A Long Overdue Michigan Surfski Race Recap
It has been far too long since I’ve sat down to write up a race report. So I’ll chalk this up to being one of the benefits of being sidelined with a broken hip. Over the past few years, we’ve struggled to get good traction with open water surfski racing in Michigan. The loss of the TC Waterman event was a big blow to the racing scene in Northern Michigan as that race had a natural draw and vibe that has been hard to match. It’s hard to recreate racing on West Grand Traverse Bay in August with a big downtown TC Water Festival throughout the day.
First a Bit of Background
All that said, starting in 2014 with a small group and not a lot of fanfare, the first Cheboygan Open Water Challenge began. This was designed as a 14 mile downwind race that runs mostly west to east through the Straits of Mackinaw starting with the infamous Mackinaw Bridge in the background and finishing with a gritty grind up the Mackinaw River against the current (a bit Molokai-esque in the finish 🙂 .
Note: Should mother nature decide to not follow the prevailing wind pattern, the race can also be run east to west, in which case the locals have informed us the conditions would be even bigger.)
The first year there was great wind and runs for those who came early, but on race day there wasn’t much to speak of. That all changed in 2015 when we had the best downwind conditions any Michigan surfski race had ever seen. Nice 2-3 foot runs right from the start that depending on the line you took, lasted almost until entering the river mouth. I paddled in a tandem with my seven-year-old son and we both had a blast surfing the runs, and with constant spray in our faces, and staying cool despite the 85 degree temps In 2016 and 2017 we had visitors from out of town and I simply couldn’t manage to escape for the day. But in both years I heard from the racers that the conditions were even better than what we had in 2015.
In 2018 the event moved up in the calendar to the last day in June and before the 4th of July Holiday. This worked well for my schedule, and I was super excited to be back for the 5th Annual race. At 14 miles the distance is identical to the Gorge Downwind Champs so I was really looking forward to this race as a great warmup. Initially the plan was to race in the Nelo 600 tandem with my son who is now 10. At the last minute he had a change of plans and I would be racing solo. This season I’ve been splitting time in, and loving both the Nelo 560 and the 2nd Generation V12, and chose to bring the V12 as that was the boat I would be racing in Hood River and I wanted to log as much time in it as possible.
The first real heat of the summer arrived on Friday before the race and Saturday was forecast to be much the same with solid humidity and temps in the 90s. The saving grace was that there was some favorable wind in the forecast for race day. As I made the 2 1/2 hour drive north to Mackinaw City Saturday morning, there was definitely wind in the area, the big question was, would it be too off-shore or would it come around and play in our favor. When I arrived at the Mill Creek Campground which serves as the staging for the start, it looked like we might be in for a hot grind. Although we all quickly convinced ourselves that once we got offshore the runs would be there (that may have been wishful thinking). Either way, we got setup and drove our cars to the finish to be shuttled back to the start. When we first arrived back at the start at 1:30 pm not much had changed and I started to accept that it would simply be a hard tough training session that would make me stronger for the Gorge.
A Better Script Could Not be Written
Then, lo and behold, with a timing and effect that could not have been more perfect, the Southwest wind shifted to the Northwest and within less than 2-3 minutes, the air temp dropped a refreshing 15 degrees and whitecaps started appearing everywhere. At that moment, we were all convinced that race director Denny Paull either had some very special connections with Mother Nature, or this race was simply blessed. The mood of the paddlers changed as quick as the wind and we were all psyched to get out and start surfing.
It was a formidable field lining up with Erik Borgnes, Denny Paull, Greg Greene, Greg Hintz, Joe White, Billy Bellinger, Tony Short, and several others for a total of 17 surfskis preparing to dual it out. I knew that as long as there were runs to surf I had a good shot at staying up in the front. The gun went off at 2:00 and it was a bit of the usual chaos and sprinting as we all burned off the pent up adrenaline and anxiousness. I settled into a nice rhythm pretty early on working hard to keep surfing left and trying to head offshore as opposed to turning right and taking the nice straight runs that I knew would suck me in closer to shore than I wanted to be. I remember making this mistake in 2015 and was determined not to make it again. It has never ceased to amaze me how easy it is to let this happen. Conditions are always a little different everywhere, but all things being equal, there is a point where the waves will turn in toward shore. So even with a perfectly straight shoreline this is a challenge, but on this race course there is first a subtle point that jets out then an even more prominent point. So while I felt like I was constantly pointing the nose offshore I still never felt like I got as far from the shoreline wanted to be.
About 2 miles in Erik Borgnes and I came pretty close together as we crisscrossed paths. Unbeknownst to me, Erik was struggling with rudder problems and couldn’t get his ski to turn right. I knew he was just a bit inside of my line and not far behind, but I really didn’t see him after about mile 4. I felt extremely planted in the 2nd Gen V12 surfing runs hard left and settled into a nice and relaxed rhythm of paddle surf, paddle surf. As I neared point Nipigon about 6 miles into the race I noticed a pretty significant reverberation effect that actually seemed to build up the runs a bit more while at the same time making them a bit more technical. This section was a blast in the V12 as I felt firmly planted in the ski and able to fully take advantage of these conditions. I was feeling pretty confident that I probably made good ground on the competitors in this section.
The runs were starting to die off at about mile 10 and as is clearly evident on my Garmin Track, this is where I started to unravel. The heat of the day, lack of distance training, and not wanting to stop to take in any water or fuel didn’t help. Somewhere around mile 11 or 12 Erik Borgnes, who had managed to get his rudder issues resolved, and was likely just starting to hit his stride, came flying past me. I did my best to try and keep Erik in close sights, but it was a loosing battle. As we entered the river I caught some weeds and at that point the gap got wider and I was certain that Denny Paull, Greg Hintz, and Greg Greene were closing in on me quickly. I managed to limp across the finish line in 2nd place and quickly devoured three cliff blocks and 16 ounces of water to keep from plummeting in to the land of post race bonk.
Behind me there was a great battle playing out between Denny, Greg Hintz, and Greg Greene as they entered the mouth of the river. Denny ended up powering through to 3rd followed by Greg Hintz and then Greg Greene. Click here to check out the full results.
A Perfect Course
So in the end it was a 4th straight year of perfect downwind racing conditions at the Cheboygan Open Water Challenge. Of course, perfect is very subjective and relative to the racer, but the reason I say perfect is that this course has a knack for producing just enough surf action for highly experienced paddlers to have a fun challenge, but is also very doable and safe for beginners. The combination of relatively small waves and being so close to shore is absolutely perfect. But to paddle this course well, you have to be good at running the angles and what I call “threading the needle” where you are surfing the boat right at the edge of where it could broach if you lost speed or overturned even slightly.
Following the race we all walked over to the Cheboygan Waterways Concert venue for pizza and cold beer, and awards.
I’m certain that this race has the potential to become much bigger and would love to see that happen over the coming years. The consistency of wind and a myriad of point to point route options in the area means that for those who come to the area for two or three days, you are almost certain to find some surfing. If we can get enough momentum I could easily see this morphing into a 2-3 day paddling event with group downwind paddles and instruction in the day before/after the race.
The venue also lends itself to being a fun filled family weekend with a side trip to the infamous Mackinaw Island where you can load up on fudge and ice cream (preferably after the race). Beyond the indulgent food scene, Mackinaw Island offers a truly unique experience and step back in time with loads of history and no motorized vehicles allowed on the island.
So whether you live in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania or anywhere in between, I strongly suggest putting this race on your calendar for 2019. You won’t be disappointed!