Wye Island Regatta Kayak Challenge, 2011

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September rolled around and it was time for the annual Wye Island Regatta in Maryland.

I had been working out religiously in the Thunderbolt-X with the wing paddle incorporating everything Doug Bushnell had taught me and I was ready to put it all together.  It was a little too soon to try the Thunderbolt-X in what could be choppy conditions on open water, so again I decided to paddle the trusty Cobra Viper kayak since I was more comfortable in it.

I cashed in some Holiday Inn points and went up to Easton, Maryland a day early to paddle on the water a bit and get some experience on the actual race water and I almost flipped over when a crab boat passed and its wake hit me broadside.

Uh oh. Tomorrow could be a long, long day for me I thought.

After some good relaxing in the hot tub at the Holiday Inn Express in Easton that night and a breakfast of bacon and eggs the next morning, I was ready to go.

Alas, the morning came and the water was as smooth as glass.

The starting cannon fired and we were off!

I kept up with the fastest kayaks for the first 1/2 of a mile or so, but then fell into a sort of no man’s land, well behind the longer, racing boats but well ahead of the recreational crafts.  I raced pretty much the whole race alone in that position.

I paddled a strong race and came in first place in my division, a full 10 minutes ahead of the second place paddler.  I was ecstatic to win my first solo race!

I produced a video from that race with some pop-up commentary so I’ll let the video tell the rest of the story.

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Vendor and boat selection

That summer of 2011 I stalked a lot of boats online and eventually picked up the phone and called Doug Bushnell at West Side Boat Shop. Doug seemed to have some really fast and cool boat designs and he was very gracious over the phone and we had a nice, long chat about his boats and how they might match-up with what I was looking for. A few weeks later I was able to swing by his place in Lockport, NY and he took me to his local water, the Erie Canal, and we paddled together.  He was in his Marauder which looked impossibly skinny and he put me in an “EFT,” which stands for “Extra Fast Tourer.”

We paddled a few miles out and back together and Doug gave me pointers on how to improve my stroke with the wing paddle.  We passed another couple of kayakers at one point and briefly chatted and one of them commented that he did not know how we could paddle such skinny kayaks.

Some more chatting with Doug at the boat ramp after the paddle and I knew I must own one of his boats. They were some of the most beautiful things I had ever seen and Doug personally hand-crafted each and every one of them.  The only question I needed to answer to myself was, Which one?

Doug had commented to me at one point that he didn’t know what my current boat, the Cobra Viper, was but he could see that it taught me balance.  He suggested the EFT was probably best for me based on my skills as the paddler he witnessed that day.

I called him up a week or two later and placed my order.

I wanted a Thunderbolt-X kayak in the Kevlar layup with overstern, pull-up rudder.

Once again I was buying a boat that was probably above my skill level without ever paddling one.

Based on my brief encounter with the EFT, however, I knew I could soon be able to master it and wanted to push myself to even the next level of paddling.

Over the next few weeks I also contacted Cliff Roach at Goodboy Kayaks to purchase a Vbar rack from him since my existing vehicle racks would not work well for such a long, skinny boat as the Thunderbolt-X.

Cliff was another great guy and exactly what you would expect from a member of the paddling community.  I called him when I was passing through on business so I could pick up my set of Vbars, and Cliff suggested I meet him at his local reservoir to not only collect my rack but to paddle with him.  He would provide an Epic surf ski for me to paddle.

I met Cliff and we paddled together and that Epic ski was the tippiest craft I had ever attempted to paddle.  He had me simply sit in it for a while with my legs hung over the sides for stability until I got used to it, and within a short while I was ready to go (or so I thought.)

We paddled out and the boat was insanely fast and tippy but I was proud at one point from the fact that I got it going fast enough that I could hear the venturi drain making a sucking sound which meant I had hit the critical speed for physics to start draining any water from the cockpit.  I said something to Cliff about it and he said, “Good!  Sometimes it takes weeks for paddlers to hear that sound.”  Heck I had even impressed myself at that point.

But then, a  few seconds later, I was swimming in Cliff’s local reservoir.

I had no idea what happened or what went wrong but I lost my balance and had tipped over.

I tried to follow Cliff’s instructions on how to get back onto the ski but I couldn’t do it.  I had to swim to shore with the boat and re-board it.  At that point I just wanted to get back to the dock, get my vbars, and drive away with my tail between my legs.  And that was pretty much exactly what I did.

A couple months later I was back in Doug Bushnell’s part of the country and picked up my brand, new Thunderbolt-X.  I drove it home to Virginia and stopped to visit my parents in the Pittsburgh area for a day along the way.  I had them pose with the boat and they probably thought I was just a little bit crazy asking them to pose with a crazy looking kayak.

Mom & dad with the Thunderbolt-X kayak on my way home with it

I was not able to get the boat in the water as soon as I got it home, but a day or two later my family was able to join me after work to watch me paddle it for the first time.  My wife was kind enough to record some video from the dock and I had a camera on the boat so I’m now able to show you that first paddle in the Thunderbolt-X.

I was very respectful of the tippy craft at first, but as you can see, it did not take me long to start getting comfortable in the boat.

A summer of change

The summer of 2011 brought a significant change to my life.

For most of my adult life I had ridden motorcycles.  At that particular point in my life I owned a 1980 Honda CX500D and had ridden it from ~11K miles to over 85K miles and I also had a 1993 Honda Goldwing GL-1500 which was my pride and joy.  I had loved riding for as long as I could remember and looked for every opportunity to hop on one of the bikes and ride.

During the Spring and Summer of 2011 my wife and I lost a few acquaintances and a family member to motorcycle crashes.  Our own kids were still very young and my wife approached me and let me know that she worried about me when I rode motorcycles and asked if I’d be willing to sell one of them.  I didn’t put up much of a fight and agreed to sell one.  I had wondered a few times myself with the advent of smart phones and distracted drivers whether riding two wheels was worth the ever-increasing risk. I had already seen some really crazy things on the roads by then and it seemed liked things were getting worse.

In the process of deciding which motorcycle to sell, I realized that selling one of them was just the first step in my wife’s larger two-step plan and determined that maybe I should just beat her to the punch and offer to sell them both at the same time since I was riding less and paddling more anyway.  I put them both up for sale and then asked a question to which I knew it would be hard for my wife to say no.

“If I sell both bikes, may I take some of that money and buy a really nice, rather expensive kayak?”

I got the expected answer and soon was on the search for my next kayak.

I already had a few in mind, but a serious search commenced at that point.

I still do miss those bikes to this day, though.

Kum-ba-yah Race on the James River, 2011

A little less than a month after the Rivanna River Race in May, 2011, I entered the Camp Kumbayah Downriver Race on the James River starting in Lynchburg, VA.  This was my second year at this particular event, but the first year racing solo.  (In 2010 I raced in my tandem Keowee II kayak with my oldest son and he and I won the Tandem Kayak division.)

This section of the James is gently rolling with few rapids and certainly nothing too technically challenging so I once again decided to paddle the Viper.

This race featured a shotgun start with all paddlers and I got in the water early to warm up a bit and also to ensure I got a good spot near the actual starting line.  Starting too far back in the pack would certainly be detrimental.

We were all lined up listening to the countdown and then the starting horn blew and we were off!

My strategy was to get off to a quick start but as soon as I took a stroke or two, some guy in a blue kayak cut right in front of me going perpendicular to the river as if he was trying to cut me off.  He just got right in front of me and seemed to stop paddling.  I was extremely ticked off as I watch the fastest paddlers jump out to a lead ahead of me.  Urgh!

I did my best to recover from a terrible start due in no part to anything I had done yet my efforts were not enough to catch up to the leaders.  I wound up in 3rd place that day.  That race was ten miles long and it was in the heat of the day.  It was a long, tough race.

The winners had fiberglass or composite kayaks.

I was disappointed but also satisfied because I knew I could consistently run with the best paddlers in the area.  Now it was just a matter of further refining my technique and possibly upgrading my boat.

I had learned at this point that plastic kayaks are inherently slower than fiberglass or composite kayaks (of same or similar design and length) simply due to their weight, but I also knew the design of the Viper was so fast that it probably put me at near parity with those faster boats.

I scraped the bottom of the river many times that day and it felt like my plastic kayak just grabbed onto the rocks and didn’t want to let go.  The boat also was much faster in deep water than it was in shallow water so I knew I wasn’t 100% optimized with gear for this type of river race.

I went forward with nothing but high expectations as I prepared for the Wye Island Regatta in September.  That is a flat, deep water race and I had improved as a paddler so much in the past year that I was confident that I would have a good showing this year.


Camp Kum-ba-yah Race, 2001

 

Running with the Big Dogs but coming up short

The week following the Tye River race in 2011 I decided to try to paddle my Cobra Viper kayak down our local river, the Rivanna, where our local canoe and kayak races were to be held the following Saturday.  I was nervous about the trip because I was still somewhat fearful about turning over in the craft so I asked some paddling friends to accompany me downriver.  I used my normal whitewater paddle because it provided me a level of comfort and security if I should need to brace or if I flipped over and lost my paddle.

So we paddled down river without incident.  I was very tentative in some of the bigger rapids but I made it the entire way without flipping.

I decided to paddle the Viper on Saturday for the race.

Race morning came and I found myself at the starting line in the Viper–my first river race in the boat.  Again, I decided to use my flat-bladed whitewater paddle because I was a little too nervous about combining this boat with flowing water and a wing paddle.

I started in the first heat with one other boat that was 16′ or longer, and that paddler was one of the top 2 area paddlers.  He and one other paddler had been winning this race year after year, usually trading wins back-and-forth from one year to the next.  The horn blew and Rick and I were off!

I jumped out in front and stayed there for the first two miles of the race, but Rick was just behind me the whole way, trying to find ways to get around me but every time he tried, I found a way to kick it up a notch and stay in front.

I was fine until the first set of shallow rapids where we actually dragged bottom.

My plastic Viper seemed to stick to the rocks and Rick’s fiberglass boat seemed to skim off them as he zipped past me.  I struggled to free myself as I pushed along the bottom of the river with my hands but at one point I found the paddle in my hand worked its way under a tree branch or a piece of rebar at the bottom of the river.  I had to work some more to free my paddle and then I saw the other top paddler catching up to me as I remained stuck.

I managed to free myself but a lot of my energy was sapped.  I tried as best I could to catch up to Rick but I never did close the gap enough to even be able to see him again.

Meanwhile, I had a new threat behind me.

Dave S. behind me also just skimmed through the rapids that I got stuck in as the Carbonlite material of his Eddyline kayak seemed highly resistant to grabbing the river’s bottom.

Dave S. was close behind and closing the gap.  My goal at that point was merely to not let Dave pass me.  He started in the second heat so I knew he had already gained about 2 minutes on me so I figured he would post a faster time, but I wanted to do whatever I could to at least not give him the satisfaction of passing me.

He never did pass me but it was very close at the finish line.

I had a respectable finish and proved I could compete well with the fastest guys on our river, but I wasn’t fast enough that day and I lost a lot of time being stuck on rocks.

I knew that if I could combined that boat with the wing paddle downriver that I’d be hard to beat next year.

So that was the plan for 2012.


Rivanna River Race 2011 video


The 2011 Rivanna River Canoe & Kayak Race as videoed from my kayak

Starting to put the pieces together

I paddled as much as I could throughout the Fall and Winter of 2010 and into the Spring of 2011.  Most of my training was on flat water, in the Cobra Viper, and with the wing paddle.  In fact, I had never paddled the Viper on any flowing water up to that point.

I was getting more and more comfortable making this new type of stroke with the wing paddle in a relatively tippy boat.

The first Saturday of May 2011 rolled around and it was once again time for the Nelson Downriver Race on the Tye River outside of Arrington, VA.

Race day came and I was not yet ready to paddle my Cobra Viper down river in rapids because I was still a little too scared that I’d tip over.

So I chose to race in the Necky Looksha again.

I had a great run that day and felt like I made a lot of the right choices on the river.  You see, this sport is not just about speed and endurance, it is just as much–if not more–about being able to read a river and choose the correct chutes and rapids through and around obstacles.  At times, the paddler only has a split second to make a decision and then live with the results of that decision because in swift current, there is no turning back.  Sometimes you just have to take whatever the river throws at you.

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This time I came in 1st in my division (but it was only a division of one person,) but more importantly, I was less than 30 seconds behind the times posted by the #2 and #3 overall finishers.  I was thrilled with that.

I was finally running with the big dogs.

I was getting better as a paddler and was starting to put the pieces together.  I had the physical endurance and paddling skills down pretty well and was positioned to start adding better equipment to the mix.  I knew I had to improve myself first because the best equipment in the world will not overcome the weaknesses of a poor paddler.

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Enter: The Wing Paddle

Shortly after the Wye Island Regatta kayak race in Sept. 2010 I purchased a wing paddle.

Wing paddles came into prominence during the mid-1980’s and, as rumor has it, started with the Swedish national sprint kayak team and quickly spread to all Olympic paddling teams.

The wing paddle blade is literally shaped like an airplane wing and provides “lift” when paddled correctly which increases efficiency by 3-5% or more.  Greater efficiency means greater speed.

Wing paddle blades

The “lift” provided can best be envisioned by imagining a horizontal airplane wing.  When air passes by an airplane wing, the air passing on the top or convex side of the wing has to travel a slightly longer distance than the air passing under the wing so it moves faster and creates a low pressure.  That pressure differential is what creates “lift.”

Now if you imagine that same wing but place it vertically in water, the same theory holds true if the blade is moved the proper way through the water.

The proper way to move a wing paddle blade through water is using a motion that would create flow from the front of the wing to the rear of the wing, if we use the airplane wing analogy.

When the wing is vertical and the paddler is sitting, what that means is the paddle has to move in a side-to-side motion rather than a front-to-rear motion.  This is accomplished by plunging the blade into the water near the boat, taking a stroke back but away from the boat, lifting the paddle blade out of the water, and then repeating the action on the other side of the boat, over and over again.

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Wing paddle stroke compared to traditional kayak stroke

When done properly, the blade of the wing will actually exit the water in a spot ahead of where it was put in.  I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve been able to confirm it many times when there have been a few leaves on the water which allow for reference points.

I practiced and practiced with the wing paddle until the motion felt natural and my speed increased significantly.

One additional key to using a wing paddle is that the paddler must rotate his or her body above the hips to take full advantage of the stroke.  This is best achieved by pressing forward on the stroke-side leg so the hip drops and allows for full rotation.  I could quickly geek out on this subject but it really is a technique which requires its own study and books have been written on the subject so I’ll just stop right there.

The wing paddle took me months to master, and in some sense, I think everyone who uses one is always trying to improve with it.  I knew I was onto something because my typical flatwater workout paddle is a 5-mile sprint and then a brisk pace back for a total of 10 miles.  Prior to the wing paddle I was posting 5-mile times in the Cobra Viper of ~5.2mph.  After several months with the wing paddle I was paddling the Viper at 5.7-5.8 mph.  A huge improvement.

Below is some video I shot after I bought my second wing paddle.  My technique was not great yet and my hands were too close together, but notice the difference in the stroke from a traditional paddle and notice the rotation of the body.

A true paddler paddles from the abdomen and legs, not with the arms.

My first fast kayak

I began my search for a fast, racing-style kayak after that Rivanna River Race in 2010.  I spent many hours online and researched many, many boats.

Based on the type of paddling I do most often, I decided that I needed a boat that would not get damaged easily by hitting or scraping rocks and I did not want to drop a ton of money for a kayak made of composite materials.  So I decided to find the fastest plastic kayak on the market.

I finally found something call the Cobra Viper Kayak from Aquatix in New Zealand and became intrigued.  As I continued to research what made kayaks fast, I began my quest to find one of these kayaks in the United States.  I contacted the company and they directed me to their distributor on the East Coast of the United States which was Paddlers Cove in New Jersey (don’t try to buy a Cobra from them now–they no longer carry the brand.)  I called them and sure enough they had 5 Vipers in stock.

I live in Charlottesville, VA and it is roughly a 6 hour drive to get to New Jersey so I was not about to jump in the car just to take a look at one of these boats.

As luck would have it, several weeks later in late July I had to be in Bethlehem, PA for business and Paddler’s Cover was only about 40 minutes away in Washington, NJ.  I wrapped up my business meeting and had enough time to get to Paddlers Cover before they closed for the day.

I walked in and asked if they had any of the Vipers left (I feared they sold them all,) and the wonderful man who owned the place informed me that he had 5 of them.  I honestly could not believe they still had them all.  I figured every kayaker on the East Coast was trying to buy one.

I looked them over and pointed at an orange one still wrapped in the original plastic.  I experienced severe mental angst for roughly 10 minutes as to whether I should purchase the boat without paddling it first.  Next thing I know, the owner of the shop is helping me carry the boat to my car so I can strap it down and drive it home to Central Virginia.  While we were conducting the transaction before we had it out of the showroom, however, a woman who was shopping at the store walked out past the boat at the front of the store, looked at it for a few seconds, and then told me, half laughing, “good luck.”

Odd words, I thought to myself.

I got the boat home and did a little outfitting to the cockpit and then took it for my first test paddle.

Whoa!  This boat was very tippy and unlike anything I had ever paddled before.  Honestly, if I would have test paddled it before buying it I never would have bought it.  My misjudgement, however, would turn out to be the most important thing that ever happened to me as a paddler because that boat forced me to push past my comfort zone and learn how to balance properly in a racing-style kayak.

Here is video I shot of that first day paddling experience in the Cobra Viper:

Fast-forward six weeks (after lots of on-water practice) and I found myself back at the Wye Island Regatta in Maryland racing the Viper.  How naive I was.

Oddly enough, the boat met the requirements for the recreational single kayak division and I paddled that thing with white knuckles the whole way around the island which was ~12 miles and finished in 1st place, more than 6 minutes faster than the second place paddler.  He was in a Wavehopper.

Full of joy and a sense of accomplishment, I wore my winning medal around my neck the whole drive back to Virginia and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

Again, though, when I compared my time to the overall winners, the fastest paddlers were much faster than me.  Again I noticed they were paddling surf skis or Kevlar or carbon fiber boats, almost all using wing paddles, and their boats were longer, skinnier, and lighter than mine.

I was completely hooked and now slightly obsessed with becoming one of the fastest things on water in a kayak.

My tiny, little brain had already figured out that length, width, weight, and design of boat made all the difference.

That and probably the weird wing paddle thingy.