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Wes Hammer

Round Bowen Challenge 2016 Race Report

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Round Bowen Challenge 2016 Race Report

The alarm went off at 3am, and I knew what I needed to do, but lacked the will to do it.

I had been asleep for a little less than three hours and had just returned home from an extensive amount of travel. I felt bone tired, and just missed being home. I love racing but haven't been training for a longer distance race with a punishing reputation, and I certainly wasn't recovered from previous several days of paddling downwind in the Gorge. The debate unfolded in the court of my foggy mind as I flirted with the edge of sleep. Arguments were trotted out for and against packing up the paddling kit and loading the ski on the car for the two two hour drive North into Canada. At 3am a lofty down comforter on a cool night is a seductive rebuttal against a season's worth of ambition. As the prosecution rested, the defense took the opportunity to remind the court there was a nearly hour long ferry ride and of course we could sleep then. Simultaneously a brilliant victory and an utterly senseless miscarriage of justice.

I pulled up to a completely empty border crossing station as the first light of the day met the flat gray sky. The only border guard on duty dryly asked what I was up to as this hour and how long I was planning to stay in Canada as his eyes wandered to the absurdity of a 21' surfski comically strapped to a much smaller Subaru Impreza. I told him that I am a recent grad of the Iranian missile smuggling college and would only be north for a day of trafficking arms to Bowen Island. As he looked at my arms, I cringed as I remembered the golden rule of border crossings; No jokes. Ever. A little humor goes a long way to getting your vehicle and all worldly possessions within turned completely inside out. He took a long hard stare at me, and then laughed out loud and waved me through. Must remember that skit for future brushes with the law. 

The ferry filled up with fellow OC, SUP, kayak and surfski paddlers. Racers milled about on the ferry deck chatting nervously about the course as the wind built to a stiff breeze and white caps started to speckle the Straight of Georgia in the distance. Bowen Island has a reputation of turning paddlers into swimmers when the wind builds from the south and collide with the extended rocky shoreline. Many of those present recalled the glory of years past and wondered what the day would hold. 

Once on the island, the race organizers informed us that we'd be racing clockwise around the island. A good call as the racers would see the most daunting stretch of the island fresh instead of after racing for a couple of hours. Wes Hammer and I also chatted with the race organizers, and asked them to not allow the drafting of double skis. In a race of this distance, being able to draft a fast double will radically distort the results for one or two paddlers on their wash. 

As the ferry left the idillic setting of Snug Cove, racers lined up bank to bank and waited nervously for the race director to signal the race start. I typically have a decent race start, but not today. To my horror an evil green mass of kelp and weed floated up from the bottom of the cove directly in front of my ski just moments after the race start. Wes was able to just slip by to the right, but I came to full stop despite cranking at full power... Completely grounded as the entire field shot away. Some of them were less then thrilled to suddenly have me parked in their way, but in my defense I was merely marking the hazard for everyone else to see. I paddled backward to get my ski off of the raft of weeds, then paddled hard and had to repeat once again as I was still tangled (despite have a small weedless rudder on the ski). 

In racing you can't always control what happens, but you can control how you respond to what happens. Once clear of the cove the conditions kicked up considerably with the wind in the mid teens gusting to 20. I started to patiently pick my way through the very back of the field, and tried to politely ask for room to paddle through the tight clusters of paddlers duking it out as they worked hard to stay paddler side up. I had a good laugh at having start such a long race so far behind as the race leaders turned into fluorescent dots on the horizon.  

The stretch of water along the south western and southern shore was a bit of a mess, but had enough movement that I could get some decent surfing and crashing glides in the rebounding swell, ferry and container ship wakes. It very much reminded me of the open coast off Vancouver Island and I loved it. I found my rhythm in the washing machine water and could still see the the leaders in the far distance, but a bit closer and decided to just have fun in the conditions and see how many places I could pick off over the course of the day. To my amazement I was able to surf my way back to the front group just before the course turned back north, within two or three boat lengths of Wes Hammer and Greg Redman and three sets of double skis another thirty seconds or so in front of them. 

Once we rounded the southwestern cape and turned north, the wind was at our backs and pushing against a strong ebb tide. Wes and Greg hugged the shore, and I took a gamble with a line further offshore where I could surf one to two foot wind waves. Their line was clearly better, and I soon lost about a minute over the next five miles as we worked our way around the islands western shores. I caught a few decent waves, but not enough to make it worth the effort and my chase effort was starting to catch up to me. 

I spent the rest of the day by myself chasing Greg and Wes. Sometimes I would make a little ground and then loose a little as I worked currents and rebounding wakes for snippets of extra speed while trying to keep a hefty bonk under control. Bob from Deep Cove had very wisely reminded me to bring some calories, and I a single GU saved me from a massive bonk. 

In the last two miles of the race, I managed to snag a monster container ship wake that allowed me to catch up to and pass the double ski paddled by Chris Dobrovony and his doubles partner for third place. Wes pulled off another impressive win after getting a small gap on Greg Redman. Looking forward to seeing how the upcoming Canadian surfski champs play out between these two dominant paddlers. 

After the race we all gathered on the dock for a beer and a fantastic salmon lunch. The top three racers from each category were treated to pie from Lime and Moon Pie Company. Simply fantastic event that I would love to race again. 

 

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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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