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Bellingham Surfski

Having the bucket time of my life.

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Having the bucket time of my life.

"Hey man, wake up! It's windy in the bay!" 

"Bruh... I'm tired. We've been out every day for the last ten days... Gonna sit this one out."

"C'mon, you got one more lap in you! We'll just do technique surfing... not go hard at all man." 

"Fine. What time?"

"Well it'll be windy all day... but wow, look at the forecast for 6am."

"Great. Pumping right?"

"Two fists!"

"Better text the guys, see who else will come. Or we don't go."

"Already did. Clement and Olney are both down. Bet Nelson will come too."

I've had this conversation with myself and my fellow downwind junkies every day, for the last twenty plus days. We've had an unusually windy stretch, even by Bellingham standards. And that has meant day after day after day of ideal conditions. Wind to 20. Then 30. Then 25 and back again. Warm air and clear skies contrast the flat daze of the local paddlers who are just stoked out. We keep coming back like the Pavlovian dogs we are. Only the bowl is never empty. Lap lap lap. More laps!

The result is ruinous. I'm becoming decidedly snobbish in my outlook on conditions, but always after I get off the water. "That was pretty good man. Pretty good. But not as good as yesterday. Yesterday was all time." Before I get on the water, I only see whitecaps and potential for ace rides all the way from Bellingham to Valhalla. Glory awaits. "Grab the spears Chief!"

Surfing downwind is nothing short of art for adrenaline junkies who like to run with sharp objects. You know the type. Growing up, we were the ones who sniffed glue and ate our crayons after coloring on the walls and bellowing "SPARTAAAA!!!!" at the teacher. For a relatively new surfski paddler like myself the learning curve has been a cliff that I fail upwards. Just keeping up with some of the local legends is a life goal. Even if they are merely three decades your senior. I'm not sure how they do it. But I've noticed there is a difference between those who settle for bucket lists and those make bucket time.  

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Aggressive Progression

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Aggressive Progression

I am not a natural paddler, but I am learning to paddle naturally.

If you had the comedic opportunity to see my first day in a surfski, you would know just how much of a non-paddler I really was. I couldn't make it twenty feet without an unexplained swim. It was like Poseidon had a quirky and mean spirited sense of humor, and would randomly yank me from my rented V10sport without warning. Either that or it was Davy Jones hoping to score some easy company. Either way, it was hard, and I loved it and still love it for that reason. 

Part of the joy of learning new things and tackling hard challenges is learning from the best around you, as well as past experiences. This is often referred to this as "progression" competitive sport circles, and it's a big reason why I love paddling. It's also why I have tried to paddle conditions, skis and with fast paddlers that both push me and help me learn new things (safely!). 

In terms of racing progression, this year's Ski to Sea went much better for me then last. If you're not from Bellingham, you might not know that Ski to Sea is a hundred year old multi-discipline adventure race that consistently attracts Olympic level talent, which leads us locals to lovingly refer to it as the Bellingham Olympics. This year will mark my third full year of racing surfskis, and I was able to sneak into the top five for the kayak leg with a 4th place finish and missed out on third place by a mere seven seconds behind whitewater strongman turned surfski paddler Jamie Klein (what I would give to have known I was just 7 seconds back!). Jamie, like me is relatively new to the growing sport of surfski. It's fun to be a part of a new group of paddlers who are still developing and shaking up our local race results at the same time. Finish line honors went to U23 World Champion Macca Hynard, followed by the top ranked US athlete and rising star Austin Kieffer, who also managed to secure a top three overall ranking for his team, Boomer's Drive-In. Local legend Brandon Nelson showed his class and managed to bring home the overall ski to sea title for his team, and our team (Boomer's Coed) was stoked to win our division. 

But my real prize was running a decent race with no mistakes or missteps. I have recently started to focus on not making small but costly mistakes as I seek to move past the fundamentals of surfski paddling into the finer points of being a consistent and capable athlete. In last year's Ski to Sea, I managed to nearly blow my start, get lost on the course and go for an awkward swim while rounding the final buoy and getting tangled with another paddler. Not exactly material for the highlight reel, but it is fun to look back and see progress.  

Progression can take many forms... including not going for a swim around the final buoy in front of a beach full of race spectators. Seeking out messy, rebounding water has made a big difference in my development. 

Just two days after Ski to Sea, I headed up to Deep Cove, BC for the Tuesday Night Race series. This race was called a "surprise race". Racers had to find three buoys (Easter Eggs) hidden within a geographic area and round or touch them, then race back to the line. Macca Hynard showed his racing class after making a wrong turn and chasing us down. He and Wes Hammer then duked it out in a fantastic sprint finish at the end. Total distance raced was a smidgen over 8km, and my pace for a 3rd place finish was 8.3mph (I lost :30 seconds in the last kilometer!)

Finally, another area I am excited to develop in is going downwind. I've noticed that while the fundamentals of downwind are very important, the nuances are perhaps more important in unlocking the true speed that surfskis are capable of that embody the essence of our wonderful sport.

Surfing downwind in gale winds in a kayak that's 17" wide is a bit like trying to land an airplane in rough weather...  without wings or landing gear. It takes a series of subtle but intentional adjustments to keep the ski and paddler in perfect position to either surf or climb over the wave in front of you.  Like an airplane, glide is good and stalling is very very bad. I have also noticed that while every wave has its own personality, it will tell you what it is up to pretty quickly once it's formed - so there isn't much point in focusing on it. This allows me to instead to think ahead and try to anticipate finding the next wave as it forms in forms underneath and in front of me. I like to think of it as a big game of aggressive progression. 

 

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2016 Bellingham Bay Rough Water Race, Take 1

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2016 Bellingham Bay Rough Water Race, Take 1

Post Point often delivers the biggest waves and best surfing. Today was remarkable. 

This weekend was supposed to be the Bellingham Bay Rough Water Race, but with gail winds blowing into the 70's, the race was postponed until the 19th. So a few of the local Bellingham surfski, OC and SUP paddlers decided instead to do a Wildcat downwind run to blow off a little pent up energy. Conditions did not disappoint, and at the very tail end of this run my GPS registered a maximum speed of 18.5mph. 

As good as good gets in Bellingham Bay: Big, fast waves with smooth faces and wide periods for ripping downwind surfing. 

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Just another exceptional day on Bellingham Bay.

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Just another exceptional day on Bellingham Bay.

Classic day on the bay; A nice blow that steamed into town well over forecast with wind close to 20mph gusting into the low 30's. So I took my new race horse out for a few steeplechase laps in Bellingham Bay, and the new Epic V14 GT did not disappoint. Superb handling, responsive but not twitchy and it lets me get away with bloody murder when sprinting through and over waves. Incredibly fast; max speed was 14.8 mph on an otherwise average downwind day. It really is a game changer for me.   

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Warming up for winter.

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Warming up for winter.

After a month long paddling trip down the coast of California, it's nice to be back in Bellingham just in time for the start of our downwind season. With 20mph wind gusting to 25, today was the perfect warm up for the cold water and big wind to come. 

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Peer Pressure

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Peer Pressure

A little fartlek style interval training goes a long way on super flat days. And running between concrete pilings at 9mph is good for practicing paddling in close quarters. 

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Deciding Moments: Lake Whatcom Classic 2015

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Deciding Moments: Lake Whatcom Classic 2015

Photo's by Michael Lampi

Photo's by Michael Lampi

Finally managed to vanquish my start demons, and pull off a win at the Lake Whatcom classic this weekend. The race is a 12.5 mile out and back on Lake Whatcom, and is more or less a flatwater hammerfest with a mass start mix of roughly 70 people in Surfski, Outrigger and Rowing disciplines. 

The start was fast. Our lead group averaged 9.2 mph for the first kilometer, and just over 8.5 mph down to the far end of the lake. Our speed benefited by a mild tailwind on the way down the lake, which stiffened a bit as the race unfolded.  

Once the pace settled down and everyone found their rhythm, our lead group of five surfski paddlers pulled away from the pack with Jamie Klein setting the pace, then Steve Scoggins, Kevin Olney, Kirk Christianson and myself in the tail gunner spot. 

My race strategy was to try to cover any early moves, and be as patient as I possible and wait for the deciding moment to emerge. Deciding moments are typically when the race breaks open in a way that makes it very hard to undo. You miss it, and your odds of winning are slim to none. I typically know that moment because it feels like the worst possible time to attack. When you and everyone else is hurting and the natural instinct is to revert to survival mode. More often then not, that's the exact moment to turn the pain dial up to 11 and see just see what happens.  

A few minutes after the turn around at the island Alan Lipp's four man outrigger canoe made contact with us. These guys go great upwind, and as they went by, all five of us attempted to ride their wash. Which is a very bumpy ride but a good draft out of the direct headwind, so worth it for the most part (drafting out of category is allowed at this race) other then the jeering from coming from the bleachers of the green beast. 

As we churned up lake, Olney decided it was time to make his move and surged left into the wind. I instinctively covered this move, but the timing felt a bit too early as we still had three miles to go so I let him go. But Klein reacted a bit more and jumped on his wash, but when the canoe found another gear he attempted to switch back and ended up colliding with Christianson in the bumpy wash who managed to stay upright. Klein was less fortunate and took a swim that sent his ski sideways directly back into myself and Scoggins. 

Klein quickly remounted, and Olney and Scoggins paused and dogged his ski while he did so. But the damage was done and Christianson and I were now 20 seconds upwind and within two miles of the finish. Kirk and I let up a little bit on the pace and let the canoe wash slip away as we eyed each other. A nerve wracking thing to do as you risk the other two or three racers coming back into contact, but at the same time who wants to tow someone else to the line? It reminded me of the cat and mouse end game so common from my cycling days.

There is absolutely nothing worse then mishandling an opportunity to win, so when I glanced back and saw them closing fast, I decided to throttle up and see what Kirk and the others had.

It turns out they had a lot of fight left in them and they immediately gave chase. Making the most of a deciding moment is a delicate game that takes good judgement, steady nerves and a deep desire to suffer. A good friend and competitive marathon runner once described it as "eating pain". Go too hot, and you won't be able to hold the chasers off at the finish, much less contest a sprint. On the other hand, make your move too timidly and you won't create enough separation from your chasers, who have a tremendous benefit if they can grab your draft. 

One way to think about deciding moves is that they often need a very long fuse, and the goal is to hide the dynamite one foot on the other side of the finish line. As any kid on the 4th of July can tell you, once you light that fuse, there is no unlighting it so you better run away fast if you don't want to get caught! In this instance, I was able to time my reserves perfectly, running out of gas just a few feet after the finish line.  

 

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