I had a great time at the the West/Rhode River Riverkeeper race, though anyone watching me probably had no idea I was actually "racing." Seeing me paddling my 13' long/24" wide plastic Ookpik at 4mph, they probably thought I was the leisurely sweep boat, picking up any water bottles the Surfskis, Outriggers and CLC boaters dropped...
Mine appeared to be the shortest boat, until a guy showed up to race in a 10' sit on top. There went my chance to win a trophy for the fastest in my "class." Oh, well - it was my first race. Maybe they would have the "short stubby guy in a short stubby boat" class.
When I left my house in Ashton, MD there wasn't a hint of breeze, and the only forecast I'd seen had been for 5mph winds on the Bay. When I got to the Shady Side Discovery Center a little after 8am, it was a bit breezy - and it kept building until the 0930 start. Looking at the course map, it appeared that the wind would be on the front quarter or dead on the side for the trip across the mouth of the river, and some following wind when we made the final turn towards the finish.
I decided to drop my rudder - I almost never use it since almost all my paddling is in protected waters. In retrospect, I don't know if it was that good an idea - I don't like having the foot pegs get all squishy, and it gave me one more thing to think about when the rough water hit. When I upgrade from this boat, I've decided I want to go with a skeg, but this made me realize if you are paddling a boat with a rudder, you really should practice with a rudder before you actually need it.
The Discovery Center is on a small cove or inlet off the Rhode River and the starting line was in the middle of that inlet in relatively calm water. I circled around the back and at the start let the real racers get ahead. The wind was right in our face at the start and the water wasn't that rough, so after a few hundred feet, I was feeling pretty good. My Forerunner Dick Tracy watch GPS thingie said I was doing 4.5 mph, which is pretty good for me. Then we left the protected water and turned left/north to cross the Rhode River. Now, the only "open" water I've paddled on has been the Wye River on a breezy day and the Patuxent River at Jug Bay on a windy day - this was a whole nuther thing. There were 1-2 foot waves, occasional whitecaps - not to mention the occasional large boat that went roaring by causing wakes coming from different angles from the wind.
My first reaction was "Hmm, I wonder how doing a paddle float self rescue in this stuff will be compared to doing it at SK102..." followed by about 15 minutes of fear of embarrassment of falling in as I got used to:
Actual waves (not just spray) splashing over the cockpit.
The water not being where it was supposed to be when I put my paddle in.
Remembering which foot pedal to push to stop turning upwind.
Learning not to keep trying to turn into every larger wave.
By then I was in the middle of the river and starting to feel like I was getting the hang of this - until the Donald Trump sized yacht went roaring by and I could see its wake coming from the rear quarter. That was pretty exciting - I was in no way able to look at my wrist to see the speed readout on the Forerunner but my paddling was mostly just keeping me upright, not moving me forward.
After that, the rest of the crossing was fun and I tried to at least get consistent in my stroke and heading. There were only two paddlers in sight ahead of me and I tried to reel them in a bit as we got into the more sheltered water. I did get closer - until we made a left turn to head towards SERC. I cut it too close - it was shallow water with actual breaking waves from dead behind. I pretty much imitated a cork for a few minutes until I could turn broadside to the waves and get out of the shallows.
After that it was calm water to the SERC - I finished in 56 minutes by my timer, achieving my goal of at least averaging 4 mph and not taking twice as long as the winners. There were about 15 boats total in the four mile race and it looked like another 30 or so had done the two mile fun paddle which started at Camp Letts, which was also the site of the Chesapeake Light Craft kayak festival that weekend. I did appear to be going faster than at least a few of the fun paddlers - though that kid in the paddle boat with the My Little Pony life preserver was hard to beat.
I waited around until they announced the winners, enduring a lot of local politicians giving speeches before the wade-in. From where I was watching you could see 3 or 4 snakes (or eels) swimming around where the politicians would step into the water and a bunch of high school kids pointing at them and telling each other "Shhh - don't let the old people know.
The conditions on the way over had at first made me decide to take the shuttle service back to the start, but I decided I could use the experience in those conditions, so I decided to paddle the 3.8 miles back. I paddled past the CLC festival at Camp Letts but decided to just head back - the real world with a lawn to mow was waiting at home.
The wind had actually dropped quite a bit by then. It was now coming from the rear quarter, yet another new experience. But the waves were nowhere near as high and it was actually a really pleasant paddle back. I also got to practice my navigation skills - I picked out a spot 2 miles away across the river that I thought was the inlet that lead to the Discovery Center and headed towards that.
About 3/4 of the way across I started to lose confidence in my navigation ability and was about to head further west when I heard voices behind me that sounded like other paddlers. I figured it was the fast guys and I was probably heading in the right direction. By then the wind was pretty much directly behind me and I tried to remember what I'd read about surfing swells to gain speed but I think all I did was wallow in the troughs and turn in random directions when the crests hit.
I made it back in something like 53 minutes - a little quicker than on the way over. The Surfski/Outrigger guys were the ones behind me - they were probably staying behind me thinking they'd get a chance to practice a T rescue or saying "Hey, look at that guy's rudder go back and forth - he must think he can use it like a paddlewheel to go faster..."
All in all, a lot of fun and a lot of experience gained for me. I hope to do it again next year with bigger, better skills in a bigger, better boat...