Gorge Downwind Championships, Day 4

Today was supposed to be the biggest day we’ve seen so far this week, although tomorrow is supposed to be even better. Today I was scheduled to do another run in a double ski, this time with American legendary paddler Carter Johnson. If you don’t recognize the name, check out Joe Glickman’s movie about the US Surfski Championships a few years ago where he points out Carter as being top American. It was Carter’s videos in the Gorge that convinced me to come here. I’m not sure what insane level of organizational skill you need to have to organize a week long event for 300 paddlers and still have time to go out for paddles with people like me, but Carter has it.

The forecast was for it to really start ripping by 3pm. We were scheduled to paddle at 12:30, but the wind actually picked up pretty strongly by the time we got on the water. Carter was understandably in a hurry, so we rushed a bit at the put-in and I forgot to hit start on my GPS, so I don’t know exactly when we got going, but I think it was around 1:15 or so. Also unfortunately, my problems with my GoPro continued so while I thought I’d gotten it started, it actually didn’t record anything. Which is really too bad, because Carter gave a ton of good advice and instruction that I wish I had a record of.

As we were walking down to the beach, he emphasized that we were going to let a lot of waves go – unlike the guys like Dawid and Jasper Mocke or Sean Rice who train 25+ hours a week, we have other jobs and so we have to economize on our paddling and only go for the waves that we can get on easily, not the ones that you have to really dig for. But by picking the right waves, we’d keep our boat speed up and get good rides. And he wasn’t lying – we ended up on huge waves, with Carter holding his paddle and arms up triumphantly over his head while I tried to catch my breath and get a look around.

As we started out, once again I noticed that twitchiness I mentioned yesterday, even before he got in. He tried to calm me down and relax me, and we paddled out at a warm up pace. But then suddenly he would give a signal and we’d sprint like hell, and 4 or 5 strokes later we’d be up on a wave and recovering. His sprints are amazingly fast, and it often took me a couple of strokes to get synced up with him and sometimes I’d barely get one or two strokes in before it was time to stop paddling. He’d point out a wave on our left or right that we were heading to next – unfortunately I relied on my GoPro catching all this stuff, so I’d just make sure my head turned that way with an eye to review it later, and not always taking it all into my consciousness. Carter keep up a complete monologue of what he was looking at and what he was doing. I just wish more of it had sunk in.

We went into Swell City, and it was even more amazing than yesterday. He warned me ahead of time that things looked a little hairy and he might not be able to talk all the time, but for me to watch his body language and try to match him when he needed power or when he needed me to stop paddling. He also reassured me that even if I blew my balance or leaned the wrong way, that I wouldn’t put him off because he could easily overpower me. Well, it turned out that I don’t think anything stopped his monologue. I blew my contribution a number of times when he was putting in huge amounts of power very quickly – sometimes all I could do was try to keep my paddle from dragging and just watch what he was doing. At least this time I didn’t clonk him on the back of the head like I’d done with Ryan yesterday – today I was a lot more cognisant that when you’re bracing down a wave front, your up hand needs to be forward rather than equal with the down hand. That’s a lesson I vaguely remember from Tarifa but it had never really been a problem until yesterday (and now today). I’m not even sure how that prevents you from catching a blade so well, but it does.

I spent a lot of time with a bucket full of water. This is especially true when trying going across the waves. Towards the bottom of Swell City, Carter said that the waves were driving us towards the left shore, but we needed to move right. I assumed that was so we could exit the big stuff near the end of the sand spit. But after crossing a few wave fronts and moving right, we seemed to be moving left again. I wanted to ask why we were doing that, but never got a chance. We were so close to the left shore I felt I could have thrown something onto shore. But then we got even further down – almost level with the sand spit. And now we in smaller choppier waves, and we were moving right almost perpendicular to them. We crossed behind the spit and were now in flat water and perpendicular to the wind, and it was suddenly obvious just how strong the wind is – it felt like it would have taken my hat if not for the (unfortunately useless) GoPro head strap. We paddled at what Carter considers a warm-down and what I would call a moderate cruise, and finished in the shallow water of the channel.

Tomorrow is the race day, and the winds are supposed to be strong again. I’m thoroughly intimidated by what Swell City looks like in big wind conditions. They say that there are less intimidating conditions to the right side of the river. The other factor is that after a 7 mile downwind run, I’ve ended up sore and tired and was actually wishing for the end before it came. The long race is 13 miles, but only the last 8 miles is through or beside Swell City. There is also an 8 mile race, but the start line is almost exactly in the entrance to Swell City, on the left side of the river. I could switch to the short race, but it seems like I’d have to go right through at least the early part of Swell City to get to the more benign part of the river. But on the other hand, I’d at least not be tired for that part of the river. I guess I’ll have to make that decision tomorrow morning.

Gorge Downwind Championships, Day 3

Wednesday was forecast to not be a huge wind day. Thursday and Friday are, but more about that later. But even a “non huge” day in the Gorge is bigger than 90% of what I’ve ever done before. Today was my day to paddle in a double with Ryan Taj Paroz. I was really looking forward to this – I’d get to sit right behind a very skilled downwind paddler and see what he was looking at and get some insights on what he looks for.

Actually getting out in the boat was a bit of a comedy of errors. Kenny, the Epic dealer for San Francisco, supposedly had at least one V10 Double. He pointed out one, and we set it up – we tied in our leashes, adjusted our foot braces, taped on wave deflectors on the front and a big wave shield on the back (my) cockpit, and were ready to go when somebody came along and said “that’s my boat” and we had to take all our stuff off. So Kenny pointed out another double and said “that’s the one”. We set it up, and even got it tied on the rack on the bus out to the put in, and Ryan headed off to change into his paddling clothes when we saw somebody taking it off the rack. We ran over and found that the person taking it off had recognized the boat, texted the owner, and determined that the owner had not authorized us to take it. Finally, a friend of Ryan’s had his own V10 Double and said we could take it. Once again we got this one set up (and it gets faster after you’ve done it a few times – although this guy had a lot of customization that he happily ripped out for us) and on the rack. It was now about an hour and a half later than we’d originally planned, which wasn’t a bad thing because the wind had been building a bit while we faffed around setting up boats.

Unfortunately the heat seemed to have done something horrible to my GoPro and it died a few minutes after we started paddling.

I’ve never been in a double before, and it was a bit strange. At first I had that same sort of shaky reaction like I often do when first starting out in a less stable boat – I think it’s just the visceral reaction to the fact that the boat isn’t just reacting to me, it’s also reacting to Ryan. I think I settled down and relaxed pretty soon after we started paddling, though.

For much of the paddle, I was intensely focused on trying to match Ryan’s stroke. Many times I just couldn’t, though. Part of that is because he’s just a fast paddler, or because I missed the cue that he was about to ramp up the speed and it would take a stroke or two before I was in sync. But one of the things I’d been warned about and which happened a fair number of times is we’d be on a wave, and being in the back I’d be pretty much sinking into the crest of the wave, with water pouring into my cockpit. I had to keep my scupper drain fully open the whole time, and even so I probably had dry feet for 20% of the time. Once or twice I ended up with water almost up to my armpits, and it’s hard to paddle like that, which less match somebody else’s stroke. I’d been warned that I might have to hook my feet in the straps to keep from getting sucked out, but that didn’t really happen.

When we were in sync and I was paddling, I tried my hardest to actually contribute. I didn’t want to just be a passenger. So it was hard work. Ryan was doing a pretty good job at pointing out what “hole” he was aiming for, or where he could see one building to one side or the other. I have to confess that once or twice I thought I saw a “hole” and started paddling, only for Ryan to tell me to wait – I think I was seeing stuff that would have been big enough for a single boat but he was looking for waves long enough to fit a double on. I also worried that I might be leaning into things where it might have been appropriate if it was just me heading for a wave, but maybe not when it was two of us. Ryan didn’t seem to have any problem handling what I was doing, so maybe it wasn’t so bad.

At the end, you pass this sand spit and paddle through a very shallow channel. As we were in the calm water, we were paddling at what I considered a pretty brisk rate. Just as we were finishing up, Ryan asked if I wanted to try a finish sprint. First I said “you mean, this wasn’t it”, and then I said “sure”. He gave us a count down and then just poured on the power. After about three strokes he was moving too fast for me to keep up. He was just a blur. Man I wish I had that on GoPro. He said “that’s what I’ll be doing off the line at the race on Friday”. Wow.

One slight aside: In Tarifa, Boyan taught going for waves by looking at the back face of the wave in front of you. But most other paddlers talk about “nose in the hole”, looking for the trough. Really, it’s not that different. But another difference is that Boyan taught to start accelerating while you’re still nose up on the back of the wave in front of you, but Ryan and most other paddlers say to wait until you feel the tail lift on the front face of the wave behind you. I wonder if that’s just the difference between how strong an acceleration Ryan has versus my weak-ass acceleration.

The conditions were supposedly “not big” – Greg Barton remarked afterwards “I don’t know why I bothered”. But Ryan took me through “Swell City” and the conditions looked plenty big to me. I’m not sure I could have handled it alone. And my muscles are still pretty sore. I’m actually a bit worried about Thursday and Friday – the winds are supposed to be huge. To quote an email from the organization: “Thursday has the potential to get “Nuclear” from 3 to 5 pm out east but with possible lighter winds in the AM when the race would need to start at Home Valley (west). Regardless, Thursday after 3pm is forecasted to be Scary big in most all the Gorge.” and also “Both Thursday and Friday are forecasted to be bigger than anything we have seen this week.” Thursday I’m going to do another double run, this time with Carter Johnson, and we’re going to be done before 3pm. Friday is race day. I suspect that race day I’m going to have to be cautious and stay to the Oregon side of the river.