Race Report: Open Ocean Regatta

Some events are so seemingly unique and relatively unheralded, you just want to broadcast to the world how exceptional they are.  So it is with the Open Ocean Regatta, held each year in Sausalito, California since 1976. A small regatta, it is typically held in early April with 3 separate races and a total of ~50-60 boats entered.

Under the Golden Gate in the 2007 edition of the Open Ocean Regatta

Richardson and San Francisco bays, where the regatta is held, are magical places to row, full of incomparable views (Angel Island, Alcatraz, the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc), and full of wildlife (harbor seals, porpoises, sea lions and the occasional whale). The race experience is enhanced by warm, sometimes eccentric people, an incredibly indulgent support staff ("can I wash your boat for you?") and a sumptuous post-race outdoor banquet. Last year, as I was driving down from Oregon to do this regatta, race organizers called me to inform me that the regatta would be canceled (bad weather). How many events do that for their participants?

Still, the race is not for everyone. This is not your protected, buoyed course with wakeless launches. You may have to weave your way through moored sailboats, yield to crossing motorized craft and prepare for immense wakes created by passing container ships. This doesn't even begin to describe the challenges presented by the outside course, which might include (this year, for instance), some very large rolling swell.

The gem of the regatta is the 7.6 US nautical mile (~14 km) Pt. Diablo course with its route under the Golden Gate Bridge. Starting in Sausalito, the course wends its way south around Yellow Bluff and the historic Point Cavallo (future home of the Star Fleet Command) then west past historic Lime Point, under the Golden Gate bridge to Point Diablo, then into San Francisco bay to Peninsula Point near Belvedere, rounding Cone Rock and back to the Start-Finish area. Easy, eh?

While the other two courses allow flat water boats (conventional racing shells), the outside course requires an open water boat with some kind of a self-bailer. Most competitors row in a Maas single or double.

Start at 9, but really earlier...
It's the rare Open Ocean regatta that doesn't start 15-minutes early. A half-an-hour early start is not unheard of. You read it here: arrive early to the start--way early.

This year's start might have been conventionally on time (which is to say, 20+ minutes early)--the rowers were all there then-- but some of the motorized support boats were not in position. Still, over ten minutes ahead of announced start time, the doubles take off. Then the singles--men and women--line up, myself included. Alignment is always a bit of a challenge as the tide pulls people in different directions, but we arrange ourselves, somewhat precariously close to one another. Then, we're off.

First out of the blocks
As is often the case with mass-start events, there is a mad dash to...well, something. I'm not sure what, actually. Mind you, this is a 14k+ race that takes well over an hour and the first turn is over a mile into the race. Immediately after the start, rowers unnecessarily jockey for position, as if the first 1000 meters will determine their finish order. I really don't understand this. Why not pace yourself?

This year I find myself sandwiched between two fellows who seem intent to be where the other is, and they seem to want to get there through me. Our first 500 meters is rowed in a sub-2:00 split. The opportunity for oar clashing and hull mauling is great. One of my two pieces of bread ultimately finishes over 10 minutes after I do. The other is a horizon away. I'm thinking they could have paced themselves a bit better in those starting meters, but maybe they have some clever strategy I'm not aware of.

True confession: I actually want to be first out of the blocks. Tom McInerney, a frequent winner of this event, has the same strategy. He is successful in his ambition and I slot in behind him. There is something to be said for having your competition in your view at all times.

Nuances of Rowing in the Ocean: picking your route
When rowing in the ocean, particularly near land, the fastest route between two points is seldom a straight line. About a mile into the race, the course wraps around Yellow Bluff and starts to turn west. The tide and the topography hold implications for an optimum route in this area, as illustrated by the red line in the David Lay diagram below:

A typical route taken by a rower in the Open Ocean Regatta during a mild flood tide.
During the pre-race meeting, the organizers tell us to stay as close to the rocks and the North Tower of the Golden Gate bridge as possible. This seems extremely counter-intuitive. The waves smack into the cliffs here and, well, you don't want that to happen to you. In fact, there is an almost visceral reaction NOT to row as close to the rocks as possible. However, underlying the advice is some well-worn knowledge as this graphic attests:

Back eddies and tidal currents help determine optimum routes

Tides and eddies aren't everything, or, the life force trumps tactics.
The advice above works well in a relatively low swell day, but during the 2011 event, the swell outside the bay is sizable (4-8 feet) and hitting us and the shore at an angle. This makes for interesting rowing (and by 'interesting' here, I mean white-knuckle and bowel-loosening) on the outbound route as the waves rebound off the rock walls with no predictability. Rowing the section under the Golden Gate bridge always seems precarious, but this time I cannot bring myself to row close to the concrete walls. The richochet waves just made it a bit too dicey.

Rowing close to the bridge like you're supposed to. (Photo by Jay Graham, re-sized by me. Sorry Jay)
By the way, the bow rower in the photo below is blind. Really.
This section of the race is challenging enough as it is, but for a velvet-ass landlubber who rows in the ocean for this event only, it is particularly daunting. Survival mode sets in: shorter strokes, higher turn-over. Open the self-bailer. Try not to crab. Try to keep feet in the boat. Think positive thoughts: that last time with the skeg in the air, was just an unlucky fluke. Where's that auto-inflate tab on the life-vest?

Eileen, my host, tells me the night before the race to look for the waterfalls on the way to Point Diablo. It has rained so much that cascades of water drop from the adjacent cliffs. Amazingly, I have completely forgotten to look for these.

Release the Kraken!   
Clenching the oar handles, the forearms start to ache. Gloves are wet and the oar handles slippery. Still, a quick inventory of body and equipment suggests I'm actually not doing too badly. My GPS still works (one year it spent too much time submerged). My legs feel remarkably good and my lungs aren't complaining like they were in the first mile. My heart rate has gone down substantially. The truth is: I'm not actually rowing that hard, just trying to get through this section without capsizing. Yet, I'm only a minute down on Tom McInerney and making time on the other tough guy rowers like Kenny Robinson, Don Hunt and Tom Kelly, all of whom actually know what they're doing.

Another rower in the 2007 event, a year of nasty water.

I somehow manage to navigate to the Point Diablo turn-around buoy. I start heading back into San Francisco Bay with Tom McInerney in my rearview mirror (which in a sport like auto racing would mean I'm ahead, but in rowing, alas, it means I am behind). I briefly entertain trying to catch Tom. This hubris is quickly spanked by a crushing broadside blow by some errant wave.

If it swells, ride it.
The swell peak to trough height seems close to 8 feet now. Maybe this is hyperbole, but in the trough of the waves I can't see any other rowers or where I'm going. At the apex, I can see everything. I then anticipate the ride of my life down the face of the wave. Cowabunga, dude!

Stefan and Eileen, winners of the 2011 doubles race, in another ocean row.
Photo by Jay Graham
Better ocean rowers perform a sort of jazz: they spontaneously improvise to the conditions. I try a somewhat syncopated rhythm: at the crest of a wave, I draw 2 or 3 quick strokes followed by a pause while I ride down the wave. It's almost a "clave" beat of sorts.  I adjust my weight on the tracks so I'm not so bow-heavy: I don't want to pearl the nose of my boat into the trough of the wave.

I used to surf, so I am familiar with catching waves, but surfing backwards and at an angle to my desired direction of travel is stretching my abilities. My bow ball digs into some wave trough and my shell violently veers to one side, my port rigger diving into the dark green ocean water. My feet are almost yanked out of their neoprene velcroed instep wrap. I gather myself for another ascent up and ride down. I'm losing time on Tom. He's the Benny Goodman of jazz rowers and I'm a novice kazoo hodad.

We're past the Golden Gate now and into the bay and Tom has changed his course. He's only a few hundred meters ahead of me.

Aside: GPS Navigation
Several of the more experienced and successful open water rowers here do not use GPS. Diane Davis, a perennial winner here and at the Open Water Nationals, for instance, never seems to use one and feels like it detracts from the experience. Well, that's all fine for her, but as I row here about once a year, I'm not familiar with the points, currents and other nuances of rowing in the bay. I use a GPS.

GPS comes into play when there are long reaches AND the currents, tides, etc aren't that significant. Today is apparently one of those rare times when the fastest route is actually a straight line, at least between Yellow Bluff and Peninsula Point. Normally in a flood tide, local rowers will veer more toward the middle of the bay to catch the incoming water. Today, Tom is headed directly for Peninsula point and I follow.

Every once in awhile I look down at my GPS and notice I am slightly south of the optimum course. I look in my rear-view mirror and Tom is steering the same course. This happens not once but half a dozen times. I am baffled. Ellen Braithwaite, a race organizer, participant and one of the Open Water legends here, informs me later that Tom is using me and my GPS to steer his course. I'm rowing a bit like a drunk and Tom is following me. Sorry Tom!

Oddly, this is the first time my GPS has worked the entirety of the race, so I have already notched up a victory of sorts. Now, if I would just look at the display more often...

Racing Attention Deficit Disorder
It's easy to get distracted during this race. Once, you get past the survival mode, it's hard not to ponder what it would take to escape from Alcatraz in a make-shift boat or what life was like on Angel Island. It's hard (for me, anyway) not to try to calculate how long the wave from a passing container ship will take to arrive (I always think more time than it really takes).

And, hey, look at that harbor seal right next to my boat. Is he/she following me? Is that a cannon going off on Angel Island? Is that a swimmer out there? Oh, it's a sea kayaker. SHARK FIN! Oh, never mind, just a porpoise.

Now, where were we in this race business?

The end is nigh
In a 14k race, it's the entire body that ultimately fails, at least for me. There is no muscle in particular that is going; it's everything. My forearms hurt like I've been rock climbing. My wrists complain a bit. Later, driving 6 hours back to Oregon, I will cramp in places I don't associate with rowing: my arches, for instance.

Tom and I pass one of the doubles and now Tom rounds the Peninsula Point buoy and is headed into the last 3 kilometers. It's just a 30-second gap between us, but it seems insurmountable. I want to keep an even pace, but I feel like my only chance is to mount a big surge and somehow challenge him psychologically. Maybe he'll just toss in the towel when he sees me gaining on him. As little as I know Tom, I know this is highly unlikely. He's made of tough stuff.

This is a deja-vu moment. In the 2009 event, Tom led and I followed with about the same time separation at this stage in the race. Feeling strong that year, I put the hammer down and started to pull back some time. But, then, all of a sudden, I found myself upside down looking at the sky through the lens of the ocean green. A refreshing swim mid-race is cooling and all, but not part of this year's plan. Today, I stay upright and we duke it out. Tom maintains his lead. I look for the next person behind me. Doh! This is tantamount to conceding first place and just protecting second. I chastise myself briefly for this lapse of competitive spirit and then push hard to finish as strong as I can.

Tom wins convincingly. I finish second, about 40 seconds back. Oddly, with age handicap, I beat Tom. This is just silly as I am only 3 years older. I think the age handicaps are way too generous, particularly since a 60-year old rower 3+ minutes back, beats me! Most of the rowers here ignore the age handicap; it's definitely a lesser consideration. However, the race organizers always give out medals for both "real" and handicapped order.

As George Carlin says: Don't pet the sweaty stuff.
The adversity inherent in this event is dwarfed in some ways by the challenges many of the participants have had to overcome just to be here. I think about my friend, Paul, rowing in his first Open Ocean Regatta with a year-old knee replacement. Other folks have recently battled cancer and the subsequent radiation treatments. A blind rower has competed here. Various people partake with missing or additional parts. These are all stud(dettes) of the highest order.

During the post-race banquet, race organizer Gordie Nash holds forth with stories about the race today, blending in the past. He relates how in one epic battle, Steve Gladstone was beaten by a much older, but savvier rower who observed the eddies and currents. A consummate story teller, Gordie is also very emotional about this event and the stories take some time while he gathers his composure. Watch this video and you get a sense of what this event means to him and the rest of us by extension. (By the way, I appear in this video just when Gordie says "Don't try this at home, kids!" Hmm. Do I look that bad?). Gordie's tales, the banquet, the general atmosphere, and the participants help you feel less like competitors than a group of like-minded adventurers who have shared a special experience. Kudos to Gordie, Morgan, Dana, Ellen and the rest for an unlikely race experience.

1 comment:

Ellen Braithwaite said...

Thanks for the wonderful account of this year's Open Ocean Regatta. I'm tired all over gain. Ellen