Sakonnet River Race: Catch and Release

With Mary Beth away on her annual June pilgrimage to “where you’re not”, I was desperate to recruit someone to fill my open Goodboy rack for the trip down to Wesley’s 10th Annual Sakonnet River Race and Pizza Jamboree.  If I couldn’t find a willing passenger, I’d be forced to bring both the V10 and V14.  A regrettable race-time decision would inevitably follow.  I ultimately had to offer $500 and a couple of meal vouchers, but I finally convinced Bruce Deltorchio to join me.  I was looking forward to some lively conversation, but he told me that’d be an extra $250.  When I protested that I was out of cash, he slipped on his noise cancelling headphones and worked on a Sudoku for the entire trip.

Up until a couple of days before the race, it looked like the Rhode Island economy would be suffering a harsh blow.  With nearly two-thirds of its tourist revenues derived from surfski racing, the prospect of only a half-dozen out-of-staters showing up at the Sakonnet had the governor slashing quahog subsidies left and right.  Fortunately, a slew of  (drunken, I’m guessing) late night registrations pushed the state ledgers back into the black. With the top 5 finishers from the Narrow River Race (Mike Dostal, Mike Florio, Jan Lupinski, Chris Quinn, and me) meeting again, the race promised to be challenging.  Especially for those of us dipping our toes into the Grand Fogey class.  Despite the fact that any of those guys might beat me, I was focused on Dostal.

It’s tough to say when exactly our sport was taken over by bad-asses, but for those of us who remain stubbornly awkward and self-conscious, it can be a little intimidating.

Heck, these outlaws even got their own walking-towards-the-camera-in-slow motion shot.

OK, now. I feel like things may be getting a little out of hand.

Dorky, wizened, and virtually lipless. Now that’s a New England surfskier.

I’ve raced against Mike D ten times previously.  In four of those races, he was in an ICF boat.  And, based on our relative performances, I have to assume that I was in an anchored barge.  In the other six ski-to-ski meetings, however, I emerged victorious.  Granted, that was partly due to teaming up with Ben Pigott to dump Mike in the Annisquam River during last year’s Blackburn.  But mostly due to the fact that Mike spends more time standing atop podiums at the National Marathon Championships than he does sitting in a surfski bucket.  Unless conditions picked up considerably (or Ben made a surprise visit), however, my Dostal defeating streak was in real jeopardy.

I was busy taking photographs during the brief captain’s meeting, so I didn’t really catch many of the details.  There were plenty of wild gestures and dire warnings, of that I’m confident.  I believe the gist was this: From McCorrie Point, paddle 6.25 miles towards the ocean, turn on Mooring Buoy 114 (you gotta try their calamari), then return back to the start to get ready for the 2018 race.  We grabbed our boats and hit the water, eager to show off our comprehension skills.  Unfortunately, Jim Hoffman suffered a pre-race rudder failure on the beach.  As the rest of us arranged ourselves at the starting line, he circled helplessly in the sand like a three-flippered sea turtle.

While gesticulating during the captains meeting, Wesley inadvertently called in a drone strike.

Wesley soon gave us the one-minute warning, followed by a pair of thirty-second warnings (I might have heard one of those wrong), a ten-second warning, some advice on cleaning cast-iron pans, and the start signal.  Mike D seized the immediate lead, quickly separating himself from pursuers Andrius Zinkevichus and Jan.  Playing it cool (let’s say), I hung back to see how the field would develop.  Once I had a pretty good sense of who had better starts than me, I got to work erasing those deficits.  I slowly moved past Chris Q, Mike F, Tim D, Chris Chappell, Joe Shaw, and Chris Laughlin to get to open water behind the three leaders.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the entire field behind me was cutting shoreward as I successfully pursued and passed Andrius.

Mike and Jan seemed to have established a wary truce at 6 or 8 lengths apart, with Jan perhaps 10 lengths ahead of me on a wide line.  Having now caught a glimpse of a train of skis I guessed was being led by Mike F or Chris Q on an inner line, I decided to split their paths.  When we reached Black Point, 3.5 miles into the race, we’d all necessarily be forced together to follow the shore towards the Third Beach turn-around.

I caught Jan and eased alongside just before Black Point.  We didn’t speak, but simply exchanged somber nods.  We knew what it would take to catch Mike.  We’d be plumbing the depths of our courage and resolve, but in the end, we could take pride in knowing that we gave our everything to the chase.  We would no longer be able to physically hold our heads high by the time we completed the race, but perhaps someone could prop us upright and jury-rig some type of neck braces.  I knew they’d also draw obscene pictures on our faces, but hoped they’d spare our eyeballs.  I took the first pull.

By the time we caught Mike just after mile 6, Jan had provided me with a veritable stroke clinic.  My own private one-on-one lesson.  And, thoughtful an instructor as Mr. Lupinski is, he positioned himself so that 100% of his tutorial was recorded on my backward-facing GoPro for later review.  Unfortunately, the accompanying audio track was pretty much ruined by an off-camera ventriloquist griping about “good-for-nothing freeloaders”.

After the race, impressed with my ability to maintain a wildly inefficient rate of 106 strokes per minute, Jan told me I had the heart and paddling technique of a horse.

A lot of you scoffed when I had those guys from MIT install a laser interferometer in the bow of my boat.  Although more generally used for quality control during microchip fabrication or for detecting minuscule shifts associated with gravity waves, I figured its nanometer-scale accuracy would come in handy when inching up on competitors.  Mike remained stubbornly fixed ahead at 51.2063283 meters for several minutes before the distance finally started to tick down.  51.2063282, 51.2063281, 8.8888888 (saltwater and delicate electronic equipment – a bad combination), 51.2063280.  You get the idea.  51.2063279.  I needed to step it up a notch if I wanted to catch him before the sun ran out of fuel.

Eventually, some of Jan’s peripheral instruction must have taken hold, because we began to close on the leader at a rate that a mobility-impaired slug would have found respectable.  During this phase I made sure to stay hydrated – leaving that mucus trail really depletes your liquids.  To his credit, Mike contributed his fair share to our gains.  He insisted on taking lines that angled him away from the direct path along the shore, periodically missing a stroke to look over his shoulder for the pursuit team’s approval of his route.  My mouth offered steadfast support (“Looking good!  Might want to bear a little more away from land!”) but my body language (“I’m paddling in a different direction than you!”) apparently spoke louder.  Picking up on these non-verbal cues, Mike would temporarily adjust his course.  His saw-tooth track helped us to ratchet closer, however.

After a particularly long stay at 6.2601148 meters back – apparently stuck on the first harmonic of Mike’s wake – I finally eased onto his wash.  Jan, his lesson plan complete, slid from my side draft to a stern draft.  He lingered there for a few moments, but the slime made it difficult for him to maintain a grip and he slipped off.  I was only able to enjoy few hundred meters resting behind Mike before I suffered the same fate.  As we swung around the turn buoy in less-than-graceful arcs, he managed to accelerate away from me.  I was chasing again, but this time without Jan’s reassuring presence.  I held steady at a couple lengths back for perhaps a half-mile, but was soon falling further and further back.  The interferometer reading was eventually increasing at such a fast rate I felt compelled to periodically douse it with water lest it melt down.

The trip back to McCorrie Point was frustrating.  Although a mild incoming tide should have been helping us, attempts to exploit this flow were met with wind resistance.  After tapping my GPS to ensure the needle wasn’t stuck, I determined that a better strategy would be to tuck out of the wind.  I quickly discovered how difficult it is to paddle while curled into a streamlined fetal position, so instead cut left to let the shore break the wind.  During this process, I noticed the dark silhouette of Jan’s boat gliding smoothly on an even further inside line, back a dozen lengths or so.  Jan himself was nowhere to be seen, which gives you some idea of just how effective a paddler he is.

Mike continued to surge ahead on a more central line.  Now that I was no longer directly behind him, I had to use seat-of-the-pants estimates of how fast his lead was increasing.  Only by applying some creative trigonometry during these assessments did I manage to maintain a splinter of morale.  When Mike passed McCorrie Point, however, I suspected that it would be difficult to make up a 400 meter deficit in the 200 meters left in Mike’s race (barring a fortuitous spearfishing incident up ahead, of course).  I attempted to ramp up to the necessary 24 miles per hour, but fell just shy of the mark – practically handing Mike his first surfski victory.  And me my 6th consecutive second place finish at the Sakonnet.

Mike explains the finer points of bait-and-switch racing – get their hopes up in the first half by paddling out front at 70% effort, then crush their spirit by ramping up to 75% for the return leg.

After finishing, I looked over my shoulder to see how close Jan was, only to be surprised by Mike F. charging across the line to take third.  Nearly two minutes behind at the turn, he made up all but 25 seconds of that in the return leg.  Jan and Chris Q filled out the top five spots.  Leslie Chappell took the women’s crown, with Olga Sydorenko close behind.  In an ultra-competitive doubles race, Mark Ceconi nosed across the line slightly ahead of Sean Milano – that despite the latter’s last-minute attempt to clamber over the mid-deck into the lead.

As we enjoyed pizza and cookies, we compared our notes on the race.  Despite mellow conditions and a favorable slack tide, it was not a particularly fast year.  Everyone was in agreement that they, individually, had taken the worst line.  Not being one to rock the boat (at least, not intentionally), I joined the chorus in singing the deficiencies of my route.  My heart wasn’t in it though.  I couldn’t be too unhappy with my performance given the result.  Thanks to Wesley and Betsy for hosting another successful race on their backyard waterway.

If Mark and Sean don’t make you smile, there’s something wrong with you. Or perhaps you just know too much about their dark past in the koala fighting rings of Perth.

It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff.  On June 17, we’ll toss a bunch of skis into the turbulent waters of the Ride the Bull course and see who floats to the top.  I’m hoping for that sweet spot – just rough enough to throw the Mikes off their games, but not chaotic enough to launch Tim D or Jim H onto the podium.  Wesley and Tim ask kindly that you sign up beforehand at PaddleGuru.  It’s free.  If you fail to pre-register, you’ll only be allowed to race if you bring me a sleeve of  Fig Newtons, something made out of jade, and five Susan B. Anthony dollars.  Why me?  Why those items?  Who can say.  But I’ll remind you that this blog has always maintained, at best, a tenuous relation with reality.