Today was the first downwind of spring, and it was LEGIT. Sunshine. Warmish Air. Wind. Ripping rides. Face shot after face shot. Barrels. Just another day in paddlers paradise. Baby I'm down...
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downwind paddling bellingham
We've had a stiff does of winter this year (2017) in Bellingham, and it's all the locals can talk about. The last few winters have been quite warm, dry - so this one comes as quite the stiff reality check on an account that's been a bit overdrawn.
I've personally never paddled in so much wind in such frosty conditions (32º F is now considered warm for a downwind run). Even in the grand age of neoprene and drysuits, one must be careful not to be out too long as the rudder lines start to freeze up and so do the toes. I've come back to shore more than a few times with blue feet and uh, ...other appendages. Hang in there boys.
The upside to this is subtle, but remarkable. Like the initial shock of falling in, winter hit hard and my summer time Gorge spoiled brain just wasn't on board. It whined A LOT.
"Are you done yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"This is dumb. We should go in. And drink a beer. Mmmm... Beer!"
All of those phrases have oozed from my frost bitten frontal cortex like a steady drip from a melting icicle. While I can concede that the whining was relentless, it wasn't fruitless either.
At some point my inner sniveling wimp just decided that misery is the new normal, and my brain just let it go and got back to focusing on how much fun all this nonsense is. Either that, or the poor bastard froze to death in the process of being choked out by the inner viking whose taken up residence in my subconscious will. Yes, this winter is indeed hard. But we're becoming harder. And that's the great thing as I type this lusting after temps in the high 40's, and water to match.
The hardened mind begets a hardened hide. It's not that I am blasé about the perils of cold water... quite the opposite. But I am not afraid either. And that for me is the best part. Heading out into the wind, waves and big blue frosty sea is liberating and joyous... just like surfski paddling is meant to be.
Warmer days will surely come. But why rush such a good thing?
"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?"
"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.
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.