It's not often these days that I get a chance to race here in my hometown, or anywhere for that matter, so I was excited to see the buzz building from the regional surfski crowd in the week leading up to this year's Chucktown Showdown. Not wanting to miss out on lining up alongside a nice little surfski field 15 minutes from my front door, I quickly re-arranged my work schedule for race day and reserved my spot.
On race morning, paddling around during my "warmup", which mostly consisted of me informing Chattanooga's Ted Burnell of his poor boat choice and apparent desire for swimming lessons, I was glad that I'd managed to make it out. The surfski field was small but solid, with several strong paddlers putting in more serious looking warmups. Unsure of my form after missing large chunks of paddling time over 6 of the previous 8 weeks, I assessed my chances and set myself a goal of a top 5 finish. Whether or not I could get above that would depend on course conditions, which could potentially be challenging, and thus beneficial to me.
The 14 km course fell into 3 sections, which would guide my race plan. The first 4 km proceeded towards the battery along the Ashley River, a section that would be most likely flat, but depending on boat traffic, had the potential for reflected chop off the battery wall. The next 6 km took paddlers into the open waters of Charleston Harbor, making a wide circle around Castle Pinckney, an island military fort from 1804, before heading back up the Ashley 4 km to the start/finish line. The tide would be coming in the entire race, but didn't appear to be overly strong on the day. More importantly, the wind was out of the NE and picking up, which could make the harbor section of the course favorable.
Doing my usual poor job of lining up at the start line, I found myself in the second row sitting behind several of the main protagonists and pinned in by an OC2. This actually didn't really affect my plan, as I didn't want to start out too fast or strong over the first 4km on flat water against the tide. My strategy was simple: keep the fast paddlers in my pack in sight over the first 4km, hope that conditions in the harbor would swing things in my favor, and then make a final charge 1-2 km out.
Two paddlers I didn't have to worry about were regional powerhouses Eric Mims and Chris Hipgrave. Eric and Chris go head to head in their Epic V14s a few minutes in front of the rest of us at every race they show up at, and today would prove to be no different. My goal with Eric and Chris; don't be lured into trying to pace them at the start.
As the gun went off, Eric and Chris charged away, followed closely by strong TN wildwater paddler Terry Smith, competing in his first surfski race in his V10 Ultra, and my regular training partner Mark Volkmann in his 23lbs Huki S1-X 2G. Xavier Comelli, also in a V10 Ultra, followed them closely, tagged by Laurens Willard, who is an even match with me just about every time we hit the water together.
Early on I was a few lengths off of Xavier and Laurens, trying to ease myself into the race.
Passing thru the first km I had gradually moved my Think Uno Max Elite up alongside Laurens' V12 Performance, and Xavier slipped behind us as we started to get in rhythm. Ahead, Chris and Eric seemed to have found their stride, just ahead of Mark V, who had put a solid 50m or so on Terry Smith. Terry was the wildcard, and he looked strong, with a solid stroke, some 50m in front of Laurens and myself. I took up pacemaking duty and told Laurens we should try and hold Terry at this distance until the harbor entrance and then we should be able to catch him. The plan worked to perfection. As soon as we rounded the battery wall in the open harbor, conditions changed, with a 2/3 angle side chop developing, I could see Terry's pace and stability fall off. Laurens and I moved on him side by side and quickly left him behind.
Ahead of us I could see Eric and Chris, still together, heading out somewhere into the harbor. There was supposed to be 2 buoys out in the harbor for us to make our right turns at, but I couldn't see them. Turned out that the buoys were both yellow, and though they were of a decent size, the color did not show up well in the morning sunlight. The benefit of not being a leader meant I could simply watch what direction the leaders went out front and follow... or so I thought.
Between us and the two leaders was Mark V, who was taking a more easterly line to the buoy around 250m ahead of us. Though we'd kept Terry in check, Mark's lead on us had increased and our work was cut out for us to catch him. I train with Mark regularly in Charleston Harbor, so I knew that though he's faster than I am on the flat and in small chop, in rougher chop and downwind conditions Laurens and I would have an advantage. This would prove out over the next 5km. Once we found the first turn buoy and turned East to head parallel with the harbor shipping channel small swell began setting up. Laurens had beaten me to the turn and gained 25m on me as I slowed while he turned and he started picking up small runs immediately. I was able to match him, so we stayed that way, all the way across to the next buoy. Mark V meanwhile began struggling a bit with his stability and I could see him missing runs, as Laurens and I lopped nice chunks off of his lead run after run.
Following the runs I was looking for the turn buoy when suddenly I could see Eric Mims heading out into the middle of the harbor towards a stationary power boat. Was the boat the buoy? Chris did not seem to be following but also didn't seem to be moving. Behind, we all hesitated and a brief status quo was formed as we tried to decipher the course. Soon, we could see Eric turn around short of the boat and head back to Chris, who had found the turn buoy and, sportingly, waited on Eric. With that, run chasing resumed.
As we reached the turn buoy, still 25m apart, Laurens and I were now less than 50m away from Mark. The small runs had cost him and he continued to struggle in the 2/3 diagonal swell coming from over our right shoulders. I moved purposefully to the right, hoping to catch a few diagonal runs heading back into the Ashley while Laurens charged straight ahead, bearing down on Mark V. My strategy worked as I caught two successive runs and cut the distance to the other two more than half. Another small swell I was within 2 boat lengths of Laurens, who had caught and was pulling past Mark V when Mark suddenly capsized. Laurens and I both stopped and waited to make sure Mark remounted safely, then started paddling again once he was back on his Huki. A final surge as we passed the entrance to the battery and I was sitting on the tail of Laurens' V12, with Mark V gathering himself 10m behind.
Up front Eric had pulled clear of Chris as they left the harbor and was heading for home, pulling out to a 35" margin by the finish. Another impressive display by two excellent surfski paddlers, who seem to bring the best out of each other. Behind us, a similar battle had formed for 6th place between Xavier and Terry in their V10 Ultras, and they would cross the line 2" apart, with the edge going to Terry.
Seven minutes ahead of Terry and Xavier, our finale played out. Back on the flat Mark V moved ahead again and pressed his advantage. Laurens briefly tried to hold his wash but could not, sliding back to me again. Laurens and I paddled side by side for the next 2.5km, unable to make any headway on Mark, who seemed to stop gaining and sat 80m in front of us. Around 1km left I kicked hard, making one final run at Mark V. Laurens could not respond and would lose 36" over the final km. As the finish neared, so too did Mark, but in the final 100m it became clear that my effort would come up a few meters short, and I shut off the gas over the final few meters cruising in 10" behind my training partner.
Overall it was a great day on the water on a varied course, with several strong paddlers making for a fun time. Hopefully next year, we can increase the number of surfski paddlers, as it's a great course and a well organized race that's well worth adding to the calendar.
2015 Chucktown Showdown Surfski Results:
- Eric Mims (Epic V14 GT) 1h12'57"
- Chris Hipgrave (Epic V14 Ultra) 1h13'32"
- Mark Volkmann (Huki S1-X 2g) 1h17'37"
- Mark McKenzie (Think Uno Max Elite) 1h17'47"
- Laurens Willard (Epic V12 Performance) 1h18'23"
- Terry Smith (Epic V10 Ultra) 1h24'22"
- Xavier Comelli (Epic V10 Ultra) 1h24'24"
- Waylon Willis (Epic V10 Ultra) 1h25'13"
- Darren Crozier (Epic ?) 1h25'34"
- Tom Smith (?) 1h52'10"