A Blustery Sakonnet River Race by Greg Lesher


Greg Lesher at Finish

As the Sakonnet River Race approached (and surely I’m not the first to wonder how exactly this long ocean bay qualifies as a “river”), I was excited to find that Wesley had decided on an alternate course that would take us from 3rd Beach (near the mouth of the river) to Island Park Beach (at the, uh, source of the river?) – 10+ miles of downwind. In the days leading up to race, I wore a groove in the NOAA web site by checking the marine forecast every 7 minutes. Would the winds swing far enough to the south to provide ideal downwind conditions? Could we avoid thunderstorms? How much rain were we going to get?

Things were looking good, at least with respect to the wind direction and velocity. Really good. And then they were looking *too* good. With waves forecast to hit 6+ feet at the mouth of the river, Wesley wisely made the call the eve of the race to switch the course to one very similar to that used 2 years ago. We’d start at McCorrie Point, go upwind (south) 1.7 miles, then head downwind 4.5 miles to Island Park Beach, and finally return upwind 3.0 miles to our starting point. Rumor has it that Wesley had also considered a flatwater course to be held in the newly formed lake in the dirt road leading to the beach, but the resident gators made that option too treacherous.

After tentatively navigating said road, I arrived on the beach to find a mixture of new, newish, and old faces (must be the salt air). From the unknown wilds beyond the bounds of New England, Flavio Costa, Jan Lupinski, Beata Cseke, Kam Truhn, Dave Furniss, and Bob Capellini joined the race. The Commonwealth delivered Mike Tracy, Chris Chappell, Chris Sherwood, Tucker Lindquist, and myself. Dave Grainger made the trek from Connecticut. Robin Francis and Gary Williams joined too, from parts unknown (sorry). Since they’re actually pictured on the Rhode Island state flag, Wesley and Tim Dwyer were naturally obligated to represent the Ocean State.

Wesley called in the troops to provide an overview of the revised course. I had some concerns about being able to locate the two turn-around points (I’m not sure that “just offshore from where the big red house used to be” and “you know, where they rescued that beached whale back in 94” qualify as reliable landmarks), but I have excellent instincts when it comes to mindlessly following the leader. As it turned out, the turn-arounds were roughly as obvious as Wesley indicated.

After a brief delay to allow the rain to slack off from deluge to downpour, we hopped in our boats. Given the conditions, I had opted for my Huki S1-R rather than my V12. During warm-ups, I knew I had made the right decision. I had dumped off my Epic twice a couple of days before the race while doing some little downwind runs in Ipswich Bay, so having my S1-R under me was a real relief in the blustery conditions. As we lined up facing into the wind and rain, Wesley counted us down to a moving start. Paddles started whirling, someone shouted “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” (in my head, at least), and we were off. Flavio took a quick lead. Wesley had warned us during the skippers’ meeting not to cut McCorrie Point too close due to the low tide shallows, so I deliberately stayed outside of him. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I caught a glimpse of Tim trying out Epic’s new sand rudder. Still needs some fine tuning, apparently.

After rounding the point, we settled into our individual cadences for the 1.7 mile upwind leg. Wesley and I paddled alongside one another for a while, after which Dave Furniss took his place in his Think Evo. Dave edged me out in the cross-beam chop at the finish of last year’s Lighthouse-to-Lighthouse race, and he put up in an impressive showing in flat water at the Essex River Race, so I have a healthy respect for his skills and fitness. When I arrived at the moored sailboat marking the first turn-around, Flavio was 7 or 8 boat length ahead of me, Dave a length or two behind me, and Wesley not far behind him. With the wind now howling at our backs, it was time to catch some rides.

Going into the race, my mantra for the downwind leg was “choose your battles”. Not every wave is worth catching. Wait for the right set before redlining to get the ride. About 30 seconds into the downwind leg, my new mantra was “Huff. Huff. Huff. Wheeee!!!” After 10 minutes exhausting myself trying to milk every wave, I managed to settle down and make slightly better decisions. The threat of an exploding heart will really make you rethink priorities.

After the turn, Wesley must have headed straight out for the middle of the bay, because the next time I saw him he was a sliver way off to my right. Flavio chose to take a line very close to the shore. I caught a single glimpse of Dave off to my left and slightly behind. Given that Wesley practically designed the Sakonnet River, I figured he would know the best line. So for the next 5 miles I struggled to pull right towards the center of the bay. With the prevailing wind from the southeast (that is, pushing me to the left), this put my intentions and my boat’s intentions somewhat at odds. After some bitter words and threats of legal action, we established a reluctant compromise – we’d make a run with the waves, then peel off to the right and take a few strokes to get back on line. Every once in a while, a rogue set of waves would be aligned with my preferred direction. Oh, those happy times.

As we approached Island Park Beach, I began to have hopes that I might reach the turn-around in the lead. Wesley still had a slightly better line, but he appeared to be back a ways. I assumed Dave was somewhere close, but behind me. Flavio seemed to be about equal with me, but he’d have to cut diagonally right from his line to get around the pair of boats that marked the turn-around. I tried to do some trigonometry in my head. I was maybe 250 meters from the turn-around on a direct line, Flavio was 50 meters to my left and perhaps traveling 2% faster. Let’s see, cosine, carry the 3, take the square root… The answer kept coming up “Uzbekistan”, so I must have been doing something wrong. I decided to let reality resolve the matter.

Flavio hit the turn-around maybe 10 boat lengths ahead of me (just as I had computed). I hadn’t really thought much about the turn-around itself until I noticed that I was no longer in my boat. Hmm. I had been caught by surprise by the steep waves in the shallower water, even before initiating the actual turn. Fortunately, I was able to clamber awkwardly back on from the downwind side of the boat. After navigating the turn-around itself, I discovered that somebody had dialed up the conditions a notch.

Although the first leg of the race had also been upwind, the wind had picked up significantly since then. The Sakonnet basin lay in front of me, whipped into orneriness by a scathing 20+ mph wind. My heart sank at the prospect of having to pull myself back up to McCorrie Point through this frothy mess. We were in for a slog. To make matters worse, Dave appeared at my side, having caught me just after the turn-around. I had seen Wesley making the turn not too long after I had, so I knew that he must be lurking somewhere close as well.

After a few moments, I noticed Dave dropping back just a little and then lost sight of him. Afterwards I found that he had stopped to grab a gel, apparently misinterpreting the “wash down with water” instruction in the process. Two remounts later, he had fallen a ways back. I was heartened to hear later that several other people besides me also practiced their emergency exit strategies during the race. In the unlikely event of a water landing… Chris Chappell claims that he deserves special mention for the number of times he diverged from vertical.

I couldn’t decide the best path to take back to McCorrie Point – would it be better to hug closer to the shore or to blast across straight towards the finish? I wasn’t convinced that there’d be significant protection from the southeast wind on the western shore, and I feared that the waves would get unmanageably steep in the shallower water. So I followed Flavio and tried the straight(ish) line approach. Most others tried the shore approach, with mixed reports (see comment on Chris above).

That final upwind leg would ultimately last less than 40 minutes, with a net physical effort that wasn’t out of line from what I’d expect in the closing leg of a race. That being said, it truly was a miserable, demoralizing slog. Sudden gusts would hammer you in the chest, bringing you to what seemed like a standstill. I could feel my boat flexing as it surged nose high over particularly big waves and slapped down in the troughs (a side effect of which was that, at some point during the drive home, my Huki divested itself of its rudder – the constant pounding must have loosened the restraining nut). I barley averaged 5 mph for the upwind leg – particularly disheartening after the preceding downwind Sakonnet sleigh ride. Ever so slowly, however, McCorrie Point edged closer until, finally, it was all over. For Flavio. Even though it had seemed like he wasn’t that far ahead of me, I still had a few more minutes of slogging to go.

Safely on land (where conditions seemed downright idyllic), it wasn’t long before Dave and Wesley hove into view. Tim, Beata, and Dave Grainger followed. All of the participants completed the challenging course, although Wrong Way Chappell somehow managed to finish from the opposite direction and Tucker spent half the race bailing out his leaky Surge. Although nobody actually kissed the ground, everybody seemed relieved to be back on land. Except perhaps for Flavio, who spent a solid minute after the race engaged in a spirited wrestling match with his leg leash in the shallows. Afterwards, Wesley and Betsy handed out our nifty shirts (visible from space!), got the damp crew together for a group photo, and announced the top places. Thanks to both for putting on another great race, despite frustrating changes in the weather. And congrats to all who raced – especially those who had only limited rough-water experience on skis. Hope to see everyone at the Blackburn in 6 weeks!


  • David Vandorpe says:


    nice description of your race!

    Not sure if Richard Germaine would appreciate your Shakespeare quote though…

  • Chris says:

    Wrong Way Chappell – Here’s my story 🙂

    Figured I would show a picture to help tell my story.  My first realization of the day – a 23lb ski with a large front deck in the hands of an intermediate paddler (me) does not like to paddle in beam seas gusting to 30mph.  So…you’ll see after a few attempts to get going along the coast to head back to the finish (path all the others took) I decided to head dead into the wind (after a very near encounter with a dock…).  Of course took a few remounts before making this decision!!      

    Overall a great day.  Had a great downwind run!  Re-affirmed I can still remount…even in gust to 30mph:)  Had some great upwind practice as well and a nice strong finish ~Chris 

  • Mark says:

    Nice article, Greg! Made me feel like I was there (from the comfort of my sofa…). Whoa, y’all had some conditions out there-so rising from the cushions to give you a long round of applause. It was a nasty day for sure. I thoroughly enjoyed Chris’s diagram as well. 🙂

  • Scott L says:

    Excellent article Greg!

    Chris – glad you avoided the dock, as dock + wind + surfski = surfski yardsale.


  • Chris Sherwood says:

    Great story…makes me feel like I was there. Oh, I was! (But only thanks to Wes, who loaned me a paddle…in a complete rookie move, I left mine at home). I have had my Stellar SR for almost exactly a year. Last year, I did this race in my 16′ kayak, and was lucky to finish in the same decade as the other competitors. So I became a believer, and have dedicated my life to learning how to paddle a surfski.

    My testimony: We moved to Cape Cod in 2001. My previous paddling experience included: a) paddling 5′ from shore in a K1, swimming 5′ back; b) backing off a beach in Prince William Sound in a rented touring double as a brown bear raided our campsite; and c) there is no (c). One Saturday, we were visiting my brother in Essex and accidentally bought two Wilderness Experience doubles. These are about 18′ long, with about a ton of displacement, and our kids like to jump (standing) off the flight deck. We paddled one in the Essex River race the day we bought them, and on behalf of all of the Lycra and Kevlar set, I’d like to thank all of those tough guys that row short, fat, heavy boats.

    However, as I raced more in my really-fast-for-its-size Eddyline Falcon 16, I became annoyed by these guys who blew by me in really long kayaks (ok, mostly Epic 18s. You know who you are.) I vowed revenge in the only way a 50-something wannabe athlete can: more expensive technology. I bought a wing paddle first, and a month later (last June), I bought my SR, took lessons from Ben Lawry, went to this website more often than is healthy, and even trained a little. I managed to finish the Blackburn, but missed lots of later races.

    This year, I have been paddling hard. I put about 100K meters on my Concept2, and, so far, about 130 miles in my boat. And, after holding down the back end of the surfski fleet all year (DFL at the Snow Row and the Charles), I finally arrived at the Sakonnet. No capsizes, and not dead last (Thanks Chris C!). 25% slower than Flavio…but hey, 25% behind the elite is still the equivalent of a sub-3 marathon, or a 12-s hundred. Or, in the case of swimming, only 5 Gold medals instead of 8 (does it work like that?)

    Anyway, it is great learning a new sport with the northeast surfski crew, and I thank Wes, Greg, Tim, Chris, and all the rest for all of the help, advice, loaners, and fun times. See you in Gloucester!

  • flavio says:

    Hi, everyone.
    Just now on may 4,2013i took the time to read the article about sakonnet river race.
    Nice and challenging race a should say.
    Thank you for the nice words about me but I’m no elite racer, far from that.

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