Sunday, May 21, 2017

SUP Race Report: Sup & Run 5k

Men's winner Brad Ward with his new 14x25 Sunova dugout board.


Matt Kearney's track as recorded by his GPS watch. Total distance 10.1 km


Me and Matt Kearney posing with our boards after the race


Race: The 3rd annual 5k SUP & Run

Date it happened: 20 May 2017

Host: The Sarasota Athletic Association, led by Felicia Cox. The event was a benefit for Operation Second Chance, which is an organization supporting wounded military veterans.

Location: Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota, FL. The park is built around a big artificial lake, which is set up with buoys, breakwaters, bleachers etc. to facilitate various rowing and paddling events. There are also paved running / biking paths around the perimeter of the lake. This is the same place where Seychelle Hattingh and Robert Norman set their 24 hour sup distance world records.

Distance: The main event was a 5 km run leading into a 5 km SUP race. They also offered the run and the sup "a la carte" for those who just wanted to do one or the other. I did the combo. This year they had us run through the timing gate three times (once at the start, once finishing the run, and once finishing the paddle) which allowed them to report our run times and paddle times separately. Very cool.

Conditions: The weather was sunny, warm and humid, with a SE wind in the 5-10 knot range. The lake surface had some light ripples.

Participants and Gear: This event has grown every year since its inception, and had 599 total participants this year. Many just did the run or the sup, but 100 did both. There might have been greater numbers of elite sup racers were this race not on the same day as the Florida Cup sup race in Tampa. The sup+run winners from last year, Brad Ward and Katherine Pyne, both returned, but with different boards. Brad recently got sponsored by Sunova boards, and was on their 14x25 flatwater model. It's an unmistakably unique SUP with a wood finish, neon green nose, deep dug-out standing area, and scale-like protrusions over the one-way valves that drain water out of the standing area. Brad let me try it after the race and it felt pretty fast and extremely stable. Katherine was on a 12'6 Bark Contender. Other multi-sport talented competitors who returned this year included Jason Casuga on a sleek 14x26.4 Bark D2, Brandon Taaffe on a 14x25 Riviera RP, and my CGT teammate Matt Kearney on his 14x24 404 v3. I used my usual 14x23 Riviera RP. There was a wide diversity of sup gear among the other competitors, from full carbon Hovie Comets to clunky, beginner-style rental boards. There were also some interesting modified sups and paddles for people with disabilities, and some high-tech racing wheelchairs for the run portion.

Results: Brad Ward won the men's division again this year, with 54:54 total (21:04 run, 33:50 sup). I was second with 57:19 (22:46 run, 34:34 sup), Jason Casuga was third with 58:40 (23:19 run, 35:20 sup), Matt Kearney was fourth with 1:00:23.4 (22:39 run, 37:45 sup), just ahead of Brandon Taaffe 1:00:48 (20:31 run, 40:17 sup). It was Matt's personal best 5k time. Katherine Pyne again won the women's in 1:02:07 (22:50 run, 39:18 sup). The next fastest female was Amber Crowley, who won the masters' division with 1:14:12 (25:16 run, 48:56 sup). It was interesting that there were some people who went MINUTES faster in the run than the overall sup+run winners, but didn't place particularly well because their sup times were over par. For example, 17 year old Dylan Hull ran a blistering 18:38, but took 46:14 to complete the sup.



Play by play: Since the race started at 8 am, I had to get up at 4:30 am to pack and drive to Sarasota. It's probably better to get more sleep before a race, but I don't think it made a huge difference. While setting up my stuff at the event site I had a scare when my board disappeared off the beach. Somebody had mistaken it for a rental board (I don't know how; it didn't look anything like the rental boards), separated it from my paddle, taken it for a spin, and deposited it at the far end of the beach. Fortunately I found it and sorted things out. The only damage was a minor nick in the fin where the dude had set it on the rocky ground without the appropriate tenderness. I'm going to put a sticker with my name on it on the board to avoid future confusion.

The running portion of the race was first. A few minutes before the start they corralled us behind the inflatable timing gate, gave us some last minute instructions, and two young women sang the Star Spangled Banner beautifully. The start happened, as advertised, at exactly 8 am. I was fairly near the gate, but still found myself in a traffic jam, unable to move until the layers of people ahead of me got moving. It was OK, though, because the timing chip corrected for when I passed through the start gate, which was about 10 seconds after the gun went off. Somewhere in that traffic Matt Kearney busted out ahead of me. I knew from our practice runs that we were similar speed on foot, so I tried to keep him at the same range as we proceeded along the path. Katherine Pyne seemed to be our speed, as well, so she was another good landmark. I passed Jason Casuga, who I think was pacing himself to save energy for the sup. (Last year Jason beat Matt and I in the run.) I felt OK until halfway through the run, at which point my inadequate running training manifested as increasing difficulty matching Matt and Katherine's pace. My feet and calves felt weird, and I alternated between toe-first and heel-first running styles trying to figure out which gave the most speed with the least effort. With about 500 m left I started to slip behind, but I wasn't more than about 10 seconds behind Matt at the end of the run.

The run transitioned directly into the sup; no break. I hustled to the water's edge, pulled off my shoes and socks, and hopped on the board with a running start. I think I did that part better than last year, although in some video that Matt's parent's took you can see that I bobble awkwardly on my third stroke, still finding my sea legs. Since I was close behind Matt and Katherine, and I paddle a little faster than them, it didn't take me long to pass them. Then it was just a long grind to get around the lake. I could see Brad Ward far ahead but I knew I'd never catch him. I was more concerned with whether or not I could catch the fast runner / slow paddler guys before the end of the race. I was worried that some of them might have practiced their paddling since last year and become a lot harder to catch. With some relief, I got up to Brandon Taaffe before the mid-point of the sup circuit, which was earlier than I'd caught up to him the previous year.

I made a big mistake on the short side of the rectangular lake, though, when I paddled most of the way straight across, into the wind and the sun glare, before realizing that the buoy was actually about 100 meters north of where I thought it was. (You can see the diagonal on Matt's GPS track.) As a result I ended up paddling an elbow instead of a shorter diagonal, probably adding 20 or 30 seconds to my time. Oh, well. The second half of the paddle had more favorable winds, and I got in a good rhythm, putting more distance on Jason and Matt. Brad Ward was finishing just as I rounded the final corner of the lake. I tried to keep good speed all the way to the beach. For some reason I decided to carry my board with me with me as I ran through the finish line. Maybe I was feeling possessive of it after that pre-race incident.

Overall, I felt pretty good about the race and my result, despite some regret over my navigational error and unnecessary board carry. I'd like to do some more running cross-training to see if it can help me with my SUP, and to see how much faster I can get. Many professional sup athletes like Annabelle Anderson and Michael Booth incorporate a lot of running in their training, and I think it might help their "pep," endurance, and leg strength for rough water. I sure feel "worked out" today after that race yesterday (plus a sweet 20 knot wind windsurfing session when I got home in the afternoon).

Other race intrigues: It was excitingly close between Jason Casuga, Matt Kearney, Katherine Pyne, Brandon Taaffe, and Dave Thorne. Matt didn't pass Brandon Taaffe until the very last ~200 m of the race, making for a nail-biting finish. After the race there was a nice, festive atmosphere with a good MC doing the awards, good free food, and some inspiring words spoken recognizing the brave, wounded veterans who are the focus of Operation Second Chance.

What's Next: The CGT Race Series next local race is coming up May 28th in Bonita Springs. Next big race is also relatively local, the Battle on the Blueway June 10th at Fort Myers Beach.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

SUP Race Report: Noodles SUP Luau Race

Mark Athanacio and Jesse DaSilva with the best sprint starts.


Race: The 8th Annual SUP Luau Race, sponsored by Noodles Italian Cafe & Sushi Bar, Beach Box Cafe, and B3 Marketing LLC. Benefitting Collier County Special Olympics.

Date it happened: 7 May 2017

Location: In the Gulf of Mexico at Vanderbilt Beach, Naples, FL.

Distance: The competitive race was approximately 5.3 km, but I don't know the exact distance because I forgot to start my GPS tracker. The race was 6 laps around a triangular course, with two buoys offshore and one in the surf zone. That inside buoy provided a good challenge for the competitors and drama for the spectators. After the competitive race there was also a short "family fun" race and a race for the Special Olympics athletes.

Conditions: There was a light side-offshore wind from the NE, and some knee to thigh high swell breaking near the steep sandy beach. For those who weren't used to the rolling ocean conditions, balance was a major challenge, and there were several "retirements" before the race was over.

Participants and Gear: There was a big crowd for the family fun race, and there were quite a few Special Olympians, as well. The competitive race was a smaller group (17 people), but it included experienced studs Mark Athanacio and Packet Casey, among race-savvy competitors from the CGT tribe and Naples Outfitters. There were no divisions by board size, so most people used 14' boards if they had them. I used my 14x23 Riviera RP, with an 18 cm "Natural Winner" fin that I stole off of one of CGT's Starboard AllStar boards. I've previously raced with some fins that I thought were too big or too small for rough water, but this green one seemed like a good compromise.

The Goldilocks fin? I might look for an aftermarket fin that has similar specs, such as the Fins Unlimited 7.3" Seagrass SUP fin.


Mark Athanacio used his salmon colored 14x23.5 Hovie GTO, and Packet Casey used a 14x23 JP Flatwater that looked tippy (although it's the same board model that Vinnicius Martins recently won the Key West Classic on). Hal Atzingen used a 14x25 Infinity Blackfish with a 4-fin setup (3 at the tail and one little one towards the bow). Lots of people were drooling over that board. I tried it and was impressed with the stability but thought it might be faster with just a single fin. Matt Kearney used a 14x24 404 v3. Justin DiGiorgio used his Mahi Mahi colored 14x24 Hovie GT. Mark Hourigan used the same model of Riviera as me but with a Futures RedFish fin. John Weinberg used the 14x25 Riviera. CGT team manager Nick Paeno made a rare appearance on the race course with one of the shop's 14x24.5 Starboard AllStar boards. Meg Bosi used a 12'6 Bark Contender, and Donna Catron used a 12'6 Bark Vapor. Cindy Gibson volunteered at the registration booth but had to skip the racing due to a serious muscle injury she sustained while winning her division in the Key West Classic.

Results: Since this was a low-key local race focused mostly on the recreational paddlers and Special Olympics athletes, I don't think they are going to post our times. They did keep track of who got what place, though. I got first, followed by Packet Casey and Mark Athanacio. I think the next two finishers were Matt Kearney and Justin DiGiorgio, who rode in on the same wave but varied in how gracefully they dismounted and ran up the beach. Meg Bosi was the first female. If they'd had age divisions, Athanacio would have won the 50+ division by a wide margin.

Play by play: No buoys were set up yet when we got to the beach, so there was a lot of speculation on what the course would be like while we paddled around and warmed up. Initially we thought there would be running up the sand and around a cone or something between laps, but it was decided instead to just have us go around a buoy near the shore. That turned out to be challenging enough, since the buoy was flanked by breaking wave zones. We also weren't sure how long each lap of the course would be and how many laps there would be, but after we saw where the outside buoys were placed (pretty close in) we collectively decided that 6 laps would be the right amount. I'm glad we didn't do more because some of us had trouble counting to 6. It starts to feel like Groundhog Day after about the third lap. The direction of the course was counterclockwise such that each buoy turn was a left turn, advantaging "regular footed" paddlers, like me, for whom left turns are easier.

The start was the standard type of beach start, and I was lucky to get out relatively cleanly from the favored end of the line. Athanacio got the best start, and dreadlocked Jesse from Naples Outfitters also had a fast starting sprint on his 12'6 custom 404. Packet Casey didn't have as great an initial position, but subsequently sprinted fast and took an outside line to get ahead of me and Jesse. I had a little trouble with Jesse's wake, but I think I passed him before we got to the first buoy. I don't think I caught all the way up to Packet on the first lap, but I stayed pretty close behind him, and he stayed pretty close behind Athanacio. Each of the three legs of a lap had a slightly different character. The first was a bit upwind, and a diagonal angle to swells. The second was vaguely downwind, but the wind was too light to make a noticeable difference. The third leg was straight in to shore, and that's where it paid to time your paddling with the swells to get some boosts of speed on the way to the inside turn. I think the third leg is where I closed some distance on Packet and Athanacio.

My first inside buoy turn was decent, and got me in a position where I could catch up to and draft Packet for a while on the second lap. In flat water I probably wouldn't be able to catch Packet on his 14x23 JP Flatwater, but he had just enough instability wobbles in these conditions that my slightly-more-stable 14x23 Riviera RP was faster on average. Athanacio was still out ahead at that point, but at the end of the second lap he fell on the inside buoy, which had drifted impossibly close to shore. I was also forced off the board at that point, but corrected course and jumped back on without much fuss.

The messy turn after the inside buoy drifted to shore.


The details of the rest of the race start to get fuzzy in my head, but I remember that in subsequent laps I continued a routine of drafting Packet when possible, and trying hard not to fall off at the buoys. Sometimes I did "real" step-back turns, while other times, particularly if I was in the lead, I did less risky cross-bow or arc turns. The inside buoy got both Packet and Athanacio at least once more, which shuffled things around such that each of us spent some time in the lead. We started to lap the slower paddlers, which created a bit of traffic problems, but nothing too serious.

Going into the last lap I had the lead, and tried to pick up the pace slightly to reduce the chances that Packet or Athanacio would pass. Packet later told me that he'd been planning to do a big sprint around me during the last lap. I knew that plan didn't work out for him when I heard him splash into the water behind me halfway through the last lap. I picked up the pace a little more to make sure I had a safe gap and had used up most of my energy by the finish. I managed not to fall on the last leg, and rode a wave ungracefully up onto the sand at the finish line, putting some scuff marks on the nose of my board.

I'd barely had time to lay my board down in the sand before Packet finished, and Mark was just a few moments behind him. The three of us fussed with each other a little over who'd had the better luck with the buoys, whether we had actually done the correct number of laps, etc. I wished I had managed to start my speedcoach GPS properly so I could retrace each lap. Fortunately, Packet's memory of what happened each lap was really clear, and established that we had indeed done all six. Anyway, I was happy to have done well in the interesting, open-water conditions at this race, and to have finished alongside two of Florida's original SUP racing badasses. Athanacio is now 52, and Packet is 40-something, but both continue to punch well above their weight in the Florida SUP circuit.

After the competitive race was over, it was delightful to watch the huge mob of inexperienced but majorly-stoked racers in the family fun race. Some were really charging, some were thwarted by the waves and barely making headway, but all showed admirable determination. I think that a large volume of low-key amateur participation is a good sign of a healthy sport.

The Special Olympics race was also fun to watch, though it was tense watching the challenged athletes face bigger waves than most had ever paddled in before. Miraculously, they pulled through, and a few even managed to surf their waves back into shore as they returned from their short run out to the buoy. Woo hoo!

Family fun racers and some Special Olympians prepare for combat.


What's Next: Next up is more training, working on rough water and race skills, and getting read for the Florida Cup race later this month. Nick Paeno and John Weinberg, who opted to retire early from this race after falling a lot due to lack of practice in bumpy water, are keen to get some more rough water practice, and coach Athanacio has a new combination paddle-run workout that he has recommended we all try.

5.5 Sail on 5-5-17

This year I celebrated Cinco de Mayo by enjoying some fine onshore-wind wavesailing at Wiggins Pass State Park in Naples, Florida. The sail is a 5.5 m2 Aerotech Charge, and the board is a 106 liter Exocet Cross with a 26 cm Maui Ultra Fins wave fin. I really like this combo for winds from the high teens to around 20 knots. I didn't do anything special this session, but the usual jibes, little jumps, and waverides were fun as heck.

Wiggins Cross 5-5-17 from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

SUP Speed Analysis, 14' vs. 12'6, Male vs. Female

There were a lot of good racers at last weekend's challenging "Key West Classic." That included at least one elite level racer in each of the four classes: Men's 14', Women's 14', Men's 12'6, and Women's 12'6. That provided an interesting opportunity to examine: A) The relative speeds of the best racers in each class. B) How "stacked" the field was in each class, i.e., how much difference in speed there was between the first and fifth place finisher within each class. Check it out in this chart-



Here's what I see:

1) 14' boards are about 0.5 kph faster than 12'6 boards, on average. This makes sense, because the theoretical "hull speed" of a 14' board is 9.3 kph, vs. 8.8 kph for a 12'6 board.

2) There are big differences in how "stacked" the various board classes are, as calculated by the percent difference in speed between the first place finisher and the fourth or fifth place finisher in each class. Men's 14' and women's 12'6 class are the most stacked, and women's 14' class is the least stacked. Conclusion- It would be great to get some more women in the 14' class.

Men's 14' Class- 8% difference between 1st and 5th
Women's 12'6 Class- 11% difference between 1st and 5th
Men's 12'6 Class- 18% difference between 1st and 5th
Women's 14' Class- 40% difference between 1st and 4th (only 4 competitors)

3) Looking just at the differences between the 1st place finishers in each class, the fastest men are a little bit faster than the fastest women. However, this difference is pretty small. In both the 14' and the 12'6 classes, the first place female is faster than the 5th place male.

Monday, May 1, 2017

SUP Race Report: Key West Classic 2017



Race: The Key West Paddle Classic, organized by the Lazy Dog, sanctioned by the WPA, and benefiting the Monroe County Special Olympics.



Date it happened: 29 April 2017

Location: Higgs Beach, Key West, Florida.

Distance: The main event was to be a race around the entire perimeter of Key West, including Dredger's Key. However, due to strong winds, the US Coast Guard required the race committee to modify the course, replacing the challenging Dredgers Key portion with a detour through narrow canals in the interior of the island. The detour applied only to the paddleboard racers. Kayakers and outrigger canoes still had to go the tough way around. The modified course for paddleboards was 17.5 km, vs. 18.8 km for the original course. In addition to the main event, there was a sup relay, where teams of three split the island rounding into three legs of about 6 km each. My GPS track from the course is below.



Conditions: It was very windy with gusts over 20 knots in the exposed sections of the course.

The wind was from the Southeast, so the start and finish of the race were sort-of downwind along the south-facing shore of the Key. The skillful ocean paddlers were able to go extremely fast in this area by using the waist-high waves and chop to their advantage, while the rest of us actually went slower than normal because we were fighting just to stay upright. The tide was coming in, which gave us favorable currents along the west side of the island and through Fleming Key Cut, but unfavorable currents in the island's internal canals and in Cow Key Channel on the east side of the island.

Participants: There was a big turnout despite the scary weather forecast. 112 people did the solo rounding, and 45 people did the relay rounding.

Professional racers in attendance included last year's defending champions: 21 year old Brazilian Vinnicius Martins (JP boards) and 30 year old vegan yogi Seychelle Hattingh (SIC boards). Challengers to Vinnicius included 25 year old Garrett Fletcher from Destin, Florida (Yolo Boards), 54 year old Canadian Olympic canoeist turned elite sup racer/trainer Larry Cain (Starboard), and a few "dark horses" like south Florida's Jake Portwood (JP boards) and Sam English (Riviera paddlesurf), and Quickblade Paddles founder (also a former Olympic canoeist) Jim Terrell. Seychelle Hattingh had no close competitors in the women's 14' sup class this year, but the women's 12'6 class had tight competition between Kimberly Barnes (Riviera), Katherine Pyne (Bark boards) and teenage Maddie Miller. Maddie's dad Steven (Starboard) was one of the favorites for the men's 12'6 sup class, along with Packet Casey (JP), and Jamie Twigg. Last year's 12'6 winner, teenage Joey Huemphner, switched to 14' for this year. A bunch of people from my local CGT sup club came down for the race, including Cindy Gibson, Murray Hunkin, Bill Mussenden, Devin Turetzkin, Justin DiGiorgio, Robert Norman, Matt Kearney, and me. The latter four of us all carpooled together in Justin's truck and split a hotel room on the famous Duval Street in downtown Key West.

Results: Vinnicius won the men's 14' class in 1:53:13, followed by Larry Cain in 1:55:52. In an interesting upset, non-professional racer Jake Portwood (1:59:10) narrowly edged out pro Garrett Fletcher (1:59:33). I was the 14th SUP overall in 2:09:55.

Portwood, Cain, Martins


Hugely impressive Seychelle Hattingh was 5th 14' overall in 2:02:10, before Sam English's also-impressive 2:03:06.

Women's 14' podium with Meg Bosi (2:52:25), Seychelle, Josette Lata (2:51:35), and Jen Huelett (3:23:44)


First place 12'6 man was Steven Miller (2:08:15), followed by Jamie Twigg (2:10:42), Packet Casey (2:14:55), [3 women], Robert Norman (2:25:42), [3 more women], and Matt Kearney (2:35:33).


First female 12'6 was Kim Barnes in 2:16:35, followed by Katherine Pyne in 2:21:45, Maddie Miller in 2:23:09, Catherine Uden in 2:30:08, and Cindy Gibson in 2:33:22.

Maddie, Kim, Katherine, Catherine, and Cindy


Notable performances from the CGT team included Cindy Gibson being first over-50 female (2:33:22), and Devin Turetzkin being first over-50 12'6 male (2:36:23). Full results are posted on paddleguru.

Devin at the finish line


Gear: I used my 14x23 Riviera RP raceboard with a Riviera Bump 7.0 paddle. For the fin I used a large, weed-shedding fin that I always take for rough water races because I think/hope it adds stability. I wore my wife's pink Camelback water carrier and drank a dilute mix of water and Gatorade. I had lots of trouble with stability and board handling in the rough water, but Sam English used the same board as me, only fell twice, and finished almost 7 minutes faster, so I don't think I can blame the board for all my troubles. Race winner Vinnicius was on a 14x23 JP Flatwater board, which was not at all designed for the rough water of this race, but was obviously fast under his expert piloting. Third place Jake Portwood used the 14x24.5 JP Allwater model, which seems like a more logical choice for the conditions. Second place Larry Cain used the 14x24.5 Starboard AllStar, which is also an "all water" board. Seychelle was on a 14' "all water" prototype from SIC that was 23 or 24 wide (I can't remember which). Jim Terrell was on a board of his own design that had a recessed deck and channeled bottom somewhat like the Starboard AllStar. Several people were on canoe-style NSP boards with deeply recessed standing areas and high rails. Christian Goerloff was on the 14x26 version of the NSP and finished ahead of Billy Sweezy who was falling more often on the 14x23 version. Joey Huemphner and a few other people were on "Flyingfish" custom raceboards that seemed to have a voluminous nose, all-water orientation.

Play by play: The start of the race was a confusing, disorganized disaster, at least for me. My impression from the racer's meeting was that we were to line up parallel to shore within the Higgs Beach cove, rather than stretching out in a long line perpendicular to shore as we had in previous years. But as soon as paddlers got to the edge of the cove they continued to paddle further out, dispersing in all directions.



No one was being herded back in, not even those who were already starting to drift down the course. I figured I shouldn't be caught following the rules when nobody else was, so I kind of followed the crowd further out. A few minutes before the scheduled 9 am start, without any sound or warning, that I could detect, people just started going. The race was on, apparently, and just like last year, I was one of the suckers who was way behind before I even stood up. AAAAGHG! I later learned that the start had been a subtle hand-signal from a jet ski rider, visible only to a few people. For future years, I strongly suggest that the race committee: A) Hold us all behind a line in the cove, B) Place a buoy offshore that we all have to paddle out to and around initially so that the downwind end of the line won't be favored. C) Having blaring horns, flapping flags, and buzzing jetski's to keep everyone behind the line until it's time to go, D) Give a warning blast on the horn 30 seconds before the actual start so people can start their GPSs and stand up.

It took some of the wind out of my sails, figuratively speaking, to see that I'd put myself at a huge disadvantage before even paddling a stroke. Nevertheless, I tried to move forward. It was awkward as heck paddling in that confusing, multi-directional chop and swell, with none of the directions quite the direction I wanted to go in. Though I had practiced in rough water several times the previous week, I still couldn't figure out what to do with those conditions, and my balance was too shaky to paddle hard. I had one fall about two minutes in, another two minutes later. I saw Jake Portwood (who had also been caught out by the start) passing me and making decent progress, but when I tried to go faster myself it backfired and led to more falls. Cindy Gibson and other paddlers who are normally slower than me would pass me when I fell, even though they weren't "riding bumps" at all. Finally after my 6th fall in the first 10 minutes of the race I decided I needed to stop trying to go fast and start focusing solely on staying upright. By doing that I was finally able to make consistent enough progress to get ahead of Cindy and some of the other pack around me. I did have one more pair of falls approaching Fort Zachary Taylor at the end of the downwind portion, but that the last of the falling for a while as we had moved into the flatwater section of the race.

In the lee of the seawall on the west side of Key West I actually paddled like I've trained to do, and closed in on a few people, the hardest to catch being Maddie Miller. I was caught myself by Zach Rounsaville. He's a strong paddler who was on an Indigo board designed more for flatwater than bumps. It definitely worked for him in the flatwater section as he briefly drafted then passed me. I tried but couldn't stay in his draft as we crossed an open bay where the wind forced me to paddle really hard just on my left side. The next scene change was passing Key West Bight and turning east to enter Fleming Key Cut. That put me going upwind, but it wasn't too bad because the current was at my back, and the seawall provided some slight shelter from the wind. Exiting the cut I caught up with 12'6 women's leader Kim Barnes, and gradually passed her in the upwind but relatively smooth water conditions. I stayed close to the shoreline on the north side of Key West, hoping to get a partial break from the wind. I kept one eye on a group of male paddlers who weren't too far ahead of me, and I saw that Zach had caught up with them. Depending on whether they worked cooperatively or antagonistically as a draft team, I figured they would either pull further ahead, or break and give me a chance to catch whoever fell off the back.

I followed those guys into the backwater canal and under a bridge. It looked like the main path went straight under the bridge, but the other guys forked off on a really narrow canal to the right and I followed them, thankfully avoiding a dead end that a lot of other people fell for. The canal got REALLY narrow and became a tunnel through the mangrove trees. The water was deep, but you had to stay in the center and keep the paddle straight up and down to avoid hitting roots or shallows on either side. There were some small bridges and branches that I had to get down on my knees to get under, and one creepy claustrophobic tunnel under Flagler Avenue. For that one I had to lie on my belly and paddle with my arms because it was too low to even kneel and paddle.

Another racer ducking under a bridge in the canal section.


The canal took an eastward turn and opened up a bit, and I saw that the draft train in front of me had indeed fractured, dropping Steven Bernstein on his 14x25 Starboard AllStar. I paddled hard and caught up with Steven, taking a minute or two to catch my breath in his draft before taking a turn leading. I saw another paddler who I thought I might catch and add to the train, but it turned out to be Packet Casey who was on a 12'6 and couldn't draft with the 14' class. In my enthusiasm to get up to Packet I'd dropped Steven, but he wouldn't stay gone for long.

Eventually the canal went under A1A and joined with Cow Key Cut, the route back to open water. There were some forks in the road but I just followed those ahead of me. Later, looking at my gps track I saw that I could have taken a wind-sheltered shorcut and shaved a little time off. Doh! The side-wind in Cow Key Cut, and the tiny side chop bouncing off the seawall, was annoying. But it was just a preview of the epic nastiness that we would face when we left the protection of the cut and started rounding the exposed southeast corner of Key West. One of the guys in front of me, Christian Goerloff, paddled south (away from shore) for quite a while to get away from the zone of shallow water and reflected seawall chop. I wish I had done that. Instead, I began another round of falling a whole bunch while paddling slowly. It was actually harder to stay on the board here than it had been in the larger waves at the start of the course, such was the insidious reverberating chop effect. I had 6 falls in that area, putting my total falls up to 12 at that point in the race. As bad as it was for me, though, it was worse for Zach Rounsaville, and I got by him. Once around the corner, the sea state was a little more organized and I had a miraculous 20 minutes of not falling. I think this was an area where a skilled paddler could have caught lots of rides and maintained a high average speed, but I played it cautious, and actually gained ground on some of the paddlers ahead of me, coming abreast of Joey Huemphner and Billy Sweezy, who are both good paddlers on 14' boards. Everything went to hell again when I got almost to the end of the course, and I started to hit the chop reflected from the massive concrete "pier of doom" that marks the entrance to Higgs Beach. I squeezed another four falls into the last few hundred meters of confused water and breaking waves between the pier and the finish line, letting Joey and Billy get away easily, and inviting Steven Bernstein back to steal my spot. Somehow Steven fell just as much as me, though, and I did (barely) hang on to the lead that I'd stolen from him back in the narrow canal.

When I jumped off my board in the surging, seaweed-filled shorebreak at the finish line I landed right on a bunch of coral rocks and bruised my heel, but still hustled up and through the gate. WHEW! It was an utterly humbling race. I suppose I'm proud to have finished and placed among the faster amateur paddlers, but I'm left with a lot of "woulda coulda shoulda" feelings about things I might have done differently to get a better result, or at least a more graceful one.

Other race stories: I heard that race leader Vinnicius was far ahead at the midpoint, but unsure about where the turn was to get into the inside passage, so he stopped and waited for Larry Cain to ask for directions! Seychelle Hattingh said she had a good start and a great race on her prototype "all-water" 14' SIC board. She was keeping pace with Garrett Fletcher through much of the race, which is extremely impressive. Further from the front of the pack, the stories were more about surviving than flourishing. Robert Norman went fast in the flats on his 12'6x25 Hovie ZXC, but couldn't stay upright long enough in the rough water to catch the fast 12'6 ladies Kim Barnes, Katherine Pyne and Maddie Miller. Matt Kearney on CGT's 12'6x24.5 Starboard AllStar had the usual problems with falling, and also cursed his choice of a non-weed shedding fin, which snagged huge wads of Sargassum seaweed and slowed him way down in both the flat water and rough sections. Justin DiGiorgio and Murray Hunkin suffered many falls on their 14' boards and both had to resort to paddling from a kneeling or sitting position for portions of the race. Bill Mussenden wisely chose a wide touring board instead of his 25" wide raceboard and managed to complete the course shortly after Murray.

What to do different next time: My balance and rough water technique was definitely not up to the task of handling my narrow 14x23 board in these conditions. I either need to make significant skill improvements or borrow a wider board next time. It may help to practice paddling at odd angles to the wind and chop. I've mostly practiced straight upwind and straight downwind, but "quartering" is much trickier, and might also require a different fin type and standing position than what I've been using. Having more practice in awful conditions should also give me more confidence to paddle with unhesitating power in those conditions instead of just mincing along. In terms of strategies for this particular race, I should be ready or any kind of crazy start by being at the line early, right where Vinnicus, Larry, and Seychelle are. I should look carefully at Google Earth before the race to know exactly where my turns and legal shortcuts are going to be, both for the normal course and for this "detour" course. At the southeast corner of the island I should take the turn WIDE to get clear of the shallow water and reflected seawall chop zone.