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