except I was kind of taken aback to be out in front. That’s not normal, so I looked around, and was relieved to see the canoes had started as well. It was probably less than half a minute before Doug and Mike in their K-2 charged past, and seconds after that that Roger Gocking, the paddling machine, came by. The strong tail wind was giving me lots of surf. I heard Mike say to Doug to “build into it” and I thought that was a good idea. I was trying not to go out too fast and fade like I do so often.
After a few minutes, Paul D called from behind me “As long as we’re together, let’s trade off every mile”. It sounded like a good plan to me. But I was surprised that Dave W wasn’t riding my wake as well – he’s usually minutes faster than me, and he’s a master at finding a good wake to ride for the early part of the race. A few seconds after my GPS beeped for the first mile, Paul called “Coming up on your left, slow down so I can get past”. With the surf behind us, it was hard to go slower, and so when I didn’t slow down enough he said “take a drink”, which I did and that got him past me.
Paul pulled hard, but again with the surf behind us, I occasionally ended up beside him instead of behind him. But I was getting some benefit from being behind him so I tried to stay back there.
When my turn came, I pulled ahead, and the waves were definitely getting much rougher. Instead of just punching through everything, occasionally there would be one that was so big the water would meet on top of the deck of my kayak. I would slow down a bit and wait for the wave behind me to build up until it was giving me a better push, and then I could blast through the big one or two ahead of me. My speed was fluctuating wildly because of the conditions, depending on whether I was riding a wave or attempting to smash through one. Plus I’d already washed away my boat number and I was trying to remember what it was since I’d have to call it out to the turn-around boat and the finish. I was figuring I wasn’t doing Paul any good with the speed ups and down, and so when the next mile came and I called to see if he was there, I wasn’t too surprised that I didn’t get a response.
So now I’m all alone. Roger Gocking is ahead of me, but taking very strange lines – every time I looked he seemed to be at a 45 degree angle to the line I was taking, but still pulling away. I knew Dave W was behind me somewhere and probably gaining, and my normal marker Mike was a tiny little spec in a K-2 way ahead. It was going to come down to my ability to pace myself, and my ability to handle these rough conditions. I knew I had faded badly in the second half of last week’s Erie Canal Regatta and also in previous races such as Armond Bassett, so I was concerned I was going to hard, but I had to go faster than the surf since I was only in a half skirt and I’d already taken on some water punching through the big waves.
When I reached the turn around, I had my usual tense moments as the boat went cross-ways to the waves. But I could see that Paul had latched onto the wake of a C-4, and Dave W was with him, both about 30 seconds to a minute behind me. Going into the wind, I was trying to figure if it was worth the extra distance to follow the right shore, which was a little bit wind shadowed but also well out of the straight line. The K-2 and Gocking weren’t doing that – as earlier, Gocking seemed to be almost tacking back and forth, and I was having trouble even seeing where the K-2 was.
I was thinking I might try for the wind shadow behind this small island in the middle of the lake when Dave came by. I was about 3/4 of a mile from the turn around, and he’d made an incredible gain by making up all that time in such a short distance. I decided I was going to try to grab onto his stern wake and hold it for however long I could, which after that gain I was figuring wouldn’t be too long. He was going straight for the passage between the island and the right shore, with no attempt to go for a wind shadow anywhere. I figured I’d have to use him as my wind shadow. It wasn’t a huge help – I spent most of the time between 1 and 2 boat lengths behind him, far too far back for any help from his wake or from his wind shadow, but it was a goal, a carrot dangling in front of me. He was relentless. Instead of slowing down when the winds were gusting hard or the waves were high, he just kept paddling at almost exactly the same pace and exactly the same style. I tried to adjust to a lower paddling style and a full grip on my paddle during the strong gusts, but with him right there I could no longer allow myself to slow down.
When we passed through the narrows between the island and the point on the right, the wind whipped the waves into white caps. I’d heard Mike talk about the wind tunnel effect on Long Lake before, but this was incredible. I dropped another boat length behind Dave and heard myself think “hey, I stayed with him for over a mile, that’s pretty decent”, but then I said “HELL NO, I’M NOT GIVING UP”, and started doing a really fast “hit and out” paddle stroke, and caught back up to him.
I was right in his stern wash as we came into the last more sheltered part. He didn’t speed up any, and I came alongside. I’ve watched enough Tour de France to know what was coming next – he’d let me go ahead, and then slingshot past me in the final sprint. And I was ok with that – he’d towed me for 4 miles, and he was normally minutes ahead of me, so finishing a boat length behind him was a victory for me. As I came alongside, he said “If we’d worked together, we could have caught Gocking”. I explained I was doing everything I could to stay with him, taking a pull or two wasn’t in the cards for me. And then it played out exactly like I expected – I pulled ahead half a boat length, the speed slowly increased, and as we hit 7.1 mph he pulled ahead and kept accelerating all the way to the line. I finished mere seconds behind him, in what I consider one of the best finishes of my (short) career.
In the aftermath, I have to give full credit to two things:
- All the time the Bay Creek Paddling Team has spent in rough conditions in the last two years and
- Dan telling me to shorten my paddle this week. I’d lengthened it on Jason Q’s advice to try to get better catch, but I hadn’t made the connection that the longer paddle was probably why I was fading so much in the races, until Dan pointed out that I was shoveling vast quantities of water into the air at the end of my stroke.
So thanks Dan, and thanks to the rest of the team for another great year. Next year I’m going to try to do the 90, so I’m going to spend the winter trying not to lose my conditioning, and trying to lose a bunch of weight.