The flag goes down and already I’m behind, scrambling to get off the line.
There is nothing quite like the start of surfski race. They are notorious for vague starting instructions, no punishment for jumping the line, and a field of eager athletes. Race nerves exist in any sport, but in surfski racing you have to add the worry of being left behind before the race even begins.
That being said, I love it. The nerves keep you on your toes and truly make you feel like you must be ready at all times. You can race your heart out, but if you let your competition get away before the race even starts, then you don’t stand a chance.
Last weekend, the West Coast Downwinder was held in Perth, Australia and drew over 160 athletes from around the country and the world. The conditions for the World Series Race were perfect. The sun was shining, it was a pleasant 80 degrees, and the wind was pumping along the coast. As the entire field launched out off the beach, the nerves set in, and the positioning before the race was on.
I have found that the best thing to do at the start of the race is to mark the best guys. Of course, I try to make sure to get my own warm up in and stick to my program, but I am absolutely sure I don’t get caught unaware when the elites line up. When they decide it’s time to go, they can often make a choice even the race organizer can’t reverse. Not to mention the starting rules for this race were; “”when you see the flag go up, be ready”. When the race organizer deems the line ready (could be 5 seconds, could be 2 minutes), he will drop the flag and the race will begin.” It’s already tough drawing an arbitrary line in the ocean between two buoys, but add wind and waves pushing the pack forward while an antsy group of elite athletes “hold the line”--- it becomes much harder to follow.
The line of boats had already moved well past the set “starting line,” and while I was trying to avoid being crowded out or turned in the wrong direction, the flag went down. I lined up next to Jasper and saw him shoot off the line. I scrambled to chase him and luckily was able to pull hard onto a wave right away. The race was on!
What a start! Immediately, 10 guys pulled ahead of the pack and there I was, surfing beside some of the best in the sport, going wave for wave with Cory Hill, Jasper Mocke, Dawid Mocke, and Tom Schilperoort. Surfing and racing head-to-head are my two favorite parts of the sport. And when you combine them right off the line? I couldn’t help but smile. For anyone who knows me, a smile is not a particularly uncommon facial expression, but this one was special. I was doing what I loved and side by side with my heroes.
The race was an absolute battle. Cory and Dawid pulled out ahead and diced it out till the end. My race was a balancing game of pushing hard and surfing intelligently. The surfing was technical. While the race as a true downwind, the course was not completely in the direction of the wind. The waves and wind were angling to shore and racers needed to parallel the coast for 22km. But the waves called to me. Enticing me to drop down their faces, gaining effortless speed. Following the siren waves off course as the recorded GPS speed spike convinced me it was the right choice. The conditions were more challenging than I initially gave them credit. And I realized about midway through the race that I definitely needed more side surfing in my training.
When it was all said and done, I had a blast! I paddled well, gave it my all, and learned a great deal about the conditions. I was proud of my fitness, but it would seem I need more than half a year to build the stamina to trade leads with Cory (who finished first, just ahead of Dawid). And to top it all off, I ended my race with a thrilling run up the beach just behind Jasper Mocke.
With every paddle in the ocean, I can feel myself improving: adjusting to the ocean, the waves, the heat, and the competition. This trip has already been invaluable for my racing and I can’t wait for The Doctor this weekend (last World Title Race of 2016).