Ride the Bull: The One That Got Away

Back in 2013, Wesley and Tim took advantage of Rhode Island’s generous tax incentive program to bring the Ride the Bull race to New England’s 6th largest state (“Small in Stature. Big in Hea… Hey, give me back my lunch money!”). Situated in the tempestuous waters off the southern coast of Conanicut Island, this race is designed with a single goal in mind – to test our ability to follow complicated navigation directions. No, wait, that can’t be right. Where’s that brochure? Ah… right. To prove our rough water mettle! It’s the Tough Mudder of surfski racing, without quite as many electric shock obstacles.

Despite its reputation as being little more than the wattle of Massachusetts, Rhode Island does have its charms. (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)

Due to a temporary shortage of area paddlers (note to those lily-dippers who skipped the race due to “family obligations” – no kid ever grew up to say “I wish my father would have been there when I woke up from brain surgery”), we were forced to take drastic measures – shipping in replacement racers from central New York. John Hair, Todd Furstoss, and Jim Mallory emerged blinking from their crates, having been carefully packaged the previous day. In an unfortunate delivery blunder, Hawaiian Ed Joy also found himself in the wrong island state.

Twenty years ago, Ed was a regular at the Blackburn Challenge, notching up four wins over a six year period. Before the race, he confided to me that he would trade all those wins for a more prestigious Ride the Bull crown. It turns out that was hollow bluster, however. Efforts to swap my 2016 RTB win for a single Blackburn triumph were rebuffed, even when I sweetened the pot by throwing in a couple of second place finishes at Sakonnet River, a seventh place at Lighthouse-to-Lighthouse, and a hard-earned DNF at the now defunct Kettle Island Run – a real collector’s item. Based on his past East Coast performances and more recent finishes in Hawaii (with Borys ahead, but within a half-dozen coconut throws), Ed was the odds-on favorite on Narragansett Bay. However, I also anticipated strong performances by Jim, John, Chris Laughlin, and Mike Florio.

Wesley’s attempt at a joke during the captains meeting fell just four paddlers short of being an unqualified success.

Conditions on race day were mild for the area, but still more challenging than anything we had raced in yet this season. Last year I had wisely opted for my V10 Sport, and I was seconds away from pulling out of our driveway with the Sport again. But when an urgent text from Tim informed me that in his 73 years (he looks good, I agree, but based on his grandpappy-level of technological ineptitude, you shouldn’t be too surprised), he had never seen water so calm. Seeing the text over my shoulder, Mary Beth threw herself on my V14 like a sergeant taking a hand grenade for her squad. I’d have to make her proud in the V10.

In its short four year history, Ride the Bull has included twenty-seven different courses. This, of course, is due to the race organizers’ progressive “pick your own route” policy. Paddlers were free to wander where whimsy directed them, provided that no more than 15% of their journey was of the spiritual variety. Times have changed, however. In an authoritarian effort to stifle originality and drain all the joie clean out of our vivres (without anesthetic, I’ll add), Wesley and Tim insisted that all paddlers stick to the designated course. To ensure that everyone complied, we’d complete two laps in a constrained area where a surveillance boat could more easily monitor us for creative route adjustments. In an act of futile (but satisfying) rebellion, during the captains meeting we collectively feigned imbecility in failing to comprehend the instructions. An increasingly frustrated Tim only caught on after the fourth question about whether we should keep buoy G7 to our left, our port, or just round it in a counterclockwise direction.

Was I the only one who wasn’t filled with confidence by this?

The course would take us out of West Cove, around a rock inside Mackerel Cove, outside of buoy G7 (huh – none of those options), around buoy G11, and back inside the rocky island at the mouth of West Cove. We’d then repeat that. The course would take us out of West Cove, around a rock inside Mackerel Cove, outside of buoy G7 (huh – still none of those options), around buoy G11, and back inside the rocky island at the mouth of West Cove. We’d break out of this cycle of despair after the second lap and zoom/limp out around G7 (paddlers choice) before returning to the launch area to finish. Although this path would take us just shy of 9 miles, you’d never be out of narking distance of a fellow paddler should you be tempted to defy authority.

Sixteen paddlers soon assembled in West Cove for a rolling start. There was some polite jostling as we made an immediate right turn around Start Rock (not yet the official name, but Wesley is calling in a few favors), but no permanent damage was done. After the turn, Jim, Chris Laughlin, and Andrius Zinkevichus formed one pack on the right, while Tim led his own squad further from shore. Nobody was quite sure what the hell Ed was doing, but he was doing it alone out front.

Despite the extra miles it entailed, Jim, John, and Chris were pleased that they opted for the “Architecture of Jamestown” tour. (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)

Initially, Ed was on a line that would take him into the shallow bay preceding Mackerel Cove. After a couple of us yelled “Left! Left!”, he turned nearly 90 degrees in that direction. As near as I could tell, his new heading would have him exiting Narragansett Bay and making landfall in Cuba by mid-August. Naturally, a couple of us hollered “Right!” Which brought him shooting back diagonally across the front of the pack. Was he pranking us? Incapable of incremental adjustment? Drunk? For the safety of all involved, we stopped shouting instructions.

I managed to pull ahead of Jim, Chris, and Andrius as we approached the turn into Mackerel Cove. I was able to trap Ed between my boat and the shore, which effectively kept him wandering too far off course. We’d spend the next seven miles within a few boat lengths of one another, trading the lead a half-dozen times. Although our conversation was mostly one-sided – me providing information on the next way point during the first lap – I feel like we truly bonded during our time together. Not quite so much that I need to send him a Christmas card, but enough to ensure we have a place to stay the next time we want to spend a couple months in Hawaii.

Ed, me, and the only buoy in Narragansett Bay that we were strictly prohibited from rounding. I’m pretty sure all that background activity was added in post-production. (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)

I’m happy to say that while accompanying Ed around the course, I also cracked the mystery of his seemingly erratic behavior after the start. Lobster in the footwell. We locals are accustomed to dealing with the vexing crustaceans, but Ed has been away a long time. I jest, of course. It’s like riding a bike. With claws. It turns out that his right-angle turns were only coincidentally related to our shouted directions. Ed is just 30 degrees more aggressive than most of us when it comes to chasing runners. And better at catching them. Him angling out and shooting ahead was a frequent refrain during our travels.

The remainder of the first lap passed uneventfully. During the stretch from G7 to G11, we got an assist from the incoming tide along with a few pleasant rides. As we neared the House on the Rock, the hard edges on the water got smoothed out in a disconcerting way. Flat and glassy… fine. Lumpy and glassy… unnatural and nausea-inducing. At the G11 turn, I could see that Chris L, John, and Jim were in pursuit. During the second lap, I struggled more to keep up with Ed – particularly in the beamy section between Mackerel Cove and G7 – but managed to pull even again as we returned to the House on the Rock. At the second G11 turn, Jim was now in third, but it seemed like we had widened our lead a bit.

Patches of floating weeds were abundant along the course. Although you could avoid some by planning ahead, others were too extensive to maneuver around without DQing yourself. One particularly large mass near Bull Point supported a significant population who were in the process of applying for statehood. Several paddlers were forced to deweed themselves, none in more dramatic fashion than Mike. Unable to shake a virulent clump via conventional means, he dismounted to manually remove them, only to have the rudder harness slip off while the boat was inverted. Without steering, Mike was forced to withdraw.

Through careful analysis of my video, I finally discovered the reason for the power asymmetry in my stroke. Elbow too low on the right.

My weedless rudder kept its promise, but it provided no protection against a more insidious foe. While passing the pier at Fort Cove on the second lap – about 1.5 miles from the finish – I caught a fluorescent fishing line with my paddle. I quickly untangled myself, but apparently the mono-filament had also caught on my rudder. A dozen stroke later, I had taken up the slack in the line, the fisherman on the other end set the hook, and the fight was on. Although I couldn’t see him, I’m guessing this guy was strapped into a fighting chair on the pier, because my attempts to pull him in were futile. I tried back-paddling to free myself, to no avail. Unless I got help fast, I’d soon find myself mounted and hanging in a Jamestown bar. Some of my surfski buddies would show up occasionally to toast my memory (“I’m right here guys! Just help me down! Guys!”), but they’d gradually forget me, I’d grow dusty and maybe lose a couple of fingers, and when the bar gets converted into a yoga studio twenty years down the road, I’d end up in a dumpster fending off raccoons. Fortunately, Ed rescued me from this musty fate, rafting alongside and prying the line free.

With jeers and curses following from the jetty, we eventually moved onward. Although Jim had drawn within a few lengths during the fishing line delay, I assumed that the lively seas would continue to throw him off his game enough that he wouldn’t be a threat. With Ed slowly pulling ahead in the final out-and-back leg to G7, my concentration was in keeping him close enough to be able to comfortably use the phrases “nipped at the line” or “nosed out” when writing about my inevitable defeat. Let’s say 20 lengths or less. During the upwind run to G7 I got the peripheral impression that Jim might not be complying with my assumptions, but I couldn’t afford to divert my attention from Ed ahead.

Having lost their way, Tim and Chris search frantically for the course. (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)

By the time I hove around the buoy, Jim was finally within spitting distance. In retrospect, that effort to demonstrate my scorn at his open-water abilities kind of back-fired. A highly motivated Jim proceeded to school me during the half-mile downwind back to the finish. In our matching V10s, he looked more comfortable than I felt. For a time I worried that by stoking Jim’s competitive fire to such a degree I might have actually endangered Ed’s lead (which seemed a harsh repayment for his sportsmanship), but the latter held on to snag the victory. Only twenty seconds after I claimed third place, a hard-charging Chris L pulled in, with John less than a minute behind him. Mary Beth easily took the top spot among woman.

Despite the mellower-than-usual conditions, the latest course was a success. Everyone agreed that being able to track the progress of their fellow paddlers along the loop course somehow fostered both competition and esprit de corps (to replace that lost joie). It’s a shame that the bylaws require that a novel route be devised for 2018, but what can you do? Get involved. Write your local race organizer. Change begins with you! That’s not really relevant here. But stasis also begins with you!

Wesley starts the third lap. (Photo courtesy of Pat Sheehan)

Thanks to Wesley and Tim for launching us into the summer season with pizzazz. And to photographer Pat Sheehan, who captured the beautiful on-the-water shots highlighted above (and many more – check them out).

Next up on is Eric McNett’s 17 mile pleasure cruise through the magical islands of Maine’s Casco Bay. Remember, if you just keep heading northeast, you’ll probably end up back on the mainland. That’s June 24. Register for the Casco Bay Challenge at PaddleGuru. We then have a weekend off before Tim’s Jamestown Double Beaver on July 8. Guess where to register… That’s right, at participating Taco Bells. If you can’t find one, try PaddleGuru.