Monday, February 20, 2006

Thrills & Chills at La Conner

With the temperature in the mid 20's (F) it was definitely chilly at 8:30 AM in La Conner. On the other hand, the sky was perfectly blue with not a cloud to be seen. Perhaps it would even warm up a little as the day progressed!

As I drove up to the parking lot I was somewhat confused. It was almost completely empty! Where were all the other racers? Where was the registration shelter and table? Could I possibly have made a mistake as to the date?

Chilling out

Close to the boat ramp I saw a collection of tables and a lonely looking person sitting there all bundled up in a winter parka. Aha! I recognized her! She was the wife of Rob O'Brien, the director of the race.

I parked the car and walked over to talk with her.

She was all set for racer registration, with a couple of large propane heaters strategically positioned to keep her warm. Ahhh - the heat felt good!

New SR Banner

I went back to the car, retrieved the brand new Sound Rowers banner and, with the help of another person, strung it up between a couple of street signs conveniently placed on either side of the registration tables. Now the race will have club name recognition!

New Cadence

Ready to launch

Having nothing better to do I proceeded to remove my new teal and white Cadence from the roof of my car and prepare it for the race.

With the exception of a lack of a weed cutting blade this boat was complete. I had been too busy with other tasks to install one and hoped that this early in the season they wouldn't be a problem. From past experience the waters in the course were pretty much devoid of them.

By this time the parking lot was starting to fill. I greeted the new arrivals and commiserated about the cold, and showed off my nice, toasty ski gloves. The winter cycling tights and multiple layers of shirts, sweater and wind breaker jacket and insulating headband and hat did a fairly good job of keeping me warm. Running up and down the nearby hill helped, too.

Rob signaled for the pre-race meeting and everyone ambled over to hear what he had to say.

Pre-race meeting

The race was going to start as close to 10 AM as possible, with a couple of warning signals at the 5 and 1 minute marks. The starting and finishing line was between a colorful umbrella at the timing table on the near shore and the northernmost concrete abutment of the suspension bridge over the channel. The course then proceeds south to the Sound, where it then proceeds westward past Goat Island to the green C-1 can style buoy located about 2 miles west. After reaching the C-1 buoy the racers are to turn around it in a counterclockwise direction and return.

The tide would be high shortly after the race, so it would not have much of an effect on the way out. On the return, however, there would likely be some current flowing against us. Otherwise, the winds were very light and should not affect things one way or another.

4 man rowboats

Shortly after the meeting I made my way down the dock with the Cadence and launched it. The others were taking their time getting their boats down to the water, so for once I didn't have to rush things! This was good as the cold weather caused some ice to form on the dock and ramp, making the surface rather slippery in places.

La Conner waterfront

It felt good being back on the water. The last time had been at the Cascade Distance Race in October, 2005!

The boat handled quite well. The steering was still a little stiff, but a bit of Teflon lube in the bushings would take care of that.

Entering the sunlit section of the Swinomish Channel I also discovered I was overdressed for the race. There would be no need for the thick sweater, and it was possible that I could also do away with the cycling tights.

Back at the dock

I made my way back to the dock and dropped off the sweater. It wasn't quite that warm for the tights to be left behind, too!

For some reason the other folks who were still in the process of launching their boats just didn't quite believe me when I told them it was really pretty warm out on the water. One went so far as to claim I was trying to psych them out! Oh, well. They would find out soon enough!

Warming up

Warming up

Warming up

Gradually all the boats entered the water and the channel became something of a zoo with boats moving all at different speeds and directions. It made for a somewhat challenging photographic shoot as the camera sometimes had difficulty focusing quickly enough before the target passed from view. The sunlight and shadow contrasts also made it difficult to see images on the camera's LCD viewfinder. At least it was warm enough that the waterproof vinyl casing was still reasonably flexible!

While cruising I came across one of the safety boats. After a short discussion with the crew I found that they were using marine VHF radios to coordinate their activities. They told me which frequency they were using, so I turned on my VHF, adjusted the frequency and verified that my radio actually still worked. Yay!

Ready to go

At long last the signals were given warning us that the race was about to start. The boats edged toward the starting line, tension and anticipation building second by second.

With the sudden blast of the air horn we were off!

A bunch of surfskis

I began pedaling madly down the center of the channel. Off to the left a large group of surfskis hugged the shoreline with barely any room between each other or the docks, boats and other protuberances jutting into the water.

Starting out

On my right were the majority of rowing shells, a couple of sea kayaks and outrigger canoes.

For some reason it seemed that most of the racers were ahead of me almost from the start. I guess that meant that I just wasn't pedaling quite fast enough. It might also mean that I should have more on the water workouts!

Figuring that there was still something of an adverse current in the channel I moved closer to the shore and followed behind the surfskis. Something was not quite right. My speed was not as high as it should have been given the level of effort. It was possible that the cycling tights were restricting my leg motion a bit, but I feared that some of the seaweed or debris floating in the channel might have gotten snared by the propeller - and the weed cutter blade was not installed. Another possibility was that the seals on the gearbox were still too fresh and new, presenting a higher amount of friction. Maybe there was an excuse that I had not yet imagined. :-)

Falling behind

I pressed on. Some of the folks I had normally passed with ease in previous races were catching up and passing me. Rats! I had to work harder!

Past Hole In The Wall

We soon came upon the so-called "hole in the wall" at the end of the channel. This is where the channel passed between two tall, rocky cliffs and into Skagit Bay. With the high tide we could pass right over the rocks and beach at the light and make our way westward towards Goat and Whidbey Islands.

The water was pretty flat and there was not much of a breeze. I was getting pretty warm, so much so that I took off my hat and headband and began dangling my hands in the water in order to cool off. I didn't want to stop and remove my cycling tights as it might have been too cool for my knees and the time it would take would put me even further behind.


A kayak began drafting my wake as we continued past Goat Island. A double kayak was off to the side and it was being tailed by a couple of singles. We traveled as a group past a couple of channel markers and a giant tree root that had grounded on the sandy bottom the previous winter. It was an absolutely gorgeous day!

It was just as we passed Goat Island that I took a look at my watch to check the time - and found that it had gone dead. Huh?

Pressing a few of its buttons seemed to bring it back to life, except that it acted as though it had been completely reset. This was in about the same place that the digital camera had problems the first time it was used in this area.

So, for the next few minutes I worked at pedaling, pressing buttons on the watch and taking photos.

Up ahead I thought I could make out the race leaders on their return, so I told the guy tailing me I was heading off course to get on their sunlit side for better photography.

He thanked me for the ride, but the group changed their direction somewhat and we all headed more or less in the same direction.

It turned out that this was a good thing because the currents and a light breeze were both conspiring to push us off course to the north.

After pedaling for several more minutes I came to the realization that the boats I saw in the distance were not the race leaders after all. Instead, they were some of the slower rowers still heading towards the turn buoy. The leaders were still some distance away. This was confirmed by the chase boats as they broadcast their status over the VHF. Ok - those guys weren't that fast after all!

Leaders returning

More leading boats

When they did pass I was able to take a few fairly decent shots. Some of the boats insisted on taking a course even further south than I was. Their photos were going to be silhouettes. There was nothing else I could do shooting into the sun. The others generally passed quite close to me on the north and I was able to get some pretty decent shots.

Reaching the turn around point

Jeff at the turn around point

By the time I reached the green turn buoy the double sea kayak and its entourage were already on their return. Jeff Wong made his turn just ahead of me, the current doing its best to shove us northward while we were trying to go south.

Vadim heading out

The return leg towards Hole in the Wall was spectacular. I could see snow capped Mt. Baker to the northeast and Glacier Peak to the southeast, with a gorgeous blue sky for a backdrop. The remaining racers were strung out much like beads on a string, and with the mountains, sea and forests behind them it was easy to find photo ops. Now if it was only as easy to catch those boats ahead of me!

Heading back to channel

I began working harder in an effort to catch up to the group of kayaks. First, there was an OC-1 not far away. We were both in the shallows on the north side of the dredged channel. Hmm, the shallows are probably slowing us down. It would be better to enter the deeper channel and just maybe I could pass this guy!

I angled over and eventually got into deeper water. While it seemed to help a bit and the distance between me and the OC-1 decreased, he also decided to head into deeper water. Rats! Now all I could do was try to pedal harder!

Unfortunately, everyone seemed to have much the same idea. We were all traveling a bit faster and the distance between the boats stayed pretty much the same.

Hole in the Wall light


We arrived at Hole in the Wall and made our turn into the Swinomish Channel. Up ahead a yacht was making its way out, forcing a couple of the kayaks to move to one side or the other to avoid a collision. It kept to the far side of the channel and was no problem when it passed by me.

My nemesis, the OC-1, was continuing down the center of the channel towards the finish. I drained the last from my water bottle, put my head down and began pedaling as fast as I possibly could. Thrum-thrum-thrum-thrum went the drivetrain. Huff-huff-huff-huff went my lungs!

Nearing the finish

Slowly I began catching up to the OC-1 as we neared the Rainbow Bridge. Unfortunately, he was too fast and managed to cross the finish line 7 seconds before me.

With a time of 1:11:00 I crossed the line. Whew!

After landing I checked the propeller. Sure enough, there was some eelgrass wound around the prop shaft - just the sort of thing that the cutter blade would have taken care of in an instant. Even so, my time for the race wasn't all that bad. It probably slowed me down by only 3 or 4 minutes overall. Of course, that pushed me into 31st place out of a field of 44 boats, when I might have been in 24th place.

After washing off the salt water, putting the back on the roof rack and changing my clothes I walked a couple of blocks over to Maple Hall on the edge of downtown La Conner. This was where the bread and soup was being served to all the racers and volunteers.

Soup Kitchen Menu

I had the lentil soup - yum! Other choices available included chowder, carrot and rice, bean, etc. All looked very tasty.

After the food was consumed the awards were given. Rob also made the announcement that he was retiring from being the race director, so if anyone was interested they could step up and take over. Here is your chance to become famous!

I had a pleasant drive home.

Race results

Lampi's route and stats

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

2006 Boating Season Has Started!

...and I have yet to put my boat in the water!

Sigh...I was still recovering from a nasty cold on New Year's so rather than potentially suffer a relapse by racing in the first Frostbite Series event I chose instead to put on my winter parka and take photos of the other folks as they circled Fox Island, WA. The weather for the race was a bit blustery on the south side of the island, with logs and other flotsam and jetsam creating a rather interesting obstacle course for the competitors.

The weather was generally pretty nice, though the last person in did have to contend with a bit of rain and wind.

The second race, which was planned to start in Gig Harbor, WA, head out to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and return happened to be scheduled on a day when 60 mile an hour winds were forecast. It didn't help that once again I was getting over a cold (thanks, kids!) and didn't feel fully up to par. The winds arrived a little early, cutting power lines to my neighborhood early in the morning. With my alarm clock thus disabled I managed to sleep in until shortly before the race was scheduled to start. Oh, well!

From the reports of the brave souls who did attend it appears the headlands helped quite a bit to reduce the wave action. They cut the race short, too, so as to not have to contend with the turbulent conditions in the Narrows.

Coming up this Sunday is the first official Sound Rowers race of the year: La Conner. The weather forecast is for rather chilly conditions (30's to low 40's, with possible showers or snow), unlike last week where we had sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50's to low 60's four days in a row.

Maybe I'll check a bit further into getting a drysuit!