I entered my first kayak race Sunday, the first annual Deception Pass Dash, courtesy of Seattle Raft and Kayak. It’s good to have an event in December to look forward to, other than floating around the Lake Union houseboats singing Christmas carols at night (although I must admit it was pretty fun the last time I did that).
At Sunday noon about 40 racers meet at Bowman Bay. The route is posted on a poster-sized chart: start at Bowman Bay, paddle counterclockwise around Deception Island, through the Pass, then counterclockwise around Strawberry Island…
Hey, wait a minute! "I didn’t know we were going around Strawberry Island!" I say.
“Yeah”, someone says to me. “Five nautical miles total. We should be back here in an hour.”
I get a sinking feeling. I’ve never been around Strawberry Island.
I unload Moonlight Dancer from the car.
“Are you racing in that?”
I sense a hint of incredulity. “Well, yeah.” I say.
“Pretty boat. What’s with the funny bow?”
A bunch of racers have carried their surfskis to the beach and are already on the water. Warren is there with his Arctic Hawk SS. “Whoa! Did you see that?" he says. "Those guys are FAST!”
I suit up. I’m going to get hot, I think. I put on my drysuit, sprayskirt, PFD, hat and glasses. I walk around but I’m still cold. I decide I better put on more fleece. I take everything off again.
It's high noon. They call a meeting for racers. The race starts at 1:00. They tell us the starting line will be between the end of the dock and the first mooring buoy. There will be a five minute warning of five short whistle blows, a two minute warning of two whistle blows, then the signal for the start will be one long blow.
I get on the water to warm up. I see Henry Romer in his Anas Acuta.
“Why didn’t you bring your skin-on-frame, Henry?” I ask. “The other day when you had it I couldn’t keep up with you.”
“There’s always a possibility it could get hairy out there,” he says.
People start to get positioned along the line. Dubside can’t resist doing qaannap ataatigut ipilaarlugu while waiting in line. Leon Sommé is in the front cockpit of a NDK Triton with a big smile on his face, squirting people with a water cannon. I hear two whistle blows. Was that the two minute signal? What happened to the five-minute warning?
“Hey, guys, what kind of paddles are those?” someone asks.
“Greenland paddles!” I say.
One long whistle blast. Water splashes. A mad rush of adrenaline. Quick – draft behind the double! The wake pushes me sideways. Don’t slow down just keep going! I edge to track straight, just inches from kayaks on either side of me. I can’t imagine keeping up this pace for 5 miles. Just keep it up until the island…
Earlier Warren asked me what my strategy was going to be. Strategy? How about go as fast as you can?
We make it through the kelp beds and around Deception Island. The Pass comes into view. Now I feel a headwind. Someone has paddled way off to the south, maybe trying to get in the lee of the land, or make use of the remnants of the flood current. It looks slack to me. Warren is way ahead, off to the north. What is he doing? He must know something – this is his backyard.
After two miles I’m warmed up and feel like I’ve hit my cruising speed. Someone in a Mariner Express HV inches up behind me.
“Beautiful kayak,” he says.
He passes me. It doesn’t look like he’s working hard at all. I try to draft behind him as long as I can. Occasionally he glances back. He speeds up. I think he’s trying to shake me. Eventually I fall behind.
In this race the slower you go, the slower you go. As you make your way into the Pass, the ebb continues to build, slowing you down and pushing you further behind. As I reach Pass Island I can feel it, some gentle swirling and boiling. I dig in and step up my cadence, following the Mariner through the kelp. Just before Strawberry Island the current grows stronger. I just need to make it around Strawberry -- it’s all downhill from there. Reach forward high angle dig in bury the blade plant your foot torso rotation punch the deck belly crunch. My right leg has gone numb.
Racing is all psychological, I tell myself -- the part that isn’t all conditioning, that is. It’s ignoring the pain, heat, and paresthesias. Will the next stroke kill you? If not then you can keep going, barring major tissue injury.
I'm over the hump and heading back through the Pass, getting a little help from the building ebb. I’m at Deception Island again. The last leg.
Someone in a Wilderness Tempest 170 passes me. "Nice kayak," he says.
Somehow those guys with Euroblades all look like they are on a lazy Sunday afternoon paddle, just one slow stroke after another. Where is their speed coming from?
The finish line approaches. I can make out a small crowd on the dock. I glance over my shoulder. A kayak closes in on me. Not again! The feeling has come back to my leg. I sprint. I am not going to let anyone else pass me! I hear scattered clapping from the dock. Did I finish? I keep paddling just to make sure. Then I stop and glide…
I collapse into a balance brace and close my eyes. I’m floating weightless. The cold soaks through my knit cap, into my scalp, into my head. The wake from a passing kayak moves through me. I rest on a giant waterbed and can’t help breaking into a big smile.
[See the results of the Deception Pass Dash here]