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.

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