Sunday, February 4, 2018

Race Report: Paddle at the Pass 2018

Race: "Paddle at the Pass"

Date it happened: 4 February 2018

Host: The South Florida Canoe and Kayak Club, which "is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit member based organization in Cape Coral, Florida offering both development and high performance training in flatwater sprint canoe and kayak racing, stand up paddleboard racing, surf ski, dragonboat racing and para canoe. SFCKC has world class coaches with experience in National, International and Olympic level regattas. We are also proud to be the home of two Olympic hopeful athletes training daily with our club."

Location: Matlacha Community Park, on the cute, island community of Matlacha, which lies in the "Matlacha Pass" estuary between Cape Coral and Pine Island. I was familiar with the area because it was the launch site for a seagrass survey project I did for Lee County in summer of 2014. The waters of Matlacha Pass are shallow and have historically supported extensive seagrass beds and oyster reefs. However, the water quality and habitats have declined in recent years due to nutrient pollution from the growing Lee County population, combined with damaging freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River at the south end of the pass. (An interesting tidbit of geological history is that Matlacha Pass was once the channel of the Caloosahatchee River, which flowed north into Charlotte Harbor, before sea level rose and the river found a more southerly outlet through San Carlos Bay.)

Course / Distance: There was a 5km course for the under-14 and under-18 year old racers, and a 10 km course for the adults. The courses were originally intended to be one and two circumnavigations, respectively, of Matlacha Island. However, a very low tide combined with the water-pushing-out-effect of several days of East winds had exposed impassable shallows along that route. The race committee adapted well to the new situation by setting out-and-back courses running along a the main channel of the estuary. (See my GPS track from the race; I measured the distance paddled as 10.28 km)

Conditions: There was 8-15 knots of wind from the ENE, which was side-wind for the entire course, but more downwind on the first part and more upwind on the return. The wind increased from the 930 am race start until the end, so the slower paddlers had to fight the worst of it. Shallow water, knee- to waist-deep for much of the course, with exposed oyster reefs, sandbars, and blue crab traps in places, also slowed things down and made it important to stay in the relatively deeper spots. There was some current from the outgoing tide that was most notable at the south end of the course. It helped us in the first half and slowed us coming back.

Participants, Results and Gear: There was a good turnout of fast kayakers from the SFCKC youth development program, along with some adult kayakers. Some, like my friend Justin DiGiorgio, were in surfski kayaks (the sit-on-top racing kayaks that can tip over without filling up with water). Others were in K1 kayaks (the kind that are hollow and your legs go inside). The fastest K1 kayaker was elite athlete Fabio Wyss, who recently represented Switzerland in the K1 1000 meter event in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like a lot of international paddle athletes from cold countries, he trains in Florida in the winter. One of the SFCKC youths was in a C1 racing canoe, which requires an awkward, asymmetrical kneeling stance, and super good balance because it's pencil thin but has no outrigger for stability. Mark Athanacio used his V1 rudderless outrigger canoe and was the only outrigger canoe paddler at this race. I was on my trusty 14'x23" Riviera race SUP, and my toughest SUP competitor was Greg Zasinets on a 14'x24.5" Starboard Allstar. Carlos Colon and Bryan Herrick also raced 14' sups, and Cindy Gibson, Donna Catron, and Jen Hayes raced 12'6 sups.

I don't have the full results list, but I know Fabio was the first, finishing the 10.28 km in 52:48 on his K1 kayak. He said his pace was a lot slower than normal because of the shallow water and wind. Justin DiGiorgio held his own with the more experienced kayakers and finished in 1:07:30, a little ahead of Mark Athanacio's outrigger. I was the first SUP in 1:15:04. The official time may be about 2 minutes slower than that, since they started the SUPs after the kayaks but didn't account for that in the time-elapsed calculations. Greg Zasinets was about 2 minutes behind me. Cindy and Carlos were the next sup finishers in around 1:27:00, with Cindy blasting over the line just ahead of Carlos- an impressive feat with her being on a slower 12'6 board. Donna and Jen caught the worst of the wind but managed to battle over the line in less than 2 hours.

Play by play: The sit-down craft started first, and the SUPs started about 2 minutes later. I started at the upwind end of the line and angled slightly upwind for the first bit of the race, to build kind of a "high ground" on my competitors. After the starting sprint I took a look around and saw that I was securely ahead of everybody except Greg Zasinets, who was dead even with me but further downwind. I then started to strategically "spend" my upwind position to put on little bursts of speed when the side-chop presented an opportunity to ride a "micro-bump." That strategy worked OK, and I had maybe 50 or 100 meters on Greg as we neared the halfway point. Approaching that turn-around buoy was the fastest section of the course, with a tidal current helping, and the wind more at our backs. My buoy turn at the halfway point was OK- I didn't fall, at least. But I got a fright to see Greg much too close for comfort with the toughest half of the race still ahead. Going north, fighting the sidewind/upwind and only being able to paddle on the left, was a major drag. My lower back and hips felt the burn from the twisting motion of paddling. It helped to focus on individual landmarks and choosing the optimal path to travel to distract from the physical unpleasantness. Sometimes I counted strokes to keep from falling into a slower rhythm. It wasn't clear whether Greg was gaining on me or falling behind until about 3/4 of the way through the race where it finally seemed like I had extended my lead somewhat. That last section of the race was side-wind hell, and it took every trick in the book to keep my board pointed where I wanted it to go and moving at a reasonable pace. Finally, it was over. Woo hoo!

I watched Greg finish, then packed the van and came back out on the observation pier to watch other finishers. While I was packing up I missed the big battle between Cindy and Carlos, so I only heard about that secondhand. Incredibly, after the race Cindy stayed on her board near the finish line and started practicing upwind/downwind runs in the strengthening wind. She is one tough lady.

Even though this was a small race, they gave out medals. Almost everybody got a medal because of all the different age and board classes, and all the medalists got their picture taken with Fabio. (U14, U18, 18-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50+) I'm OK with that. You have to be in it to win it, right? If you're the only 40-49 year old who shows up and suffers through a long windy race on a SUP, then I reckon you deserve that gold medal and picture with Fabio.

After the race some of us had lunch at the Blue Dog cafe next to the race site. It was awesome. This whole weekend has been awesome, actually, because today I got to do a sunny "downwinder" paddle with a lot of the same crew who were at the race, and I even did some windsurfing after that. Hooray for February in Florida!

No comments: