2009 Sakonnet River Race – by Mark Ceconi

Road trip. Love the sound of it. Even better if it involves traveling somewhere to race my ski, and better yet if Big Jim, Steve Del, and Dubai Tom are involved, as you’re sure to have fun in the process. This day it would be Jim, Steve, and me; Tom was on dad duty, but would join us later with his girls to watch. At the crack o’ dark I heard Jim’s pickup in the driveway. We quickly lashed three skis to the roofrack, and were on our merry way to Wesley’s Sakonnet River Race, in Portsmouth, RI. The forecast was for winds from the NE at 8 kts., and cool, partly sunny skies at a comfortable 60 degrees. Perfect. The course would be an out and back on the Sakonnet River, roughly 12.36589 miles according to Wesley, who has time trialed and logged via Garmin training system, this same route approximately 12, 647 times. It literally lies in his back yard, 637.768 statute meters from his back door, give or take .00007 of a meter. Great guy and a good friend, but a little too vague sometimes…

Arriving at McCorrie Point roughly an hour before start time, the beach was abuzz with approximately 25 skis and their pilots, prepping their craft for the 12 plus mile course. Lots of familiar friends and race faces: Sean, Chris, Kathy and Ken, Timo, Roger, Bill, Mike, Rob, Cory, Razz, Alex, Rod, Bill…the list goes on-good people and fast paddlers to boot. I had the pleasure of finally meeting Eric and Jay as well; we’ve corresponded via email about all things paddling related. Wesley was scurrying about like a squirrel amped on double espressos, making sure all his proverbial ducks were in a row. Betsy, Leslie, Danielle, and Nathalie were welcoming racers with beaming smiles and warm comments at the reg table. The skies were overcast, but on our trip up from CT, we outran the blue skies; they were on their way. After the requisite captain’s meeting, the field took to the water-the forecast was accurate except for the cloud cover-fine by me, except for the fact that Roger is well nigh unbeatable when the temps are cool-hold on reader, this fact makes an appearance later on… 😉


It was a rolling start at Wesley’s count…GO! Immediately, Cory leapt to the front under power, planing across the water like the Miss Budweiser, hotly pursued by Eric and Wesley in their matching V12s. Racers formed small groups to ride wash. I set my sights on Roger in his 18x, who was making that sea kayak, albeit a fast one, go like no one shy of Greg Barton can. Chris was pulling strongly in his V10 Sport. Rob was in my group also, going well. The wind was at our backs, creating nice little sets of rollers to surf. Realizing that I had left my chest belt for the HRM in the car, I decided this would be a blessing in disguise. The trip down was a series of mini sprints, and my HR was already in the ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ zone. I was overheating in my Hydroskin and shell, thinking hopefully about the return trip back into the wind. I dropped onto Chris’s stern, but every time he’d surge, he’d gap me, forcing me into a mini sprint to latch back on. Eventually I found some sort of rhythm in the sets, and used the stability of the S1-R to angle out and drop in, catching each ride to be had.

Groups split and merged; I could see Jim’s smooth stroke far off to the left in his Fenn Elite, and the Steve’s powerful catch powering the V10 Sport. To the right, Roger had splintered off, and Mike McDonough in his S1-X was giving chase. The father/daughter duo of Rod and Alex McLain had joined our group, Rod digging his hole in the ocean and Alex riding wash. I paused thinking how wonderful this is, that a father and his daughter can share such an interest, and in such a way. The epitome of coolness, IMO.

At about mile 4, we entered through some ‘jobbly’ bits, as Wesley would say, the waves were confused and random, and the surfing rides all but disappeared. This gave way to rolling swells off the ocean…up….down…up…down…as the turn buoy appeared in the distance. Already Cory was on his way back, guns blazing, stroke smooth and consistent. Not long after followed Eric, Tim, and Wesley. I shouted encouragement across the water. But it was lost to the waves breaking against the rocks.

At the turn buoy plastered with orange tape, the groups converged. I took a sharp line, almost causing Rod or Alex (?) to t-bone me (Oops.), and found myself at the front of the train. Huh? This wasn’t the plan. The plan was to suck wash like a good determined leech and survive the remaining miles for a respectable placing. Hadn’t trained, slower boat, Happy Hour the night before, blah, blah, blah…the excuses mounted. ‘Oh well, time to man up,’ I thought to myself. I might say that pulling for the next five miles was a carefully developed strategy to force others to go at my pace and come around if they could, knowing that folks tend to get complacent and settle in-this did flash across my mind. However, I didn’t actually know how many were on my wash aside from Alex, whose blue bow I could see in my peripheral vision. Jim later shared he jumped quickly onto the Ceconi Express for a ride back, as he wasn’t sure what time the next train would be arriving… ‘IthinkIcanIthinkIcan…’ became my mantra, concentrating on a pure and proper catch, knowing that it was a long way back. Roger was powering off somewhere to my right; nobody had told him that his 18x was supposed to be slower than the surfskis, and he evidently was not a fan of the rail system, much to my chagrin.

The swells on the return were now with us, and every once in a while a small ride was to be had. Unfortunately, they were so smooth and the period between them of such duration, they did little more than result in me feeling like I was bobbing up and down for the rest of the evening. ‘Hug the coast,’ Wesley had coached, ‘stay out of the current on the return.’ Ran through my head, watching for rocky reefs and drifting too close to the jagged rocks. At one point, I could see the waves breaking hard against the shore on the left. To the right, plumes of spray were shooting off the rocky reef he had told us about. Threading the needle between them, we came through some messy, confused washing machine chop for a very short period. Here, Rod came around briefly, the ama of his OC-1 sending up a roostertail of spray, but then dropped back again. I’d reel Roger in, only to see him regain his gap, just when I thought to merge. If you’ve ever seen the man, he’s tall and lanky, but seems to have figured out the scientific vector angle of each limb to achieve maximal force. Plus, he just does not give up. ‘Where is that beach?’ I was wondering, starting to fade and keeping one eye trained on the digits of the GPS, the speed going down by a tenth far too often, the distance covered seemingly not moving at all. At one point, my cell phone went off in the pocket of my vest; I’d forgotten to put it on ‘vibrate’. I briefly contemplated taking the call. Steve later told me it was him, calling to tell me to slow the *%$! down.

With a mile to go, Alex came around, all smooth stroke and bright white smile. “Hi!” she chirped, as if perhaps, doling out scoops of ice cream at a picnic. You couldn’t help but smile-she is all cheerfulness and youth. “We’re almost there!” she shouted back over one shoulder, taking the lead engine role at the front. “You know what they say about ‘almost, though,” I shouted back, “It only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!” I watched the numbers climb a few tenths on the mph readout with her fluid stroke at the front,. Sadly, her S1-X did not leave much of a wash to ride. Every once in a while she’d ebb and then surge. Hmmm… ‘Shake and Bake,’ from my bike racing days,’ I thought. ‘No way I’m dropping off this ride; I’ll attach bungees if I have to.’ The sun broke through the clouds as the final buoy came into sight; we could spot the line of cars and spectators on McCorrie Point to our left.

We rounded the last buoy turn and beelined for the yellow chairs on the beach, sights dead set on the ladies with the clipboards. My tank on ‘E’, I uncorked my ‘sprint’, watching Alex open up a boat length on me, as the profile of Jim’s ”Men’s Health’ Elite drew even on my left. Bolstered by the sight of my bud next to me, he was barking encouragement all the way to the beach. We finished nose to nose (though I suspect he eased up a bit at the line.). Such the gentleman he is. A grand race, indeed.

Flopping like a mackerel into the water for a quick cooling, my core temp pegged in the red zone, we cheered others in. Racer by racer finished, our diligent timekeepers recording the times, while simultaneously cheering for every competitor. In front of us, Cory had taken it, on rocket assist, no doubt, followed by Eric, then Tim. Roger nipped Wesley in the final stages-all at the front were flying. Battles waged behind us as well, but all enjoying the time out on the water at this event.

As boats were shouldered and loaded, and racers changed into their civvies, Wesley, Betsy, and helpers had set up a lunch table on the beach, replete with sandwiches, sodas, chips, and other goodies. Ravenous, we fell to the food and sought out beach chairs to relive the events of the morning. The good Mr. Echols presented the awards; both men and women paddled exceptionally well. Tom made the drive with his girls for the tail end of the festivities, smiles were flashed, and promises to ‘See you at the Blackburn!’ were exchanged. A good day was had by all.

Many warm thanks to Wesley for organizing yet another great venue, and to Betsy, Leslie, Danielle, and Nathalie for setup, scoring, keeping time, et al. Thanks also to all the racers and companions who showed up to run the course-the longer I participate in this sport, the more firmly cemented it becomes what a great group of folks you are.
‘See you at the Blackburn!’ ~ Mark