This is a guest post by my friend and fellow paddler, John McCue, who completed the Chattajack 31 mile race this past Saturday on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga Tennessee. I was hoping race it this year but was unable to attend due to other obligations.
John finished 15th place in the Men’s Kayak division, 16th place overall.
Here are his impressions from the race…
First-time Chattajack 31 paddler and guest blogger, John McCue
I just got back from paddling Chattajack 31, the big paddleboard/kayak/surfski race in Chattanooga. We raced 31 miles down the Tennessee river gorge.
Waiting on the water for the race to start, it was not hard to realize this was quite different from other kayak races I have done. None of the couple hundred paddlers lining up in the cold rain made a last minute decision to race. Entry opened and closed months earlier, this indeed was a serious collection of SUP and kayak paddlers.
Two hours earlier before sitting in the rain waiting for the start, I chose to get out of my warm dry car and trudge into the rain. Dozens of cars parked near the finish all doing the same thing; Discharging dry paddlers into the cold dark rain, to climb onto one of the school busses lined up to shuttle us to the start.
“Basecamp” is what they call the start area and it is alive with action.
Everybody has stored their boats and boards overnight at the start. Now the sea of multi colored fiberglass, carbon and Kevlar is buzzing with paddlers readying their crafts.
The clothing choices were as varied as the fancy boards and boats. Water temp of 70, but headwind and 48 degree rain. What to wear?
Nobody here was a causal paddler, this was not the, “ I hope I can paddle 31 miles” crowd.
Most race starts are choppy, as paddlers surge forward and a dozen blades churn the water. It smooths out after paddlers settle in to a pace.
Chattajack, however, has hundreds of paddles churning at the start, and unlike the smaller races I have been to, the churning continues for a while. Experienced racers know the importance of a good start, but if everybody is experienced, and is dong the same thing…..washing machine! For almost 3 miles the Tennessee river was more like the stormy ocean.
My start was poor and I spent 3 miles focusing on not dumping it in the river as I was caught in a sea of SUP’s.
Drafting and draft trains are allowed but only by similar type of craft. Kayaks can pace behind kayaks but not behind SUP’s etc. When things cleared out I was able to make good time working with another kayak. We traded off leading each other while drafting close behind. It was nice to see 6.8 and 7 mph on the Garmin.
Even while making good time, by mile 4 the race for the lead was already ahead down the river. We were able to catch and pass plenty of other kayaks and SUP’s. But the leaders were surely working together further ahead.
My drafting partner backed off the pace around mile 18 and for the next 7 miles I continued on my own at a furious pace. I knew the top finishers were out of sight but I still thought my time goal of 5 hours was possible. My average speed was still 6.4 mph at the 25 mile mark despite the headwind. It is interesting how much mental math goes on paddling a kayak!
Then I got cold.
Of course it was a cold wet day but it had not bothered me until then. I was turning towards a power boat wake (even on a cold day they are out there) and while the hull of my epic 18x was slapping the water I felt the cold in my arms and hands. When I am paddling in my “zone” I can block out the wind and rain….. however, choppy water, whether it is from hundreds of paddles, wind waves or power boat wakes requires a different kind of focus. My brain was ready for more hammering down the river not capsize avoidance i.e.; turning into waves or wakes. My hands were cold and my judgement impaired. I did not fall in but my speed did.
Only 6 miles to go but I was now paddling fast rather than racing. My finish time of 5hr 16min was surprising since miles 25 26 and 27 were only 5mph.
Dreaming of a warm dry car does not push a boat faster into the cold wind.
The last 4 miles I was able to pick it back up again, getting done and getting dry was the driving force, not race performance.
The winning kayaks were all surf skis that were 20 inches wide or less.
Chattajack has a simple rule for boat classification, no consideration for length but only width. Boats narrower than 20 inches start with the surf skis (second heat) 20 inches or wider is considered a kayak.
My Epic 18X is 22 inches wide and within the normal category of “kayak” it is amongst the fastest. However, with a rule of 20 inches one can only expect folks to take full advantage and go narrower (faster) and be included in the under 20″ category.
With the choppiness of the water (start, wind waves, boat wakes) a traditional kayak has a psychological disadvantage. If you dump your surfski you remount and carry on. In a kayak you may carry on but you are no longer really racing after stopping to empty out the boat. My Epic V7 is slower than the 18X but may have better for me because of it’s (relative) raft-like stability.
I’ll be back next year for sure. Under 5 hours in 2018!