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.