All posts by Paul Tomblin

Orcas getting their own back

So I just saw this news story: “Gangs of aggressive killer whales are shaking down Alaska fishing boats for their fish: report” and I had to write about a similar experience.

I don’t know if I’ve written about it before, but after I graduated from University of Waterloo in 1985, I got a VIA Rail Youthrail Pass (30 days unlimited train travel on VIA Rail) and decided to see Canada. I ended up visiting my brother out on Vancouver Island, where he “worked” on the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges. His job was to man what was probably the smallest vessel in the Canadian Navy, a 2 person patrol boat. It was also probably the only vessel in the Canadian Navy equipped with a downrigger and a recreational fishfinder. Officially, I think his job was to look after the engines, but the other guy assigned to the boat didn’t seem to mind letting Dave drive or do anything he wanted to do. Including bringing his little brother for a day out on the range.

The reason I wanted to go out on the range is because of that downrigger and fishfinder. The offical duties of the boat didn’t take up much of the day, so the rest of the time they’re trolling for salmon. And being very successful at it, I might add. We ended up with enough to give the base commander a few salmon to thank him for letting me come, grilled salmon for dinner that night, and smoked salmon for later – I took some on the train going home later and it sure made up for how bad train food was.

So at one point during the day, I was reeling in a salmon when the line when “PING” and snapped. Dave said “You didn’t keep the tip up”, and I was just about the argue the point when a whole pod of orcas surfaced all around the boat, moving fast. Obviously one of them had stolen my salmon. But that was just an appetizer for them – off on the horizon where they were heading so fast, we could see a fishing boat trying desperately to back off their purse sein. They could see the orcas coming and wanted to open the purse before the orcas got into it and tore their nets up. We could soon see the orcas jumping out of the water in his nets. Poor guy probably lost his catch and thousands of dollars in nets, but man it looked cool to watch.

Maybe it’s time to shut it down…

I wrote earlier about using my navaid.com website as an excuse to practice some new skills, rewriting the UI to use react.js and just generally making it look better and more responsive. One thing I haven’t had time to do yet is redo the backend. I was going to use that as an excuse to learn Flask or Pyramid.

Except today I read a news report about a plane that crashed because the idiot pilot relied on a waypoint on his GPS instead of following the regulations and actually checking “all available information” about his place of intended landing. In the news report, Garmin said that the place he was planning to land wasn’t in their database. And I checked and sure enough, it’s in my database as an Ultralight park. Now the thing about microlights/ultralight parks is that they can be anything from a short paved strip to a cow pasture that a farmer sometimes allows ultralights to land in. They’re also not listed in the official AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication). Not the sort of thing a prudent pilot would land without doing due research first, including phoning the owner and finding out the landing conditions.

But even if it’s 100% clear the pilot was at fault and didn’t do his legally required flight planning, I had a bit of a panic at the thought that he might have loaded the data from my navaid.com site into his GPS (it’s not that difficult with a handheld GPS, damn near impossible with a panel mounted certified GPS).

Meanwhile, I’ve basically been keeping this site going out of a sense of duty. I don’t fly any more, and the programs I originally did this to support were for the Palm Pilot so nobody uses them. I used to get donations, but I don’t any more. I haven’t received any feedback in years. I’ve been doing this for 20 or more years. Maybe it’s time to retire it?

Round the Mountain 2017

There are three salient facts about the Round the Mountain (RTM) race:

  1. For me, and for most racers in this area, this is our first race of the year.
  2. Much of the race occurs on a stream and a connected series of lakes that have a marked channel for the power boaters but there is no rule that says canoes and kayaks have to stick to the channel. In high water years, there are numerous shortcuts and “sneaks” if you’re willing to risk possible damage to your boat.
  3. It has a portage that can make or break your race.

Because this is a high water year, I preloaded my track from the 2015 race as a course in my GPS, because that was a high water year as well and I took all the sneaks. On Friday, Jim and I paddled the part of the course with most of these sneaks and tried to take mental note of the location of the hidden rocks and stumps. My GPS helpfully would buzz and say “off course” whenever I left the line I took in 2015 which was a real help. It was also telling me how many kilometers left to go, which I thought would be a great help for pacing during the race. Jim was saying out loud what he was memorizing as the landmarks for various distances from the finish, which turned out to be an even better help on race day.

So race day comes, and like always at RTM, it was overcast, cool verging on cold, and threatening rain. So pre-race preparation was mostly trying to find a mix of clothing that would be warm enough once you got up to speed, but you wouldn’t freeze to death waiting at the start line or if it started to rain. After careful deliberation, I ended up dressed exactly the same as the last two years – Viakobi v-cold pant and long sleeve top. Funny how that worked out. 

One feature of RTMs past is that the lake would be flat calm when you arrived, and about 10 minutes before the start it would suddenly whip up into 1-2 foot waves coming from your right bow quarter. That didn’t happen this year – it remained pretty flat all the way across the lake. The only waves were coming from a couple of boats with camera crews who were filming the race who were constantly hitting us with boat wakes at odd times and from odd angles. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Another feature of pre-race preparation is trying to determine who your competition was going to be. Roger Gocking wasn’t going to be there, but Eric, the guy Roger and I chased for much of last year’s Long Lake race (unsuccessfully) would. Pete was there of course, but last year I got ahead of him on the first lake and managed to put a gap on him after the portage, so I was pretty sure if I was at my best I could do that again. And there was this new guy in the same boat as me, a V10 Sport Ultra, named Royal. I don’t know much about Royal except he’s young and athletic looking, and I believe he was Matt Skeels V10 Double partner at Long Lake last year. I didn’t hold out much hope of beating him, but maybe his inexperience would give me a chance.

So they announced the start waves, and the second wave would be just unlimited kayaks and C-4s. That means I wouldn’t get my rematch against Eric because he’s in an Epic 18x and would be starting in the first wave. Also, it meant no C-2s to ride wake on. Oh well, maybe some of the C-4s would be the right speed.

The start siren went off and immediately Jim and a K-2 leapt ahead. Jim was actually dogging it a bit – he hadn’t done a proper warm up and so without a Matt Skeels or Todd Furstoss to push him, I think he was planning to warm up on course. He also seemed to stop and look back a few times, like maybe he was considering waiting for us and giving us a wake to ride. Pete is a fast starter and was soon ahead of all the second wave except for Jim and the K-2. Royal was on his wake, and I was three boat lengths back trying to get past the disappointingly slow C-4s. 

I’d have to review the video (oh, by the way, my cameras both worked all the way to the end this time!) but it took me maybe a kilometer to catch back up to the Pete and Royal train. We must have looked fancy with our 3 V10 Sports battling for position and for each other’s wakes. In a repeat of last year, just as we were catching up with some of the dense traffic of the first wave, I make my move and pull ahead of Pete and Royal. After that, I’m aware that at least one of them remained on my stern, but I couldn’t tell you if it was both – I don’t pick up a lot of detail in a quick glance back.

Soon after we headed into the river, I was passing a touring kayak from the first wave when he said: “there’s a rock right in front of you”. Stupid me, I’d been facing him instead of watching where I was going to get a good view for the video camera on my head. When I looked there was a rock sticking an inch out of the water less than a boat length in from in me. Without that guy’s warning, I probably would have hit it dead on and at high speed, wrecking my boat. So thanks, anonymous dude.

A bit later, we get to the most famous “sneak”. This is one Jim and I had scouted yesterday. It’s an island, and the prudent thing is to go around it. If you choose to go in between the island and the shore, there is a massive rock in the middle. The moderate path is to go to the right between the rock and the island, but if you go between the rock and the shore you save a few meters. I’d scouted it, so I knew there was a small rock lurking just at water level, and yesterday Jim had said he was going to take the moderate path and I’d said if I can see the rock before I get there so there are no waves or rain making it invisible, I’d take the risky path. I heard Royal behind me saying something about going right but I could see the rock, so I went straight. Honestly, I thought he was talking to Pete because I had scouted it and I sort of knew what I was doing. But in retrospect, he didn’t know that.

That was shortly before the bridge. Crossing under the bridge, I could see the “BayCreek cheering section” with Susan and Tracey and Kim, but without Vicki, it just didn’t have the volume I’m used to. Still, it was nice to see them there.

After the bridge, it gets into a twisty part where the channel was twisting all over the place but there were lots of opportunities to cut corners. I finally realized that while Royal was right on my tail, I couldn’t see where Pete was. Again, I only take very quick glances and so I didn’t know if he was 2 boat lengths back or 50. On some of my riskier shortcuts, Royal would take the conservative route and then come right back on my tail. At one point he said something about he’d get off my stern wake if I didn’t want him there, but I can hardly object to what is a perfectly legitimate racing tactic. What I probably should have done is grabbed a drink and let him lead for a while, but I wasn’t sure if the only reason I was still in contact with him was the shortcuts I was taking.

It was also during this stretch that I realized that the screen on my GPS was frozen up. This happened to me once before, on a bike ride, and I know from that experience that the only way to clear it is to hold the power button for 60 seconds, so I knew I wasn’t going to get it back for the rest of the race. As well as not getting heart rate and distance to go information, I was more worried that this was going to screw up my video overlay when I make my video. Damn. But oddly, it was still making the occasional beep, but I couldn’t tell if that was a kilometer lap indication or an “off course” indication.

During the twisty part, I hit a stump a glancing blow with my boat on a shortcut that I’d scouted yesterday. That made me a bit cautious and maybe half a kilometer before the portage I stayed in the channel past a couple of marker buoys where Royal went inside and he took the lead. I grabbed onto his stern wake, determined not to let go.

He slowed down before the portage and slowly slid in. I’d been practicing portages with Jim, whose preferred tactic is to come in full speed and jam on the brakes at the last possible second, but there was no room to go around Royal and no point doing so. He was a bit faster than me up the hill, even though he appeared to just be strolling up it. He caught the k-2 that was at the top of the hill with their boat on the ground. Just as he was even with them, they picked up the boat. Initially I’d thought they were going to let Royal go ahead of them and then get in my way, but instead, they were interfering with Royal and trying to go side by side with him on a trail that wasn’t wide enough for two boats. But then they dropped their boat again in the downslope, letting Royal get to the water ahead of them. I got to the dock as Royal was pulling away, and that was the last time I was in contact with him.

The k-2 was too fast, and I couldn’t get on their wake. About the only remaining bit of drama came at another “sneak” that I’d scouted with Jim yesterday. Royal wasn’t taking it, but the k-2 was. I knew the sneak was shallow, required a tight turn and there were numerous rocks on the far side of it. I had little confidence that the k-2 could get through without screwing it up somehow because they’re deeper draft and less able to turn than me. But I figured the best case scenario would be that they would be held up just long enough for me to catch them, and then I could ride their wake for a while and maybe catch Royal. Worst case they’d be bottomed out in the middle and hold me up, but again, afterward I’d have a wake to ride. No such luck, they went through without visibly slowing down, and I actually hit a rock with my rudder. So no k-2 wake for me, and Royal was visibly pulling away even without the benefit of my shortcuts.

From then it was just a matter of trying to pace myself based on my memories of the landmarks Jim had pointed out yesterday and trying to keep myself just on the verge of a stitch in my side. I’m so used to using my heart rate on my GPS to pace that this was literally painful.

It seemed to work, I set a personal record on the course. I really wish I had a GPS track to compare against previous years. I know in 2016 I didn’t use the sneaks because the water was low, and I know in 2015 I had a pretty terrible portage. But it would be nice to see these things side by side.

I talked to Eric afterward and he’d had a very similar time to mine, maybe 20 seconds or so faster, but he’d managed to ride some C-2 wakes for part of it. It would have been a great battle if we’d been in the same wave.

Oh well, time to drive home and then work on my race video.

Possible breakthrough on the camera front

I went for a paddle today with my GoPro Hero 5 Black, and in spite of carefully attaching my Novabeam USB battery, I only got 95 minutes from it, just as if I hadn’t used the battery. Meanwhile, I had the GoPro Hero 5 Session at home doing an experiment where I’d hooked up another Novabeam USB battery, and when I came home I discovered it had recorded 4 hours and only stopped because it had filled up the SD card.

But then I tried just unplugging and re-plugging the Novabeam on the Hero 5 Black, and it happily started recording. I suddenly realized that a light comes on in the Novabeam when you first plug it in. And it struck me that one significant difference between my “bench tests” on my desk and my tests on the water is that in both cases I plug the USB battery in and arrange the silicon putty here at my desk in both cases, but in the “bench test” I hit the Record button almost immediately, while for the water tests I first drive 20 minutes. I bet the battery is turning itself off in that time.

So next time I go paddling I’m going to have to try plugging the battery in and waterproofing it just before I hit record. If I can get 4+ hours of the battery, I can do that early in the pre-paddle preparation and still get the whole paddle or race. I’m so happy that I have probably figured this out before my first race.