Monday, October 2, 2017

Race Report: Clearwater Beach Classic

Brad Ward on SUP chases the surfski kayaks in the long race.

Race: The Clearwater Beach Classic

Date it happened: There were clinics 28-29 Sep, 6-person outrigger canoe races 30 Sep, and all the other paddlecraft races 1 Oct, 2017.

Host: Clearwater Beach Classic and Outrigger Zone.

Location: The Clearwater Community Sailing Center and in the waters of St. Joseph Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.

Course / Distance: There was a 12.9 km course that went from St. Joseph Sound into the Gulf of Mexico and back, and there was a 6.4 km course that just did three upwind/downwind laps in St. Joseph Sound.

Conditions: It was sunny with an East wind increasing to 10+ knots by mid day, creating moderate chop on the bay. There was also a lot of boat traffic, increased by the fact that there was an offshore speedboat race in the afternoon. Lots of detached seagrass blades were floating on the surface and forming dense paddies along areas where the tidal currents sheared together. If your fin or rudder didn't have sufficient rake angle to shed the weeds you were screwed. There were also numerous small Chrysaora (sea nettle) jellyfish drifting around, so you didn't want to fall in.

Participants, Results and gear: There was an impressive turnout of sit-down paddlecraft, including surfski kayaks and OC1 and OC2 outrigger canoes, who mostly did the longer 12.9 km race. OC1 professional paddler Kai Bartlett ran the clinics and also did the races. Legendary South African kayaking coach and competitor Lee McGregor, now 65 years old but still competing at an elite level, was also there. MacGregor coached my CGT race team buddy Murray Hunkin, with whom I traveled to this race. It was neat meeting the old coach I'd heard so much about. On the SUP side of things, only 7 SUP racers did the long race, but a respectable 40 SUPs did the 6.4 km race. During the registration period there was some confusion about which course was intended to the "elite" SUP course. I saw on the signup page that Sarasota SUP hero Brad Ward (Sunova boards) was doing the 6.4 km, so I signed up for that, as did SUPerman Robert Norman, Jason Casuga, John Sekas, John Weinberg, and all the other fast folks whose names I recognized. The evening before the race, however, Brad tried to tell us on facebook that he had switched to the long race, and we should too. We didn't get the message in time, so it ended up being that Brad was the lone fast dude in the long race, and the closer competition was in the short race. Brad would have almost certainly beaten all of us in either race, but if we had been in the same race it might have at least looked like he had to work for it. Oh, well. Another very good SUP racer, Garrett Fletcher (Yolo boards) was also there, but he was racing an OC1 so we didn't have to worry about him. Oddly enough, the handful of prone paddleboarders (those who paddle with no paddle) all signed up for the long race, proving the stereotype that prone paddleboarders do it because they love to inflict pain on themselves. I should have asked if any ran afoul of the jellyfish as they hand-paddled for miles. That would have been like a bonus for them. Anyway, the results haven't been posted yet, but these are the top finishers that I remember:

Racer ** Class ** Board/Boat ** Course ** Time
Nate Humberston ** surfski ** Epic V12 ** 12.9 km ** ?? About an hour
Lee McGregor ** surfski ** ?? ** 12.9 km ** ?? About an hour
Flavio Costa ** surfski ** ?? ** 12.9 km ** ?? About an hour
Kai Bartlett ** OC1 ** ?? ** 12.9 km ** ?? A little over an hour
... Murray Hunkin was 6th overall on a borrowed Nelo surfski

James Douglass ** 14' SUP ** 23" wide Riviera RP ** 6.4 km ** 0:46:30
Robert Norman ** 14' SUP ** 23" wide Riviera RP ** 6.4 km ** 0:47:00
John Sekas ** 14' SUP ** MHL Custom ** 6.4 km ** 0:48:ish

Play by play: Murray and I arrived just in time the evening before the race to do a warmup paddle and check out the course. It was apparent that the seagrass was going to be a big issue for Murray's straight-up-and-down surfski rudder, which was soon towing a clod of weeds the size of an eagle's nest. I could almost keep up with him on my SUP! Murray had brought along a smaller, raked rudder designed for river racing, but his huge, sausage-like fingers couldn't operate the tiny allen-head screws to change the rudder. I saved the day with my little scientist fingers and got the weedless rudder installed before the race.

On race morning we got to the site early and had plenty of time to warm up and schmooze with the other competitors. The long race started first, from knee deep water. When those racers had finished the first leg of the course, the short (mostly SUP) racers lined up for a running start from the beach. I picked the northeast end of the line, which I figured would be favored based on the wind direction. Robert Norman and I got similarly good starts and were roughly parallel to each other for a while, but with him further downwind. It was somewhat slow going into the wind. Even paddling very hard I could only average 7.8 kph on that first leg, and Robert rounded the upwind buoy several board lengths ahead. (If I'd been smart I would have cut over and tried drafting him.) On the first downwind I caught some small bumps, but so did Robert, and I didn't gain much distance on him. On the second upwind he extended his lead, and I feared my streak of not being defeated by my younger teammate was finally coming to an end. I kept him in sight, though, hoping I'd get a second wind or he'd tire out. On the second downwind I got an extremely lucky break, when I was able to ride a huge boat wake and regain all the ground I'd lost to Robert, plus some. Seriously, I think it was the longest, fastest ride I've ever gotten on a non-breaking wave. I started the third and final lap with a small lead, and Robert tucked into my draft. I didn't try to shake him from the draft on the upwind, but paddled steadily with a quicker bursts when I could paddle a few strokes with my fresher left side. For the final downwind leg I focused hard on catching every little wave I could, without doing anything super risky that might cause me to fall and blow my lead. It worked. I finished a small but safe distance ahead of Robert and was happy to get my first "first" in a while. Yeah! I used to be able to keep Robert a lot further behind me, but he has improved RAPIDLY this year, and is starting to develop the "seasoned waterman" skills to take full advantage of his young and ultra fit physique. There's really no limit to how fast the guy might get. I wouldn't be surprised if this was my last time finishing ahead of SUPerman, but I'll certainly still work hard to make it as difficult as possible for him to pass me.

Here's my GPS track from the course:

The top finishers from the long race were coming in around the same time as Robert and I, but the mid-pack and back-marker folks took a long time to trickle back, having to fight increasingly rough and windy conditions. I think it was quite a battle for some, and a reminder that some of the best competition is the individual-vs-the-elements kind that every paddle racer confronts, regardless of where they are in the finishing order. The seagrass element was definitely a tough one for a lot of people, seriously handicapping Garrett Fletcher on his straight-ruddered OC1 and Lee McGregor on his surfski. It's possible that Lee would have beaten much younger Nate Humberston if not for the fact that Nate had a weed-shedding rudder and Lee didn't. I heard that Nate generously pulled the weeds off Lee's rudder in the middle of the race when they were paddling next to each other, but after that, of course, there were no more favors.

After Brad Ward finished (he was the first SUP by a lot) he let me try is 14x23.5 Sunova Flatwater Faast. It's a cool looking dugout design with a recessed standing area and drain holes. The water was not at all flat when I tested it, but it seemed to handle fine even with the disorganized chop and whitecaps. The nose pierced into the waves and floated up again without slowing down too much, and the low center of gravity kept it stable even with chop hitting it at odd angles. I did fall once trying to get the feel of how it behaved downwind, and it was a little awkward to get back in compared to a flat-decked board. After that first fall, though, I got the feel of it's downwind reactions a little better and I felt like it could catch bumps just fine for a flatwater board. Brad says the "all water" Sunova design is significantly easier in rough water and great for catching bumps, so that sounds like it would be a good one to try, too.

I really liked the format of this race. They gave out nice shirts, had plenty of food and beer (although I don't drink), and they had a beautiful and convenient launch site. There was an awards ceremony, but no trophies- just usable prizes like hats and insulated lunch boxes. I actually prefer that, since I have no use for dust-collecting medals and trophies from every little race. T-shirt and a photo-opportunity with the other winners is just right for an amateur race, IMO.

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