Sunday, August 28, 2005

San Juan Challenge

This is the still the toughest race done by the Sound Rowers. It consists of two days back to back of traveling around some good sized islands in the vicinity of Anacortes, WA.

Last year I did both days, ending each day extremely exhausted. This was partly due to encounters with vast quantities of eelgrass and a missing or poorly adjusted weed cutter on my boat, and partly because I was not in adequate physical condition to handle such an event.
This year I decided to not race. After spending four of the preceding six weeks sitting in a van driving around the country my endurance had dropped precipitously.

Instead, I would concentrate on taking photos of the two races on Saturday, and pedal around whatever parts of the course I felt like like seeing at whatever pace I wanted.

Still, it felt a little weird showing up at the event and not registering.

As in previous years the morning started out with a low overcast. It stayed overcast on the drive to Anacortes, and there was a light breeze in the parking lot when I arrived in Seafarer's Park parking lot at about 8:30 AM.

Cadence on car Big sign Prizes Yummy stuff
The lot was mostly filled with cars. There didn't seem to be nearly as many people and boats around this year, however, even though the weather was definitely better.

I walked over to the pavilion to see what was going on. Hmmm, it looked like the races were being held simultaneously with Fidalgo Days, which was some sort of celebration of the watery environment around the island on which Anacortes was situated.

Inside the hall was a table filled with all sorts of boating-related prizes to be given away later and another table covered with beverages and snacks. The remaining tables had computer equipment, T-shirts and registration stuff. I greeted Bob Apter, the race director, and the rest of the staff on duty. After snapping some photos I returned to the car to get my boat.

Cadence awaiting launch Cadence awaiting launch
With a little guidance from a passer-by I managed to remove the Cadence from the kayak saddles on the roof of the car and place it on the beaching dolly. Hey - I might just use those saddles more often! They seemed to be more secure than the home-made bunks I had been using for years.

Just as I finished packing the boat with all the safety gear a friend showed up in her van with a Maas Aero rowing shell on the roof. I helped her untie the boat and took her oars with me to the lawn staging area while she went and registered.

Pre-race meeting Pre-race meeting
By this time (9 AM) the pre-race meeting had started. I listened to Bob describe the routes, the rules and the other information regarding the events scheduled for the day. One change was the rule that single occupant boats were not permitted to draft double occupant boat. I guess that was considered to give someone an unfair advantage!

Safety gear and boat
As was required last year each boat had to undergo a safety inspection. They didn't bother with me since I wasn't registered. Still, I had everything that they required, including a compass or GPS, a map of the course, a space blanket, personal flotation device (PFD), a mirror (I had a reflective mylar sheet), a whistle or horn, extra food, water and clothing, bailing device and a cell phone or VHF transceiver (I had both). I also had aerial flares, a Leatherman tool, camera, spare paddle, extra flotation and a tow line.

Rocky launch area Nice launch area
The tide was fairly high for the 10 AM start of the race. All of the racers launched from the rocky shore. I launched from the nice floating dock. My feet didn't get even a drop of water on them!

Stoic racer They're off!
I had to rush getting photos of the competitors as the 5 minute warning sounded at almost the same time as I started pedaling. Beep beep - click - beep beep - click went my camera as it was pointed this way and that, zooming in and out trying to get as many recorded as possible. This continued through the 3 minute warning and, when the one minute warning was sounded I quickly turned the boat and pedaled as fast as I could towards the great rocky bluff marking the entrance to the harbor. At that location the competitors would be fairly well spaced apart. They would also be trying to go as close to the bluff as possible, which meant I could stand just a little way off and get some great action shots of them passing by. Shortly after this point the two races diverge.

I think a few racers were wondering what was going on with me going off in that manner before the official start!

The starting siren sounded before I reached the bluff. No problem - I would get there well before even the fastest of the racers.

Fast rowers approach Interference
As expected the first boat to approach was the double rowing shell piloted by Jeff and Theresa. Following them were dozens of kayaks and surf skis - and a yacht! Apparently the yacht had departed Cap Sante marina and tried to merge with the pack of kayaks rather than give way to these muscle powered boats. Needless to say there were more than a few unkind works hurled at the pilot of the yacht!

Luckily it appears that while many of the kayakers were inconvenienced no one was harmed.

Fast rowers pass by Small pack of kayaks More kayaks 3 man kayak
I began taking shots as fast as the camera would permit. Even with a fast storage card the camera could not keep up - which was the first time I had this sort of thing happen during a race. This was also the first race in which most if not all the competitors made it in the gallery, too.

Late OC-1
After the last racer passed I began pedaling towards Saddlebag Island.

As it had been rather cool I was wearing a long sleeved T-shirt made from a high-tech wicking material as well as a long sleeved nylon shirt and a PFD. All this exertion was getting me rather hot and sweaty so I stopped to remove the T-shirt. Just as I finished a rather large wave hit the boat from the rear, which was quite unexpected and almost dumped me in the water. Oops! I should put the camera in its waterproof bag, but first I needed to get some speed going to outrun the following waves!

While pedaling towards the last of the Saddlebag racers I managed to put the camera in the bag, seal it and hang it from my neck. Whew!

Tidal rips
In the middle of the channel between Cap Sante and Guemes Island the water got a little rough. The tidal currents were creating a bit of chop and confused water, with some bits of flotsam here and there. The skeg on the Cadence appeared to be doing its job as only a couple of weeds were snagged by the propeller, and those were quickly dispensed. Hurray!

First racer Second racer
Exiting the choppy area I continued heading towards the sound end of Saddlebag Island. There I encountered the first racer, paddling strongly in a red surf ski. He had quite a lead on the next guy. After cheering him on I kept on pedaling, heading towards the next oncoming boat.

I cheered that racer on as well, saying he could catch the lead boat if only he tried a little harder. Well, maybe.

The third boat encountered was a rowing shell. It was heading quite a bit north of where it should have been going, so I pedaled furiously to intercept. "You're going off course!", I shouted. After a few more shouts the rower understood what I was trying to say and corrected her heading. It can be difficult to determine where you should go when you are doing it backwards!

Nearing the islands Still nearing the islands
The boats were coming more frequently as I neared the narrow channel between Saddlebag and Dot Islands. A sailboat was moored there which forced the racers to go on one side or the other, too. I managed to shoot just about everyone, though one person decided at the last minute to go on the other side of the sailboat and almost missed getting on camera.

South beach of Saddlebag Island
There was a nice gravel beach in the middle of the south side of Saddlebag. The folks in the sailboat launched an inflatable dinghy and headed over to it. I was tempted to follow, but decided it would be better to finish taking photos and head around the island. Maybe I'd stop off after the last racer had gone by.

Nearing SE corner of Saddlebag Anacortes in distance
Shortly afterward the southeast corner of Saddlebag Island was reached. It was quite rocky here, and it looked like it could get quite shallow at low tide. The triple kayak, with only two paddlers, and Vadim in his blue Pygmy kayak were neck and neck as they headed back towards Anacortes. I cheered them on, and told Vadim there was one more boat behind him - he wasn't last! For some reason he took this negatively. Oh, well.

Last racer approaches
As the last boat approached I managed to find some of the fields of eelgrass described to me by a kayaker who had been through these waters recently. As expected the eelgrass managed to find its way around the propeller, increasing the pedaling resistance and slowing the boat to a mere 4 mph.

Some of the weeds were removed through the normal procedures, but others remained or were collected as the boat continued northward along the shore. I continued at 4 to 5 mph to the northeastern end of the island.

Rounding the NE corner Near the beach
Another nice gravel beach appeared on the north central side of Saddlebag Island. The waters near the beach were devoid of eelgrass and it appeared to be an ideal place to see exactly what was going on in the propeller area, and to do some exploring.

I decided to land there and take a look around.

On the island

The folks from the sailboat were walking about checking the camp sites. It appeared the sites had picnic tables and places to set up one's tent. None of the sites appeared to be occupied, and there was no water available on the island.

I'll have to come back and camp here some day, maybe with my kids.

Getting back to the boat I checked the propeller. Sure enough, there was a wad of eelgrass wrapped around the propeller shaft between the strut and the prop. It was easily removed by hand. Perhaps I just didn't use enough emphasis with the pedaling forward and backward to complete the job.

Heading back Entering Guemes Channel
Approaching Seafarers Memorial Park
After casting off and heading back through the eelgrass surrounding the north side of the island I turned back towards Anacortes. My speed was between 4 and 5 mph, but some of that was due to the headwind and adverse current. Weeds had again engulfed the propeller, but I decided to leave them be for the moment.

Free roaming eelgrass
The sun was starting to break through the clouds as I approached Cap Sante. The last of the Saddlebag racers had already finished the race and could be seen packing up their boats. It looked like I'd get back just in time for the awards ceremony.

Weeds on prop
After getting out at the dock I pulled the Cadence from the water. There were quite a few more weeds than expected on the propeller, considering I was able to pedal at 5 mph.

I grabbed my lunch back and camera and headed to the pavilion.

Awards ceremony More awards
There was a small crowd of racers in the building. Bob announced the finishers, and an assistant handed out the red, white or blue ribbons. After the ribbons were handed out a drawing was held for the various prizes. Each racer picked out their own prize, ranging from last year's t-shirts to charts, folding water bladders and other kayak related stuff. It was quite a nice collection!

Outside the pavilion Sea life
Outside the pavilion the folks running Fidalgo Days had booths with microscopes examining sea life, wind-up paddle boat races in a pool of water (for prizes!), photos of things you could see in the water along the shore and tours by kayak of the harbor.

Alder smoked grilled salmon
One of the local Native American tribes had folks grilling salmon over an alderwood fire, serving it with Indian fry bread and other good stuff - all for $7. It was quite tempting! Unfortunately, it was not going to be ready in time for me to eat and then get back out on the water if I was going to take pictures of the returning long racers.

Reluctantly I got out my PBJ, grapes, banana and a cookie I snarfed from the leftovers in the registration area, sat down at one of the picnic tables along the shore, and ate my lunch.

Jeff & Theresa return
The first racers returned just after I finished lunch and was doing some adjustments on the Cadence. Oh, no - the race was 5 miles shorter this year! They would all be crossing the finish line much earlier!

Next racer Coming quickly now
I quickly put the tools away and prepared to launch. Meanwhile, several more boats crossed the finish line.

Another racer
About 6 or 7 boats made it to the finish line before I was back out on the water again. As luck would have it there was a gap between these ultra fast competitors and the rest of the field, so I managed to make it past the rocky bluff of Cap Sante before encountering the next boat.

East side NE corner Fidalgo Island
The next boats were separated by gaps of several minutes. The water was a little choppy and the wakes of passing motorboats made it a little interesting, but the conditions were really pretty good. I pedaled towards Guemes Channel, encountering four boats on the way and cheering them on.

Kayak and seal
Heading past the industrial waterfront on the north side of Anacortes I found an inquisitive seal. It kept its head above the water so long I was able to snap several photos of it. In fact, it only dived under when my boat got within about 20 feet of it as I headed towards the next racers. Sorry to have bothered you!

Grain loader? Dry dock
I continued westward through Guemes Channel, encountering a couple more racers and a Coast Guard safety boat or two. I also passed a large dry dock in which a moderate sized yacht was being overhauled. At the far end of the dry dock I could make out a rope and crab cage being lowered into the water. Perhaps he was hoping to catch some while he worked!

Ferry to Guemes Rowing home
Last ones
I kept on pedaling. The ferry between Anacortes and Guemes passed in front of me, leaving only a minimal wake. Folks fishing from the piers waved, and I returned the gestures. The sun was not too hot, the water was cool and there was a nice breeze. All in all this was bliss!

At the ends of several streets in Anacortes there appeared to be places where one had access to the water. These could make good places to launch hand carried boats, with nice sandy beaches and somewhat shorter distances to travel to Cypress and Guemes than if you had to start at Cap Sante. I wondered if parking for 24 or more hours was allowed at these places...

While approaching the middle of the channel to snap some photos of racers paddling there I encountered a pretty good sized wake. Rather than take it broadside, which probably would have been just fine in the Cadence, I decided to take it head on. As the first wave passed the bow rose over it. However, it then dove a bit - right into the next wave, the top couple of inches of which traveled over the deck, splashed against a temporary cowling and into the cockpit!

Oh, well. The half inch or so of water quickly drained out through the speed bailer. I just had to remember to wipe off the camera's waterproof case optical port the next time I took a picture.

Eventually the last racers appeared. These were a pair of kayaks, the occupants of which said they were just out there to have a good time - and they were having one!

I turned around and for a while followed them. Then, for some reason, I decided they were going too slowly and decided to catch and/or pass the boat(s) ahead of them.

Passing the docked Guemes ferry Heading to the dry dock
Without much effort I passed the two kayaks. After all, they had gone about 18 miles and by that time I had only gone 11. Now for the next boat!

Target acquired Target in range
Target in proximity Target caught!
Leaving target in wake
He was taking a course rather close to shore. I followed him past the dry dock, the grain loading dock and towards the NE corner (Tide Point) of Fidalgo Island, where I finally caught him. He was left in my wake shortly afterwards. Muh-wah-ha-ha!

He had the last laugh, however, as I ran into a bunch of eelgrass on the east side of the island heading towards Cap Sante. That slowed me down to his pace as clearing it - and reclogging - enabled him to get ahead. In fact, the other two kayaks caught up and passed me as well. Rats!

Rough water at Cap Sante
I soldiered on, making more of a concerted effort to clear the propeller. That seemed to work, at least until I ran into the next bunch of weeds.

I decided to just keep on pedaling at 4.5 mph.

The water around the rocks at Cap Sante were quite rough. Whether wind, tides or large vessels were the causes I don't know, but it seemed safer to be further away from the rocks than right up alongside them. The kayakers felt otherwise for some reason.

Together at the finish line
Eventually we entered the outer reaches of the harbor. The weeds were cleared from the propeller one last time (all gone!), and I soon caught up with the two kayaks. It was fun to take their pictures as they finished the race, with broad smiles on their faces.

Boats sunning themselves Slide show
The time was about 2:30 PM, which was a considerably earlier finish than the previous year. Rather than delay the slide show and dinner to 5:30 PM as originally planned, the organizers rescheduled it for 3:30.

After some folks tried out the Cadence I put it on its dolly and rolled it up to the pavilion. There I was able to use a hose to rinse off the salt water before placing the boat on top of the car. The slide show was in progress when I returned.

It was an excellent presentation on a trip two people took with kayaks on Lake Baikal. Not having paid for the San Juan Challenge I felt uneasy about staying to see the show, so I left. Besides, if I left immediately I'd be home just in time for dinner!

I had a great time!

Photos I took during the race can be found here.

Lampi's course
My course, for a total of 14 miles.

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