BIG_BAD_BillyB

62 Going on 18

I was trading e-mails with a good friend and fellow surfski paddler Billy Bellinger last week.  When  I mentioned my Ultimate Challenge he of course offered to share every bit if wisdom he had on racing the US SURFSKI Champs in San Francisco.    As I read through Billy’s story it dawned on me,  this is exactly what SURFSKI paddling is all about.   Here is a 62 year old,  with the spirit of an 18 year old.   Pushing himself to the max, but also having the time of his life.   Padding a challenging and to many very dangerous course, yet having all the skills and training to be perfectly safe.

This is just simply an awesome story about a truly EPIC race.    I hope you enjoy.    Thanks for the write up Billy!!!

Chapter 1

Rodeo Beach, California

August 1st, the day that has preoccupied my mind and my training for at least two years. This is the most challenging athletic and surf ski race I will ever attempt.

I’m standing with a group of 60 paddlers who are amongst the best in the United States and even the world. Men like Greg Barton who has Olympic Gold medals in kayak racing. Today Greg is 55 but still races against the best in the world. Jean Rice and Jasper Mocke, both from South Africa who are the top two open Ocean paddlers in the world. And many more elite racers in surf ski racing. There are also a dozen US paddlers that can beat me in this race even if they were paddling a rubber ducky.

But I have one thing in my favor. I’ll be 62 years old in two weeks and they have a category called Golden Masters for all the old farts like me that are over 60 and that eliminates almost all of the elite athletes that I will be racing against.

Today there will be only 5 of us who are foolish enough to race the next 14 miles in these crazy waves, some of which will be 8 feet tall and colliding against each other from many different directions. So many challenges to anticipate and prepare for even little issues like what to wear in the 60 degree water and 25 mph wind. I have a long checklist that I started preparing two years ago, not to mention the training on how to paddle this fast  but tippy boat in these waves. I also have a coach, a mentor, and a friend named Rob Hartman who has guided me every step from the purchase of my first surf ski 5 years ago till this race.

I’m feeling good and its time to break out thru the crashing surf at Rodeo Beach just North of San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean and start this race.  Its 3 PM, August 1st, 2015 and the wind and the waves are blowing offshore in the Pacific Ocean today.

As I step into the water it is a cool 60 degrees up to my knees as I hold my 26 LB. Epic V10 surf ski waiting for the waves to die down a bit and time the launch thru the breaking surf. NOW, NOW, now is the moment, there’s a break in the surf, go fast, it will only last several seconds. Two more steps into the Pacific Ocean and then throw myself into my ski and start paddling, before  the waves become crashing surf again.

Quickly I advance and on the second step I went from knee deep water to water up to my neck and I’m floating in my life jacket. The bottom of this beach just dropped out from underneath me. What the heck happened ? Now I’m floundering like a dead fish in the surf with my ski being thrown back onto the beach as I claw my back to the shallow water. Then another wave knocks me on my butt. What a great start. I hope no is watching this jerk getting rolled around in the surf with my V10. How did he ever get into this race ?

Jasper Mocke comes running over to help the old man get up and get in my boat to launch thru this surf. With his help I make it this time and I’m in the Ocean on my 20 foot long 18 inch wide V10. But I am shook up and already in the choppy water I’m having to pay attention or get tipped over in this little boat. I’ve lost all my confidence and I’m asking myself if I’m nuts for being in this race which hasn’t even started and has at least 14 miles and two more hours to finish. I’m in over my head. How do these guys and some gals do this ?

Get it together Billy, get your thinking straight and start focusing on what you’ve been taught. 10m minutes till they blow the horn and this race is on. 10 minutes to get your thinking and confidence back.

Chapter 2

The Race Is On

Lining up between two buoys in the Pacific Ocean , four miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. The one minute warning is sounded. Last year I started slow and decided to pace myself for this race and lost first place by 20 seconds. Not today. Today is going to be full on for the full 14 miles. The water is choppy. Staying upright in my V10  is going to be an issue for sure. Do I paddle for stability or just go full speed. I’m going full speed today. I estimate if I dump then a remount will only take 30 seconds. If I paddle for stability it could cost me several minutes.

10 second warning. They blow the horn and the race is on. Everybody is digging in their paddles and pulling hard. The fastest in the world are here and they immediately start pulling out and leaving half the pack behind. My fight is only with the over 60 guys.

The first mile is frequently the hardest for me till all my muscles get warmed up. I’m fighting the chop that is slapping at the boat from the Ocean side as I paddle South headed toward the channel that will take us all under the Golden Gate Bridge, then on to Alcatraz and then Berkley. I’m putting almost 100% into every stroke , constantly analyzing each stroke for speed and efficiency. Much like swinging a golf club, a well done paddle stroke is a skill that only a few master and even they are always practicing it. As I glance at my Garmin on the foot strap its showing my heart rate at 157. That’s about all I can do without going aerobic and breaking down. At age 62 my maximum heart rate is 166, so I know that I dare not push it any harder.

The wind is blowing at 20-25 mph , the water is 60 degrees which actually feels good at this hard pace and the sun is shining along this stunning cliff lined  Pacific Coast. I’m holding my own with several paddlers near by which is good.

Ten minutes into the race I’m passing the Bonita Point Lighthouse and there’s the bridge 3 miles thru the straits. I can also see just beyond the bridge a massive freighter headed out and he has a huge wall of whitewater coming off his bow. I’m estimating he’s doing 20 knots and headed my way. For this race I have to get to the South Side of the channel and will either pass in front of the freighter or wait and pass behind. Passing behind is safer but will probably cost me several minutes. It’s going to take at least 3/4 mile of paddling to get across his bow and he will be on me in about 15 minutes. I’m going for it. Just don’t dump. He’ll never see you. Nobody said this is a safe race. It is deliberately designed to test and challenge us to the limit. Most surf ski paddlers would never tackle this course. Maybe they are smarter than me. 

Attached is the actual picture of the  freighter that has just passed thru the Golden Gate Bridge that can be seen in the background. This is the actual freighter that came out at the same time that I was  negotiating a cut across his bow . The surf ski in the picture I have added to it but it gives the idea and that is in fact what was taking place although the freighter was still a mile or two further back than the photo.

I’m headed to the other side of the straits paddling  hard and am watching my relative position to him at 10 O’Clock. After 5 minutes he’s still on the same bearing of 10 O’clock so this is not good and is a sure indication of a collision course. He’s bearing down on me and closing the gap. I’m changing my course to go directly South. I have to get across his bow now. I’m committed. The waves are running 3-4 feet and for the next few minutes I will pay more attention to stability. If I end up in the water, I am in a really bad spot. Finally he shifts to my 9 O’clock and then I am past his bow and  I can make out the port side of his huge hull. 5 minutes later he passes my stern.

uschamps_freighter

Oh my : There’s a fin passing thru the water 20 feet in front of me. I think its a dolphin although I’m no expert on fins. And then it rises to the surface and how cool to have a beautiful dolphin in front of my ski. And then its gone.

Now I can turn  and start riding these gorgeous wind driven swells that are headed straight towards the the Golden Gate Bridge. With a 25 mph wind at my back and the swells building into 3-5 footers, riding these waves is what surf skiers  love best. The next few miles just fly by as I head to the Bridge and on to Alcatraz.

Chapter 3

Under the Bridge and on to Alcatraz

The best surf skiers will gain speed on one wave , then leap into another wave so they are constantly on a wave. For me sometimes this works and when it does the boat just seems to be skipping thru the waves. But sometimes the wave just washes over the top of my boat and fills the bucket where I sit with water until I regain enough speed for the venturi hole in the bottom to suck it out. In my race this will happen a dozen times. I just don’t have enough speed or the skill to leap from wave to wave like these top paddlers do all the time.

But over the next 10 miles I will have many adrenaline rushing rides skipping from wave to wave as well as my bucket filling with water and making the boat sluggish.  Under the bridge I am having some of the best wave riding I’ve ever had. My boat is just leaping thru the waves at about 9 mph,  and  I only have to paddle a few quick strokes in between each ocean swell.   I can see the water rise and fall in front of me and I’m reading it well. The next few miles just fly by as I bear down on Alcatraz Island ( The Rock ).

Approaching Alcatraz the waves are getting bigger. Lots of them are turning into 6-7 footers and here comes the ferry boat roaring thru the waves heading for Sausoiito at full speed and kicking up a 6 foot wake. But what difference does that make mixed in with all the other swells that are now changing directions and becoming erratic.

I’m not skipping from wave to wave now. This race has turned into a roller coaster ride with my tiny boat climbing these swells and falling down the face of them. Some are getting so steep I have to drag the paddle like a brake to keep the nose from pearling into the trough of these monsters. And its only beginning. The next two miles will be the most crazy ride of my life as these swells build to 8 feet and they are steep. I’m in the washing machine now as they are coming and going from multiple directions. What to do ? Slow down, play it safe, keep the boat upright or go for broke , charging into them and riding everyone I can catch.

Fortunately I chose a relatively stable V10 Sport for this race compared with the more tippy, but faster boats that the elite paddlers will be riding thru these swells.   So I’m going for it. I’m going to catch everyone of these monsters I can and careen down the face of them. A couple of times my mind wavered but only for a few seconds. I know one of the best paddlers got dumped in these monsters and had a hard fight getting back on his boat while making multiple attempts. It ruined the rest of the race for him. It took the fire out of his belly and he just nursed the boat home the last 6 miles. 

Passing to the East of Alcatraz, (the prison rock)  the island is blocking all the wind and its pretty calm and relaxing for the next mile. The toughest part of the waves are behind me and the next 7 miles will be easy waves all headed to Berkley and the finish line. Its like Santa’ sleigh ride to the Berkley Marina.

uschamps-alcatraz

 For the next few miles I cannot make out the finish , but I can see the hills above Berkley and I know its under the hill with a brown top and no trees. I think I’m a little South of course , so every time I catch a wave I slice to the North when the nose falls down the face. Occasionally I look left and right but I don’t see any other paddlers. And then its in sight with about two miles left.  I’ve gone too far North so I start slicing the waves to the South. One more mile to go and to my right there’s 4 more skis heading for the finish as our courses converge. One of them is even with me and the other 3 are further back.

 My heart rate is up to 160 as I’m trying to take the lead on the guy who is even with me but it isn’t working. He’s matching me stroke for stroke. Now its 200 yards to go and we are side by side, both riding the same wave and he has gray hair. Not good. This guy could be in the over 60 group and we have to make a  right hand turn at the buoy in 200 yards and paddle 50 yards to the finish and he has the inside.

What if ? What If? This could be it right now. He might beat me to the gold right now leaving me with the silver. Or maybe we are fighting for 4th and 5th in our group. I don’t know, but all that is in my head is:  THIS IS IT . Gold or Silver in the next 200 yards. I don’t know, but I do know I will kill myself to beat him to the finish even if it means a heart attack. Its not good. We are nose to nose and he has the inside for the right turn at the buoy and he is going to beat me.

Chapter 4

200 yards to go and nose to nose

I can’t beat him. Side by side he is matching me for every stroke and I cannot gain an inch on him. My heart rate is over 160 and I have no more power to put into my stroke. Is this how it will end ? So close, yet he will take the gold and leave me with the silver medal. I don’t know. Heck : For all I know we might be fighting for 4th or 5th place.

200 yards: The wave we are on has ended. Now its just power and guts to pull pull pull ahead of him. It isn’t working. He isn’t giving even one inch. I back off, dropping in behind him. Two inches directly behind his stern where he cannot see me. I move to the right to take the inside position, but its going to take more than that coming from behind. 100 yards and here it comes. One more wave is coming up my tail. Its not a big one, and its moving fast. I’m not even sure if I can gain enough speed to match the wave and ride it. Pull, pull pull, pull for all you’re worth. Heart rate is at 166 , I’m maxed out. Its not working. Don’t quit, don’t give up, keep pulling, and two more strokes later my nose starts to drop. I got it. I got this wave, and he can’t even see what is about to happen.

One more ride as I slide by him on my wave, my wave, not his,  and now I’m on the inside. Its too late for him to catch  my wave and as I slide past him he hollers at me. Nice move !!!!  He’s beat. He’ll never catch me now. I wonder if it even made any difference. Pour it on. Keep the pressure on him right to the end.

Its over. Two hours and 13 minutes. Average heart rate about 157. Dang, that’s high, but then the waves will never give you a break and each one has to be beaten or it will beat you.  Bring the boat back to Kenny Howell, the Epic Rep. (Cool guy) . And there is my beautiful wife ,my best cheer leader, the only one that will listen to me go on and on about paddling these boats day after day. My obsession.

Over to the time keepers who are still busy as the skinny surf skis are still coming in. Two did not finish. I’m scanning the grease board and there is one guy above me in my over 60 group. Man, he beat me by 9 minutes. Wonder who he is ? Oh well. There’s nothing wrong with a silver in this race. “I got the silver” I tell Cheryl. I’m happy with that. I did my best.

Time for a quick shower and hurry back for the awards dinner.   Nice dinner. All the salmon you want, and great salads. These guys run a first class race. Checking the grease board one more time to see how some of my buddies did. All of these guys are the best. We are all friends now and in this sport we all know that if we get in trouble out there everyone of these guys will stop to help each other.

The real results of the race are kept on an IPAD, and the grease board is just so we can all see the results.

What, what, what’s this. The guy who took the gold in my group is on the board twice. Once above me and once below me. Surely there aren’t two guys in this race with the same name. No sooner did I spot this , then two of the time keepers walk over to the grease board with the IPAD and they are erasing the guy’s name that beat me. They had the right boat number but mixed up the names.

I don’t believe this . I got the gold. You have to be kidding. This is the toughest race in the Country. I’m not that good. But its mine. US Surf Ski Championship 2015, Golden Masters Division, Gold Medal.

I beat the old guys, but hey, I’m not old. I’m still 18, except I have a 62nd birthday in two weeks. I really don’t believe it. This has been the toughest athletic event of my entire life.

I owe a lot of people who have helped me and put up with me the past few years to get here. Rob Hartman, and Eric Haas both trained me, and my sweet wife Cheryl put up with me.

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