Gorge Downwind Championships, Race Day

I’m writing this the day after race day because I was too demoralized and tired to write it on the day.

Friday was declared to be race day. The race organizer described the predicted wind conditions as “nuclear” and far bigger than anything we’d seen so far. I had signed up for the long 14 mile race back when I actually had confidence in my abilities, and I briefly considered changing to the 8 mile short course after evaluating my pathetic abilities and the forecast, but as Carter Johnson the race organizer said when I wondered if it would be too “gnarly” for me to do the full race, the “gnar” actually starts after the short course start.

Driving out to the start, it was cool and overcast, which are not conducive to making big waves, but what I saw on the river was already pretty gnarly. Not just in the famous “Swell City”, but also in the early parts of the race.

Brief note about geography here. All the runs I’ve done all week have started at Viento on the Oregon side of the river. Viento is pretty close to the top of Swell City, which is mostly on the Washington side. It’s also at a bend in the river – that’s probably what spawns Swell City as the wind goes around the bend. The short course race started on the Washington side of the river at Drano Lake, which is less than a kilometer downwind from Viento, but at the top of Swell City. The long race started at Home Valley, also on the Washington side. Conventional wisdom is that the Oregon side is more benign, especially from Viento to the finish.

At the start, we had to head out perpendicular to the river flow to a hot spot buoy that was most of the way to the Oregon side. I didn’t start hard, and by the time I reached the hot spot I was already nearly in last place. There were some faces I recognized near me and I kept thinking I could catch them and stay with them, but it never happened.

After the turn, I was catching some big stuff. I still don’t understand why but even when I was catching runs I just couldn’t seem to close the gap on anybody. It was discouraging. But worse was that every time I stalled out on a wave with water pouring into my cockpit, yet another person would come cruising by. And as I went on I seemed to be spending more time stalled or bracing for my life and less time linking runs. That’s not to say I wasn’t. There were some memorable long links that almost made it fun. At one point I was on this gigantic wave and I was braking with all my might, but I couldn’t help it and my bow slammed into the wave in front. I was thinking “I hope my camera caught that look of fear just before the camera bent down”, but reviewing the footage afterwards revealed that the camera had already bent on a previous wave so it didn’t catch anything. It was also while I was in that wave that I saw a guy remounting his boat. You’re supposed to offer aid in a situation like that, but I was barely keeping myself upright and I wasn’t going to be any help to anybody else.

So now I’m sore, I’m not having fun and I’m pretty sure that if it continues on this way I’m going to be too tired and miss strokes and fall in a bunch. I’m also pretty sure I’m in last place with the possible exception of the guy who fell in, although the sweep boat isn’t in my peripheral vision. Bailing out at Drano is looking like a good option. There is a bus waiting at Drano to pick up stragglers and as a consolation prize Carter had announced that anybody who abandoned at Drano would receive five beer tickets as a consolation. 

But just before Viento there is a large channel marker in the water, and right there the water calmed down considerably. I’m paddling fine, catching small runs and cruising along nicely. And I’m presented with a dilemma. I can see that it’s still pretty gnarly in the middle of the river, and I have no way to know what’s going to happen when the river bends at Viento. If it stays like what I’m in now, I have a chance of finishing and maybe even clawing my way out of last place. If what I’m seeing in the middle is what I’m going to be in around the bend, I’m going to be in trouble – there is really no place to abandon other than Drano. Abandoning at Viento would be easier, but there is no bus waiting there and I’d have to hitch hike back to the finish in soaking wet clothes.

So I made the hard decision and left the benign easy waves on the Oregon shore and headed diagonally across the waves towards Drano. And man I was glad for all the time I’ve spent in Irondequoit Bay this year because it was pretty confused in there. Big waves coming from two or three angles – I attempted to catch runs on some of the ones that were headed in the right direction, with some small success. It was hard going, but not as hard as earlier. The decision to abandon was getting both harder and easier. As I got near the entrance to the lake, the sweep boat came along side and asked if I was ok. I told him what I was doing. I didn’t realize until I was nearly at the boat ramp that he’d followed me in. He yelled to the bus driver who came down to help me carry the boat that I was the last one, and he could leave. But then he came back and said that there was one more. But that guy came in through the entrance to the lake, landed on the shore some distance before the boat ramp, and then paddled back out. I think he was approached by a fishing boat during that. I heard afterwards from one of the paddlers I met last week that he’d seen somebody on the course who was having trouble with the lock on his paddle – maybe he just needed a wrench or some duct tape to secure it?

So the bus took me (and only me – it’s pretty discouraging to realize you’re the only abandoner in the whole race) back to the start, I retrieved my car and headed to the finish. Driving down I could only see four or five boats still on the course. I retrieved my five beer tickets and proceeded to drown my sorrows (actually I had two or three and attempted to give away the rest, but only got one taker – you probably wouldn’t be surprised to find out that many top paddlers don’t drink, and I was so late to the show that most people had already hit their limit). 

At the finish, everybody was complaining – not about the big stuff that knocked the shit out of me, but about the fact that the wind died and the stuff I liked around Viento continued all the way to the finish. “Just a long up river grind” as one person described it. But I’m good at long grinds – it’s one of my strengths. If only I’d known.

So here I am, sore, tired and very discouraged. The thought that maybe I’m not cut out to be a real surfskier is high in my mind. On the other hand, most of the people I talked to there are far more experienced on waves than I am. I tend to think that because I’ve gone to Tarifa and had clinics with top names that I’m hot shit, but there really isn’t any substitute for experience. The way I see it, either I need to accept my limitations and stick with what I’m good at, or somehow get more experience in this big stuff. I wonder how Vicki would feel about retiring to North Vancouver?