Last Saturday was my first long outrigger canoe race.
Or it was supposed to be. It ended up my first partial long race, because we hulied on the first lap, approximately 3 or 4 miles into the 10 mile race.
This stretch of the Columbia River off Stevenson WA has a reputation for high winds and big, wind-generated waves, which makes it popular for wind surfers and kite boarders, and are one of the main draws of the paddling race. It's entirely different than our usual, because around Puget Sound we mostly paddle in flat or near-flat water.
I was nervous as I watched the women racing. Our women looked strong, ahead of the middle of the pack as they came around the course to complete the first of two laps. I think it took them about an hour so to do that lap. Then they were gone again and I had nothing to think about but our own race.
We had at least 2 novices in our boat, along with 2 other men from our team and 2 experienced Canadians we'd never paddled with before. Luckily these 2 were very experienced and one of them would be steering us in seat 6. Steering is a key position, especially in dicey conditions, and these were (apparently) going to be pretty crazy. The other Canadian reassured us that the steersman was super good, almost never hulied, and had a lot of experience in conditions much more extreme than the ones we would be facing. With all this experience and reassurance, I could primarily focus on anticipation of a long, grueling race. At the end of it we were going to be exhausted. My goal was to give it everything I had, and do my best to not hold the others back.
The women came in worn out but happy. The conditions were bouncy and windy (~25 knots) but they did well. I think they finished in the middle of the pack, and they all seemed to have enjoyed it. We swapped into the boat, zipped up the spray skirt, and paddled out. I was in seat 4, a "power seat" which means I just had to paddle, not think much.
It was pretty wild going out into the wind and the chop; wet, exhilarating, invigorating. We paddled downriver (upwind) , then turned back and came with the wind/waves and against the current, heading to the starting line. Slowly all the 20 or so canoes got into place and, the race was on. We dug in and paddled hard, heading for the first turn.
The first leg is downriver, upwind and into the waves. Exciting. Up and over 3-5 foot swells, the waves crashing over our bow and water rushing down over the top of the spray skirt. Sometimes the water was up near our gunnel or washing over the spray skirt, and other times I couldn't reach down far enough to get my paddle into the water for a stroke. By the time we rounded the downriver mark (about 1 or 1.5 miles?), we had an inch or two of water in the bottom of the boat. I could feel it sloshing around, and someone's slippers were drifting back and forth past my feet. If it got above our ankles we were going to need to bail.
The second leg is entirely different, an upriver but down wind/down wave run during which you can catch "bumps" (waves) and surf a little, getting a bit of a lift from the river itself. And because of the current running past, it's hard to feel like you're getting a good grab with your paddle. This leg was fun too, but in an entirely different way than the first leg. We were falling behind a bunch of the canoes, keeping up with a few, and ahead of a couple. All of which was fine. I wasn't worried about being competitive. This was about us doing it and learning from the experience.
The second turn is around a buoy about 2 miles upriver, and this is the most dangerous part of the race. The wind and waves are coming from behind and you're making a left-hand turn around the buoy which puts your ama (outrigger) broadside to the waves/wind. You need to make the turn and get headed back downriver as quickly as possible, to minimize the risk. The third leg back into the wind/waves is dangerous too, because wind/waves are coming on your port bow so the ama which is over on the left can get lifted easily, but the turn was the key spot. Lucky we had an experienced steersman who was going to be conservative.
One thing about outrigger canoes -- they feel really good and stable, as long as the ama is on the water. Once the ama lifts, it's all over. I guess it's possible to get it back down if you react quickly enough, and if the conditions allow it. I guess.
We approached the mark for the second turn and were starting to swing around it behind it, but something went wrong and suddenly we were rushing right at it, pushed by the waves, about 20 yards away. It's a 15 foot round steel buoy, maybe 20 feet tall, painted bright red and streaked with rust and looking horribly solid in the waves and chop. Hitting it was going to hurt.
I think a wave must have caught us, swinging the canoe left, so instead of going behind the buoy, we were on a course to hit it broadside, and our steersman could only turn us harder so we would cut in front, squeaking past and thus setting ourselves up for disqualification. It was disappointing to miss rounding the mark properly, but it was the right thing for him to, and since we weren't competitive, it didn't really matter much. I think bad timing/bad luck forced his hand and he did the best thing he could.
So, we're now starting back downriver against wind and waves for the 3rd leg, and suddenly the ama is rising overhead.
I think I was paddling on the right. I know I didn't have any time to do anything but realize, "Damn, we're going over!" The ama seemed to hang above us for a bit, though I doubt it was more than a fraction of a second. And then we flipped over and were upside down in the water. Hello Poseidon Adventure.
I kept hold of my paddle and opened my eyes to peer through my sunglasses in the green murk (they stayed on the entire time, though both Canadians lost theirs). The spray skirt was holding me in, due to a Camelbak belt around my waist. I was conscious of needing to reach up and unzip so that I could get out, and I did this, also conscious of not wanting to let go of the paddle. It wasn't too difficult, but if I hadn't spent a lot of time as a kid in rough surf it would have been easy to panic.
I popped up and looked left and right. Number 3 was there, and number 5. Everyone was out of the canoe safely. That's step one after a huli.
Step two is passing paddles back or forward. Seat 1 takes paddles from numbers 2 and 3, and seat 6 (the steersman) takes them from 4 and 5. I sent my paddle back and then took the paddle from number 3. Mistake. The steersman already had 3 paddles and couldn't take another. I got stuck holding that paddle when it should have gone up to number 1.
The problem here is that after a huli, my job as seat 4 is to get up on the hull of the canoe with number 2 so we can hold the iakos and use them to lever the canoe back over. But because I had the damn paddle and the waves, I couldn't stay up on the hull. I climbed up, then slipped right off and back into the river. And the waves. I kept trying but never managed to get up on and stay up. Which in turn meant it had a chance to take on more water than if we'd gotten it right back over.
But, we did get it flipped back, and then a couple of folks were in and we scrambled to find our bailer (it had floated away). We were left with only the 5 gallon bucket. Meanwhile, the steersman saw a paddle floating off and swam to get it (they're about $200 each). Then, stuck downstream with his hands full of paddles, he couldn't get back to the canoe. Someone jumped in to go help him, and that delayed things. I was in the canoe, bailing with the 5 gal bucket, one bucket out for every 1-3 waves in. A losing race.
At some point it became obvious that we were swamped and weren't going to get the canoe emptied. So the escort boat, which had been idling nearby to see if we were going to need help, tied a line to us and towed us in. The steersman and number 1 rode the ama to keep it down, taking wave after wave in the face, half-submerged in the river, while the rest of us rode in the escort boat on the pounding, disappointing ride back to the boat launch.
I've been surprised just how disappointing this was for me. Not only did we not finish the race, we didn't even finish the first of two laps. It still disappoints.
It's not that it was unusual to huli. Other canoes did. And others got towed in. But I felt like we weren't properly prepared to deal with the huli, and that we should have been able to get the canoe bailed and get back into the race. It's possible that we wouldn't have been able to do so, even if everything had gone properly -- there were a lot of big waves that broke over us after we got the canoe upright again. But I'll be second-guessing my personal preparation for a long time. I'm still waking up and reliving the experience, trying to figure out what I should have done differently.
Total cost: 2 pairs of sunglasses, one club paddle (~160.00), a paddling seat (~35.00), and miscellaneous bits and pieces of foam and slippers.
On the plus side, a huli now, in normal conditions, won't feel like a big deal at all. And the next long race won't seem nearly as imposing since it won't have the same conditions.
But I'm disappointed, especially at not finishing the race.