I woke up in the middle of the Friday night before the Blackburn Challenge to the sound of big wind and thunder. Much more wind than the mild weather forecast predicted. Figured it would blow itself out as I turned for some more pre-race sleep.
That morning was grey, and a decent north-easterly wind was blowing. Should be a fine race.
At the starting-line, as I was doing the competition check-out (rowing in the sliding-seat class in the same boat that I set the record in the fixed-seat class last year), eyeing a Filippi C1X Coastal Racing shell that was new on the scene, the following announcement came across the water:
“We’re getting reports of four foot seas at the mouth of the river. Careful out there.”
With a lot of boats entered, I shot off pretty quickly to get into clear water. The C1X stayed with me, off my starboard beam. It’s always fast at the start, so no worries about that yet. Digging into a head wind and a slappy river chop, I settled into a quick but maintainable pace, a bit high on the stroke rate but easy on the power.
After the three mile swerve through the river, I heard the roar. Looking over my shoulder, walls of water piled into a mess of whitecaps storming the river mouth. Then there was the exhilarating rise of the boat into the beautiful chaos of a whipped up sea.
Once we hit the waves, I pulled rapidly away from the field. My boat rows very well in heavy seas, and I simply love the rush of waves. Focus on technique – calm, smooth rowing.
About a mile into the open water, I passed the first of many carnages – two heads bobbing in the sea next to an attending powerboat. Their double racing shell was broken right in half, bow and stern pointing in Hollywood shipwreck angles to the sky. A moment later, I passed another double, rowing essentially underwater, turned back towards harbor. This is such a cool race.
Its all about finding lines in the sea. Look over my shoulder, take a mental snapshot. Where are the whitecaps? Where are the steepest waves, the unusual inflections of water? Find the line, the angle that threads through the liquid maze, traces a path of least resistance. Certainly, straight lines are not the shortest distance anywhere out here. And facing backwards, I need to remember and feel those paths from brief visual impressions, rather than continually see, think and intellectualize.
These conditions bring an infinite variety. Every stroke is different. The water is moving up, down, around. Rowing becomes a jazzy spontaneity that riffs in response to the water’s whims. It becomes a delicate reaction that erases expectations of predictability and forces an egoless adaptation to the situation. And yet, within this yin-like submission to the sea, there is also the wild rush and power of muscles moving fury. There is the hard joy of spray over the bow, salt water in the eyes.
I eventually arrived at Halibut Point, where the race turned off of the headwind and into a beam sea. Most people took the immediately logical shortest distance course and followed along the shore to save miles. I decided differently, and continued rowing well offshore before making my turn. I swung way wide, adding substantial distance to my course. But what happened was I changed my angle from a beam sea to one that ran more with the waves. I was able to harness the speed and power of some good-sized rollers, and begin a fast surfing run. I flew down this stretch, making a much faster run than had I maintained a more apparent course.
There’s usually a check-point boat at the half way mark, but today they may have been out aiding the numerous boats that foundered. Almost half the field didn’t finish this year!
The south side was more protected, with easy 2 foot following seas. I had to keep very mentally vigilant though, to keep finding the rhythm to catch as many waves as possible, surfing. Surfing is all about joining the wave. Again, it’s a feeling, knowing, immediacy of intuitive response. No time to think about it. A surfski next to me suddenly capsized on a strange angled wave, but he was immediately back aboard and paddling. Fun.
The final stretch, entering Gloucester Harbor, was a slow slog into the headwind and calm, protected water. I hit the beach 20 minutes ahead of the rest of my class!