Saturday, March 11, 2017

SUP Race Report: O'Neil Cocoa Beach Challenge

Race: The O'Neill Cocoa Beach Challenge.

Date it happened: 11 March 2017.

Host: Paddling Paradise, a SUP rental and retail outlet in Melbourne, FL. There were lots of other sponsors and volunteer organizers, too.

Location: The staging area was a grassy lot along the Banana River Lagoon at the East end of the 520 Causeway in Cocoa Beach, FL.

Distance: There were 1.6 km, 4.8 km, and 12.9 km races. The shorter races were one or three laps around an "M" shaped course. The longer race started and ended with the "M" course, but added a long, straight North - South sojourn in the middle. I thought it was a good, challenging format. For the 12.9 km race they started the "elite" prize money division separately from the non-prize money division. That was fine with me, except that it made registration unnecessarily confusing and stressful. I initially registered for the non prize division by mistake and had to get a special code to upgrade to the prize money division. My track from the race is below. If you have a Strava account you can click into it and see the details.

Conditions: It was sunny and pleasant with a mix of North and East wind in the 6-10 knot range. The sea state varied between ripples and small chop. The biggest factor affecting speed was neither the wind nor the small chop, but the water depth, which was shallow enough to bump your paddle on the bottom for much of the course.

Participants: 30 people did the "elite" 12.9 km race. 11 people did the non-elite 12.9 km race, 32 people did the 4.8 km, and 8 people did the 1.6 km. Heavy hitters in the elite division included professionals Garrett Fletcher (Yolo), Brad Ward (Hovie SUP), Kieran Grant (sponsored by Hovie in the past but used a borrowed Starboard AllStar for this race), and Seychelle Hattingh (SIC). There were also a surprising number of veteran and up-and-coming non-professional racers who were nearly on par with the pros and were able to hang on with the lead draft trains. I was not one of those first draft train people this time, but I was plenty challenged trying to hang with the second draft train. From my local CGT race team we had a good crew: Mark Athanacio, Jen Hayes, Cindy Gibson, Matt Kearney, Robert Norman, Annika Estelle, and me. Jen and Annika did the 4.8 km, and everybody else did the 12.9 km. Cindy Gibson did the non-money version, and was kicking herself because her time was fast enough to have put her in the money.

Gear: I used a 14x23 Riviera RP raceboard with a Riviera Bump 7.0 paddle. I used a longer fin than usual (23 cm MFC Weed Fin) to make the board more stable in the chop. The longer fin might make it harder to do buoy turns, but I hoped the trade-off was worth it. Another Riviera ambassador, Sam English from Jupiter, FL, used the same board.

Results: Top 5 in 14' elite were Garrett Fletcher (1:28:01), Brad Ward (1:29:14), Tim Warner (1:29:23), Steve Miller (1:29:30), and Sam English (1:29:42). There was a gap between them and the 2nd tier draft train which was Warren Heil in 6th (1:31:43), Kodie Peekstok 7th (1:31:52), and me 8th (1:31:56). The 12'6 elite winners were very closely spaced: Kieran Grant (1:35:34), Mark Athanacio (1:35:48), Jamie Twigg (1:35:50.5), and Will Marston (1:35:50.7). Seychelle was a minute or two behind the top 12'6 men, but for some reason her time is not listed in the official results. The next 12'6 women were Maddie Miller (1:40:01) and Stephanie Shideler (1:40:33). Cindy Gibson was the 4th fastest female with 1:43:06, and first 12'6 overall in the non-money race. Impressively, Cindy beat Matt Kearney's time of 1:44:18, and wasn't too far off Robert Norman's 1:40:16.

Play by play: The race started between two buoys on the water since there was no beach (only a bulkhead with a floating platform) at the launch. I decided to go from the north end of the starting line, based on the wind coming from the north, and on some misleading reports that the water got shallow near the causeway on the south end of the line. That turned out to be a big mistake, because there was actually a deep channel along the causeway. The racers who started at that end were able to go full sprint speed (10+ kph) while those of us who weren't in the channel were slowed to ~8 kph by the shallow water effect. In the future I should always look at Google Earth images of new race venues to get an idea of where the deep channels and shallow spots are. After the first buoy turn of the "M" part of the course I was back on proper track, but with much diminished chances of catching up with the lead 14' draft train. Nevertheless, like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted. On one of the diagonals of the M I was able to get around the lead 12'6 guy Kieran Grant. I was doing my best to try to reach the back end of the lead train, which was beginning to break up a little as Garrett Fletcher and Timothy Warner pulled ahead and Canadian Chris Stringer fell back. I had a minor setback when I fell off in shallow water, but I got back on fast enough that it didn't make much difference. I don't remember now if was during the M or just after the M that I caught up with Chris Stringer, then passed him and made a big push to catch up with Warren Heil.

I'm glad I caught up with Warren when I did, because it turned out he was just easing up briefly to recovery from his initial sprint before cranking up the speed again and keeping it high for the duration of the race. Drafting his 14x24 Hovie Comet GT was not restful, but it was better than trying to go that speed upwind on my own, especially with the troublesome shallow water effect. In retrospect, we might have avoided some of the shallow sand flats if we had veered significantly more offshore or inshore, but without any a priori knowledge of the bathymetry we were just following the bright orange shorts of leader Garrett Fletcher. On the way north we closed in on 17 year old Canadian Kodie Peekstok, paddling a 14x23 Starboard AllStar. I can't remember when Warren caught up with him, but I don't think it was until after we turned around and started heading back south. My turn at that upwind buoy was really ugly, btw. I kind of stuck the nose of my board in front of Warren's legs and he had to drag my board through the turn as he did his. It worked, though. Anyway, after a short time as a three-person train behind Kodie, Kodie deliberately rescinded the lead so he could draft. I thought he would go all the way to the back of our group, but he smartly got in the side draft to my left. Around that time I started having difficulty staying in Warren's draft. The wind had shifted to the east, and awkward little chop was breaking up my contact with Warren's wake. Also, I think the brief rest that Warren got in Kodie's draft was allowing him to put on some extra speed that I couldn't match. I broke off and took a more inside path, just going on my own and trying to paddle efficiently. At this point I had been paddling hard for 70 minutes and was very tired; starting to lose some of my will. I gradually got a little behind. Entering a deep boat channel in the southern part of the course perked me up a bit, as I saw higher speed number on my Speedcoach GPS again.

When we got to the M again I made up a little distance on Kodie, whose buoy turns were a bit too careful. One cool thing about that final M was that it allowed me to see what was going on with the leaders as they crossed going the opposite direction. Garret Fletcher was on his own, solidly in first, but Brad Ward had leapfrogged up from his 5th place position in the draft train to a solid looking second. Third through fifth looked like they could still be up in the air, so I shouted some encouragement to Sam English, my fellow Riviera dude. In the last bits of the M, young Kodie picked up the pace and started doing a "choke down" hold on the paddle. I paddled harder to keep up with him, but couldn't summon the will or the energy to make a serious effort to pass. In the end I was a little bummed that I hadn't made the top 5, but I felt like I had put forth a respectable effort and made some progress in sprinting, drafting, and pacing skills.

What else is new: There's a CGT race in Bonita Springs on the 19th, then a race almost every weekend in April, culminating in the Key West Paddle Classic at the end of that month. I don't reckon I'll go to all of them, but I'll definitely do the Key West.

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