Mike and I did the Lighthouse To Lighthouse race this weekend, and it was a doozy. The most salient features making it “a doozy” are:
- My first ocean race
- 14 miles long, my longest race so far
- The Eastern US surf ski championships
- A metric butt-load of surf skis. I believe they were saying 88, in all the classes. This is as well as rowing craft, outrigger canoes, sea kayaks, SUPs and some weirder stuff.
The things that made me think this could not only be “do-able”, but also that I could possibly do well:
- Being Long Island Sound rather than open ocean meant it was probably going to be small waves and lots of boat wakes, something I can regularly train on here in Rochester
- Mike and I had done a number of very long training paddles on Lake Ontario, making me feel confident in my ability to last for 14 miles
- As I was tapering down my mileage last week I took a number of paddles in Irodequoit Bay, which is shallow and heavily travelled by boats, making it prime breeding ground for that mish-mash of boat wakes that Mike refers to as “potato patch” and I used to refer to as “I hate this I hate this I hate this I hate this please let it be over”, and I felt like I was getting pretty good at handling that stuff.
I spent the week before the race obsessively checking the marine forecast for Norwalk CT for race day. Every time I checked, it said the water was going to be nice and warm, the waves were going to be less than 1 foot high, and the wind was going to be either from the south west or from the north west at about 5 to 10 knots. I liked either of those options – south west would give us a head wind out and a nice push on the way back, north west would mean the wind was coming across the islands and wouldn’t be generating any waves at all. What I sort of realized but not quite was that with only 1 foot waves, they wouldn’t dominate over the boat wakes, so the whole race would be spent in “potato patch” waters.
So anyway, Mike and I discussed strategy. We paddle together a lot and most of the time I’m a stronger paddler than him, so my strategy was to try and find a wake I could ride, and his strategy was to try and hold onto me and if not find somebody else. Because I paddle against the people I paddle against rather than against the best people on the east coast, I had the idea in my head that I’m probably one of the top people in the V10 Sport surf ski, so my intention was to find one of them and try to hold onto them.
At the start we had about a 250 meter straight downwind, then a bouy to turn at, and then head out behind Sprite Island and straight to Pecks Ledge Light, the first of the lighthouses in the race’s name. Then it’s on a curving line past a bunch of low islands and around the second lighthouse, Greensledge Light, and back along the same islands and back in the way we came.
Before the start, somebody at the start pointed out a real “gotcha” about the course – on the way back, it’s easy to not see Goose Island because it’s very low and silhouetted against an island that’s beyond the course, Cockenoe Island, and you will see Peck’s Ledge Light and think you can head directly to it, but if you do you’ll end up going in behind Goose Island (and maybe even Copps Island) and get disqualified. I’m glad he did, because I nearly got suckered.
While we were warming up, Mike pointed out that the start line was very wide, and if we lined up to the right hand side, we’d have a tiny bit longer way to the first bouy, but we’d have the full advantage of the wind and waves to our back. It was a smart move, because nearly everybody else lined up to the left side, and when we got to the bouy everybody had already fallen into three very distinct lines and it was easy to squeeze into place in what looked like a good spot.
After the bouy, I ended up on the tail of a guy in a black V10 Sport Elite. (That’s the more expensive and lighter version of my V10 Sport Ultra. I don’t even think Epic offers the Elite model any more.) I thought he’s a guy to try to stick with. Unfortunately as we got out from behind Sprite Island the chop started hitting us from every direction and I was finding it harder and harder to hold onto his wake. I lost it maybe a half of the way from Sprite Island to the lighthouse, about the 2km mark (spoiler alert – I found out afterwards his name is Mario Blackburn and he finished 8 minutes ahead of me.) I was going way faster than I probably should have, and my heart rate was up in the 160s which is higher than I can maintain for 14 miles. I tried to find some other skis whose wakes I could hold onto and by the 3km mark I thought I had somebody. There was a loose aglomeration of 4 skis ahead of us, but we were catching them and none of them were using each other’s wakes. But as we went around Goose Island we suddenly got the full brunt of the wind in our faces. I don’t know why the guy I was following didn’t seem to be affected by it, but he dropped us all hard and went charging up the middle of the 4 guys. I found myself side by side with the second of the four guys, with one guy just tantalizingly out of reach ahead. Around this time I saw Jim Mallory and his doubles partner coming back, in a comfortable lead in the double surfski class, and then a few minutes behind the first of the single surf skis, a Fenn.
After we passed Southwest Point, it’s almost 2km of open water between you and the lighthouse, and another 2km back, with no islands sheltering you from shit coming in from the right, and it gets considerably rougher. The tantalizing guy dumped at least twice and did quick remounts. Mike thinks we passed him at this point, but I don’t think I did. All I know for sure is that the guy I was beside surged ahead, and I slowed down in the rough stuff. Just before turning at the lighthouse, I felt a familiar bump on the back of my boat and Mike called out.
I’d forgotten that in that really ugly stuff, Mike does not slow down as much as I did and I guess he used the opportunity to close back in on me. Mad props to him for keeping close enough in the semi-messy stuff that he could close in completely in the really messy stuff. Rounding the lighthouse, he actually went ahead of me. But then we came out from behind the lighthouse and now I was in my element. There were little waves coming from almost straight behind us, and with my lighter boat and slightly more power, I could get on those and surf them better than Mike, and pull away.
I had purposely taken a line out to the right hand side to take full advantage of both wind and tide behind us, but very few other people where doing that. I could see a big line of people tucked in closer to the lee of the islands. I couldn’t see if we were faster or slower than them, but I wish the race had taken split times at the turn so I could figure it out.
I don’t actually know how much I’d gotten ahead of Mike. In my head I was imagining that I was leaving him far behind. But the fact that we were now going with the wind meant that there was no cooling breeze, and I was cooking in the heat. I started to fade again, and it was getting harder and harder to put on the burst of energy you needed to catch one of these tiny waves.
As I passed Goose Island, I heard Mike calling from not very far behind a question about the course – it was easy to think that we were supposed to go around Cockenoe Island, but I could see a line of paddlers ahead of me going direct to the lighthouse and behind to Sprite Island and the finish, so I called back to go direct to the lighthouse. But the fact that it was obvious I hadn’t left Mike far behind, or he’d managed to claw his way back to within earshot was slightly dispiriting to me, but man I’ve got to give him full credit for that. Near the lighthouse, I again saw that same guy who’d dumped two or more times ahead of me at the Greensledge Light. This time when he dumped his remount wasn’t as fast as it had been before and I managed to pass him.
After the lighthouse, it was full on “potato patch” again, waves from every direction, including a boat towing kids on a raft who made a gigantic wake right in front of me. However, I had enough energy left that I sprinted over the wake and successfully caught the other side of their wake, which pushed me ahead of the guy in the red Stellar who I’d been chasing for a while (Mark Southam). One thing I noticed at the time and was curious about, everybody else was taking a curving path to the right instead of going straight to Sprite Island. I went straight and didn’t encounter any obstacles that made me think this was a bad idea. I notice now looking at the GPS track that we evidently took that curving track on the way out as well. No idea why, unless people were allowing themselves to be pushed by the wind.
Rounding Sprite Island, I realized that I no longer needed the energy I’d saved to handle the waves, and so I went into an all out sprint. I knew that people who’d been ahead of me for the first 12 or 13 miles of the race were not that far behind me and I didn’t want to give them a chance to catch back up. Looking at my GPS tracks again, you can see my heart rate respond to the extra effort by jumping up to 155 or so, but not much change in my speed as it barely touches 10km/hr, but then again that section was more directly into the wind.
Crossing the line, I finally managed to look back and see that while Mike hadn’t caught the guy in the red Stellar, he was involved in a neck and neck battle with the guy who kept remounting. In the end, I finished in 2:17:15 in 31st position, the red Stellar finished 32nd, and Mike barely nipped the remount guy finishing 2:17:52 in 33rd, and remount guy (Jeff Cowley) finished two seconds behind him.
So, what’s the upshot? Am I satisfied? Yeah, I guess I am. I paddled a good race in trying conditions in an environment that was a bit different than I’m used to, and did as well as could be expected against a very high quality field. And I’m hoping to come back next year and go better.
My goal of being one of the top V10 Sports was sort-of met – I was the 4th V10 Sport, but I was a whole 17 minutes behind the fastest one. Surprisingly, the guy in the lightest V10 Sport, the black one, was only 8 minutes ahead of me. Maybe I should have tried harder to hold his wake? But then again, three of the guys in the SS-20 category (the category invented for Epic V8 and Stellar S18 but specifically excluding V10 Sport) were faster than me as well. So maybe it’s not all about the boat.
One thing that jumps out at me about the results though – one of the SUP paddlers supposedly beat my time. Either that is one hell of a SUP paddler, or there’s something wrong there. I’ve never met a SUP paddler who could hold even close to the same speed as me, and this guy did 14 miles in 2:13:30, for an average speed of 6.3mph! The second fastest SUP was 56 minutes slower.
I also discovered that just like in Tarifa, handle bar tape and salt water do not mix. I’ve got lots of new blisters on my right hand. I was using handle bar tape, but it tore my left hand apart in Tarifa. So I switched to no tape and cycling gloves, but that made my right hand numb, so I switched back to tape on my right hand and a glove on my left hand. It may have looked silly, but it worked just fine in fresh water, but evidently it doesn’t work in salt water. I’ve got to keep experimenting. I guess I could try no tape and no glove on the right next.