Race Report: Blackburn Challenge, 2018

blackburn2018-finishbeach.JPG

It's race day morning, early. Adrenaline and nerves lace the pre-race banter as we slide our dew-damp boats into the water. 

My class (the "touring" class, as defined by Blackburn rules with length and beam restrictions) has really grown and there is a starting line length of C1X’s this year. Still, its not hard to find a spot for clear oars. Since it’s a 20-mile race, people don’t get overly psycho about toeing the line and fighting for position...except for me, because I want to get a jump right at the gun and lead from the first stroke. It's just something I’m working on – mastering an aggressive sprinter mentality as I prepare for the World Championships. Sure, it could blow me up later, but I’m fine with that.

Today is sunny, not overly warm, and still. No breeze.

At the gun, I blast off, find my lead. The race starts in the Annisquam River, so it’s classic river racing to get this going – turns, shoals, channels, bridges, advantageous lines. At least the tide is going out, pushing us along. 

Some of the positions are starting to flush out. Rich Klajnscek hangs with me. He’s an unknown factor. This is his first time in a C1X, but he’s won the racing class (unlimited boats, i.e., no length/beam/weight restrictions) countless times and is used to being in front from start to finish. Ok, I bring up the pace, a little more squeeze into the finish, sending the boat a little quicker. James Dietz is with Rich, looking strong as always. 

I cut the last turn out of the river a bit too close. Not through any maverick corner- cutting tactics - it's just that the shoal extended way further out than expected. Dragging through shallow water, all of my speed vanishes. My lead gets slashed with every stroke, but I angle back into deeper water and step on it. 

Into the ocean, the flat, flat ocean. 

There’s not even much boat traffic, so I can’t utilize my favorite “cheat” and surf powerboat wakes. Looks like there's a bit of negotiating going on for second and third...which makes them both go faster and drives them back up to me. Gotta go, I build more speed. 

I hit the northern stretch going too fast. I should settle. This is a bit too amped for this lengthy course. Find a longer, more efficient stroke for the distance. Hang. I have clear water now, at least a few minutes of a lead. Settle.

I squeeze through the gap at Straightsmouth Island that marks the half-way point feeling good. 10 miles clicked away, on pace for my targeted sub-three hour race.

I’m greedy for more of a lead. Curious to flirt with a lean too far over the edge. Push a little more pressure onto those feet, into those oars. 

Along the southern stretch (this is pretty much a circumnavigation) I finally feel my boat flow into beneficial wave patterns and find myself surfing. This boat likes the rower's weight bow-forward in these little waves, so I shorten up to half-slide and make a big body swing into the bow, at times almost laying right down. My boat surges. I’m flying into sprint speeds with little pressure on the oars, just quick light strokes timed to keep me in sync with the waves. Oh, this will help me pull more of a gap on the field!

I’m starting to move through the boat classes that started ahead of me. That gives me further motivation… pass boats, pass boats. Still surfing these almost non-existent little waves, moving fast. 

Nothing is free. The little waves have moved off to some other place and I’m back moving the boat on my own. And I’m tired. That multi-mile flurry of catching wave after wave didn’t come cheap. I picked up some pain in my legs along with all of that extra speed. But I’ve lost sight of my nearest competitor, so it seems like a fair trade off.

I generally finish this race in a foaming-at-the-mouth fury of heroic effort. Not this year. With three miles to go, I’m spent. Legs gone. Lats twitching. Trying to stay one step ahead of a pace best described as a whimper. Ah well, I was looking for that feeling of "going a bit too far" anyways…

Two miles left. What to do? I earned some distance over the field earlier, so I’m going to draw on that investment now. Don’t panic. Float forward, place my blades, float back. Just letting my body unwind from catch to finish. No active pressure on the oars, just the unfolding of my body, releasing my weight onto the handles. Trust that if I place and remove my blades cleanly, the boat will keep going. Which it does. Not fast, but moving, always moving. 

They seem to shift the finish line every year, so my last few strokes are a drunken weave as I swerve back over to make the right side of the orange buoy, the promised land of finished. 

I hit all my targets: first place; under 3 hours (2:54:22); edgy racing (even skipped any hydration strategy, “just to see”). All good. There’s just that one last challenge: seeing if I can stand up when I step out of my boat…

blackburn2018-gettingout.jpg

Blackburn Challenge Preview

 image from the Blackburn Challenge website, featuring the course around Cape Ann

image from the Blackburn Challenge website, featuring the course around Cape Ann

The Blackburn Challenge features a FISA C1x contingent this year!

This Saturday, July 21st is the 2018 edition of the Blackburn Challenge, the biggest coastal race on the US east coast. The course is a 20 mile (32 km) circumnavigation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. In this event, entrants get it all: a winding river, sheltered coast, exposed coast, and the big-boat traffic of a busy commercial harbor.

The Blackburn generally draws between 300-400 participants in all manner of craft. Big Banks Dories, traditional Cornish Pilot Gigs, Hawaiian canoes, surf skis, kayaks of all kinds, sup boards, and of course rowing shells. On the rowing shell side of things we get everything from flat water racing shells (on calm years) to do-it-yourself garage-built celebrations of personal ingenuity. 

This year, for the first time, is a solid contingent of FISA coastal boats. In the men’s solo, we have eight FISA C1x boats entered! This is a big jump from previous years (2-3 C1x boats), and shows that good things are afoot for U.S. progress in growing this international coastal racing class.

Here’s a preview of who to watch in the C1x fleet:

We can start the competitor preview with me (alphabetical order, that's all!). Starting in 2015 I've been using this race as a testing ground for Rebel C1X prototypes (now being readied for production). I've won each year by an average margin of nineteen minutes! Since I'm in the middle of training for the Coastal World Championships, I've put a lot of miles under my hull this summer, and feel good about my chances for continuing my Blackburn winning streak. 

James Dietz II. Big James is an impressively powerful rower. A former national champion on the 2K course, James has raced the Blackburn twice, and medalled twice. He’s been out of the boat for awhile this summer, but can always crank on some oars.

Jim Dietz. The legend!…great to have multi-time Olympians showing up on the coastal scene.

John Easton. Unknown to this author. This is John’s first Blackburn in a C1x. Lets see what his story is!

Charles Hauss. Charles has been instrumental in getting coastal rowing in Canada started, and is on the organizing committee for this year’s World Championships in Victoria. He was also a B finalist in last year's Coastal World Championships. Charles is a skilled coastal rower who is bound to row a smart and steady pace in his first Blackburn.

Rich Klajnscek. Rich has won this race in the “racing” class (an unlimited class, i.e., no boat specs to meet) countless times by wide margins. He’s borrowing a C1x this year to take on this competitive crew. Rich will probably want to claim multi-class titles, so he’s one to keep an eye on out there!

Ryan Miranda Williams. Ryan is a grad student, fresh off a collegiate rowing career. Aside from being a Blackburn rookie, he appears to have what it takes to be a good bet for podium honors – he’s young, fit, competitive and training hard. 

Carl-Henry Piel. Here’s a guy who rowed across Sweden, took silver two years ago in his first Blackburn, and considers a recent 35 mile row around Manhattan easy because there was “assistance from the current.” He skipped the race last year, so lets see what he brings back to the mix Saturday.

Sinead FitzGibbon. Sinead is the only woman racing a C1x. Given her extreme fitness and fearless racing tactics, we do expect to see her both at the top of the women’s class and rather high up the men’s division too!

Since the Blackburn Challenge doesn’t recognize a distinct “FISA coastal” class, C1x rowers are grouped into the larger “Touring” class, which is closest to FISA coastal specs. While we focus here on the C1x competitors, there are a couple other boats in the mix, some of which will be significantly lighter than the FISA boats and may mix up into the ranks. We’ll be pitching for a dedicated FISA class to be instituted in next year's Blackburn Challenge.

There you have it! As you can see, its a great collection of rowers. This will be a competitive race Saturday, so come down to Gloucester if you’re in the area. Results and write up to follow. 

Check out the race website here:

Blackburn Challenge

Beginner's guide to Coastal Worlds, Tip #6

 pictured above, finding space at the start

pictured above, finding space at the start

Tip #6: Bring your Voice!

You have to be vocal in coastal racing.  If you haven’t raced at coastal worlds before, you’ll be surprised at how vocal it can get amongst the competitors as they weave through the course.

The rules are fairly simple, with the most critical rule stating that an overtaking boat must yield to a boat being overtaken. Furthermore, the boat being overtaken must maintain its course, and not engage in active “blocking” tactics. So if a boat is creeping up your stern, yell “line!” Hold your course and make them go around you. Once they take evasive course correction, don't shift your course to block them - but make sure you initially establish yourself in position and make sure the overtaking boat gives way. More importantly, if a boat on your beam is overtaking you from the side, but looks like they will not clear your oars, yell “line!” If they don’t steer clear, yell  “oars!” or similar. And speak loudly, with your best authoritative voice of command. Again, the point is to establish that you know you don't have to give way while also giving the overtaking boat a heads up that you are there and if a course correction doesn't happen a collision is imminent. 

If a boat is next to you with no decided leader (i.e., no discernible "give way" or overtaking boat) and it looks like you may be converging onto a collision course - give a shout. I’m sure they would do the same for you. Crashes slow everyone down, no one wants to have them, so don’t worry about appearing “rude.” Better to say something than to tangle up. Even if you aren't at fault, you will loose a lot of time if you crash, and these races are too close and too competitive to be hung up with another boat. 

Then there's the start - that's a tricky one because no one is a "right of way" boat here! Perhaps a touch of smooth and polite negotiation could get you some space for your oars. This year Victoria is planning a beach start, and while that brings its own challenges, it does eliminate the jostling for position inherent in the floating start.

Overall, do not be shy. This is ruff and tumble, aggressive “off road” racing.

Even with this roguishness, I think one of the most wonderful aspects of coastal racing is its balance of high-level competition with congenial camaraderie.  The racing is absolutely ferocious, but before and after the race everyone is incredibly kind and social. Experienced racers have no problem giving tips to less experienced ones. In fact, the reason I can share this "voice" tip is because I was told by a more experienced racer one year that I had to make sure to yell if someone was at risk of colliding with me. It’s a welcoming and laid-back group that turns into a yelling, sweating, riot of movement on the race course. From my few championship experiences, I’ve already gained a group of “buddies” who I see every year. It’s a great crowd. The racing, the yelling, the aggression on the course is all part of the game. As is sportsmanship – it's not uncommon to hear a helpful “look ahead!” to save a competitor from rounding the wrong side of a buoy, to help them avoid a collision, or etc. So use your voice to help yourself, and don't be afraid to use it to help a competitor should that become appropriate. Who knows, the favor may be repaid to you later in the race. Even a few seconds saved could mean the difference between the A and B finals, or between the B finals and elimination. 

This tip is simple, even if its application is more exciting and complex:

“Bring your voice to Victoria!” 

 

Beginner's Guide to Coastal Worlds, Tip #5

blogconditionsphoto.jpg

Tip #5: Race Conditions

I love big waves. For me, the rougher the water is, the better. So when last year’s coastal world championship took place on Lake Geneva in a dead flat calm, I quickly discovered that I sure could use some more straight-up boat speed! I think that experience sums up the conditions challenge of coastal racing: if you excel in only one type of condition, you will not excel in coastal racing.

Conditions can range from mirror smooth to fairly choppy. If you are an Olympic champion on flat water, that is no guarantee that you will excel in coastal racing! If you can tackle epic breakers, that also is no guarantee you will excel in coastal racing!

This year it is fair to say that you will not need the ability to run giant breakers or ocean swells, as the race is within a network of islands. However, given the famous British Columbia currents, there is a good chance that we will be met with those short, steep, standing waves that result from wind moving against current. Those are notoriously tricky, can be slappy on your oars, and can give you a sensation of rowing across boiling water. Pretty fun, actually. 

If you are new to coastal, make sure to read our blogs on coastal catches (click here) and coastal drives (click here) for some technical advice on adjusting your stroke. You should also learn how to surf your boat on even the smallest of waves--the speed you can pick up is astonishing. (We’ll get a blog out on surfing tips soon too.)

Also, be aware of boat wakes. Because these are coastal races, officials do not really have much concern over the wake their powerboats throw onto the course. There are also press boats cruising around, in addition to local traffic that may be diverted around the course, but definitely not stopped. All those boats can create a criss-cross pattern of speed-bump-type boat wakes. Powerboat wakes have very different, and often more challenging, rhythm and spacing than natural waves, so it would behoove you to get some practice keeping speed up through boat wakes. If you get that skill honed, you will probably find you can pick up a lot of ground on other, less prepared boats through these wake zones. 

So make sure to practice in all conditions, from flat water to various chop sizes. Find a friend, and ask them to cruise around you in a stinky outboard boat in the most malicious patterns they can imagine. Coastal racing is a technical sport that rewards adaptability. The rewards are great, as this ability to merge with and embrace your ever-changing environment is one of the most beautiful experiences of coastal rowing.

 

 

Beginner's Guide to Coastal Worlds, Tip #4

aug27row9.jpg

Tip #4: Eyes Out of the Boat!

In coastal racing there is a lot going on. There are no lanes, so there is no telling where your competitors will end up. There is a zig-zag course to find your way through. There are collisions to avoid and sharp turns to navigate.  You need to be aware of all these things, while keeping an eye on sea conditions to perhaps find advantageous water. Of course, all this needs to happen while you are racing as fast as you can.

Last year at World's a boat collided with me. The other boat was at fault, and therefore earned itself a time penalty. Fair enough, but I also came to a complete standstill while we untangled. If I had looked sooner, I could have avoided this multi-second delay.

Later, while attempting to gain ground on another section of the course, I got stuck behind a group of three slightly slower boats spread across the layline. It took me hundreds of meters and plenty of effort to work a path around them, because they were not obligated to give way to an overtaking boat. Had I seen them converging sooner, I could have made a move to get ahead before the wall closed in on me. 

These were lessons for me, which I am happy to pass along to you! Keep your eyes out of the boat. Make sure you frequently glance around to assess the whole field. Where is everyone now, and where does it look like they are going? Am I entering a converging line? Is there a jam-up ahead? Get quick pictures in your mind of what is ahead of you, then be careful to work your boat through the image held in your head. Then refresh that image fairly often. Master the ability to look very quickly, and to take in a vast amount of info in that short look.

It’s a simple concept, but of course the challenge lies in being able to row at peak speed while still tracking all the boats in your vicinity.

I suggest two methods for practicing this, aside from actually gaining direct coastal race experience (not always possible for most of us in the US, due to the early stages of the sport’s development here and scarcity of races). The first drill should be done on the erg. Have someone stand directly behind you, at some distance, while you row a 6K for time. Instruct him/her to occasionally shout “line!” at random intervals during your piece. Each time you hear "line!," you need to turn around and count how many fingers your assistant is holding up, and note which hand is used...without letting your splits drop! (FYI– “line!” is what you should yell during a race if an overtaking boat is at risk of colliding with you, since overtaking boats are the “give way” boat). That’s a good way to get accustomed to taking in a bunch of info in as quick a glance as possible.

The second drill should be done in the boat. Ask another rower, who is at least as fast as you, to position themselves directly in front of your bow. Instruct them to row wherever they please, while you follow them as exactly as possible. Get used to rowing fast while twisting and turning and playing games of “follow the leader.”

Anyway, that is my plan for "Eyes Out of the Boat" training during the coming summer. Drills like these (which you will find are really more "games" than "drills"!) will definitely add some spark to your training routine and offer solid proof that coastal racing is the most fun way to race a boat.

Beginner's Guide to Coastal Worlds, Tip #3

monaco4.jpg

Tip #3: Buoy Turns

“USA is in qualifying position for A finals.” Moments later: “Ohhh, looks like USA took that turn too wide--that will cost him a few positions!”

The above is what my wife heard over the loudspeaker’s live commentary at 2017 Coastal Worlds. Needless to say, I haven’t mastered the turns! So I won’t give much advice on buoy turns beyond the following warning:

BUOY TURNS ARE VERY TRICKY!

In the US, we don’t have a big FISA coastal racing scene yet, so I did not have experience in doing competitive buoy turn races prior to my first coastal worlds. I figured if I’m going to race internationally, I had better practice some turns. So I went out for a training row, found some buoys, and practiced by setting up courses around them. I nailed it. I could whip my boat around the turns, accelerate out of them, and be on my way. Easy. Buoy turns?...all set!

Here’s the catch: buoy turns in races are nothing like turning around an empty course! You are maneuvering within a crowd of boats, all aggressively working around the same small area. Boats in front of you have the right of way; overtaking boats must yield. Perhaps a boat in front of you goes for a real sharp, tight turn and slows dramatically while they pivot around the buoy. You need to avoid that boat. Do you follow the same "fast" line but slow down to avoid a collision?  Or do you go around them and maintain boat speed through a wider, "slower" line? Maybe, but don’t go too wide because you will lose ground there too. 

There’s a lot going on through the turns, demanding sharp reflexes and immediate reactions. Boats are converging on the buoy from a diversity of angles, with a collection of varied strategies. You need to be very, very good at taking in a lot of information in one quick glance, process a decision instantaneously, and carry through with it. With respect to buoy turns, coastal racing is a lot like dramatic sailboat racing, with all of its nuances of boat positioning and turn strategies and tactics, but all done while facing backwards! 

This summer I’m going back to the buoys, but this time I’m coaxing a bunch of friends to get their coastal boats, kayaks, canoes, floaties, or whatever and have them litter up the space around the turn and get in my way as much as possible. If you are a North American looking to prep for these race turns, I suggest you do the same. Then you can boast about becoming a backwards-facing, dogfight-mastering race boat pilot! 

In summary, my main buoy turning tip is to not just practice buoy turns, but to practice turns with plenty of other boats in the way--whatever boats you can find!

Beginner's Guide to Coastal Worlds, Tip #2

boatsbeach.jpeg

While I haven't mastered the Coastal World Championships yet, now that I've survived a couple, I at least have a good idea of what's needed to train for these. For all those new rowers looking at Victoria 2018, here is tip #2 to get you prepped:

Tip #2: the Start

Beware the moving start!  FISA coastal rules require you to be behind the line until the starting command, but you do not need to be motionless. As a result, You may see rowers lining up well behind the starting line and getting a running start before the gun. This has obvious advantages, but is tricky, and there are huge time penalties if you go over the line too soon. But the point is, don’t be distracted if you see boats moving before the gun! Or consider lining up a few feet back from the line and just start squeezing on the oars a second or two before the start. For a beginner, I definitely don’t recommend trying for the full America’s Cup start with an attempt to hit the line at top speed just at the horn. Save that for next year…

That being said, in 2018 the race organizing committee has announced that they will do a beach start. However, they also said that if conditions do not allow for a beach start, it will be a floating start. Conclusion: it's likely to be a beach start, but it may be a floating start. Practice both!

A beach start would be very exciting, and something unique to prepare for. How quickly can you dash across a pebbly beach? How quickly can you get your feet in place and start rowing? Practice how you want your oars set for the quickest entry possible. I like mine across the boat, placing the handles by each opposite oarlock. This way I just slide them out and I'm off - nothing to reach for, shift, or otherwise fuss with. For your feet, see if you can get your shoes or straps preset to just the right tension so you don’t need to adjust them upon getting into your boat. They should be loose enough to slip your feet into but tight enough to allow you to row without slopping around. Make sure to practice all summer with the straps set to that tension! Do you row in socks? Hmm…can you run down a beach with your socks on? Specificity of training suggests you should row as you will race, so think about having no time at all to adjust yourself into your cockpit, and set your expectations accordingly.

The start is critical in coastal racing. Picture twenty competitive boats converging on the first hairpin turn at about 1000 meters into the race. If you get caught in the middle of that pack, you will spend the rest of the race trying to extricate yourself from traffic. Trust me, I’ve been there! You need to get to that first turn fairly high up in the ranks to be able to find clear water.

I think a beach start at Coastal Worlds would be fun, as it adds yet another unique skill to master. If you can really nail the beach sprint and quick boat entry, you will gain a serious advantage going into this--you could get that critical jump into a less-crowded front pack and maybe even stay ahead of faster rowers by gaining this initial advantage in position. 

Practice, practice, practice getting into your boat from a run and into the first stroke with as little transition time as possible. This skill is not a given, so if you have it down, you’ll knock a valuable handful of seconds off your time. 

Beginner's Guide to Coastal Worlds, tip #1

monaco3.jpg

While I haven't mastered the Coastal World Championships yet, now that I've survived a couple, I at least have a good idea of what's needed to train for these. For all those new rowers looking at Victoria 2018, here is tip #1 to get you going:

 

Tip #1: Pacing

The Coastal World Championship races are a very tough distance. 4K heats, 6K finals. Yes, you read that right – heats and A finals are different distances! So it's not one distance, but two that you need to master. And both of these distances are squarely within the mid-distance challenge, which means high speed for a long time – sort of a sprint, but sort of an endurance challenge. 

If you are like me, and coming into this from an expedition-type experience (it was no big deal for me to jump in the boat and row 30-40 miles on any given day), then you will really need to crank up the speed. Get strong, and get fast. The experienced racers fly around this course. It's almost a full sprint for 20-30 minutes! For long-distance rowers, you will need to learn how to build up the intensity for high-output rowing.

On the other hand, if you are a 2K rower, the 4-6K will be an epic distance. Think about how many miles our Olympic friends put in over the year for that 2K burst. On these more weatherly coastal courses, the time it takes to complete even the 4K is not double a 2K...its closer to three times. You better start logging the miles! 

The other, more unique challenge to your pacing is that you can’t just get into your zone and click away your splits. There are turns that will slow you down. There are crashes that will bring you to a full stop. Not everyone gets hung up in a crash or delayed in traffic around a turn, but if you do get entangled, you then need to sprint to regain the ground you just lost to the rowers who escaped the chaos. In addition, you’ll often have to throw in a desperate sprint to pass other rowers – since there are no lanes, you have to actually go around your opponents to get ahead. For a lot of rowers, this stop-and-go, faster/slower racing style is way more difficult than keeping a steady pace. That’s probably because we practice every day with steady pieces, or at least with planned variation. So add to your training this year the ability to cope with unplanned variation! A fun way to do that would be to have a friend yell at you to stop randomly during an erg or boat piece.  Then challenge yourself to get as close as possible to your projected undisturbed time even with the stops! Which means, of course, for every random or unplanned stop you need to thrown in a sprint in order to regain your projected finish. 

Pacing your race for Coastal Worlds requires speed, endurance, mid-distance pace mastery, and an ability to cope with unexpected variation. But just think, if you are a wily older rower with not only the perfect mid-distance pace, but the adaptability to change that pace according to varied circumstances, then you will get your chance to watch those rash young guns fall away in the last 1000 meters or gas out after a series of stops and starts!

Beginner's Guide to Coastal Worlds

BBooth1.JPG

The World Rowing Coastal Championships 2018, held for the first time in North America!

I think I’m particularly qualified to write a beginner’s guide to the World Rowing Coastal Championships. In 2015, In Lima, Peru, I became the first rower to represent the US in this event. I had no coach or other athlete to give me tips, and I had no idea what to expect--no clue--essentially I was the ultimate beginner!

Even though I’m a very experienced coastal rower, I found myself struggling through the course. There are so many unique aspects to FISA coastal racing. That same year, Olympic rower Angel Fournier Rodriguez also gave the Coastal Championships a shot. Clearly a formidable and talented athlete, in the end he finished higher in the Olympics than he did in the Coastal Worlds-–and that might just tell us something about FISA Coastal racing!

What makes it so challenging? I think it’s the diversity of skills needed to master it. It's sort of like sailboat racing-meets-demolition derby. You need a base of good boat speed. You need to be adept in a wide range of conditions, from flat calm to very rough. You need strong buoy-turning skills and boat placement strategy. Pacing is essential in these difficult mid-distance races. It's aggressive, vocal, lane-free racing. You need eyes on all sides of your head. The start is tricky – it could be on a beach, it could be a floating start where you may even choose to get moving before the gun. Perhaps most intriguing is the need to embrace the unexpected, the random, the chaotic. And the most enjoyable aspect is the madness of it all – the pure fun of careening through a rambunctious race.

All of that could be intimidating, but let’s look at it from another perspective – with so many different skills required, these races are open to a much broader range of athletes than their flat water counterparts. Let's say you just aren’t big enough to make that elite Eight, or your erg score was never low enough to impress a national team coach. Perhaps you are older, and just not as explosive over a 2K course anymore. None of that matters in coastal rowing. Sure, maybe an occasional race will be a flat calm and the big guns will run away with it. Or maybe it will be terribly rough, and the technical rowers will pull a horizon job on the muscle. Maybe the grey-haired old guy with perfect turns will just keep sneaking past everyone. You never know in coastal racing!

While I certainly haven’t mastered FISA coastal racing, now that I have a couple World Championship races under my belt, I at least have a much better idea about how to train for them. With the race coming to North America for the first time this October, there may be others in my shoes-–rowers who want to enter but do not have FISA-style coastal racing experience or coaches. After all, It is a new sport over here.

So the next series of blogs will contain training tips for the novice interested in giving Coastal Worlds a go. And remember, by novice I mean anyone who hasn’t raced this unique format before, be you hardened coastal adventurer or Olympic Champion! 

Stay tuned as we'll be putting out a couple tips a week. Happy training, and yes, you should consider making a run for Victoria 2018!

Check out the race website here:

wrcc2018.com

Coastal Drives

jan21row14.jpg

Here are a few tips to make your drive smooth when the waves kick up. When your boat is bouncing up, down and all around, there are a few key points to keep in mind.

Ease into it! Don’t jump on the front end. When rowing through rough water, your boat weight can be very variable. If you are getting hit by a whitecap, the boat will be quite heavy as it gets slammed with water. If you are sliding down the backside of a wave, you’ll slip lightly along. Use the first few inches of the drive to get connected and get a feel for how much weight is in your hands.

Be patient. Let the beginning of your drive stabilize the boat. In choppy seas, your recovery, no matter how balanced you are, may have the boat rocking and rolling. Set the blades in the water and ease into the stroke, allowing the first few inches of your drive to establish connection and bracing of the boat.

Mid-drive = accelerate! If the beginning of the drive is to connect, to discover how much weight is there, and to stabilize the boat, then the middle drive is time to jump on it. In rough water, you are generally going slower and pulling more weight as water flies all over your boat. When you get to the mid-drive, you are in a much better position to put a lot of strength into the oars. If you try to jump off the catch, you’re likely to either hurt yourself or just rip the blades through the water, creating tons of effort for little return. Feel a smooth acceleration from the ease at the beginning to a powerful mid-drive with a great send at the finish.

Stay loose. Find the balance between power and looseness. If you stiffen up, the blades are likely to wash out. Remember that the water is moving all over the place and can be suddenly higher or lower by an alarming amount. Keep loose so you “roll with the punches” and stay connected.

Finish strong. Keep accelerating to the bitter end. Keep the blades locked in as long as possible to maximize stability and to set you up for a good recovery. The recovery in rough water can be pretty tough, as the blades get smacked by waves.  You need to stay active in your core to balance the boat through shifting seas, so give yourself a little help by accentuating the finish.

Release square. This is something usually covered right in the beginning of sculling lessons (i.e., get your blade completely removed from the water before going onto the feather), but it gets that much more important the rougher it gets. Turbulent water is unforgiving to a blade feathered even a touch too soon. Get out of the water cleanly and completely so those waves don’t grab hold!

These tips should keep you smooth when the going gets rough. When things get exceptionally crazy, there are additional techniques that can be employed to modify this suggested drive style. Running giant breakers, surfing or pulling into gale force winds require their own tricks and modifications, which we will discuss in another installment. In the mean time, find some rough water and embrace the waves!

Why I Love this Photo

jan21rowfoam.jpg

I love this shot. It captures for me much of the essence of why I love coastal rowing. Here’s why:

I’m barely visible. My boat is nowhere to be seen. It's not about me. Coastal rowing is all about the water. And this is water that is in wonderfully chaotic motion. It’s energy and life. Water drops are reaching for the sky, momentarily suspended, free from gravity. Air is being churned into the sea. When I entered this wave, I vanished into the sound of the collapsing water, the cold of submersion, the force of movement. Its not about me, its about the sea.

My arm and a portion of my oar are hanging in an odd angle. Throw those classical thoughts of control out the window! Merge with and embrace the ocean's energy. The wave just broke in this photo, so I threw my weight into the incoming break, balancing my seaward lean against the whitewater’s shoreward direction. Balance in the waves often requires a bulldog's courage to dive into walls of water and the confidence to know that you will come out on the other side. But if you don’t, it's cool, because you can climb back aboard and try again!

I love how the photo captures this brief moment of experience. It happens quickly, these dives through waves. But my mind enters that “near death” trance where everything slows down. An impossible amount of information is processed and a second stretches into eternity. In the heart of a collapsing wave, there is no time to think. It's all instinct, feel, trust in my training and the instantaneous connection to the rapidly changing circumstances of water unleashed. Every boring thought is wiped out of my head and I become purely aware, with every single cell in my mind and body joined with the beautiful sound, feeling, and movement of the sea.

That is the aspect of coastal rowing which I most love. In this photo it’s not about a “sport” or a competition or a status. It's fun. It’s letting go and entering a world of water. 

Winter Gear

 

wintergear.png

You row in the ocean in the winter? Aren’t you cold? Isn’t that dangerous? Since these are common questions I field, I figured I’d put a few thoughts out there on rowing safely in the winter.

There is one assumption you should make to prepare yourself mentally and equipment-wise for winter rowing: assume you will go in the water. Assume that even in a flat calm your expert rowing skills don’t matter if you break a rigger mid-stroke, an unseen dagger of ice pierces your hull, or some other surprising calamity finds you suddenly swimming. If you aren’t prepared for this, you will have a very bad day, be unceremoniously hauled away in an ambulance, or even find yourself dead. If you are prepared, winter rowing can be quite safe. It’s also a lovely time of year to be on the water. Here are your major clothing considerations:

Fleece Layers

If your winter rowing is in near-shore calm conditions, you can get away with your typical outdoor performance clothes. Fleece and other wicking garb in plenty of layers. The critical way to actually be safe with this clothing choice is the following: in an easily accessible dry-bag strapped to your boat make sure you have a change of clothes! Nice warm fleece sweatpants and sweatshirt, spare hat, gloves, wool socks. Yes, a change of clothes. If you hit the water and get immediately out and into dry clothes, you have done a fine job in mitigating hypothermia. I see almost no one doing this. It's very easy, and totally changes the outcome of an accidental winter submersion.

For more rugged adventures, offshore journeys or quests for giant winter waves, the debate turns to wetsuit –vs- drysuit.

Drysuit

A drysuit is perfect for longer rows, like expedition stuff, when you’re cruising at an easy pace. It's good gear for winter rows that bring you offshore or into rough conditions. Drysuits are comfortable and warm when paired with appropriate (wicking) layers underneath. When shopping for a drysuit, don't go bargain hunting – buy super high quality.

The major downside to drysuits is that they become pretty useless if they get wet inside. If you are going to be playing in the surf with multiple capsizes, a drysuit may not be the best choice. They are also liable to fail catastrophically if you get a tear. And if you are going for a shorter row that is very intense, all the built-up sweat may pose problems, because being soaked underneath your drysuit isn’t particularly effective.

Wetsuit

The wetsuit is my gear of choice for the safest possible short winter forays. Get a nice thick suit (5 mil is good) with hood, booties and gloves. It doesn’t matter if you are getting soaked or not, the wetsuit actually works better once you are wet (that’s why its called a wet-suit – it’s designed to let a small layer of water in which then gets trapped and heated by your body). If you are going to work hard, the sweat will not compromise the wetsuit’s insulating qualities – it will just build up more heat. If you are going offshore and looking for whitecaps or playing in the surf, wear a wetsuit. You can capsize and re-board however many times you want, the wetsuit will keep functioning. In fact, winter swimming is rather fun too! Unlike a drysuit, a wetsuit can even be torn and continue to work (with outriggers, and all those other sticking-up-pointy-things in a rowing shell, this is a definite concern, should rolling be on your day's agenda).

The downsides of the wetsuit come into play on longer rows, because it's really not reasonable to wear a wetsuit all day. You’ll also get pretty cold in a wetsuit if you aren’t moving around enough to kick up the body heat to actualize the wetsuit's strengths.

Of course, this gear needs to be paired with good judgment, and you are assessing the conditions in regards to your skill.

Winter is an amazing time to be on the water. The versatility to be able to launch right off a beach into the unfrozen sea is one of the great joys of coastal rowing. So if you aren’t winter rowing yet, consider getting into the right gear and giving it a go!

jan21row3.jpg

Waves of 2017, part 2

fogwave.jpg

 

Here is my second reminiscence of great waves of 2017.

The September–October hurricanes were like a swell-generating assembly line moving right up the East coast of America. One even had the good graces to stall offshore of New England. So, waves.

These were earth-shaking waves. The kind that hit so hard you could actually feel them in your feet. Basically, not your typical New England slappy surface wind stuff – these were proper, stately, heavy, storm swells. At my favorite Gooseberry reefs you could see these breakers from 2 miles away in up-close clarity. In vivid cut against the horizon was the curl of the face, the white of the foam, the tumble of wave wreckage frothing the surface. A wave that looks big, that looks clear, and that is audible from 2 miles away is a beast indeed.

I boarded my boat, wrapped my hands around the oars and watched the shoreline recede. Sure, it’s a little bit like that feeling of looking over the cliff and wondering if you are going to jump. Rowing towards those waves.

After listening to the consistent boom over my shoulder get louder and louder as I approached, I finally reached the reefs. I was stunned by the size of the swells. They were big enough so that the whole length of my nearly 20-foot-long boat would fit, with room to spare, between a peak and a trough. Rowing between these waves was like threading a hallway with high ceilings-–just epic lengths of water rising on each side.

There was a narrow channel of rowable water between offshore reef breakers. I entered this slip of smoothness in a state of marvel. I was ecstatically nervous. Ok, take this slow. There was plenty of crushing force out here. Double overheads, with big fat bodies. Boat surfing these would be a heck of a feat. Getting back through them would take absolutely perfect timing. I stayed in my little safe zone, getting to know these waves. I watched them, diminishing awe and replacing it with a study of the personality of each wave pattern. Who are these waves, what are they like? Where are the lines that I can bring a boat through? What is the rhythm and soul of this primal power? Where will the waves allow me to go?

Then the world started to disappear. It was like “the Nothing” described by Michael Ende in “The Neverending Story,” where a creeping void of nothing started to erase the world of fantasy and dreams like a blanket of forgetfulness as humans lost their ability to imagine. Well, maybe not so heady, but it definitely had the effect of an encroaching dissolving of reality as a dead thick wall of fog absorbed all sight of the sea and sky. It rolled over me, and the sunny day and sparkling waves were gone into grey darkness. "Pea soup," as they say.

At that point, I could only see a foot or two beyond my bow, I was well offshore, and surrounded by invisible and highly threatening breakers. Seemed like a time to be in a better place.

I turned around and started to feel my way back. With no eyes, I felt a sweet stimulation of my other senses. I know the current here, I know the way it squeezes through the reefs. I could feel that current through my hull, using it as a guide, letting its boils and eddies give me a sense for where I was. Water moves and changes, but when you have rowed a stretch of water countless times, a familiar pattern emerges. Like the quirks of an eccentric old friend, they may weave and roll in spontaneous permutations, but there is an underlying sense of acquaintance. It’s a return to that old-fashioned animal ability to “know I am right here, because this is what here feels like.”

I could hear the breakers on each side of me. If my left ear or right got louder concussions, I’d steer a bit back the other way. Along with my communication with the current and long-felt water patterns, this auditory centering helped create a mental map of where I was, where the breakers were, and where I needed to steer.

Overall, it was intense, exhilarating, unnerving. I was feeling a rush of adrenaline and a sharpening edge of fear – not a panicky cloudiness, but a sword’s blade of clarity cutting away anything but an absorbed observation of what is happening, right-here, right-now. This was not a vague sense of “respect the ocean” but an immediate sense of “dude, this is edgy and freaky.” Blind running a thin line. I was, without doubt, thrilled. This was a washing away of mundane thought patterns as I crept away from a dangerous place and my soul laughed with the sheer power, nobility, and magnificence of it all.

I love this little pocket of world. This stretch of sea that I know so well that I can run it blind. This stretch of sea that I know so well yet which still gives me surprises, and new experiences every day.

I felt the change I was looking for. The current finished squeezing through the reefs and fanned out into a more open stretch of sea. It lost a lot of its momentum in doing so. Once I felt this release of the current’s grip, I knew it was time to make the next direction change. I was clear of the island’s southern tip. I needed to turn north immediately because ahead would be another line of breakers on a line of almost exposed rocks. I had a smooth slot to make this next run in. Still, no visibility.

Here, the swells had dropped down to almost nothing, a sign that I was getting into the shelter of unseen Gooseberry. Somewhere west of me would be another jumble of rocks extending jetty-like from shore. I listened for them – these rocks always have a distinct sizzling sound because the waves break before they get there, but the foam tends to rush in and around the rocks, causing that sizzle. I actually wanted to be as close to them as possible, because other obstructions lurked if I drifted too far east. So I continued north but crept west, until I heard that wave foam sizzle around the rocks. From there I steered my course to keep that sound close enough so that it was loud and distinct, but not so close that I would feel the bump and bustle of rock-strewn wave wash. Not long after that, I found a few more “markers” and knew it was time to make a big swing into the beach. I saw the shore only when I was just a few feet away from it. And I’m happy to say, I hit the beach just where I had intended!

I didn’t get a chance to ride those breakers. But this was definitely the wave experience of the year. Just to see them, to feel the undulating swells, to live so fully in the fog…this is the heart of coastal rowing!

I suppose I should add a disclaimer here…Do not try this at home!!!

(uhhmmm…because you can’t…it only happens out in the world on the sea…)

Floating Ergs

erg'.JPG

You have definitely heard it, and you may even have thought or said it yourself:

“Ergs don’t float!”

I was a bit of a proponent of this. Especially for coastal rowing. But then, in 2015, I decided I’d make a stab at international coastal racing. I went from being a lean and lanky long distance rower to one who needed the power and explosiveness to shift into the much shorter distance (4-6K) world championships distance. To facilitate this transformation, I went insane on the weights and put on almost 20 lb. of muscle. I got stronger than I had ever been. That was pretty cool. But the bad news was that all this new horsepower totally ruined my stroke. I had a completely new body to figure out!

I wasn’t happy with the progress I was making on sorting this out in the boat, so I jumped on the erg. My plan was to eliminate blade work, boat set, wave technique and everything else except for a pure focus on fundamental body movements in order to reconnect myself. I stared at the force curve for hour after hour, making sure every stroke was a perfectly replicated, smooth curve. I watched myself in the mirror for instant feedback and adjustments. I focused exclusively on the legs-back-arms transition. I’d watch nuances of speed changes if I applied slightly different transition timing and checked that against my perceived effort (and the ever-present force curve) to maximize effective body mechanics. With a concentrated focus on this one thing (the major body sequence), I was able to make very quick improvements. I became familiar with my new weight-room strength and reconnected my body to the rowing stroke. In fact, my connection got better than it had ever been. Integrating that enhanced connection with my new strength back into the boat brought my on-water speed to a new level. And I got there way sooner than if I were to do boat work alone. In this case, there was a clear correlation: Erg work = boat speed.

Since so much of my rowing takes place with the boat bouncing all over the place, I also use the erg to make sure I’m not developing any imbalances. The erg is just sitting there, so it’s a perfectly stable platform to do a body scan. Are my hips square to my feet? Are my legs pushing equally? Is my back consistently strong on each side of a balanced spine? Are my lats engaged with relaxed upper shoulders? With no worries about crashing into anything, I’d close my eyes for hours and feel every muscle in my body, in a total internal immersion. Of course this makes me a better rower, along with increasing the strength of my mind-body feedback loop (another nice thing to take into the boat!).

I suppose there is also the inevitable competitor’s dilemma that comes up in any erg-centered reflection: do erg scores matter? This is an especially relevant question for coastal racing, where there are so many different skills put into play. I’d say a great erg score is little to no guarantee of success in coastal racing. Or, let's say this: a good erg score is not an indicator of success in coastal rowing, but a poor erg score is a barrier to entry at the top levels. There are just too many factors involved to declare categorically that potential horsepower alone is going to be an indicator of success. One needs to master the skills of rowing in waves, surfing, rounding buoys, navigating sometimes tricky courses, extricating yourself from mobs of boats, and maybe even sprinting up a beach, to name just a few. But horsepower is certainly one of the ingredients in the coastal rowing mix. Underlying fitness needs to be established to support the other skills. Ergs don't lie either.

One of my goals for 2018 is to get faster pure boat speed, i.e., more straight-up speed across the water without relying on surfing or other wave tricks. Training is a process of eliminating doubts. I love being in the boat and messing around in waves. I'm fairly confident of my ability to row through wild seas and heavy breakers. For racing though, I have a lingering wonder: do I spend enough time simply getting fit? To answer that, I’m dedicated to bringing my erg times down this off-season. Will a faster erg time ultimately make my boat faster? I don’t really care. I’m doing it to eliminate any doubt in my comparative fitness abilities. And won’t this create more confidence? And if I am more confident, I will expect my boat to be faster. With that confident expectation, I will make my boat go faster (since a big part of performance is positive expectation and belief!).  Its another box to check; a piece of the puzzle put in place. Erg tested fitness capability? Check.

Remember, rowing is an art, and therefore you are an artist. Everything you do should perpetuate the mastery of your artwork. Or, in training lingo – be specific in your training. Don’t waste time doings things that do not increase boat speed. Whether you are a recreational rower or competitive racer, make your erg float. I’m not suggesting spending more time on the erg – just suggesting a shift in mindset, so every second you spend on the erg is focused on boat speed. Make your time on the erg this winter an effort to improve specific aspects of your technique, fundamental body movement, mental connection, fitness and confidence. It will make your boat go way faster.

Waves of 2017, part 1

surfboatpen.jpg

Colder days and longer nights; a fire in the woodstove. It’s a recipe for rocking chair reminiscing…

2017 was a great season for waves here in southern Massachusetts. We had some mid-summer swells appear unannounced, and that late summer/early fall stretch of hurricanes and storm after storm pass by offshore. Those dropped off some of the biggest waves that we’ve ever seen over here.

While my head dances countless wave images, I’ll throw just two into words to share with you:

The first is from my viewpoint as a coach. I had a youth team learning to row an Australian Surf Boat. They were high school aged: three girls, one boy. We had just made the transition from introductory rows on the river to coastal rows and the magic of waves. On one of these later rows the sea was a sheet of smooth glass and the sun was peaking into the morning sky. Once we got around the southern tip of, and out of the lee of, Gooseberry Island, the smooth sea was heaving in an oily slick swell. We rowed around to the west side, and just as I suspected, there was a beautiful offshore break over some of my favorite boulders and shoals. They were head high (I stand just over 6’), curling nicely. They were pretty skinny for their height, moving fairly quickly but without a heavy-weight punch, and curling in a very defined area. In other words - perfect to run with a beginner team.

“You all want to get in there?”

It came quietly, but without hesitation: “Sure.”

I gave them the rundown of what to expect, summing it up simply with “things will start to happen real fast, so pay attention!”

I lined them up with the swell, and off we went. As the boat approached "the zone," I saw the stroke oar’s eyes widen and her gaze lift up. “Oh god, oh god, oh god…”

I looked behind me and saw the swell rearing up into a steep pre-break, well above the stern of our surf boat. Then it took us.

“Go! Go! Pull! Keep up with the wave!”

Oars were flying, the boat rocketed down the wave face, I leaned into the steering oar to carve us a nice line. The sound was beautiful:

The rush of breaking water, that classic ocean roar.

The clanking of giant surf oars in oversized steel oarlocks.

The hum of the hull in high-speed flight.

The screams of the kids – “AAAHHH…AAAHHHH!!!”

Then the almost immediate drop into silence as the wave finished and we sat hushed in smooth water.

After a momentary pause… “whoa… cool.”

True, true. Nothing is cooler than catching your first wave. That addictive speed, the bizarre feeling of flying backwards through space while looking directly into the face of the curling wave, the perfect connection with a force of nature: its all pure exhilaration.

I guarantee you will not hear such sounds or see such unstoppable smiles in a flat-water rowing program, or many other sports either for that matter. Viva coastal rowing!!!

Stay tuned for part 2...

lcwave.jpg

 

 

Coastal Worlds 2017, Part 2

World Rowing Coastal Championships, October 2017. Lake Geneva. Thonon Les Bains, France.

 Young local fans getting fired up for finals day

Young local fans getting fired up for finals day

...Ben's wrap-up from the World Rowing Coastal Championships

Final B: Focus on that course!

Prelude--The course wins again: In one of the women’s races, I watch an entire group go so far off course that the officials step in and correct them! This is unheard of in coastal rowing – where FISA officials are required to not assist any crew with navigation. OK. Final B coming up for me, and I’m resolving to row a good course.

Today is another dead flat calm. In the opening ceremony, FISA attempted to justify the venue choice by reminding us that this lake is a “true inland sea” where the “wind never sleeps.” Well, the wind also seems always to wake up in a very good mood – the whole week I’ve been here every day has been the same: Beautiful, gentle, calm, mirror-like water. Not my favorite conditions!

At the start, I line up a better course to the first buoy. I get another sweet jump off the line. I’m real careful about my course, and arrive flawlessly at the first turn, which I take well. Not super fast though through that stretch, I’m mid-field.

At the next turn, a good line allows me to pass Japan. I’m happy about that, actually passing people on turns.

Somewhere along the next stretch, media and official vessels have approached close to the course, generating a whole bunch of powerboat wakes. Instantly, my body comes alive as I start sensing the heart of the water. I feel the nuances of wave direction, and subtly shift my boat to get in synch with the waves. I touch my course to a bit more of an angle – there – perfect – I’ve joined a wave and am now surfing. Within a few seconds of rowing in these wakes, I have gained 5 or 6 boat lengths over the rowers behind me and have blasted into the next group ahead of me. I afford myself a little sarcastic inner chuckle – just give me a few waves, even artificially created, and I start to feel at home.

Following the brief wavy interlude, the rest of the course is back in the flat. No one passes me. I’m close behind a boat from Ireland. At the very last turn, I whip my boat around the buoy, taking a tight inside line. I hold water with my left hand to pivot the boat. Lost speed, but gained a new point quickly. I accelerate out of there. Short, quick strokes to make the boat jump. I’m free of Ireland’s shadow, having gained an inside line to the finish. He’s still a couple boat lengths ahead, and there isn’t much time left. I decide somewhere deep that I’m going to pass him. I pull out a crushing sprint. I pull even, hope there is time left. I pull ahead, rowing through him real fast now, feeling a great flex in my oars. The horn beeps for me, then a few seconds later, for Ireland.

B final, 7th place. Yesterday, in my heat, I rowed aggressively and even quite quickly in spots, but followed a ping-pong confusion around the course. I rowed a good course today, but simply wasn’t fast enough for better placement. Gotta row faster and a better course, together. More work to do.

That afternoon, the A finals take place. The women’s finals aren't particularly close, with plenty of open water between each boat. There is, at best, half the number of women as men in the event, across all classes (C1X, C2X, C4X). Let’s get more women in this sport! We’ll try to get our upcoming Rebel C1X into some female hands.

The finals for the men's C4X are ridiculous, as described previously (in Part 1 of this 2-part blog). Very fun to watch. They are wickedly competitive and stay very grouped-up just about all the way through.  That’s a heck of a crowd of big boats to fit through a snake-like course!

I was particularly interested in the men’s solo (C1x), of course. Simone Martini from Italy showed us how it's supposed to be done. He got ahead early and stayed ahead, nailing his turns in the clear water his lead allowed him. He looked so smooth coming along the home stretch. Big, long, strokes (well, he is pushing 6’6”) – making it look easy with his uncontested claim to gold. Unhurried, connected, strong. Hold that image.

worlds2017.1.jpg

Coastal Worlds 2017

World Rowing Coastal Championships, October 2017. Lake Geneva. Thonon Les Bains, France. 

worlds2017.2.jpg

 

Carnage.

Shards of shattered carbon fiber streamed in the wakes of rampaging C4X's (the big, four-person team coastal boats) From the shouting, flailing disengagement of a smashed-up collection of rather large (36’), aggressively-rowed boats emerged an apocalypse of jagged-edged, broken oars. Unscathed C4X's sped away. The less fortunate found themselves with one or even multiple rowers holding useless remnants of oars in their hands. It’s a long race in a big boat with only two people able to row.

Far from any coast (first-ever coastal worlds not held on the coast), on the dead-flat water of tranquil Lake Geneva, a wickedly twisted zig-zag confusion of buoys representing the maze of a course turned this crystal clear sheet of water into an challenging epic of a race.

Heats: a crash, terrible lines, a missed turn, some rage

At the start of my heat, I’m sitting there trying to figure out the starting line. It's on an awkward angle to the shore, making it hard to discern the line. It is also crazy-wide, about a 250 meter long stretch, which further complicates sight lines and makes for a huge variety of boat positions. Already I'm wondering whether the disarray portends what lies ahead... Some boats appear to be way ahead of the line, others behind it. With a 2 minute penalty for getting this wrong, it's best to play it safe. I line up even with Spain 01 – he is the reigning world champion, so probably has at least decent judgment.

At the gun I launch into my start. I practiced it a lot, and nail it perfectly. It only takes me 5 strokes to get the boat up to full speed. I keep a sprint speed up for only a few seconds, then settle immediately. Check for body tension, especially in the hands and arms. Don’t want to blow the forearms early--it’s a long race. Everything is good, smooth and loose. After this downshift, I bring it up again and pull a 30-stroke burst, squeezing lots of power into the oars. This is almost exactly the opposite from most rowers' starts – usually the initial sprint lasts longer and then eases into a settle. But I like the early settle to shake out the tension and nerves of the start, then pick it up just as everyone else settles down. At this point I look across. Damn, everyone is always so fast in a World Championship! We’re all about even – one long line of charging boats on glass smooth water in the soft light of gentle fall sun, as the Alps look down on us.

500 meters in, half way to the first turn. Some have pulled ahead, others have fallen behind. I’m mid-pack, but moving quickly through the field. It’s the first seven boats that qualify for A finals, the next six for the B finals, the rest eliminated. A couple hundred meters further and I’m solidly in the top 7, perfect. My wife cheers when she hears the commentator say “USA has moved into the top 7.”

We reach the first turn. The wide spread of boats funnels into a hairpin turn. A huge squeeze develops. There is a big slow-down on the inside line. I go wide to avoid it. I go way, way too wide. My wife wishes the commentator would shut up when he says “Oh, USA has swung wide! That will cost him.”

Now a touch pissed off at losing the coveted top 7, I row wildly, aggressively to the second buoy. Too aggressively. I don't see a boat from Monaco veering into me at buoy 2. Bam. We crash. Dead stop. He’s at fault and will pick up a time penalty, but it doesn’t matter because we are both drifting helplessly, and I probably could have avoided him. My oar is tangled under his boat, caught on the fin. “Go go go, get out of here!” I yell to him. His oars are free, he can move. “GO!” Finally we are untangled.

A lot of boats pass me during my unintended break from rowing, but there is somehow still a bunch of boats behind me. I squeeze out the strokes, pulling big acceleration and thankful for many hours deadlifting in the gym. The boat goes faster. My head is down, I’m rowing even more aggressively than before. When I look up, hoping I’m somewhere near the course, I see that I’m back up in the lead group. I’m trailing the leaders, but in a position where a top seven finish is a possibility. There is still water left in this race, and energy left in my body.

Then the boats behind me turn abruptly and start going in a totally new direction. I look over my shoulder – the boats ahead of me are continuing in their direction. A divided path. Weird. When the boats behind me get to a full 90 degree course differential, I see that the boat which initiated the new direction is from France. Ahh, when in France…I turn to leave the lead pack and join the pack led by France. Seems that was the right choice. The now off-course leaders are making a big sweeping correction. We’ve lost tons of time and distance – or, more accurately, we’ve gained lots and lots of distance to row. Those who were first, well...aren’t first now.

Getting acquainted with my new flow now, and I hate it. The boats that are ahead of me after the course fiasco are boats that are slower than me. There’s a group of them, spread fairly wide over the course, but not so wide that I can slip through them. I go outside, ready to pass. But we are at the next buoy already, and I am again placed too wide. I lose ground, falling behind this group again. After the turn I immediately gain ground. “Line!” the rower ahead of me yells as I charge up his stern, almost running him down (overtaking boats must yield to those being overtaken). Damn. I row at about 75%, which is the speed these guys are rowing. Got to get out of here. I go inside this time. I’m even with them now. I’m overtaking. Good. Then I pass a buoy. It's on my left hand side. Should be on my right. I’ve missed the turn, went too far inside to try to pass. There are only two options now: 1) yell and scream like an enraged maniac; 2) make a full stop, turn around, and retake the turn on the legal side. I choose both options.

There is now almost no time between turns. We’ve entered the slalom-like final stretch of this course labyrinth. I’m still faster than the boats ahead of me, but not fast enough to pass them in the brief straightaways, and not experienced enough to pass them on the turns. Stuck.

I cross the finish line in a frustrated 10th place. No A finals this year. But, somehow not eliminated after all that clumsy work getting beat-down by this too- twisty course. B finals tomorrow.

stay tuned, Finals coming up next!

 

Coastal Catches

For coastal, the catch is essentially the same as in flat-water. But as we will see, there are a few nuances to really getting coastal catches down, and in a lot of ways, the catch is the most important and elusive moment when the water kicks up. To review some of the keys of the basic catch:

The catch is the end of the recovery. It is not the beginning of the drive. This is an important mental distinction that will lead to technical precision. If you think of the catch as the end of your recovery, you are more likely to set the blade before you pull. You can’t move the boat until the blade is in the water. So just at that last moment of sliding forward on the recovery, lift your hands and set the blades – now your drive begins. See that – you don’t want to get all the way to catch position and then set your blade. Those two things are the same moment. The blade needs to unfeather and start traveling into the water just a moment before you arrive at full compression, so full compression happens at the exact same time as the blades enter. There is no gap, no pause. This timing allows all of your movements to be “slow” or patient, while your catch is the perfect speed of “instantaneous.”

The path of the blade into the catch should curve downwards. It is not a straight chop down. It’s a reaching back and down as you take that last inch of slide forward. Or, looked at in the same direction of the boat – the blade is travelling forward (towards the bow) on the recovery, and it should continue to do so as it drops down! If not, you are liable to be “rowing it in” and missing your catch.

You unweight your handles. The blade just drops quite naturally into the water. Don’t force it into the water, don’t hold it back. Just let it drop. The blade finds its own depth. Its easy and relaxed – and that makes it effortlessly quick.

Once the blade is in the water, the drive may begin. You start the drive with just a feeling of connection – the feet connect through the body into the hands. There is a distinct feeling of “locking” between your feet, hands, and blades. You are loaded and the drive is poised to accelerate the boat. I’ll talk more about the coastal drive in another post. For now, it is important to recognize the feeling of the blade having entered the water and locking in as preparation for your drive.

Here’s the thing about coastal: you have to be really, really good at all of that! Because you will not have the water calmly sitting where you left it. It might jump up to grab you. It might fall away and avoid you. It might do the opposite thing on either side of you. It might surprise you and be perfectly level for a moment too.

So this is where the idea of the catch as the end of the recovery is so important. Do not take a stroke until you are certain that the blades are in the water! Don’t assume because your “hands are in the right place” that the catch is executed. When your boat is lifting over a wave, sometimes the water is a long way down. You need to reach that water before you can move the boat. Be sensitive. Approach each catch as if it is a question: where is the water? Catch confidently, yet tentatively (sort of a Taoist moment, that one). Look for the water and let the feeling of the blade submerging and locking-in be a trigger for you to begin your stroke. Your drive is a reaction to your catch, rather than an arbitrary moment. This is also important when the water jumps up and grabs you- i.e., as you approach the catch, a wave rises and envelopes your blades. This may happen before you are ready to catch. However, if you are approaching the catch with that questing sensitivity, you will have trained yourself to respond to various situations, and to respond to the feeling of the blade setting in the water. So if the catch happens “early” it is no matter, just begin your drive. Its what you always do anyways: catch, then drive. As you approach the catch, the only thing to do is catch – no drive exists without a catch. So whether you are reaching for the water, or the water is reaching for you, there is ideally no difference. Either way, as soon as you feel the blade in the water, you can drive. The trick is recognizing that the timing will often change since the water will often be in different places. Might be sooner, might be later – either way, as soon as you feel it, go ahead and drive. If you haven’t felt it yet, don’t go. Kind of simple, when you think about it that way!

The other thing to be aware of in coastal is BOTH of your hands! Seems silly to say, but make sure both of your blades have executed a catch before you drive. This will become very obvious the first time you get one blade in the water, and one blade not. It can happen when there is a peak of a wave on one side, the trough on the other. These create vastly different water heights on each side of the boat. Yup, I know because I’ve done it – one blade locks in, you throw your weight into the drive, the other blade flies across the surface and you lose your balance as the unequal pressure torques your body to one side. Sometimes, or in fact often, you will catch with your hands at vastly different heights from each other.

In conclusion: to master the coastal catch – master your catch. But take the sensitivity of your movements a step beyond the simple repetition of muscle memory. Recognize that each catch might be a unique moment, and each catch has to be “caught” before anything else can happen. Learn to feel the moment the blade enters the water, and recognize the feeling of a blade that has really taken a set into the water. Sort of a “don’t think about it, feel it” aphorism. In time, it becomes very obvious. But it is the single most important thing for coastal rowing – make sure you do not drive until you know, without a doubt, that your blades are in and you have “caught” the water, wherever it happens to be! When it gets really bumpy, just keep chanting to yourself: “set the blade, then drive…set the blade, then drive.” Its really patient, this coastal stuff. 

Taking Flight

The following little snippet actually happened. I have to say that, because in the retelling, even I hear the tall tale that seems to surround the experience. But then again, for those of us who spend a lot of time outside, we have come to realize that life resembles mythology way more often than it resides within the boarders of logic. Here goes:

I was on a technique row on the calm side of the coast – up in the winding marsh stretches of the Westport River. The boat always feels so light when I’m not pulling it through wind and waves. The surface was calm, except for those little tiny stutter-ripples that just stand there like lines of typing. They give such an effect of speed – they blur into the sensation of acceleration.  I was also being carried along by the outgoing tidal current, giving more actual motion to my sensation of motion. Alongside, the tightly spaced stalks of horsetails and marsh grass whizzing by brought ever more movement to the corner of my eye. My gaze was held gently downwards, just mesmerized by the passing water. All the little things together gave me the definite sense of flight – I was basically a zoned-out rowing cliché skimming across the world.

This is when two small gulls settled in on each side of me. They were just a touch above the level of my hat’s rim, only a few feet off my stern.  Pretty close. They formed a perfect V formation, with me at the head. And they stayed there. Soaring. For a long time. It was the weirdest thing. Now I was really flying, the lead wing in the formation. My strokes were long and smooth, my blades just sweeping along the surface. The gulls wings glided, matching my speed perfectly, pulling me into a transcendent space. We carried this flight pattern for almost two miles, before some signal called them to peel off and circle away into the sky. 

Blackburn Challenge 2017

The Blackburn Challenge. July 22, 2017. Cape Ann, MA

Blackburn morning is a buzz. It’s a murmur of human minds hitting extraordinary vibes. Hundreds of people unloading boats, checking gear, stretching legs, bouncing toes…excited for the great feat to come. All types of rowers, paddlers and their craft are here--Hawaiian Canoes, Paddle Boards, Pilot Gigs, Whaleboats, Kayaks, Surf Skis, Grand Banks Fishing Dories, Coastal Shells, and more. It's an epic 20 miles of unknown – a race long enough for physical things to change, sometimes quite dramatically, and usually not for the better.

Each running of the Blackburn Challenge is a different picture. This year it’s a slate-blue day. Clouds cover the sky enough to shade the sun but not enough to totally lose the morning light. There’s not a scrap of wind to be seen, felt, or hoped for.

In the river start, the countdown went, and just before the signal for GO, we all start to lean on our oars. It’s a long trip, we can’t hang around!

I jumped the gun with a bid for the lead, creeping from 27 to 29 strokes per minute (spm), setting a pretty ambitious pace.  The tide is flooding, and the current is screaming against us. At one point I see 4.5 mph on my gps – a dreadfully slow speed over ground, compared to my fast flight through the water. At this pace, without current, I would be hitting at least 7.5 mph or more. Discouraging. I try to track out of the main channel. Looking for better water. Generally the shoreline will slow things down, or even create secret back currents that blast you ahead, but my hunt becomes a no-good bid for free speed that serves only to trim my lead. There’s too much crap lining the river to navigate through-–a tangle of boats, docks, buoys, rocks, in addition to the ceaseless creases of coves and points. 

Finally, out of the river. Everything now feels loose and just fine. I feel like my training up to this point and my taper for the race put me into that good space of "rested and ready." In the sea I hit and maintain a good stride, about 27 spm. That’s fairly high for this length race, but I’m feeling quick and light, and the boat is moving well, and moving out from the pack.

There are no real waves, but the early morning powerboats are heading out to fish, following the same path out of the river. So there are plenty of boat wakes to surf. I sneak a bit further out, pushing closer to the powerboat parade. I start seeing some ridiculous speeds as I catch wake after wake and glide along on this energy stolen from powered hulls. Holding over 9 mph for a series of stretches, with almost no strength needed. Yes, this will make up for the slow ride on the river! And catching these waves will give me a huge advantage if the competition is avoiding this "traffic" : classic coastal hustling!

Suddenly there is water pouring over the side of my boat! I’m at an impossible angle, tipped up on my side. My left arm is submerged, and going deeper. I’m going over! Brace, brace, lean away…the boat is not responding. What!?! I’m snagged on a knob-tipped lobster buoy! Dead in the water, precariously perched, stretching my hip flexibility to the limit. Finally the evil buoy spirit judges my efforts worthy, and releases me. It's Mile 7 on a flat calm day, and I almost swam! I look around, and discover I’m in a mine field of these traps! Shoot, a bit of weaving in my near future.

Conveniently, at the halfway point, the race passes through a narrow strait between Cape Ann and a small island. Its an obvious mark. I pass the strait feeling ecstatic, in a total rowing trance of rhythmic oblivion. I feel strong, not overly winded, and ready to bring it up a notch or two. So I don’t, not yet. Because I’ve done the Blackburn before and I know the second half is way longer than the first. The wind is different, the waves are different, the boat traffic is larger and more frequently going the wrong way--all of these differences add up to a second southern half that is qualitatively more challenging than the north side.

At the 13 mile-mark I stop for my first and only break. I give myself 20 seconds for a few sips of water. Then I take another 30 seconds to slowly bring my boat speed and stroke rate back up. Then I decide, since racing is one of the few socially acceptable places to go absolutely wild and insane, that I am going to increase my lead as much as possible and break the 3-hour mark for the entire course. But it will be very tight: I won’t be able to drop below 7 mph for the rest of the race. At that very moment, the water went to shit. No other way to say it. Suddenly the sea is nothing but a chaos of tiny waves, bouncing in every direction possible. The boat traffic picks up,  and as promised, all those boats are traveling away from the finish, so no more wake surfing! Still, I pass a double scull. Not bad.

Ah, there it is...the obligatory leg cramp. Mile 17. Right leg, quad, towards the inside. Happens somewhere, every year. I shorten my stroke. Half slide. Quarter slide. Arms and back only. Back to full slide. Mixing it up, giving that leg some variety. Confuse it into uncramping, while maintaining obeisance to Speed, the Divinity of Racing.

Mile 18, rounding the jetty into Gloucester Harbor. I find myself mixed up with a trinity of two-person outrigger canoes (OC2's). Slightly faster boats, inherently, the OC2's are pulling away from me. But some primitive beast howls into my skull, exhorting me to chase them down and try to beat them. As we hit a patch of rough water, they start pulling further away. The canoe paddles fly in a staccato rhythm, heedless of the chop. Meanwhile, rowing through these stutter-bump waves, I’m getting no run out of my boat on the recovery. So, inspired by the quick canoe strokes, I ditch my recovery altogether, and fall into quarter slide pulses. Now hitting 37 spm. Bring it up to 39, a really, really high rating for coastal rowing. My speed kicks up again, and I’m gaining on the canoes. And breathing like a tornado.

The water smooths out and I lengthen my strokes again, focusing on big, powerful surges. I steer by watching the canoes – they are looking forward, so I don't bother to look behind and check our course. My hands feel like mitts at this point. One mile left, screw it. I slap and punch at the water with my un-sensitive hands and club-stiff forearms. I heave with my back, pray with my legs. One canoe is dropped behind. Two canoes are still ahead, but just barely. I’m excited by their 20-mile showdown: after almost three hours they are only seconds apart from each other. I’m in full, mouth foaming sprint now (or at least what resembles a sprint after nearly 20 miles of cranking). I’m not gaining, but not losing ground on the two canoe teams. Keep going!

And then it was over. The greasy pole (it’s a local thing) was passed. The orange triangle marking the finish bobbed astern. My number was called. Not in the metaphysical sense, but in the simple act of recording my time: under 3 hours! 

I dropped out of my boat into the cool Gloucester waters. James Dietz II came across the line in big, strong Dietz strokes. Then Bob Russo had a great finish as he held off another rower-–arms up across the line- triumphantly gaining a place on the podium.

Stumbling a bit on the beach, we swapped stories of our journeys around the Cape. Still not nearly as tough as Howard Blackburn, we nevertheless had fun and pushed ourselves into efforts worthy of at least our own legends and tales to tell.

the above "photo finish" of my battle with the OC2's was taken by Leslie Bechtold Chappell and given a free unrestricted use. Check out more of her photos here:  https://chappellstudio.smugmug.com/Folder-Here/Blackburn-Challenge-2017/