Last weekend the Achilles Kayak Team competed in the annual Shark Bite Challenge race event in Dunedin, FL. This is an open water race on the Gulf of Mexico that attracts surf ski, kayak and paddleboard races from the region and further afield. Our team comprised of 2 local Achilles athletes, Chris Holcomb and Juan Carlos with myself and Robin Francis as race partners. Dave McPherson of CT Sea Kayak and my old friend Russell Lazarus also attended to help with logistics, coaching and support. Dave and Russell also teamed up to race in the open Tandem class.
Our trip started on Thursday night with myself and Russell hitching a trailer load of kayaks and equipment to our donated U-Haul pickup and hitting the road from CT. 20 driving hours later we pulled into Dunedin to be greeted by our local team members and Robin and Dave who had mercifully flown down to the location. Saturday was going to be an intense workout day so after a few choice refreshments, we hit the sack – hard, to be rested for the weekend ahead.
Dunedin is a coastal community inside a chain of barrier islands about 30 minutes south of Tampa. Our race was part of the annual Earthday event in Honeymoon State Park on one such island linked by causeway to the mainland. As we headed out at 7am Saturday morning, it was clear that this was no Long Island Sound, which at this time of year, is still a bone chilling 43 degrees. Blue skies, sun shining and water temperature around 72 degrees. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the event organizer – Karen Mirlenbrink and her team who I had been working with to facilitate our participation. and we headed to the beach to get set up. Saturday was race day for OC6 Outrigger canoes, so we found some space on the coral sand beach and pitched the sun canopy in the most sheltered spot we could find.
After unloading gear and boats we spent time with Chris and Juan on shore and on water making outfitting modifications, trimming the boats and coaching them skills, safety techniques and procedures. This was an unique event, in the sense that we had not been able to train with our Achilles athletes in advance, so my attention was fixed on assessing water conditions and team capabilities to ensure a safe race and to prepare all athletes and guides for the event. Both Chris and Juan were experienced hand-crank wheelchair racers who had paddled previously, but neither had ever raced a kayak before. Saturday was spent familiarizing the teams with the kayak, paddling the course and performing safety drills such as capsizing and exiting the boat. Each paddle was followed by outfitting adjustments to ensure that Chris and Juan were as comfortable as possible, safe and set up to race. By the end of the day we had it pretty much dialed in and both myself and Robin, who was guiding Juan Carlos felt confident that we were good to go. This was a long, hard day’s work, but as always I was blown away by the commitment of our Achilles athletes and the team. These guys were incredible – taking a beating in the surf, in the boat (coaching) and on the beach. Amazing.
The wind blew all day Saturday and was manageable with 2ft seas, 3ft at times. The forecast for Sunday was the same, maybe even milder. We headed back to the hotel to enjoy an evening together sampling some of the local microbrewery’s offerings. It was hot – we were very thirsty.
Waking on Sunday I walked out of the hotel to the parking lot to find the wind gusting 10-15mph. It was unlikely to be less on the race course, a sign of things to come. Loading the truck and heading out to the park we crossed the causeway to see 2ft wind-blown chop in the leeward side of the barrier islands. This was going to be an exciting event. Parking up we headed eagerly to the beach where we were greeted by surf and steady 2-3ft seas. We unloaded and set up, preparing for a 10am race start at the south end of the beach. My focus was again on the safety of our team – based on the scouting reports of the course (3-4ft and 20mph) these were going to be challenging conditions. In consultation with Robin and Dave we decided that the 8 mile course would not be wise, so we, like many other competitors, who decided to race, settled for the 4 mile, down and back.
We geared-up, replicating the set up from the previous day and got our teams prepared. The captains meeting was at 9:45am, and the race was still scheduled at 10:00. As the meeting dispersed and paddleboard, skis and kayaks hit the water we surveyed the start and decided to start after the main groups had left. Memo to file: 15mins between the safety briefing and start is not sufficient for us to be on the water in time for the start. Also the large swells around the start and close proximity of dozens of paddleboards that are hard to maneuver caused us to play it safe and launch our race a few minutes behind. A good call.
First to launch was Juan Carlos and Robin. The surf was pretty exciting and the beach had a drop off that made a beam-on launch risky so we loaded Juan, and launched head on into the surf with Robin deftly jumping into the rear cockpit and paddling hard to clear the surf line. 1 down, 2 to go. I followed with Chris and a slightly less elegant mount into the driving seat but we were off. Dave took a hit on our launch while helping us off the beach, resurfacing with a little ‘rash’ and missing a VHF radio. Not looking back we paddled hard to where Juan and Robin were to find them struggling with the rudder deployment. So, after a few close passes we rafted up, sorted the lines and got their rudder deployed. Lucky, they would need it.
So we headed off, not waiting for Dave and Russ. We had 15-20mph at our back and running swells, nearly parallel to the beach. We paddled hard south with the pack of racers in our sights all the way to the horizon. The ride was rough. We were stern up and out of the waves at times, I was steering hard, stern ruddering’ and low bracing to keep us on track. Chris was pulling but at times found the boat set up a challenge. Our front seat, designed to provide more support, at times was bounced out of position by the rough conditions, causing a stop and reset to occur, also Chris’ paddle adaptations continually needed adjustment – frustrating – but Chris powered on towards the turn at the end of downwind leg.
The easy’ run was over, I turned us into the buoy with much care as we pivoted to beam on to the rising swells. Gently we turned, stern rudder, sweep then power down to get us around – then the wind hit and literally stopped the boat. We sucked in a lung full and I lowered my profile, accelerating into the first big swell at a perfect angle. We crested and descended, Chris took his first face-full (but not his last), and the new race was on. I sighted Juan and Robin, who had turned ahead of us and applied the power to get us caught up. A few minutes passed and we were in their draught. On the next swell we rose over the crest, and accelerated to unfortunately find our team mates in the trough, and ‘boom’ we connected – bow to stern. I knew what was coming next, but the high wind prevented me from hearing what I could see Robin mouthing at me from 10 yards on my starboard side. I mouthed back ‘Sorry’, I was going to pay for that!
We raced on, picking our way through the paddleboards, swinging into the beach to avoid the biggest conditions at times. It was hard going but we were making progress, tracking people walking our direction on the white sand. At the ½ mile point there is a break and the wind whipped hard 20mph+. We turned SW and hit it hard head on, head down, paddling to the point and finish line at an excruciating pace. We crept forwards and gradually the finish line approached – the last 50 years we paddled like we wanted it to end and crossed in a time of 1:05. Not bad considering the conditions. Juan Carlos and Robin Francis followed shortly behind at 1:15 as we surfed into and onto the beach where Dave, Russell and friends had gathered to catch us. We were done.
We turned to see Robin and Juan heading south to a spot further down the beach through the surf. We ran to catch them as they came to a stop on the white sand. Waiting for the next wave we hauled them higher to a stable spot and helped Juan out. Robin followed and approach me to politely question my navigation skills .. glad we got that out of the way quickly … We were all ashore and elated. Open water racing doesn’t get better than that.
I have raced some long races and some challenging conditions but this was the most intense and focused hour of paddling in my ‘career’. Chris and Juan did an awesome job on a day with many DNS and a few DNFs’. Robins performance was, as always, exemplary, and Dave and Russell’s help was relentless. After catching our breath we headed up the beach to rest and grab a well- deserved bite to eat while Karen Mirlenbrink tabulated the results which can be found here: http://sharkbitechallenge.com/2012-results/. We collected our prizes, paddleboard style, and were presented with a mid-wing by Rob and Karen, donated by Brian Houston of Epic, to whom we are very grateful. While I am at it I also want to thank our sponsors and supporting contributors, Navint Partners LLC, Outdoor Sports Center, Stellar Kayaks, The Reiss Family, Russell Lazarus & Stephanie Gentile, Astral Bouancy, Current Designs and Kevin Carr at Creating Ability. I also want to thank UHaul who didn’t blink when I turned in my donated weekend rental with a few excess miles on it.
To close, I am never surprised by the welcome we receive at events. The paddle sports community is just that way inclined. I do however want to recognize Karen and Rob and their team for doing so much to make our 2800 mile round trip to the warm, shark infested waters of Dunedin, FL, a lifetime memory for all involved. We will be back.