Nahant Bay Cup: Socked In

With a couple of Rhode Island races shifted into July to avoid the hustle and bustle of kraken season (and, sure, the boat-chomping too), the Nahant Bay Cup remained as the only August race in New England. Despite retiring from competitive paddling back in the mid-teens, Mike McDonough was on hand to host the 10th running of the race. Harpoons were optional this year, but infrared goggles were mandatory.

The forecast called for overcast skies with light winds, clearing as the day wore on. But those gathered at Fishermans Beach in Swampscott watched with impotent horror as thick fog stole over the ocean. As successive landmarks of Nahant Bay were lost to view, Mike was forced to repeatedly improvise new course proposals, aided by a cacophony of suggestions, opinions, and casserole recipes (I got confused in the excitement). Paradoxically, the course options became more convoluted as the viable race area decreased. One proposed course required that we find the blue key to unlock the secret passage that would lead us to the kidnapped princess (after killing the Squid King, of course). By race time, our world had been reduced to a white-walled region adjacent to the beach, barely a half-mile across.

Bruce may have uttered some choice phrases later on, but his last words heard by anyone else were “It doesn’t seem so foggy to me!”

Calmer heads prevailed when it came to defining the race route. Starting from just off the beach, we’d round an unoccupied mooring buoy, curve out around the mooring field, turn on a red nun, return to the mooring buoy, repeat the nun-buoy loop, head back to the nun, then turn into shore for a finish on the beach. At a semi-sprint distance of just over 3 miles, this would be the shortest surfski course many of us had ever raced. I’d have to abandon a cherished tradition of early-race lollygagging to have any chance at winning. Paddlers with fast starts, like Andrius Zinkevichus and Matt Drayer, would have a clear advantage. I also had concerns about upstart John Hair.

In our innocence, we initially welcomed Rochester paddlers as friendly tourists to our New England races. With their funny accents and quaint ceremonial headgear, these in-lander heathens were more to be pitied than feared. Oops. If we had known then what we know now, we would have blown the bridges over the Hudson (sorry, Jan – collateral damage) to prevent the conquering horde from gaining a foothold. I suspect they might have eventually flanked us by paddling down the St. Lawrence, but at least we’d have bought ourselves some time. John was the lone representative at this race, but his recent Blackburn performance was sufficient to unnerve us. And also his necklace of human ears.

Although he’s developed into a fine paddler, John remains a clumsy saboteur.

Twenty minutes before the scheduled start, a hushed murmur raced through the anxious racers. Jan Lupinski was on his way! Swooping in at the last second – often sans some important piece of equipment, like a boat or pants – is kind of his trademark. “Classic Jan,” some chortled. “What a character!” said others. I, on the other hand, walked a few minutes down the beach, shook a resentful fist at the heavens, and cried out “Lupinskiiiii!!!” Based on the odd looks I got after rejoining the crowd, I perhaps should have moved a little further off before this outburst. In earlier flatwater races this year, I’d spent the first 5 miles or so chasing down Jan. Which meant in Nahant I’d catch him about the time of the awards ceremony.

Once Jan had arrived, Mike marshaled us to a quick start. With the initial 90 degree left-hand turn less than a quarter of a mile into the race, it seemed likely that the field would still be clumpy at that point. In a rare moment of tactical foresight, rather than pushing for the lead I concentrated on maneuvering to the right side of the pack so that I could swing wide and remain clear from any turn-induced mayhem. Of course, with just a little more advanced planning, I needn’t have started from the far left side of the line. Next time maybe I’ll splurge and get the extended foresight package.

I executed this rudimentary plan flawlessly – to the point that scarcely anyone cursed at me during the sweeping turn. Heading out around the mooring field, Andrius, John, Chris Chappell, Tim Dwyer, and Wesley Echols were ahead in a pack on a tighter line. Matt and Jan had chosen to swing wide, mostly by dint of unwisely being caught outside of me. Rather than cutting back and working through the lead pack, I stayed out and tried to pass them in clean water. During this slow-motion move, John and Andrius pulled free from the others.

When it became apparent that my original plan of leaving everyone in the dust prior to the first 180 degree turn wasn’t going to pan out (insufficient resources…), I settled alongside of John. Not taking the hint that we were looking for some alone time out front, third paddle Andrius stubbornly continued to draft between us. After making the turn around the nun, our awkward trio fell apart briefly, but we shortly after returned to our established roles. Every time I thought perhaps we had ditched our unwanted chaperone, he would nose forward to remind us that we weren’t alone. One time, when Andrius thought John and I were getting a little too cozy for his comfort, he had some stern words for us. I couldn’t exactly understand what he said (I think it might have been in Lithuanian), but the gist was clear – we needed to stay at least a paddle length apart.

Despite Andrius’ warnings, as we approached the next turn buoy, there were a couple of instances of literal friction between paddlers as John and Andrius got tied up with one another. The rebukes were definitely in English now. Although it takes two flanks to execute an effective pincer movement – even if inadvertent – I managed to deflect most of the blame by whistling non-nonchalantly while surreptitiously pointing at John. After the turn, our formation came permanently unglued as John made a nice push to seize a solo lead and drop Andrius and me.

At the last couple of turns, I had noticed that Jan and Matt were closer on our heels. At this buoy, Lupinski must have spun his 560 around on a 10 Groszy piece, because almost as soon as John took the clear lead, Jan relieved him of his duties. Panicked that the two new-found partners would sail off together into the mist without a designated guardian, I ratcheted up the intensity (should I be worried that there’s now an actual creaky mechanical sound associated with that metaphor?) and grabbed onto John’s stern wash. We’d stay in this rough drafting arrangement through the next couple of 180 degree turns, although with each change of direction the gaps between us would temporarily accordion out a couple of boat lengths. In general, I was getting a cleaner draft off of John than he was of Jan. Any guilt I might have felt about not taking a turn pulling John was alleviated by an almost total lack of conscience.

Rub his belly once and you’ve got a friend for life.

We hit the nun for the third and final time in a tight draft line, Jan throwing a quick glance over his shoulder to assess the state of the field. With less than a half-mile to the finish, the sprint commenced immediately after the turn. Jan quickly opened up a gap of a few boat lengths, which John and I narrowed by taking a line tighter to Lincoln House Point and paddling slightly harder. With a quarter mile remaining, I pulled even with John. We remained abreast for the next half-hour, neither one of us able to seize the advantage. Finally, by dint of louder grunts (that’s right – I just broke all the rules of writing etiquette by doubling down on “dint”) I was able to convince John that I was actually paddling faster than he was. The stalemate broken, I move ahead to chase down the leader.

Unfortunately, Jan was less susceptible to the illusion of my speed. Although I managed to trick him into giving up a boat length of his lead, he had enough in reserve to beat me to the line by a couple of seconds. John was about the same distance behind me. I had convinced myself that the three of us had dominated the race, but Matt, Andrius, and Tim belied this conceit by finished within the next minute. The most exciting finish of the day was provided by women’s champion, Mary Beth (paddling her new foggy conditions boat), who passed Bob Wright as he fidgeted with his leash on the beach. The most exciting acceptance speech of the day was provided by Bill Kuklinski, who, upon receiving the Legends award from Mike, grumpily yelled at us all to get off his lawn.

Not content with walking away with just the title, Jan also had to take the last of my remaining dignity.

We had only paddled a third of the distance of a normal Nahant Bay Cup, so it only made sense that we triple our typical post-race caloric intake, gorging ourselves on the bountiful spread provided by Carol and Mike. Was I suffering a sausage and cookie induced hallucination, did the third course consist of pickle sandwiches? Many thanks to the McDonoughs for adapting to less-than-ideal race conditions.

Take some time off. It’s been a long slog through this season’s races (not to mention race reports), but now it’s time to recharge. You’ll need to be at full capacity for the 20 mile Great Peconic Race (September 9, register at PaddleGuru), the flatwater Great Stone Dam Classic (September 10, no need to pre-register), and the paddler-packed Lighthouse to Lighthouse (September 16, register at PaddleGuru).