Sunday, February 11, 2018

RedBull Privateers Treasure Hunt SUP Race

Race: "RedBull Privateers"

Date it happened: 10 February 2018

Host: RedBull North America, in conjunction with the Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve.

Location: This event was at an interestingly remote location, amidst an archipelago of uninhabited mangrove islands in the Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve south of Marco Island, FL. To get to the staging area you needed to either boat or paddle 5 km from Marco Island. Many people voyaged to the staging area on Friday and camped overnight (it was quite a party, apparently) and some stayed again Saturday night. My team only went down for the day of the main event.

Course / Distance: This was not a normal race with a set course. Instead, it was a timed "treasure hunt" for teams of four paddlers. Fifteen treasure chests full of uniquely inscribed wooden coins were placed around the beaches and mangrove channels of the area, and the first team to collect all fifteen coins and bring their members over the line would win. The locations of the treasure chests were indicated on a map- actually a sticker that we could affix to our boards. But they purposefully didn't give us the map until 15 minutes before the race started so we couldn't plan and practice our routes ahead of time. Also, each treasure location was just marked with an "X." My team assigned numbers to each X to help track our collecting progress, but since the treasure chests themselves were not numbered, it was sometimes unclear if we were at the chest we thought we were at on the map. You could find a chest, but remain lost yourself. There was a 2.5 hour time limit for completing the course, and most teams split into two or more groups to try to reduce the distance that each member would need to travel in the allotted time.

Conditions: The weather was beautifully sunny and warm, with 5-15 knots of wind from the SE, making it a bit choppy in the open water areas. There was a strong tidal current flowing from E to W through Blind Pass and out of the channels draining the internal waterways of the island. Very shallow water in places was another hazard- it was important to find the deeper tidal channels when crossing the shallow internal bays of the island.

Participants and Gear: There were tons of people at the event. I'm not sure exactly how many, but I heard something like 50 teams of four, plus lots of supporters, spectators, and event staff. Compared to a typical SUP race there were more college-age and party-animal-age people there, but the over-the-hill crowd still represented well, and there were some families with kids. Some folks had come from Tampa or Miami / Ft. Lauderdale, and some from even further, like SIC Boards ambassador Robert Hess from South Carolina. At least one elite, international professional paddler was there: Hawaiian Josh Riccio (F-ONE boards). He was on a team with top Florida paddler Brad Ward (Sunova boards), Robert Hess, and another ripped dude whose name I don't know. Those guys looked like the clear favorites to win if it came down to simply who paddled fastest. If it came down to local knowledge, I thought the team of Collier County Special Olympics coaches led by experienced water explorer Steve Nagy and including CGT Tribeswoman Donna Catron would win. I thought my team had a good chance, too, with Beth Schadd and Saralane Harrer, who are some of the fastest women paddlers in the area, plus Saralane's husband Murray Hunkin who is an experienced South African kayak racers and a fierce SUP paddler. I used my 14x23 Riviera RP, Beth used my 14x27.25 Fanatic Falcon, Saralane used a 12'6x26 Riviera RP, and Murray used a 14x27 Starboard Allstar. Another tough-looking team had a mix of paddlers from the East and West coast of Florida- fitness model Karen Kennedy from the East coast and butt-kicking Cindy Gibson from the West. I also saw Neil Uden, the Australian husband of beautiful SUP starlet and environmental activist Catherine Uden, with a team of savvy East coast paddlers all wearing bright neon orange shirts. I think the team color coordination was a good strategy for locating teammates from far away on the water. Another color-coordinated team that I was surprised and delighted to see was made up of members of the Florida Gulf Coast University Fishing Team, including one of my undergraduate research students. They were all paddling unusual but fast L2Fish catamaran-style fishing SUPs. In addition to the tough looking teams, there were many teams in the event in which the competitors had never, or barely ever, paddleboarded before. They rented tubby beginner paddleboards provided by a Sarasota-based rental outfit, and they seemed to do OK.

Results: A team won (see picture), but it was neither my team nor any of the other teams I had pegged as likely winners. The winners got awesome trophies, money, and inflatable paddleboards. I'll update this post if I find the official results and prize list somewhere. Many teams, including mine, successfully collected all 15 coins, but had navigation and coordination difficulties of one sort or another that greatly delayed one or more of their members.

Play by play: There was some pre-story to this race. It started a month or two ago with me deciding I didn't want to do the race because the logistics sounded overly complicated. Then I changed my mind when Murray and Saralane asked if I could join their team. At the time, CGT shopowner Nick Paeno was going to be our fourth man. But then Murray and Saralane got cold feet about the logistics and our team disbanded. A little later, the team that Beth was on split up, but they had already paid, and Beth was able to sub-in other people; first Murray and Saralane and then me. The final re-formation of our team was only about a week before the race, but Beth helped get us organized with laminated aerial photo maps of the area, and a coordination meeting two nights before the race at Saralane's house. My initial doubts about the event were mostly replaced with excited anticipation. I liked that we had opted not to camp overnight- we would just make one (long) day of it.

The day started super early, when I loaded up the boards, picked up Beth, and drove to Marco Island. We got to Caxambas Park Marina and dropped our boards off at the registration area there. They wouldn't let us park at the boat launch, so we parked at Hilton Hotel and took a free shuttle from there. In addition to the shuttle from the hotel to the boat launch, there was a boat shuttle from the boat launch to the race site. I was leery of that for some reason, and anxious to start paddling and stop waiting around, so I decided to paddle to the race site (5 km). Beth took the boat and got there around the same time that I did, but my red Fanatic Board that she was going to use didn't show up for a long time because of confusion about where the drop-off place for boards for the boat shuttle was. Thankfully that was resolved before the race start by event staff calling back to the boat launch, locating, and loading the board.

My paddle to the event site was great. It had the feeling of leaving civilization (overdeveloped Marco Island) and heading into the wilds. I followed the western shore of the Cape Romano island complex south towards the event, admiring the blue water and the interesting birds along the sandbars and eroding mangrove shoreline. Aside from some distant boats, there wasn't another human in sight until I got near the tidal inlet called Blind Pass where the event was staged. First I saw a few campers' tents among the dead trees and sand-piles, then the whole event outpost came into view. People were swarming around a huge RedBull tent, and a giant inflatable Gorilla loomed over the SunBum sunscreen tent. Boards were splayed out everywhere. It got progressively more crowded each time the shuttle boat arrived, and a lot of people arrived by private boats, as well.

The shuttling took longer than the organizers had expected, so the race start was delayed from 11 until 1230. During the waiting time I socialized with folks and tried out some different boards, including Robert Hess' SIC RS 14x23, which seemed fast and light but tippy, as would be expected for such a narrow board. Finally the pre-race briefing began, and they revealed the treasure maps that we could put on our boards like bumper stickers. The background of the map was in a simplified style, but it was pretty clear how it corresponded with the laminated aerial photo maps we had printed. Since the treasure locations were only marked with Xs, I used a sharpie pen to number each of the treasures on my map and my teammates' maps. That way we knew who would be responsible for getting which treasures, and we had a common reference for which treasures were which, so we could refer to that in our walkie-talkie and cell phone communications during the race. We figured I was the fastest, so I would get the treasures that were farthest from the start and required paddling through the choppy and unprotected waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Saralane with her slower 12'6 board would get the treasures in Blind Pass near the starting area. Murray and Beth would split up the treasures inside Morgan's Bay. (That turned out to be the trickiest job, because of the confusing navigation there).

Once we had our plan, we hoped on the boards and gathered them inside a giant square on the water marked by four RedBull buoys. That corral formed a 360 degree starting line, from which we would radiate in various directions when a cannon blast sounded from a faux pirate ship parked offshore. I lined up on the southeast corner of the corral, which was the most upwind, upcurrent, and closest to my first treasure. When the horn blasted I sprinted off pretty well and headed closer to shore to get in the lee of the wind. I could see Josh Riccio zooming ahead in the same direction as me, but I knew I'd never catch him, so I just tried to go my fastest normal pace. I was abreast of Robert Hess, who was going about the same speed as me. To save energy I crossed into his draft. That was highly effective, because as a big broad shouldered guy he was blocking the wind well and digging a deep furrow through the ocean that pulled my board along. As we went I counted the tidal inlets that we passed, knowing my first treasure to get would be around the third one. It was easy to find those first treasure chests, because I just watched where Josh Riccio went ashore, and followed that route. I had to leave Robert's draft to get the coins, but he soon went in a different direction, anyway, so it didn't really matter. I think I spent longer than necessary undoing my leash and removing my camelback to stuff the coin in each time I came ashore- I'll have to work out a more efficient coin pouch system if I do this next year.

The most distant coin I had to pick up was at a beach near the famous "Dome Homes" at the southern tip of Cape Romano. My next move after that was to paddle into Morgan's Bay and get a coin from a straight, manmade channel. As I approached it I saw a big guy on a Starboard Allstar emerging from it - MURRAY! He gestured that he'd gotten the coin so I didn't need to go down there. Instead I chased him down and offered to help him with whatever coin collecting he was still doing. As I tagged along with him I ran into Beth and decided to go with her, since it looked like Murray was about to finish and Beth might need more help. Some other racers were also milling about that area confusedly, including (to my relief) Brad Ward and Robert Hess. Beth seemed to know where she was going, and we got another coin as we left the bay and entered the Gulf. There was one last coin that Beth needed, and we saw the flag for that one from the entrance to a shallow bay. I said I'd get it, and sent Beth back to the start line to make sure we all got back there as quick as possible. I weaved through the slightly deeper parts of that shallow bay, got the coin as quick as possible, and made haste for the start-finish line. Saralane and Beth were already there, with their coins. No other teams had finished yet. We could win it! We just needed Murray.

It was determined that I would paddle East in Blind Pass to try to intercept Murray on his return, to provide encouragement and a draft. Unfortunately, I paddled and paddled and never saw Murray. Then the ladies radioed me and said the race was over- still no Murray. Doh! I paddled back, and Murray actually beat me there, having returned via the Gulf because he'd never found the back way to Blind Pass that he'd intended to return on. Here's my GPS track from the race:

Our team successfully collected all 15 treasure coins, which we felt was a pretty good achievement despite our troubles and getting lost. Apparently Murray's long period of being lost was in search of a coin he didn't realize he'd already collected. It was really tough to know where you were, even when you were at a treasure, because the treasures didn't have any unique labeling system that corresponded with the map. I would suggest to the event organizers to put numbers on the treasure chests corresponding with numbers on the map, so when you found a treasure you would know for sure where you were on the map.

After the race there was a pig roast, awards, and raffle, but we didn't stick around for that because we wanted to make sure we escaped the island before dark. I did buy a cheeseburger from the Food Boat, though, which tasted pretty good after paddling 20 kilometers that day. Then Beth and I loaded up the boards and we both paddled back to the boat launch, thankfully with a tailwind making it easy. Overall it was a great day, and I definitely see the fun and appeal of an event like this. Some ideas I have to do better at the next one are:

1. Do a preliminary trip to the site to paddle around and get the feel for what it looks like on the water, since studying Google Earth alone doesn't quite cut it.
2. Plan more mid-race "check ins" with teammates by phone, radio, or (best of all) meeting up where our paths intersect on the water.
3. Make sure we don't waste time getting coins that have already been gotten, or that another teammate will soon be getting.
4. Not go looking for lost teammates if there's a possibility they might be about to return.

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!