tc waterman 2014

TC Waterman 2014 – Not to Be Forgotten

The 2014 TC Waterman will certainly go down in history as a memorable race.   Surfski paddling is all about GRIT and the course and conditions this year were most definitely a true test of both skill and character.   The good news is that more and more research is proving that grit is one of the top 2-3 fundamental characteristics that leads to happiness and success in life.  So if you’re out paddling a surfski and doing these races you should feel really good that not only are you improving your health and fitness, but you are also continuing to build a character trait that is certain to lead to a happy and successful life!

A Year of Transition

This was a bit of a transitional year for the TC Waterman.   After three very successful years of growth,  race director Todd Mackey realized that the race had become more than he could effectively manage while trying to juggle  a family and full time career.    As it should, family and career took precedence and Todd decided to hand over the reigns.   Sam Porter founder of Porterhouse Productions, stepped in to take over the event and saved it from being taken over by another  festival.   The city is limiting the number of festivals and there is essentially a waiting list of events  trying to claim this premier mid August downtown venue, if the race didn’t happen this year, we would have lost the space for good.   Knowing that the true spirit of Traverse City is more about water than anything else,  Sam was committed to holding onto the event and made a substantial investment this year to do that.     Needless to say, the transition period did lead to a good amount of confusion and uncertainty around how the races would be setup and how the expo would run.   Additionally there was very little marketing effort put into the race as the Porterhouse team really only started planning/working the event in mid July.

Great Vision for the Future

Sam’s vision for the future of the event is that he will do what he does best, and provide the infrastructure, food, beer vendors, licenses, permits, insurance, etc..    to make it all happen,    and he is looking for the community experts to step up and organize their respective races.    I think this is an excellent approach  and with some good planning, collaboration, and communication I’m very confident we can continue growing this into the premier water event of the Midwest.

As most of you know my schedule this summer has been extremely hectic, so I also had very little time to prepare and plan for the surfski race.   I only started talking with the Porterhouse team about a week before the race.    Now that I know and understand the approach and that I will be the director of the surfski race,  I’m really excited about making it bigger and better than ever, next year.

The Ever Elusive Great Lakes Wind

Mother nature certainly managed to humble me this year.   With my very limited windows of time to paddle this season I felt that I was becoming a master at reading the wind forecasts and predicting the paddling conditions.   I’ve been successful in finding downwind runs every weekend this year and was optimistic the TC Waterman weekend would be no different.   Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.   The forecast through the week was  solid with a Southwest pattern, which is quite common on the bay in the summer.   Then the day before the event the hourly forecast showed a shift right about at race time going from Southwest to Northwest.   I felt that if it actually blew Southwest all day the water in the bay might take a little time to turn, so I wasn’t too concerned about the late day shift to the North.

On race morning we had some serious systems moving through and torrential downpour from 8:00 AM through around 10:30.    As the front blew through it was anybody’s guess what the wind would do, but it seemed like the safest bet was that there would be West wind.   Based on this,  I wanted to make sure we had at least a section of the course taking advantage of the west wind    The logistics of the point to point races are always challenging and end up consuming a lot of time for everyone.   Additonally, the last two years we have finished at Bowers Harbor and it really feels a bit anti-climatic without many spectators and just a small little beach.     So wanting to keep it simple, leverage the West wind, and finish under the banner in front of the crowd and energy of the festival,  I opted at the last minute to do a sort of triangle/oval course.     I’m sure that Todd (performing as race director to help out in this transition year)  was less than thrilled with my decision,  but he was super accommodating and helped me make it happen at the very last minute.

And the Racers are Off

When the gun went off and the race started, it seemed like the selected course might be the right decision.    The run out to the first buoy was fairly flat,  but very quickly the North wind started picking up, and the racers were faced with 1 – 3 foot beam waves as they paddled back and forth across West Bay for the next 10 miles.    As if beam waves weren’t enough,  there are several break walls and various obstacles that create a real washing machine effect throughout the entire south end of the bay.   The race quickly became a test of who had the best stability, with those in the stable boasts definitely having a big advantage.    And  if the wave action wasn’t enough,  the racers also had to contend with a sail boat regatta that seemed to be moving all over across the bay throughout the day.   Some of the racers reported some unhappy and not so flexible sail boat racers.     In addition to the sail boats,  I realized right about the time that we agreed to the new course, that the racers would have to cut directly through the 3 mile SUP race which was running perpendicular to our course.    Fortunately I did not hear of any shouting matches or incidents with this, which is pretty cool to see that the SUP racers and Surfski racers found a way to co-exist on opposite paths without any incidents.    And just in case this wasn’t enough obstacles for one race,   toward the end of the race there was a scheduled Coast Guard demonstration which involved a rescue helicopter hovering at 20 feet above the lake to drop a swimmer into the water.   So for a few not so lucky paddlers,  they had the opportunity to battle rotor wash generating a huge volume of mist and some serious wind and waves right before the finish line.     I guess it was a good reminder for all of us to stay safe and never put ourselves in a situation where we need to call in the big orange bird,  it was a pretty intimidating and intense sight.

In the end I think we had 26 racers start and around 16 or so finish.    There was a lot of remounting for most paddlers and they were quickly reminded of why Oscar drills so relentlessly on stability before ability and mastering the remount.    Fortunately the water temps were reasonably warm, so no one was in danger and the course was pretty contained with enough paddlers and safety boats to look after everyone and ensure their safety.    While I was expecting some not so kind remarks after sending the racers out for 10 miles of torture,  to my pleasant surprise,  they all came in with ear to ear grins.   I guess it is a true testament to the type of person attracted to open water surfski racing, sort of like smiling as you cross the finish line at the Birkie with frostbite on your face and wearing a trash bag to survive the wind chill.   (This was Steve Bannow in Birkie 2014, who also happened to be one of the lucky paddlers to go under the rotor wash, he has grit! )

Looking Ahead to Next Year

My goal / motto for next year is 50 in 15,  (50 surfski racers in 2015).   I know this is possible just based on the number of customers I have across the Midwest.   This past weekend with just 26 racers I know we had Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin represented.   There are a lot more local paddlers that I plan to harass to commit for next year and hopefully next year we won’t be competing with the US Championships in San Francisco where at least 8 or 9 of the top midwest racers were this year.  No guarantee on that, but regardless, I know we can get 50.

Below are some of my initial thoughts on what we could do for next year,   with the goal of ultimately making the TC Waterman a long paddle weekend/vacation destination
  1. Organize a unique downwind paddle on the Thursday before the race,   taking the ferry out to North or South Manitou Island and paddling back across the channel to Leland (this would be about a 12-14 mile downwind with a northwest, west, or southwest wind)
  2. Friday night :   Organize some short fun racing events at Clinch Park,   maybe a combination SUP/Surfski relay,   surfski sprint races,  or surfski team rescue races.    Basically something that is fun and spectator friendly
  3. Saturday:  I’m toying with the idea of a fixed true triangular course that would ensure at least 1 section of good downwind.   Get this organized and well established ensuring we don’t conflict with the sail boat regattas or SUP races.   I really liked the high energy / spectator friendly finish under the big banner  and if we new we were finishing their, we could easily secure chip timing.   The logistics/staging/stress of trying to get the wind right for a true downwind race just seems to be proving a bit too difficult.
  4. We could run the triangular course a bit earlier in the day,  maybe around 10:00/11:00.   The idea would then be to plan for an afternoon group downwind paddle with coaching, etc..    So I would have a van/driver/trailer secured and ready,  and for those who want to sign up,  we would make a call after the race on where to run the downwind based on the conditions of the moment.     This would not be a race, the goal would be to wrap this up just in time for the awards dinner
  5. Awards –  I would like to see cash prizes for the top 3 male and female winners next year  and then raffling off swag for all the rest of the participants
  6. I’ll plan to recruit a dedicated team of surfski race volunteers to ensure we have good support throughout the race events
  7. Oscar –  The big guy is planning a return,  so with a lot of luck, maybe we can get him in for TC Waterman Weekend

Please feel free to post your thoughts to this blog.    I can’t guarantee we’ll implement everyone’s ideas,  but I am certainly open to collaboration from the community as we work to make this event bigger and better than ever.

Check out all the great photos from race day on my Facebook Page