Downwind in Howe Sound

So today at breakfast in the hotel, Jasper Mocke was sitting at the next table with somebody who I later found out was Carter Johnson. They were looking at a laptop and discussing details of this weekend’s race course. I couldn’t see the screen, but I was trying to subtly eavesdrop and figure out their tips for the race. But as they’re leaving, Jasper comes over to my table and says “Hey, Paul, we’re going out to Britannia Beach to do a downwind on the second half of the course, do you want to join us?” Well, you don’t have to ask me twice.

So at the appointed time (well, actually a few minutes late because I got slightly lost on the way there) I met up with them and loaded my boat on Carter’s trailer. Carter has a bunch of boats on his trailer – evidently he’s bringing boats for people doing the triple from Squamish to the Oregon Paddle Festival to San Francisco. There was an woman in the truck who I think had come up with Carter – I thought she was Australian, but I heard from somebody else that she might be from New Zealand. Just as we were ready to leave, a guy named Ryan from Australia met us almost by accident, and he jumped in the truck – his boat was already on the trailer.

On the drive up to Britannia, Jasper and Ryan were comparing notes on this years Molokai versus last years and whether it or Mauritius was a better race. Evidently Ryan is as well travelled as Jasper and paddles many of the same races. HIs boat had stickers from Clint Robinson Racing and other sponsors.

When we arrived, Jasper said that they were going to wait half an hour for the tide to get closer to what it will be at race time on Saturday. I decided half an hour head start is probably appropriate for me, so I set off. The waves were coming at a bit of an angle rather than straight down the sound, so I paddled out a ways so that I could avoid being pushed directly into the shore at the point. In retrospect I probably should have gone a bit further because I had to take the waves from behind at an angle.

But it was amazing. I’ve never paddled anything like it before – the waves were huge and powerful and going just enough faster than me that with some work I could hop on. I got some great linked runs, although I was working harder than I’d ever worked in my life. I was averaging about 11-11.5 km/hr, but according to Garmin Connect I hit a peak of 17.1 km/hr on one wave.

Around the point, the Sound curves nearly 90 degrees and at first I was in relatively calm water. This is more like what I’m good at – enough of a tail wind and small waves pushing you along, but nothing you have to sprint on to ride. I managed a nice steady 11 km/hr through that without working too hard and with no real highs or lows.

But I was gradually allowing myself to get out into the bigger waves, and that’s when I got into trouble. There is a section on Lake Ontario that some of our local paddlers refer to as “The Potato Patch”, an area around the mouth of the Genesee River where you have waves and wakes hitting you from every direction at once. Well, imagine that except all the waves are bigger than 4 feet high and there is a 20+ km/hr wind behind you. It was like that about 2km from the entrance to the river. It was really rough, and I was barely hanging on. I was making very little progress, and I was seriously concerned that if this were the conditions on Saturday I’d have to scrub the race, provided I managed to make it to shore alive today. I was also sure that if I dumped I was a goner because there would be no way to remount in this wind and these waves, and the water was as cold as you’d expect from glacial meltwater. So of course, 2 minutes later I dumped. I did it fully by the book, going under the boat to get upwind of it, elbow in the bucket, pause for a rest once I had my body up on the boat, and pivot. Somehow my paddle ended up wrong way round, but it didn’t matter. I paddled a bit with my feet in the water and gradually got up some speed and put my feet back in the boat. At this point I headed straight to the nearest land, even though it wasn’t in the direction I should have been doing because I just wanted to get out of this stuff and call for help. But almost immediately I found myself out of the worst of the waves and still with the wind behind me, so I paddled on. I even started to enjoy it again.

I wasn’t 100% sure where I was supposed to go at the end of the sound because there are three major branches of the river delta emptying out into the bay, but I used logical reasoning: the cars were parked on Loggers Lane, so I took the branch that had a big logging operation and log booms nearly completely blocking it. Turns out I was right – except I stopped at the first boat ramp I saw instead of paddling on a few hundred meters or so to a non-descript little beach that was right opposite the park where “Race Central” will be on Saturday.

I actually got my boat on my car and tied down before the woman whose name I didn’t catch showed up, followed a few minutes later by Jasper and Ryan. I tried to make myself useful by helping to carry boats and hold them down while people got a strap or two on them. It was still pretty windy.

I guess if the conditions are the same on Saturday, after the point I will make an effort to stay in closer to shore where it is slower, but it fits my abilities better. It’s not racing if you’re not making forward progress.