Chicago Shoreline Surfski Race: Getting Psyched Up or Out, I’m Not Quite Sure
In order to really write about the Chicago Shoreline Marathon for 2012, I need to start with the full week leading up to the race. I started obsessively checking weather/wind forecasts at least a week before the race. By mid week it was pretty clear that the wind gods were not cooperating with the race organizers and the winds were planned to blow very strong out of the north versus the historical charts that show a predominant south wind. With this I started envisioning an 18 mile grind into 25 kt winds. By Wednesday I could move beyond just the wind forecast and start analyzing the near shore marine forecast. Sustained North East winds at 30+ knots with waves at 10-14 feet for Friday. If they could just reverse the race course and run it a day earlier, we’d have world class downwind conditions – for the pros at least.
Having a barn full of boats is both a blessing and a curse. I quickly found myself in analysis paralysis as I tried to judge the weather forecast and figure out what boat would be my best option given the planned conditions. Normally I would have just brought two boats, but I wanted to bring a backup boat for the Reid Hyle the Stellar sponsored paddler and also have an open spot in case I had to return with an extra boat. I knew that even if the winds settled and the waves subsided to 6-9 feet as predicted, there would still be a lot of movement in the water from the previous day and the notorious break wall sections would display their trademark confused wave madness. Having never raced Chicago I would have been intimidated regardless of conditions, but now with all this wind and wave action my nerves were definitely getting rattled.
My initial preference was to paddle my Stellar SE, but I was concerned that if we had to grind into a big headwind or came into a cross wind the large bow volume and light weight of the Excel layup would make for a challenging paddle. I strongly considered the SEL because with its great stability and low volume in the bow I knew it would handle wel,l but I was a little concerned that if we did get an opportunity to run downwind in decent sized conditions , at 205 lbs it would be a pretty wet ride. I also began questioning myself and trying to figure out how much my ego was coming into play telling me I had to race in an advanced boat to be cool like the big boys. In the end, I decided that my V10 Sport in the Performance Layup would be the best all around boat for me. I knew it would be plenty stable to prevent any swims, easy to remount if I did swim, and enough volume in the bow to keep me from burying, but not too much to get blown around. Additionally it is the most comfortable boat I have which I knew I would be ever thankful for in those last 5-6 miles of the marathon.
Nerves Continue to be Tested
Firiday morning came and my wife Kim and I were off on the 6 hour drive to Chicago. We planned to get there in time for Kim to attend a Yoga workshop and me to attend both of the Mocke brother’s clinics. Everything was going smooth and we were on schedule until my car blew a tire on the I-90 toll way 30 miles outside of Chicago. Needless to say it was a nerve wracking 40 minutes as I changed the spare (had never used it in 11 years of owning the car) with the wind howling and the traffic racing by. Eventually the new tire was on and we were on our way.
Yikes – Lake Michigan is Angry
As to be expected, traffic got heavy and it became clear I would be seriously late for the first clinic with Jasper Mocke. I dropped Kim off at our hotel downtown and headed up Michigan Ave out to Lake Shore Drive. Until this point I had not yet seen the lake. Yikes, when I got on Lakeshore at Michigan / Navy Pier area it was utter madness. The waves were crashing into the break walls everywhere. I lived in downtown Chicago for 5 years and never remember seeing it quite that crazy – but then again I wasn’t a paddler in those days so probably didn’t pay a lot of attention. In any case – it was quite an intimidating sight.
As I drove further up the lakeshore and got away from the break wall sections it did start to look a little more normal – but definitely big. Luckily Jasper’s clinic started a little late and I got there just in time.
The Mocke Clinics
Both Jasper and Dawid’s clinics were great and I definitely learned a lot even though we didn’t have a chance to get out on the water. Both of the Mocke brothers are extremely engaging, knowledgeable, charismatic, and excellent instructors with a true passion for surfski paddling. I plan to write more about the clinics in a separate blog. As we sat through the clinics it was a bit hard to be completely focused as everyone was anxiously awaiting a decision on how they would run the race on Saturday.
It did make me feel good to hear from Jasper that he, Dawid, Sean Rice and a few others all went out on Friday and they all went for a swim. Here is the blog that Dawid posted on his site about the downwind run they did that day. He also tweeted that it was a “WORLD CLASS DOWNWINDER”
Here is a short video Dawid posted of the conditions on Friday
and another video of the guys goofing around and then racing
Race Decision is Made – Not Good
Finally the decision came and it was not good. Due to the wind, waves, and especially the rip currents near the beaches, the city of Chicago declared all beaches closed through Sunday. This was devastating news for the Race Directors who had worked so hard and make significant monetary commitments for permits, foods, etc.. that could not be refunded.
Surfski paddlers being the resilient and determined group that they are, were not happy about having the park authorities making a bunch of noise about arresting people and confiscating gear if we went in the water. I think this really upped the ante for getting out there. One brave and extremely skilled paddler (I won’t mention any names) did go out and play in the surf a little bit as we all watched on. Upon returning he did acknowledge it was tricky, but he seemed to manage it well. It all started to remind me of my skydiving days when I served as an accomplice to BASE jumpers. Not only did you hav
e the rush of the activity itself, but of evading the authorities as well.
After the news was delivered of the race being canceled we all hung out and had dinner and then started making plans for how we would get out on the water in the morning. We decided to meet at the race venue at 8:00 and go from there.
Saturday Morning – Conditions Look Great for a 10 mile downwinder
Driving up the LSD to Leone beach on Saturday was completely different than the afternoon before. The winds had subsided substantially and the lake had a nice rolling swell but little to no white water. The section around Navy Pier still looked challenging, but now it at least looked manageable. Four of us met up at Leone beach and decided we would drive about 8 miles north and do a downwind run back to Leone. We were fortunate to find a private surf/yacht club at Tower Road that was happy to let us all launch for the low price of just $23 dollars. There was a decent surf break rolling in but there was a small boat launch and break wall that we could use to get situated in our boats before punching out through the surf. It worked perfect and all of us got out without issue.
Once through the surf, I realized that those gentle rolling swells were much bigger than anything I had been in. I don’t want to exaggerate, so I’ll say they were 6-8 feet, but I think some may have been closer to 10-12. My paddling partner managed to clock 14.9 mph surfing one of them, so they had to be big The rollers were heading straight for shore so we paddled out hoping they would gradually start changing direction and head south. For the first four miles they pretty much stayed with an on-shore orientation so we just surfed the little wind chop with the big rollers at our beam. At about the half way point we came around a small point and the waves seemed to get a bit smaller but were now forming in the downwind direction we wanted to go. This is when the paddling got really fun. The clip below shows some highlights that Zach put together. I know the water looks basically flat due to the wide angle of the GoPro and the lighting- but I promise, there was a good healthy swell
Great Paddle – Much Needed Learning Experience
Overall we had an awesome paddle and it was a great learning experience and I believe a pivotal point for me. The conditions were really quite mellow and it was a perfect opportunity to work on the downwind techniques Dawid taught us the day before. Specifically about catching small runners to build up the speed to catch the big waves. The problem I was having was that I was hesitant to really go for it and use my speed from the small runners to get on one of those big rollers for fear of dumping the boat and going for a swim. The water was super warm, I was well leashed up, had my PFD on, and my paddling partner Zach was always within 20-30 feet of me. In other words, there was no good reason to be hesitant. All I was doing was holding myself back in my downwind progression. I have reflected quite a bit on this and it has forced me to acknowledge that over the past 4-5 years as I’ve only dumped the ski on average once a year, I’ve become more uncomfortable with it, even though I have studied, practiced, and taught the proper remount technique. I now know that I need to start pushing harder and going in more to get completely comfortable with swimming and remounting (this of course assumes all proper safety precautions are taken).
After the paddle on Saturday we headed back north to Traverse City. All in all it was a great weekend. I picked up a tremendous amount of great information in the two clinics with the Mocke brothers, had a great eye opening paddle on Saturday, and did a lot of great networking with surfski paddlers from around the Midwest. One of the things that amazes me the most is how many world class paddlers we have here in the Midwest. I’m truly excited at the long term potential for surfski racing in the Great Lakes. As we get more races going and build some momentum I’m sure we’ll see more and more highly accomplished paddlers and other multi-sport athletes switch over from their respective craft into surfski racing.