Tuesday, August 4, 2009

grinded by the light

-- We've ground, and it was good. --

Last Saturday (8/1) was the SOCC big race of the season (SOCC=Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club). Big in that it's the race SOCC sponsors, and it's our fund-raiser. It takes place off Alki Beach, on a 4.5mi "loop" that each canoe does twice.

So, salt water, and in my own backyard. It's got almost too much going for it!

We needed to arrive at the beach at 6.30a for an ~9.30a first race start. That's because we're putting the race on (which means, in part, that Sabine, our president, works her okole off doing stuff I have no clue about). So we got there early and got our canoes rigged and down to the water, got our tents and the officials' tent set up, and then we waited. Other teams arrived, unloaded and rigged and pitched, and then they waited too.

Waited because even though it had been starry beautiful at 6a, by 6.45a the fog rolled in. And it stayed pretty solid until after 11a. There were discussions and delays and reports of 8 foot visibility at the turns and more delays. We ate, tossed footballs, ate, hydrated, talked story....

Until at last it seemed to be clearing somewhat, and the women and co-ed canoes went out to race. As the canoes got into position, the fog backed off and by the time the horn blew for the start, the fog was definitely clearing. My pictures of the second leg of the first lap show little fog left. By the time the canoes were the first lap it was sunny and warm on the beach and on the water.

There's something impressive about seeing 20 canoes all paddling hard toward the same point.

This race has a fun twist -- at the end of the first of 2 laps, one paddler from each canoe has to jump out, run up the beach and around some traffic cones, and then hop back in so the teams can do a second lap. This has the effect of bringing all the canoes in close to shore (good for casual observers) and adds some interest as paddlers slip, fall, splash, swim, stumble, stagger up and back down the beach. It's a hoot for everyone watching, for everyone, in fact, except the poor paddlers that have to do the running.

When you're running, you have to go from paddling (core, legs, back) to out of the canoe (hoping you don't fall on your face in the water) to running up the steep beach, to running back down the beach, to climbing back into the canoe, to paddling hard again. Meanwhile all the other guys in the canoe are grabbing water, paddling easy, catching their breath, waiting for you....

Our women did great, looking strong and paddling well. The water was calm, with the only bumps coming from boat wakes. When they got back, it was our turn.

We climbed into the canoe and headed off to warm up, then positioned ourselves on the outside (left) of the start. Another canoe came and moved in outside of us, but that was the only competition we had for position. The horn sounded, and we were digging, working hard to get the canoe moving.

I like the guys I was paddling with. It feels like a good, strong group. I suspect I'm the weak link in the bunch, but I did my best to hold my own. Mike was in seat 1, Rob in 2, Garrett in 3, me in 4, Jasen in 5 and Mark steering in 6. I trusted them and felt they all knew what they were doing. (Rob was the only paddler who'd shared my Gorge experience.)

Our course was a leg out to the Duwamish Head buoy, then a left-hand turn and back parallel to the beach, heading between the start/finish line buoys. Down to the Alki Lighthouse buoy, another left turn, then back again along the beach to where the run takes place. Repeat, and you're done after 2 laps and 9 miles.

We paddled hard but some of the fastest canoes got out ahead of us quickly. The water felt good, the pace fast but not unmanageable. I was a little jumpy about waves, and at one point a ferry wake came up on our left side (ama side) so I called out "ferry wake" and Garrett said "got it" and then it was past us without a problem. I worried less after that.

By the first turn the canoes had spread out and we were nearly alone. There was one canoe behind us, but we had the turn to ourselves (no jockeying for position or bumping). It was nothing like the turns on the Columbia, where shifting direction put the canoe into dangerous positions relative to waves. Here we did a sweeping turn and then were headed back along the beach toward Alki Lighthouse, following the lead pack.

Ultimately we spent most of the race pretty much by ourselves. The lead canoes were too strong to catch, and the ones trailing us weren't gaining any ground, so we paddled in our own world, cruising along over the salt water in the sun, eventually reaching the buoy off Alki Lighthouse and turning back toward the beach where Jasen would be running.

I was a little nervous about that piece too, because I'd watched a couple of the women/co-ed canoes have an exciting time when they arrived at the beach at the same moment as some rollers from a boat wake. One of those canoes also chose to have their number 6 (steersman) doing the running, which meant the canoe was more or less drifting rudderless and it spun around before going perpendicular to the second canoe that was caught further in on the sand.... it was exciting and a little scary -- there was the threat that the outside boat would "t-bone" into the side of the inside boat, and if a canoe had hulied there right at the beach in a foot of water paddlers caught beneath could have been hurt. Luckily both boats got away ok with some assistance from folks on the beach. I don't think they even touched, though it seemed inevitable at some moments.

We had no excitement, which is good. Jasen was up and out before I even realized it. I turned and tossed Mark his water, put my own drinking tube in my mouth, and then we were paddling again. Except that Jasen was still running on the beach. We noticed this after a moment and had to hold up until he got back to the boat. It seemed like he was gone just a few seconds, but I suspect it felt longer to him. And then we were off on our second lap.

This leg felt harder for some reason, like we weren't moving as well. It's possible we were in a different than the first time, relative to the currents. Then too, I heard Jasen go out a couple of times ("5 out" -- it's what you say when you're not paddling, when you're grabbing a drink or fixing something). Later he said he'd had some trouble getting back in sync after doing the run.

Mostly I think we were just struggling through the middle portion of the race. We rounded the first mark the second time, and headed toward the lighthouse.

The turn gave me a chance to see where we were in relation to other canoes. Pretty much no change. Those ahead of us were staying ahead, and those behind weren't catching us. We paddled west, rounded the turn at the lighthouse, and then dug for home.

There's an interesting dynamic in that number 6 is the captain and the one in charge of how the canoe is going. It's their responsibility to let us know if timing is off, or if we should speed up our stroke rate. But other paddlers are competitive too and periodically we'd call out to push or to paddle hard or to dig. Hopefully Mark didn't care. I haven't paddled enough with him to know whether or not he would.
The last leg went fairly quickly, and I think we were all pushing as hard as we could. I was dry (thirsty) but it was no time for getting a drink, so I paddled, trying for long, strong strokes, and then we were done, across the finish line with "paddles up."

It felt great to complete the race. I was tired but happy, and now I've done a longer race. I'm excited to do more of them and only wish the girls and M had been able to be there to watch. I think K would have gotten a kick out of seeing it (though it's not as immediate as Curious George on TV).

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