Buffalo Paddle Festival

So they had this race last year, I didn’t go, and it was a bit of a mess. Multiple laps around the inside of the harbor in an area that was weedy. It was so bad that racers were stopping to clean off each other’s weeds. Evidently it was a permit problem or something. But this year, they said they had the permit problem licked and planned multiple courses from a nice beach well outside the harbor. The long course was to be 12 miles, and go along the shore to the harbor, enter the harbor and paddle along the inside of the breakwall, then exit the harbor and paddle back along the outside of the breakwall, and then paddle back to the beach. For some odd reason they put the start and finish areas a few hundred meters apart, but no matter. At one point they were talking about having people run along the beach for that few hundred meters, but changed their minds and just had a short finish chute and some great volunteers to catch your boat while you ran for the finish.

On race day (today), it turned out this course would be too hard. There were whitecaps coming straight into shore. One of the local paddlers said he sails out of the harbor and the entrance we were going to have to use to get into the harbor was damn near impossible in these conditions in a sail boat. Plus we’d be running along the outer breakwall with waves pushing us directly into it with rebound waves bashing us from the other side.

The organizer made the last minute decision to do a completely different course. Instead of heading north towards the harbor, we’d be heading south west towards a very visible house on a beach and jetty and turning on a buoy, then coming back to the start where there would be a buoy (but just in the return, not on the start), then back to the first buoy, then back to the finish chute at the RedBull tent. The medium course would just go out to the buoy at the house and then direct to the finish, and the short course would have an even closer buoy then back to the finish. The organizer said that according to his map, each leg to the buoy would be about four miles. (Foreshadowing alert: it wasn’t.)

The start was a bit of a mess – he’d said to go out beyond the breakers, and as soon as everybody was out there he’d sound the horn. There was no start line or buoy, because the guy who was placing buoys was still placing the buoys for the short course. So people weren’t lined up in any coherent manner. I was still trying to drain my bucket from the complete fill I’d gotten going out, and my foot strap was twisted around so I couldn’t see my GPS. When I heard the horn, I said to somebody near by “I think that’s the go signal” and took off. The seas were about 30 degrees off directly abeam, which was a relief, but they still made me slow. There were sets of fairly large waves, maybe four feet high, interspersed with smaller ones about one to two feet. At first I seemed to be the only one going, although Todd came through pretty quickly. As I saw a gap in the big stuff, I shakily reacted down to start my GPS, but instead I saw the big red square indicating that I’d stopped it. I guess it had started when I was untangling my foot strap. I quickly started it again.

A bunch of racers came through, including Jim and John. Everybody seemed to be following Todd, who was to my eye was way too far upwind. There was one guy not very far ahead of me in a v12, and he was bracing more than he was paddling even on the intermediate waves. I couldn’t understand why he was ahead of me – he must have gone past when I was fiddling with my GPS. I was on the same line as everybody else trying to catch this guy.

Dan rarely races these days and initially said he was going to do the short race, but he loves these waves so much that he upgraded to the medium race, and he came through pretty quickly. He was also on a very direct line to the buoy. I decided to go direct as well, and abandoned my attempt to pass the guy in the v12. But I was a little disappointed in myself to see Dennis coming through. Dennis is a local triathlete who has been paddling with us a bit, but today he’s in a sea kayak today because he’s not comfortable in his ski yet. And here he is going faster than me. Up ahead I saw a v10 double flip over, and the two of them were so slow remounting that I was able to pass them. There was a sea kayak over with them so I guess they had help if they needed it. There was also a large coast guard boat standing by near the course line.

At the buoy, I had caught up to the guy in the v12. But I knew that if a wave threw us into each other we’d both be practicing our remounts in difficult conditions, so I gave him a real wide berth. My GPS was beeping at 1km intervals, so I know the turn was about at 3km mark, depending on when my GPS started itself.

After the turn, the waves were now about 30 degrees off my stern beam, not conducive to surfing. But in spite of that, I very quickly passed the guy in the v12, and not long after, Dennis in his Seda Glider. One nice thing about a 180 degree turn in a race is you get to see if there is anybody else behind you. There’d been a couple of people at the start who I hadn’t seen pass me and I didn’t see behind me at the turn. I guess some of them abandoned. Can’t say I blame them.

The rest of the way back was pretty uneventful. Like I said, I wasn’t getting much of a ride off the big stuff, although there was a set of smaller waves that were going almost directly in my direction and I got a bit of help from them. Everybody ahead of me was well ahead, barely visible, although I could see Todd leading the main pack well offshore rather than directly to the turn buoy. I stayed on a direct line. That coast guard boat was still standing by just offshore from our line.

After the turn back up, things were a repeat of the first time only much more lonely. But it was still looking like 3km per leg, so at least I knew it wouldn’t last too long. The guy in the v12 was still behind me, but Dennis wasn’t. I guess he decided to do the medium course. I could barely see some of the leaders rounding the buoy way, way ahead of me.

After the buoy, the route back to the finish is only a little bit further downwind than the second leg, so still not much surfing from the big stuff, although there was still that small swell heading in a favorable direction. I was trying to turn off course to get a diagonal ride on the big waves and then turn back towards the finish between the big ones. It didn’t work very well because I couldn’t get going fast enough to really catch them. I ended up far enough offshore that I was able to turn directly down the big ones straight at the finish and catch them that way. I got two actual fast rides. Not enough to make the race fun, but enough to bring it up from “man I suck at this” nearly all the way to “glad I came”. 

I didn’t want to ride a big wave right into shore and smash up my boat, so I tried to get behind one as I had been taught in Tarifa. It mostly worked except a small breaker caught me – I turned sideways on it and very nearly stayed upright as it broke over me, but I fell over at the last moment. It was shallow enough to stand up so I just started running and dragging the boat. The helpful volunteers came out and took the boat while I did world’s slowest beach run. I crossed the line and two little girls attempted to outdo each other with passing me a ice cold bottle of water, and a mug with two beer tickets and a lunch ticket. That definitely pushed it up into “glad I came” territory.

I heard an amusing story after the race. After the v10 double flipped, one of the paddlers decided he didn’t want to continue but the other one did. So they pulled into the finish and the one who didn’t want to continue swapped out with one of the ski paddlers I’d mentioned who seemed to have dropped out early, and with the substitution they completed the long course. I wonder how they divvied up their two trophies?