Saturday, July 22, 2006

Elk River Challenge 2006

Official Map

Topo map of course

The Elk River Challenge, held in the tidal estuary at the mouth of the Elk River near Westport, WA, is unique among the Sound Rowers races. It is the only one located on a river, and the only one where competitors as far back as the middle of the pack can see the progress of the leaders not once but several times during the course of the race. It also has the most opportunities for tired or overwhelmed racers to bail out and return to the start without having to travel a significant distance.

This year's race included quite a range of different boats and competitors. The boats ranged from plastic sea kayaks to lightweight surf skis, single lightweight rowing shells to doubles, single dories to a 6 person "huge boat" and, of course, a fast pedal boat. The competitors ranged from teenagers to folks many years past their retirement - and a dog named Scooter.

Brady's Oysters

The tide was still incoming when we launched at Brady's Oysters, the very generous benefactor of this event. It had covered the oyster shell gravel driveway just enough to permit one to launch on it rather than have to put in on either side into some very weedy water. With the clear skies and warm weather over the past week the water was quite warm, too. Vern Heikkila, the race organizer, claimed that the water temperature was 65 degrees. It certainly felt warmer to me than that!

Trail to water

Oyster shell paved path

Some folks chose to carry their boats on a rudimentary trail to the shore at the base of the bridge over the river. Apparently they fear the navigational hazards of the oyster bins along the driveway, or had bad experiences with scraping their boats against the oyster shells. I didn't worry too much about it as I took the time and caution to avoid those hazards.


With the incoming tide came floating patches of weeds. The warm weather helped the plants grow prodigiously. There seemed to be a lot more pieces of eelgrass in the water, along with blobs of eelgrass and other sorts of algae and seaweed bunched together. I called them Vern's Mines. Catch them with your propeller and your speed drops immediately by 1 to 2 mph.

Waiting under the bridge

After a while during which most people were warming up we lined up in the shade under the bridge. It was going to be a hot one today! The forecast was for temperatures in the upper 90's inland, and the humidity was high. At least here, near the coast, there was an alongshore breeze that kept it a bit cooler.

We're off!

The starting signal was given and away we went.

Dodging weeds

For some reason, just like in the Quartermaster Harbor race, I started out rather slowly. Perhaps it was because I didn't really have much of warmup, or perhaps I was still a bit groggy from the 2.5 hour drive to the start and a short night's sleep. For whatever reason, most of the other boats were soon ahead of me. It didn't help that I had to dodge some of Vern's Mines while shooting photos, or that I had to stop momentarily to clear the propeller a couple of times before reaching the first turn buoy out in the bay.

Several of the rowers in shells, who had mostly congregated in the center of the channel, had established their lead on the field by the time they reached the buoy. Only the guy in the surfski was still with them. The OC-2 paddled by Vern and Steve was not very far behind.

Reaching 1st buoy

A short while later I reached the buoy, turning inside just before a kayak and a short distance behind Deb, Janet and Bela. There did not appear to be a whole lot of boats behind, but it was somewhat difficult to see with the sun now reflecting off the water into my eyes.



I caught up to Bela when I encountered another mine. It was quickly dispensed, but that dropped me back another 20 or 30 yards. The heat was also starting to build as we were now traveling with the wind and in a virtual dead calm. The shade under the bridge was but a short respite as I caught and finally passed Vern en route to the first slough. The gps reported my speed at over 7 mph.

A few more mines were encountered, but I still managed to keep ahead of Bela in his OC-1 and pass Deb and Janet in their double fast sea kayak before the 2nd buoy at the end of the slough. The lead racers passed going in the other direction and I cheered them on.

Vern and Steve

When Vern and Steve went by I asked if he couldn't have chosen a hotter day. It was absolutely boiling hot. Even paddling with my hands in the water while pedaling wasn't enough to cool me down, though it did serve to splash water on the camera lens, much to my chagrin as I discovered later.

Paddler down

I was now trying to catch a white and blue OC-2 and a yellow OC-1. The OC-2 rounded the buoy and headed back, and I started taking pictures of it and the OC-1, when suddenly the OC-1 flipped right at the buoy and dumped its rider into the water. Perhaps it was intentional, as that would have been a great way to cool down!

The paddler said he was OK and didn't need any help, so I continued onward.

What a difference the change in direction made! The tailwind was now a decently strong headwind. My speed dropped to about 6, but I was slowly gaining on the OC-2 anyway. The wind was probably affecting them more, especially with two bodies high above the water.

I cheered the incoming racers and shot them photographically as they passed. The third buoy was soon sighted and I headed southeasterly up another slough.

Racers ahead

OC-2 ahead

There were far fewer mines up the sloughs, but there were still a lot of weed fragments and plants growing on the bottom. I had to keep quite a distance from the apparent shoreline in order to have adequate depth to separate the prop from the plants, some of which resembled furry green ropes.

OC-1 following

Rounding the last buoy I was somewhat surprised to see how close the OC-1 that had overturned had come. That dunk in the water at the end of the hottest leg of the course must have been invigorating!

It was time to put the pedal to the metal.

Finish line far away

The distance between me and the blue and white OC-2 ahead had been shrinking and growing ever since the first turn, mainly due to the mines. With the wind and tide blowing most of that stuff to south side of the slough and the return course heading along the north side, it was literally clear sailing for most of the way to the finish. The gps was showing speeds in the 7+ mph range, which I attributed partially to the current of the Elk River. Gradually I crept closer and closer to the OC-2, which should have had the benefit of the current as well, but for whatever reason was not keeping pace. Could I finally catch them?

We soon reached a set of ancient wooden pilings stretching into the channel. Vern had described them as the remnants of an old whaling factory. Considering that the place must have shut down by the turn of the previous century it is amazing how long that stuff has lasted in this environment!

In the channel

We were now in the wide channel at the mouth of the river. It seemed almost easy to catch and pass the OC-2, taking a few shots of them and saying "Thanks for slowing down for me!".

Passing OC-2

I think they were a bit perplexed.

If I was pedaling strongly before I really started working hard now. All I had to do was hit another mine and the OC-2 might pass me.

Far ahead I could see the double kayak with Jeff and his partner nearing the bridge and the finish line. There was no way I could catch them, but I would certainly try to reduce the time as much as possible.

One final sip drained the last of my water bottle. It would have to hold until the end of the race.

With the bike shoes and Speedplay Frog pedals helping greatly to enable me to pedal nice, even circles, my speed increased to nearly 8 mph. Ha! Try and catch me now, OC-2!

Things were going well until about 100 yards before the finish. I was trying to take some photos when suddenly my legs felt the propeller drag increase significantly. Rats! Because I wasn't watching carefully I had run into a mine!

My speed was now only 6 mph, but there was no way I would stop to clear the prop. I'd just plow on through to the finish.

At the finish

With a time of 1:13:43 I crossed the line. Hurray!

Me and my Cadence

This was my slowest time for the course by about 4 minutes, but this was the first time I placed in the top 10 boats. Perhaps if I had more time to exercise these days I'd have done better, too.

After the race Vern had drawings for prizes. They were frozen cooked crab, a life jacket, and certificates for discounts at the local restaurants.

Father and son with whirligig

The first place overall finishers were awarded some hand made paddling kayak whirligigs, which were very nice. The guy in the surf ski, the folks in the double rowing shell and the father/son pair in the slow (a.k.a. poke) boats were the recipients.

Thank you, Vern, for having a another great race!

My route and stats

Photos can be found here and here.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Quartermaster Harbor Race

map of course


This race required one to take a ferry as it was located entirely within a harbor nestled deep within an island in Puget Sound. I guess one could use their boat to cross the Sound, portage across a narrow isthmus and continue over the water to the start of the race, but I was not feeling so adventurous. No one else who came to the race did that, either.

We all took the ferry.

After driving to the start of the course near the south end of the island we launched our boats at the boat ramp. We then raced around the course, passed out awards to the people in the fastest boats and went home.

The entire set of photos can be found at the Sound Rowers site.

Friday, July 14, 2006

BYO Boat Race 7/13/06

I found out about the BYO Boat race by surfing the web and following a very improbable set of links from rowing club to rowing club. This group of human powered boaters in Portland, OR, runs some very informal events at 6:30 PM on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month - at least in summer.

The only requirement to participate in the race is that you must bring your own boat and know how to handle it in a slow water river environment.

I happened to be down in the Portland area with my Cadence, so I decided to head on over to the launch point on the Willamette River to check it out.

The BYO Boat web site had some general directions for reaching the boat house. Being an out-of-towner I found the ones available through Google to be of somewhat better help.

The rush hour traffic through downtown Portland was quite slow. It took me an nearly hour to travel the 15 miles from Beaverton to the off-ramp to the boathouse in downtown Portland. The drive on surface streets was quick, though I made a wrong turn right at the last minute and had to backtrack a block.

The parking lot was nearly full. Still, I managed to find a spot close to the asphalt walkway to the riverfront trail and to the dock.

Alder Creek Boat House
The place was located under an elevated freeway. A large chain link and barbed wire fence surrounded an acre or so of boat racks filled with all manner of rowing shells, canoes and small hand-carried boats. To the north of this fenced off area were several trailer-like temporary buildings arranged in rows parallel the river. The building closest to the street had the sign "Alder Creek Boathouse".

The instructions on the web site said one should check in at the Aldercreek Boathouse to get registered and assigned a permanent number. The clerk at the Boathouse knew almost nothing about the race, however, and recommended that I merely wait in the parking lot for other racers to arrive.

Cadence on carI got my boat off the roof rack and onto its dolly, preparing it for the race. Meanwhile, a number of middle aged men and women were arriving carrying paddles for dragon boat practice.

As it was a pretty warm evening with the temperature in the low 80's I decided to just wear bike shorts, bike shoes and a nylon shirt. There was not much of a breeze to keep things cool, and the sun was beating down pretty strongly even at 6 PM.

Dock ramp
I decided to roll the Cadence over to the dock and down to the water. With the river bank quite high the ramp down to the floating portion of the dock was quite long and steep. My bike shoes barely kept their footing on the Trex pseudo-wood surface. It would be fun trying to pull the boat back up without help!

The top of the floating section of the dock was quite close to the level of the river. It appeared ideal for the launching and retrieval of a couple of 8 man shells at the same time, along with some smaller boats.

I took the Cadence off the dolly and rested it on the edge of the dock with the propeller and rudder in the water. The dolly was parked in an out of the way spot at the shoreward end of the dock.

Walking back up to the riverfront path I met a couple of folks outfitted more for kayaking than dragon boating. We introduced ourselves to each other, but I am sad to say I can't recall their names. Sorry!

Yes, they were there for the BYO Boat race. No, there was no formal registration other than to sign a release form carried by a gentleman who rode there on a bike and was waiting for us at the next dock down the river. He was also the timer for the race.

I went back down to the water, launched the Cadence and pedaled down to the next dock. Boy, it had been nearly a month since I last was on the water!

The river was hardly moving here. The water was quite murky and not something I felt comfortable putting my hands in to use to cool off. Hmmm, this might be a problem during the race!

I greeted the race timer and pulled alongside him at the dock. He handed me the registration form, which was very similar to the one used by the Sound Rowers for their races.

There was no entry fee, nor would there be any awards. However, the times would be posted on the web site. What more could you want?

Several other boats arrived and were going through warmups. These included two men in a canoe, a woman on an OC-1, a guy on a surfski and two women in sea kayaks.

I was told that Rick was the name of the surly-looking guy in the surfski, and that he always wins. Ok, now I knew who the competition was!

We lined up, ready to go. The timer gave us the "Go!" signal, and off we went up the river towards OMSI and the submarine moored along the shoreline.

As I had not been on this river before and the fact that it looked a bit different from the water than I pictured it from the aerial photo, I decided it would be a good idea to keep as close to Rick as possible. Yes, as had been predicted, he quickly moved out in front of the other racers.

Within a few moments - and a bit of hard pedaling - I was on his tail.

I don't think he was expecting this, but he said nothing as he paddled over the murky water.

Fluffy white feathery stuff was floating on the surface of the water as well as in the air. The scene reminded me of the stagnant duck ponds in the parks of the Midwest where many years ago I rowed some ultra heavy rowboats in the summer heat. The air was not the crisp, clean air I was used to in the Sound Rowers races; instead, it was the oppressive, thick and somewhat polluted air of the center of a major city on a warm summer evening.

I was getting quite hot, and keeping up with Rick was starting to get hard in this environment.

We made our way together past the tip of Ross Island, passing a boat ramp where a couple of people were wading into the water. Apparently they didn't mind the color.

Ahead I could see what looked like another branch of the river, but apparently it was the lagoon that had been mentioned in the race course description. Ok, then that structure ahead on the left must be the place where we turn around.

My lungs were not happy. My head wasn't happy, either. The only cooling I had was that of my passage through the still air. So, rather than get sick from overheating I decided to let up slightly, falling slowly behind Rick as we approached the turn.

Rick made the turn in the clockwise direction, and a few seconds later I made the turn in the counterclockwise direction.

Heading back down the river there was ever so slightly more breeze. I kept up a fairly good pace, though definitely not as fast as on the first half. I cheered on the others in the race as I passed by.

I came upon a couple of the dragon boats doing short sprints. Hey - maybe I could catch a ride behind one of them! Unfortunately, however, they were taking a long rest break when I caught up to them, and then they headed off in another direction.

Eventually the OMSI submarine appeared, near which a paddlewheeled riverboat cruiser was docked. The race was almost over!

Breathing hard and sprinting to the finish line I completed the course in 31:42, about 2 minutes behind Rick.

It appeared that Rick was still recovering from the effort. He still appeared to be breathing hard. The race timer asked me how it went. "Are you tired, Mike?"

"No", I said. "I'm overheated, not tired", and pedaled back along the course to escort the other racers one by one to the finish line.

As luck would have it a nice breeze started to blow, becoming fairly strong. Ahhh! This was much better. If only it happened earlier!

I made my way back to the dock. The guys in the double canoe each tried out the Cadence, and had fun pedaling it in the stiff breeze. Who knows? Maybe they might one day switch from paddles to pedals.

With some help from one of the women paddlers I was able to wheel the boat up the ramp with no problems. Thanks a bunch!

Thank you, BYO Boaters, for putting on the race!

The complete race results can be found at this site.

(Photos were taken with my cell phone camera)