Monday, November 30, 2015

How to get pretty good at SUP racing in about a year

With apologies for tooting my own horn, I’ll say that I’ve become a pretty fast amateur SUP racer over the last year or so. If there are 5 tiers of SUP racers (see below) I’m probably on the middle tier now. For each tier I estimated the speed that riders on that tier might average in a mid-distance flatwater race. This is assuming 18-49 year old male riders on 14’ sups.

Professionals, 10 kph
Best-in-Florida sponsored racers, 9.5 kph
Avid amateurs who train hard and have good gear, 9.0 kph
Competent mid-pack racers who train and have decent gear, 8.0 – 9.0 kph
Folks who like racing but aren’t quite up to speed in terms of gear and training, <8.0 kph

In this post I’ll recap how I got to the “avid amateur” level, and I’ll include advice for other people who might want to “level up” their SUP racing. For those who don’t want to read the whole thing, here are the Cliff’s Notes:

1. Train by regularly paddling hard, striving to improve technique, and pushing yourself through discomfort to the limits of your strength and aerobic abilities.
2. Use gear appropriate to your conditions and commensurate with your abilities; test gear often and upgrade when worthwhile.
3. Meticulously track your performance data and use them to evaluate the effects of your fitness training, technique changes, and gear upgrades.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 over and over.

Full story:

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The beginning- My race SUP training started in September 2014 when I decided to enter a race on the Imperial River near my house in Bonita Springs, Florida. The first thing I did was get a map of the ~7km racecourse from the organizers at CGT kayaks and paddleboards. Then I paddled the exact course at a moderately strenuous pace and timed myself. The board I used was my fastest SUP at the time- an 11’8” x 32” (360 x 81 cm) Exocet WindSUP.

Lessons learned- Just do it. Start with the gear you have.

Rapid gains phase 1- On the graph you can see that I made significant speed gains each time I did the race course on the WindSUP. In just a few weeks I went from 6.3 kph to 7.5 kph; which meant finishing the course about 10 minutes faster. During that time my muscular and aerobic fitness improved rapidly, and the excitement of improving helped me push myself harder. I studied stroke technique on the Internet and tried to apply what I learned, like using core muscles instead of just arms and shoulders. I also learned to reach further with the paddle, and I cut my paddle down from overly long to appropriately short. By experimenting with where to stand on the board I found that I was fastest when standing forward enough for most of the nose to contact the water, but back enough for the tail to maintain light, even contact with the water. Concurrent with what I was doing on the water, I also quit drinking alcohol, did pushups, pullups and situps, and started running more often to improve my aerobic fitness and lose a couple pounds of fat.

Lessons learned- Track your progress in a consistent way. Work on both fitness and technique. Adjust your lifestyle to embrace your paddling goals.

Rapid gains phase 2- Although I only caught the last two races in CGT’s 2014 summer race series, I was totally hooked, and I bought my first race SUP. It was a 14’ x 26” 404 pintail zeedonk. I chose a 14’ board instead of a 12’6 board for a simple reason: because 14’ is faster than 12’6, and I wanted something that would be dramatically faster than the 11’8 WindSUP. The zeedonk instantly made me 5 minutes faster on the course and brought my average speed up to 8.16 kph. (Interestingly, though, the 5 minutes improvement from the board switch was less than the 10 minutes improvement from practicing, reminding me that the board isn’t everything.) I made steady improvements on the raceboard, but the gains weren’t huge like when I first started practicing. Some of the gains were from experimenting with fins. I found that a sleek, weed-shedding fin was the fastest and the straightest-tracking. My best run on the zeedonk was 8.6 kph, using that fin. Although the zeedonk was plenty fast I sold it because I was worried about damaging it, since it was super light with just a thin, flexible skin of black carbon fiber.

Lessons learned- Consistent, hard practice makes you a lot faster. A 14’ raceboard also makes you faster, but be cautious about super light black carbon ones. Get a fin that sheds weeds, helps you track straight, and has minimal drag.

Slow gains phase- I replaced the zeedonk with a 14’ x 27” Fanatic Falcon, which was a bit heavier but with a more durable construction and seaworthy shape. I figured it was a better long-term investment. My first run on it was a little slower than I’d been on the zeedonk, but I got a personal best 8.79 kph once I put the good weed fin on it. Around that same time I also switched back to the WindSUP for a test run to check how much of the improvement was me vs. the board. I was faster somewhat faster on the WindSUP, 7.87 kph, but it was clear that my speed increases were leveling off.

Lessons learned- After a couple months of training, your rapid speed gains will begin to level off.

There was an interruption in the slow-gains phase when I got a bad stomach bug over Christmas. I couldn’t practice for a while, and I was weak and slow when I came back. I got back on track, but disappointingly didn’t make much improvement during the spring. Sometimes I’d put in a fast run, sometimes a slow run. I’d started paddling with a cheap GPS, which let me figure out the exact distances I had paddled, but the real time speed would bounce around a lot so it wasn’t a good speedometer. What helped me continue to make some improvements during this phase was paddling with other people in the CGT race team and doing some workouts of varying distance and intensity. I.e., running the same course over and over had stopped working, but doing some interval training, like 1600 m sprints, got me past that. Also, the toughest paddler in my area, Mark Athanacio, would push me beyond my usual limits whenever we paddled together.

Lessons learned- Illness or injury sets you back temporarily but doesn’t undo your trained skills. Doing varied training with a competitive group is key for breaking through a speed plateau.

It was partly because of Athanacio, and partly because of seeing what other successful paddlers were using at the bigger races across the state, that I decided I needed to switch to a narrower board. Because CGT kayaks sells 404 brand SUPs I got a 14’ x 24” v3 model. It did seem to be a little faster, on average, than the 14’ x 27” Fanatic, but the difference wasn’t as dramatic as I’d hoped. Also, I didn’t like the feel of the board as much as the Fanatic. The Fanatic was especially easy and efficient in rough water. Anyway, I sold the 404 to another CGT team member, and bought a 24.75” wide Fanatic. I figured it was a sure bet- same board design that I really liked the feel of, but narrower width and therefore faster. As you can see on the graph, I was a little bit faster on the narrow Fanatic, on average. I could get 9+ kph runs with some regularity, whereas I’d only been able to get over 9 kph on one or two freak occurrences with the wider Fanatic.

Lessons learned- Try before you buy, and be realistic about your expectations for the performance of a new board. Just because a board “should” be faster doesn’t mean it will be faster for you or that you will like the feel of it better that what you’re on.

Mad Science Phase- In early June I was inspired by Jim Terrell and Larry Cain’s advice to film myself SUPing and critically dissect my stroke technique. I did it by putting my GoPro camera on a dock at the riverside and paddling by it repeatedly at race pace or sprint pace. I realized I was doing several things wrong: hunching my upper back too much, not reaching forward enough, not using my hips effectively, and pulling the paddle too far behind my feet before withdrawing it from the water. Subsequently I tried hard to fix those problems by focusing my workouts on proper form, even at the expense of speed and endurance. At first it made me significantly slower- it took about a month to get back up to my old pace on the 24.75” Fanatic.

Lessons learned- Applying technique changes takes time, and will temporarily slow you down, but you should still do it.

I used the Fanatic on June 28th in the first race of the summer 2015 CGT race series. I think the narrow board and technique-focused training paid off, because for the first time I was able to keep pace with local athletic trainer and very good SUP racer Mark Athanacio. We helped each other out by trading off drafting each other, but he wore me out and beat me in the end. After the race I asked Mark how I could get better and he basically said, “hire me for a coaching session.”

Lesson: Coaching yourself helps, but enlisting a real coach helps more.

At the coaching session Mark filmed me and showed me the playback on his notepad device using a program called “coach’s eye”. He showed me some of the issues I had identified myself and not totally fixed, but he also showed me new things to work on, like getting more body weight onto the paddle and using more efficient movements in the recovery phase between strokes. Mark did a second round of filming at the end of the session and it was cool to see how much better my stroke looked when I put some of his tips to work. Mark also advised me on gear, nutrition, training, and race strategy. He confirmed that quitting drinking alcohol was a huge benefit. He said that high intensity interval training, with challenges like rough water and buoy turns thrown in, was most effective. He said that too much long distance endurance training could be counterproductive so I shouldn’t overdo it on full-distance practice races. He said that lifting weights about 2x a week could be really helpful, but thus far I’ve neglected to do that. For race strategy he said the start is super important, so make sure you have all your sh*t together before the start and you’re positioned and ready to sprint like hell when they blow the horn. He also said that when anything slows you down, like a turn, you should sprint hard to get back up to speed in the shortest amount of time possible. He said a lot of the race is mental, including pushing yourself, trusting your abilities, and not getting psyched out by the other competitors. After the coaching session with Mark I was super stoked- ready for battle.

Lessons learned- Quit boozing. Put your weight on the paddle. Do challenging, high intensity interval training- not easy distance paddling. Be serious about race preparation, mindset, and strategy.

Inspired by the session with Mark I splurged for a new GPS speedometer specifically for SUP- a Speedcoach SUP 2 with a heartrate monitor and programmable intervals workouts. It made my workouts a lot more interesting, because I could do specific time, speed, distance, or intensity workouts anywhere, like on the ocean, without having to stick to set courses in the river. Also, the accurate GPS speedometer gave me instant feedback on speed, which helped me tweak my technique to go fast and stay fast. The speedometer is particularly useful when doing a race in varied terrain, like shifting currents, different water depths, wind, waves, etc., where a little change in the line you’re traveling or the technique you’re using can make a big difference in speed. The heartrate monitor helped me learn what my cardiovascular limits are and when to slow down or keep pushing in an uncomfortable situation. The rule of thumb of Max HR = 220 – Age is pretty accurate for me at 36 years old because 184 bpm is definitely a level at which I start feeling like crap, and I can’t go above that for long.

Lessons learned- Get a GPS fitness tracker with a heartrate monitor and use it like a mad scientist.

The rest of the CGT summer race series was a really good time for experimenting with the speedcoach. It was also a good time for experimenting with different boards, because CGT was eager to have me test and ride the boards they sell (rather than my Fanatic, which is not a brand they carry). In the second CGT summer race I used a 14’ x 27” 404 v3 in the affordable PVC construction. It was pretty fast for such a wide, stable board, but it took some extra energy for me to keep it going and I wasn’t able to keep up with Mark Athanacio. In the third CGT race I used a 14’ x 26” BlkBox Uno and put in my hardest ever effort, hanging on through exhaustion by focusing intently on technique. It was an uncomplicated race because I had started ahead of Mark Athanacio and didn’t have to worry about drafting strategy or anything. I beat Mark’s time for the first time, which made me feel pretty studly. In the next race I used a 14’ x 27” Riviera RP in fiberglass construction and had a more strategic battle with Mark, starting at the same time and trading drafting positions. The 27” Riviera felt faster to me than the 27” 404, but I was still really dependent on drafting Mark to save energy. At the final turn I made a sprint move to put a gap on Mark so he couldn’t draft me, then I went full blast for the rest of the race to win by a small margin. In all the subsequent races of the series I used a 14 x 25” wide Riviera RP in fiberglass construction. I pretty much kicked butt, because that Riviera is a ROCKET in flat water. I should note, however, that in the final race Athanacio showed me he’s still a force to be reckoned with by drafting me most of the time even though he was on a 12’6 for that race. He also showed that he’s a good sport by stopping and waiting for me to retrieve my detached speedcoach when I hit a submerged root and nosedived to the bottom of the river.

Lessons learned- 27” wide boards are generally slower than narrower boards, but there is also variation in speed among brands. It’s possible to keep up with a faster rider by sprinting into his draft early and staying there doggedly, so drafting is a good way to narrow the gap between yourself and faster riders.

I put the drafting lesson to work in the recent race around Lover’s Key by drafting Kieran Grant, one of the tops-in-Florida riders who is a tier above me in speed and skills. I was able finish the race just 25 seconds behind him, which I reckon is my best SUP performance so far, and a good motivation to keep working hard.

Other random things I learned this year- Don't drink coffee or soda before a race. Do drink tons of water and stay cool by dunking in the water, sitting in the shade, and being as close to naked as possible. Eat/drink some energy rich foods before and after a race, like a peanut butter banana sandwich, a big bowl of cereal, or a fruit smoothie. Don't try to negotiate with the voices in your head when you're suffering in training- i.e., don't make bargains like, "just one more minute then I'll take it easy". Instead, accept the suffering and find something to focus on, like your technique, to get through it.

What’s Next- I hope to make some more small gains in flatwater speed this year, and some improvements in skill and strategy that will help me in open-water races around south Florida. That will require keeping up the hard training on the water, doing more fiddling with gear and technique, and maybe adding some weightlifting at the gym on days that I’m not on the water. I also signed up to participate in a sports physiology experiment at NSU in Fort Lauderdale, which is going to test the effects of a high protein diet on SUP racers. I’ll go over there and do a bunch of grueling tests and have weird body measurements taken, then I’ll switch to the high protein diet for 8 weeks and repeat the tests. It should be interesting.

Paddle hard!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Amateurish Thoughts on Picking a Race SUP Paddle

The Internet is full of good, scientific, professional-type guides on how to pick a SUP paddle. This is not one of those. Rather, it’s my personal, subjective thoughts on how I've picked my paddles, because Serghei Koval asked me if I would make a blog post about that topic.

The first time I ever stood erect on a windsurf board, sans sail, holding a paddle, was in 2007 in the outer banks, NC. It was a jiggered up canoe paddle. Even though it was longer than a normal canoe paddle it was too short to be effective for SUP. Plus, it was awkward and wiggly. As soon as the wind started to blow I put a sail back on the board and didn't touch a paddle for another year or so.

Later, confronted with a lot of windless conditions, I made some paddles of my own from cheap plastic kayak paddles and aluminum tubes from various sources, e.g., old pool dipnets. For the handles I used chunks of wood sawed into T shapes and duct taped on. Those got the job done but were a little heavy and wobbly and lacked the bent-back blade angle that I now know is important for efficient paddling. I also think I erred on the side of making the paddles too long.

I got my first real paddle when I got my first real paddleboard, an Angulo Surfa 10’4”, in Massachusetts in 2011. I was going to buy a cheap adjustable aluminum and plastic paddle, but Josh Angulo sold me on a fixed-length carbon fiber paddle and I was glad for that. It was a lot lighter than anything I’d used before. The shape and angle of the paddle blade were good for efficiently grabbing water, in what I later learned was called the “catch” phase of the paddle stroke. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Angulo paddle blade had elements that made it very forgiving: 1) A rounded outline and a moderate “aspect ratio” (not too short and wide, nor too long and narrow) made it easy to get in and out of the water. 2) A pronounced “dihedral” in the face of the blade prevented wobble during the “power” phase of the stroke. 3) An ample but not excessive blade surface area (97 in^2) helped get a solid catch. 4) An oval shaft facilitated a stable grip.

I was content with the Angulo paddle until I started racing in summer 2014. The first thing I thought about changing was the length of the shaft, which I had realized was a lot longer than most people my height were using. So I cut it down and and re-glued the handle such that I could reach up and grip the handle with a slightly bent elbow while standing the paddle on the ground. The shorter shaft helped me go faster by encouraging me to do more work with my body and legs instead of just whipping the long paddle around with my arms and shoulders.

Another thing that made me question whether my Angulo paddle was set up right for me was comparing my speeds with it to my speeds with a heavy “Epic” brand aluminum and plastic adjustable paddle that I'd bought so my wife could sup with me. (I'd give her the good paddle and take the bad one because I'm nice like that.) I found that even though the Epic paddle was heavier and felt slower, my speeds with it were indistinguishable from my speeds with the Angulo. I figured that might have been because the Epic had a really big, flat blade that helped me get a solid catch and stronger, more heavily-weighted stroke. I thought that if I could combine the light weight of the Angulo paddle with whatever aspects of shape made the heavy Epic paddle work well for me, I’d have a worthy upgrade. Towards that end I started trying out the demo paddles at CGT kayaks and paddleboards.

I tried a HippoStick AL 8.0, a HippoStick AL 8.5, and a Riviera Vantage 8.0. To be honest, my speeds with all three of those paddles were statistically indistinguishable from my speeds with the Angulo and the Epic. I.e., the amount that my speed varies just depending on how I’m feeling, the weather, and other random factors is more than my speed varied from the different paddles. (It’s a common problem with testing SUP equipment- unless the benefits of the new equipment are huge, they’re really hard to detect.) Even though I didn’t have strong quantitative data to justify one paddle over the others, I had some “qualitative” data- my thoughts about how the paddles felt.

Hippostick 8.0: This one had a low aspect ratio and relatively small, flat blade. It was really easy to get in and out of the water, which would be good if you had a “fast cadence” paddling style. But it didn’t seem to “catch” in the water very solidly, which was my complaint about the Angulo, so I ruled it out.

Hippostick 8.5: This paddle had a similar shape to the other Hippostick, but with LOTS more surface area. It had a great “catch” and also a pretty good “release” at the end of the stroke. I felt like I had great acceleration with this paddle. On my test run with it I went really fast for the first half of the course, then got wicked tired on the second part. Tired both aerobically and in my muscles. It might have just been from not pacing myself well, but I thought it might also be a symptom of the blade being too big for me to handle.

Riviera Vantage 8.0: This wasn’t a miracle paddle or anything, but it suited me. I liked that it had a very solid catch, like the Hippostick 8.5, but had a somewhat smaller surface area and didn’t seem to give me the muscle tiredness quite as bad. The only disadvantage was that it was a bit harder to withdraw cleanly from the water, maybe due to the squarish tip and other shape features that helped it get such a good catch. I bought this paddle and started using it all the time. Did it make me faster? Maybe. Sort-of. After a while. Perhaps by helping me get a good catch it encouraged me to develop a stronger pull, making better use of all my available strength, weight, and leverage. And perhaps by being lightweight it allowed me to whisk the paddle around quickly between strokes and get more strokes per minute.

Eh, I really don’t know, though. Looking back over my data now it’s very hard to see any consistent sign of one paddle being faster than another, even including the old heavy aluminum paddle that felt like crap. I think as long as the shaft isn’t way too long or way too short, the handle is on straight, and you’re able to get a good catch and a smooth stroke, your paddle is OK. Then again, maybe it’s that I still haven’t found the really perfect paddle match for me, and if I did find it I’d see an obvious speed benefit.


While the search for an obviously faster paddle has so far been inconclusive, I’ve tried a couple of things recently that I liked a lot even though I have no data on whether or not they actually made me faster. One was the Riviera “bump” paddle, which has a raised texture on the shaft so your hands don’t slip as much when they get sweaty. Another grippy paddle I tried was a KeNalu paddle that has a “snakeskin” grip formed by partially exposed carbon cloth weave. Any kind of grip on the paddle is better than the totally smooth glossy finish on most of them.

Another thing I have NOT tried that might also help is a more flexible paddle shaft. According to some people the more flexible shaft is less fatiguing on your joints and muscles and can make you faster over the long run- Perhaps even over the short run.

If any of you readers have had big breakthroughs in your own paddle choices, I’d be curious to know, especially if you know for sure you found something that makes you faster.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

SUP Race Reports: Englewood Waterfest and Race around Lovers' Key

Whoopee! I'm recovering today from a fun weekend of Southwest Florida SUP racing, with good races both Saturday and Sunday.

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Saturday was the Englewood Beach Waterfest at Weston's Wanna B Inn on Manasota Key. Sunday was the Race Around Lovers' Key, hosted by my local shop/sponsor CGT Kayaks and Paddleboards. I'd been looking forward to the Lovers' Key race for a long time, and I debated skipping the Englewood race to save energy for Sunday. Racing hard two days in a row could hurt one's second day performance, especially for someone over 35 like me. But I decided I like racing, and racing is good practice for racing, so I would give it my best effort both days. Here is how each race went:

Saturday 14 Nov. 2015- Englewood Beach Waterfest. This race was based from a hotel on a narrow strip of land with access both to the Gulf of Mexico and to a protected channel called Peterson Cut. The intended course was to launch into the ocean, paddle through Stump Pass into Peterson Cut, then paddle up the cut to a buoy in front of the hotel. The short race would finish there, while the longer "elite" race would round the buoy and backtrack the course to finish at the beach.

Unfortunately, conditions required the race committee to eliminate the open water part of the course. I.e., there was a moderate swell that created tricky waves in Stump Pass, preventing the safety boat from getting into the Gulf of Mexico. So they moved the whole race into Peterson Cut. The short race was 3.7 km (once down the pass and back) and the elite race was 7.4 km (two down and backs). There was a stiff NE breeze, but mangroves lining the relatively narrow channel kept it manageable. It was much easier than the Palm Island Race, anyway.

The board I used was a Riviera RP 14' x 25", in fiberglass construction, which I've had on loan from CGT since the summer. The Riviera RP is a really fast board, especially in flat water and orderly bumps, and it works a bit better for me in those conditions than the Fanatic Falcon 14' x 24.75" that I own or the 14' x 24" 404 v3 that I used to own. All my personal best times on the courses we run regularly with the CGT Race Team have been set on the Riviera, and I don't think it's just me getting better. The board makes a real difference.

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Back to the Englewood race- One unorthodox thing about this race was the drafting rule. It was "no drafting until the first turn-around, but anything goes after that." The intent of the rule was to allow paddlers of slightly different speeds to spread out a bit more naturally at first, but still allow them to work together (draft) during the grueling middle part of the race. The two best 14' SUP men, Hoviesup riders Kieran Grant and Brad Ward, probably didn't hear the rule announcement because they started drafting each other immediately after the starting horn. I was a bit frustrated to see that happen, and after the race I told the organizer Bruce Denson. I asked him not to change the standings, since Brad and Kieran almost certainly would have been 1 & 2 no matter what, but I suggested that he give them a small time penalty or something as a reminder to pay attention to the rules. Bruce handled it good. I suppose I could have talked about it directly with Brad and Kieran, but even though they're nice I don't know them well and I thought it would be too awkward to broach the subject.

Anyway, I didn't worry much about the drafting thing during the race itself, because I was busy trying to stay ahead of strongman Jamie Twigg, who was riding a fast yellow Hoviesup board. Towards that end my Speedcoach 2 GPS was an advantage, because I could tell from the readout which parts of the channel had the best combination of the three main speed-influencing factors: current, wind, and water depth. I took the sides of the channel on the way south to avoid the incoming tidal current, and I took the center of the channel on the way back to make use of that current. That gave me a slight advantage on Mr. Twigg and I finished about 25 seconds ahead of him to get third place. The absolute times listed for the race on PaddleGuru are currently inaccurate. They have me at 0:43:24 but my GPS timer said my actual time was 0:48:44, distance 7.4 km, average speed 9.1 kph. Assuming the relative finishing times are accurate, the winner Brad Ward did it in about 0:47:20, followed closely by Kieran Grant in 0:47:32. My CGT teammate and Hoviesup rider Meg Bosi had a great 2nd place finish in the womens' 12'6 class, just a minute or so behind first place Katherine Pyne, also on Hoviesup. Needless to say, team Hovie DOMINATED this race. They're based right here in SW Florida but it seems like their boards are at least as fast as anything else on the water, anywhere. Also, their boards are incredibly light, like 3 kg lighter than the typical race SUP. And they always represent with a big, mixed-gender, mixed-age team at all the Florida races, so they're doing it right as far as supporting the racing scene. I noticed that this year Hovie has two different raceboard shapes- the Comet ZXC with a classic displacement style front section, and another shape with a flat bottom from nose to tail but a domed top deck in the bow to weather rough water. Brad used the former type and Kieran the latter.

As with all races organized by this Bruce Denson guy (who runs the Englewood Race, the race around Palm Island, and the Florida Cup) there was good southern hospitality and a family / kid friendly vibe to this race. A huge number of people signed up (120!), mostly for the shorter races, which are suited to surf-style SUP boards as well as specialized raceboards. Also, the food was great, and it didn't take too long to get the awards out and the results posted online. Combining serious and recreational racing into one event works great when it's done right, although I'm sympathetic to the challenge of trying to cater to both serious and recreational racers at the same time. The seriousish racers like me tend to be sticklers about rules, results, and timing, which could overwhelm a race organizer who wasn't prepared for it.

Sunday 15 Nov. 2015- Race Around Lovers' Key.
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This race was only 15 minutes from my house, and I was super stoked because it was the first ever "big production" race hosted by CGT. Also, I love races around islands because of the challenge of dealing all different wind and wave conditions on the different sides of the island. Plus you don't have to do any boring repeated laps or anything like that. The only problem is that most around-island races are too damn long. The Lovers' Key rounding is middle distance, about 9 km, which I reckon is perfect. On race day the course was a bit longer than usual because there was an ultra low tide and a buoy had to be set offshore to steer racers clear of shallows surrounding the New Pass channel. I had 9.64 km on my GPS after the race.

My strategy for the race was very different from my strategy for getting a fast time when paddling around the island in training. The difference was drafting, and it was all because Kieran Grant was there, with his awesome 14' x 23" red white and blue Hovie.

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I figured my only hope of finishing close to his time would be to get in his draft as soon as possible, if possible, and stay there as long as possible. I knew it would be tough, especially since Kieran's running starts from the beach are ridiculously fast. He throws the board down in ankle deep water and does a superman leap onto it, skimming a dozen meters across the water before anyone else is even on their board. I had a not-terrible start and paddled like hell to try to close the gap on Kieran. (I'm at the right edge of this picture, right after the start.)

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I hadn't quite closed it when a wake from the motorboat leading us interfered. We both tried to use it to our advantage and Kieran did that better than me. (When he's not a sup racer he is a pro-level sup wave surfer, so I assume he has unreal balance and wave catching abilities.) We needed to make a left turn to get out of San Carlos Pass, though, and the wake had taken Kieran a bit too far right. I was able to make up the distance and get behind him when we cut the corner around the north tip of Lovers' Key and started heading south in the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the benefit of drafting, it was not real easy to match Kieran's pace. My heart rate on the Speedcoach GPS display got up to almost as high as it gets when I'm not drafting. I concentrated on holding my position, breathing, and paddling with good form, and it got a little easier. I think if Kieran had REALLY wanted to shake me off his tail at any point he could have, but he didn't. I almost shook myself off though when I fell at the buoy turn to enter New Pass. I got back on board as fast as humanly possible and started paddling hard directly into the wind and outgoing tidal current to try to catch Kieran again. That's when I hit my max HR of 189, but somehow I got lucky and glued myself to Kieran's stern again just before running out of energy for sprinting. I think doing sprint interval training in the Imperial River with the other CGT race team folks really helped me to be able to do that.

After fighting the wind and current going through New Pass, we turned north and started fighting the combination headwind/sidewind coming across Estero Bay. Even Kieran was getting tired, and he made a comment to that effect. I took a turn pulling the draft, and went as fast as I could without letting my HR get over 184 or so. Before long Kieran took over again. There was a lot of boat traffic at that point in the race, including an annoying pontoon boat that was going almost exactly the same speed as us and messing us up with his wake that was awkwardly interacting with the wind chop, other boat wakes, and our own SUP wakes. Kieran pulled ahead there and I simply couldn't catch him again. I just went as fast as I could to the finish line, and was stoked to be only 25 seconds behind him when it was all over. He got 1:05:11 and I had 1:05:36.

The finish!
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Third place overall, in 1:08:54, was legendary 50 year old tough guy Mark Athanacio on a borrowed 12'6 Hovie.

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3rd in the 14' class and 4th overall was John Sekas, an ageless bronzed 50-something who rides a 14 x 23 MHL custom board. The next two finishers were both on Riviera boards- young Will Connaughton on a 14 x 23 and 49 year old Murray Hunkin on a 14 x 27. Close behind Murray was Mark Hourigan who was on a 14 x 27 Yolo. Mark H. is switching to a narrower board and just put his mint-condition Yolo up for sale for $1200, which is a good deal if anyone is interested. Full results from the race are posted below.

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Other notable achievements include the top 3 women (Lacie Flynn on a 12'6 Bark Vapor, Kate Pagan on a 12'6 Hovie custom, and Meg Bosi on a 12'6 Hovie Comet) beating all the 12'6 men with the exception of Mark Athanacio. Lacie and Kate also beat two of the young 14' guys, Brandon Gunderson and Justin DiGiorgio. Better practice harder, dudes. For some paddlers it was their longest and/or toughest race ever (because of the wind and current), so it was a big personal achievement for them that they finished. One woman, I think Donna Catron (?) finished the whole thing in less than two hours on a chunky pink surf style sup. Crazy.

Will nice board
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Murray big finish
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Mark Hourigan last time on the 14 x 27 Yolo.
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Lacie Flynn winning the womens on 12'6 x 26 Bark Vapor.  photo 12186717_10153684322902480_5737150728540721312_o_zpszxmo5thk.jpg

Kate Pagan good reach.
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Meg Bosi making it look easy.
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Justin DiGiorgio (404) and Brandon Gunderson (Hobie).
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Mark Payne oldest guy out there but still fast.
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Speedcoach GPS representative Adam Pollock on super long unlimited SUP.
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The awards for the Lovers' Key race were totally unique, with queen conch shells mounted on nicely finished wooden plaques. Local artist / jack-of-all-trades Steve Nagy made the trophies. I had really been coveting them before the race so I'm super stoked now to have one to show off in my house. There was a good lunch provided by Stan's Subs from Bonita Springs, and there was a raffle with some cool prizes including pink plaid and green camo-print Riviera paddles. I won an ironic trucker's cap with "Riviera" on it. Also everyone got t-shirts with CGT's Caloosa tribal logo.

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Next up on the race calendar is the "Paddle for Pups" fundraiser race Saturday November 21st at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs. It's a very doable 6.4 km in flat water, for $20. I might try a new board in that race. Will Connaughton left the 14 x 23 Riviera custom (2016 shape and super light carbon fiber construction) with CGT...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

New spot for windsurfing in East Winds near Bonita Springs, Florida

It's hard to windsurf in winds that are blowing "offshore" with respect to the general orientation of the coastline. Offshore winds tend to be gusty (variable in strength and direction) and tend to be very light along the shoreline, especially if there are trees, building, or hills blocking and swirling with the wind as it bumps over the land on its way out to sea. You can deal with offshore winds by using a floaty board and delicately shlogging/drifting away from shore until you're far enough out to be in the strong and steady wind unaffected by the obstacles on land. But that's dangerous because it's hard to get back, and can be impossible to get back if the wind strength changes or some part of your gear breaks.

So the better way to deal with offshore winds is to go to a different spot to windsurf- a spot where the shoreline is oriented differently with respect to the wind, so the wind is coming towards shore (onshore wind), or sideways to the shore (sideshore wind). Sometimes that means driving a long way, though. In Florida, it can mean driving all the way across the state.

This brings me to one of the big challenges to windsurfing in SW Florida: It does get windy sometimes, but as often as not the wind is from the NE, E, or SE - blowing offshore. What you need in those conditions is to launch from an east-facing beach on an island or peninsula that is west of a large embayment of some sort. Until recently I was under the impression that the nearest suitable embayment was San Carlos Bay, between Fort Myers and Sanibel Island. Windsurfing from the Sanibel Causeway bridge definitely works well in east winds, and also in every other wind direction, which is probably why the only windsurfing shop in the area (Ace Performer) is located near the Sanibel Causeway.

Since I live in Bonita Springs, though, the Sanibel Causeway is 45 minutes to 1 hour away, and there's a $7 toll for the bridge. I have things to do and I don't like to spend more time driving than windsurfing during a session. So mostly I've just been risking my life and sailing in offshore winds from the west-facing beach launches near Bonita Springs.

However, while practicing for a SUP race around Lovers' Key, just ~15 minutes from my house, I realized that Estero Bay, on the backside of Lovers' Key, could have some pretty strong, steady east winds. The only trick would be finding an OK launch spot. Well, I found one today. It's a free dirt/grass parking area at the north end of a big field near the Carl Johnson Boat Ramp. It's next to a small bridge over a tidal creek called Little Carlos Pass.

There are some shallow spots near shore that you have to watch out for, but once you're 50 m out you're in relatively deep water with a good 1 km or so of fetch from the east, interrupted only by some small mangrove islands. Today I sailed it with a 106 l Exocet Cross and 6.4 KA sail with a 26 cm fin. It was awesome flatwater conditions good for practicing jibing and generally hauling ass. I reckon it will be my go-to spot now for strong E & NE winds. It wouldn't be so good for light-wind shortboard windsurfing because shallow spots would be dangerous with longer fins.