From my race at the Wye Island Regatta, 2011. My first win at that race and my first experimentation with “pop up video” style video editing.
Yesterday I paddled in my season-opening race on the Monocacy River up in Frederick Maryland and was blown away by what I discovered.
Danny Sullivan, or “Little D,” was diagnosed with Metachromatic Leukodystropy a few years ago. It is a terminal disease that affects the growth and development of myelin, the fatty covering that acts as an insulator around nerve fibers throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems. Symptoms include muscle wasting and weakness, muscle rigidity, developmental delays, progressive loss of vision leading to blindness, convulsions, impaired swallowing, and paralysis.
Friends and family of Little D organized this race a few years ago to raise money for the immediate family to allow them to do as much with Little D as they can while he is still with us.
The sense of community and purpose I discovered was inspiring.
I woke up at 5am, grabbed a shower quietly so as not to wake the family, got ready quickly, and then made the normally 3 hour drive up to Frederick and was pleasantly surprised when it only took 2-1/2 hours.
Traffic through Leesburg, VA is certainly much easier before most decent folk are awake and on the roads.
I had my boat (Cobra Viper kayak) and all my gear loaded in the truck the night before so I could get on the road as quickly as possible.
I had entered the 19.5 mile race this day but there was also a 6 mile version. I opted for the longer race as a test of my physical conditioning so early in the season to use as a benchmark for my training for the rest of the season.
I arrived plenty early and had a chance to chat with Steve Corbett, event coordinator, and learn a little more about the event and river conditions. The participant turnout for the 19.5 mile race was a bit disappointing but Steve told me there were 30 or more paddlers gathered at the starting line for the 6 mile race.
Before the race even began I helped a local kayak fisherman finishing up for the morning load his kayak on his trailer and when he heard about the event he walked up to the registration table and made a donation on the spot.
We got on the water and I asked a fellow paddler to turn on my bow camera for me and he was happy to do so.
Turns out, he was Brian A. from Pennsylvania and as we chatted we learned that we had paddled together last year at the Lehigh Classic Whitewater Race, but didn’t know or recognize each other.
Brian is an outstanding paddler and he and his Epic Touring Endurance 18 fiberglass kayak would turn out to be more than I could handle on this day. The Touring Endurance 18 was the predecessor to what is now known as the Epic 18X.
After a quick bit of research, I was able to find a photo of Brian and me at the Lehigh Classic last year.
It is a small world and an even smaller community of kayak racers.
Brian and me at the Lehigh Classic in 2016
The race began and I allowed the other racers to get off ahead of me so I could capture some video.
As luck would have it, Icarus Air was there with a video drone and they graciously volunteered their services and allowed me to use some of their video.
We started in overcast conditions at the 10am start but the sky cleared, the sun came out, and it was very hot by 11:45. Normally kayakers hate a headwind, but the headwind during the end of the race was actually very welcomed as it helped us stay cool.
Two sets of canoers in racing canoes jumped out to an early lead at the start of the race and that just left Brian in plain sight of me for the entire race. I burned more energy than I wanted to early in the race just to stay close to him thinking I’d wait for the latter parts of the race to try to make a move as he tired, but it turned out Brian kept as much gas in the tank as he needed and chose all the right lines on the river so that by mile 15 I realized I was unlikely to pass him.
This section of the Monocacy River is slow and winding so this was almost entirely a flat water race. Had I known this, I would have chosen a faster, lighter boat.
So I settled into healthy pace and enjoyed the remainder of the race by mile 16, with Brian still in sight, but with a wider gap than I had allowed previously.
At the end, I came across the finish line in second place for kayakers on the 19.5 mile race, 2-1/2 minutes behind Brian with an official time of 2:55:27. My GPS showed exactly 19.5 miles with a moving average speed of 6.6mph and a maximum speed of 9.3mph.
I’ve never been at a race where there were so many people cheering at the finish line. The supporters and volunteers for this race are awesome!
There were tents with food and drinks at the finish line and an awards ceremony.
The idea behind this race is to help Little D’s family now and then serve as a living legacy to his memory.
I encourage all paddlers to participate in this race next year and every year after that.
I’ll be back.
Come paddle with me.
See you next Saturday at the Nelson Downriver Race.
I left Charlottesville, VA and started driving at 4am on Saturday, Aug. 27 to head to White Haven, PA for the 5th annual Lehigh Classic Whitewater Race.
A couple weeks back when I realized Saturday was free of any of our kids’ activities (a rarity,) and due to the fact that the Wye Island Regatta has become unfriendly toward kayakers in recent years in terms of entry fees, I went looking for a kayak race somewhere that I could do on Saturday instead of the Wye Island Regatta on Sept. 10–a race that I’ve done already multiple times with the boats I own so I have nothing new to offer or bring to the game.
I found the Lehigh Classic online (through the U.S. Canoe & Kayak Races page on Facebook. Disclaimer–I created that group) and decided to sign up and try some paddling that would be unlike any I’ve done before.
The Lehigh Classic is held on the Lehigh River, through Lehigh Gorge State Park, when the local dam releases water which creates Class III river conditions. I researched this section of water online and when the water is low it appears to be mostly technical Class II rapids and when the water is released it has some Class III features, but nobody knows exactly what the water release will be in advance. I’ve never tried Class III rapids in my very tippy Cobra Viper kayak so I decided to enter the race and paddle that boat.
I wanted to try something new and push my limits and I definitely paddled at the limit of–or just above–my skill level in the Viper.
When I got to the race to register and shuttle, I asked everyone I could what to expect from the water that day. They informed me that the dam release was around 1700 cfs so there would be Class II and “easy” Class III rapids with a few sections of flat water. Everyone kept telling me it was easy Class III’s and there was nothing to worry about, but they didn’t realize I was paddling a 17′ long, very tippy kayak, so I was worried.
In retrospect, it would have been an easy, fun day in my whitewater boat so everyone was right. They just didn’t realize what a challenge I had in front of me with my particular boat.
The first bit of bad luck occurred when I caught a shuttle to the starting line. When I got there I quickly realized I forgot my helmet cam in my takeout vehicle at the finish line, so there is no actual race video.
The second bit of bad luck happened shortly after I put in the water and was paddling to the starting line for the race which was approximately 1 mile downriver from the put-in.
I was paddling through a set of continuous Class II rapids when I notice a chute, river-right, between two rocks that was the slot to hit.
As I neared the chute, a kayaker in a whitewater boat approached the chute from the center of the river right in front of me. I’m sure he didn’t know I was there, but I knew I was about to hit him. People in smaller whitewater boats just don’t realize that a 17′ plastic boat with no rocker is not easy to turn and once fast-flowing water has grabbed it, it is very hard to slow it down.
I tried to hit the brakes but I was going much faster than the whitewater boat so I did everything I could to turn to the right to avoid smacking right into the rear of the kayaker in front of me which would have made a mess.
It turned out my evasive maneuver made a mess that was special just for me.
Some pushy water grabbed me and slammed me head-on into a rock, river-right. A Piton to end all Pitons.
The force of the impact was so great that it overturned me, bent the bow of my kayak, and caused my right foot brace to slip out of its slot and shoot all the way forward on the rail such that my foot could no longer touch it. For a split second I thought, no problem, just roll, but at that very same split second my head collided with a rock underwater and I realized I had to wet exit.
The dent/bend in the bow of my kayak from hitting a rock before the race began
My neck is still sore from this incident 24 hours later and the scratches in my helmet tell the tale.
The impact probably would have knocked loose my helmet camera so forgetting it was probably a blessing in disguise. That impact with the rock probably would have sent my helmet camera to live with the fish forever.
I got to the side of the river and pumped out all the water as best I could and tried and tried to reach in and fix the foot peg but I just couldn’t reach it. I knew race time was approaching to I decided to jump back into the boat, get the the starting and then pull the boat out onto dry land and crawl up into the boat if I needed to or otherwise do whatever had to be done with the foot peg to fix it.
As luck would have it, I encountered another wave train of Class III’s that gently rolled me to the right. Normally not a problem, but at this moment it was a very big problem. I couldn’t brace with my right foot and tried to throw down a bracing stroke but it was too late. Bloop! Over again. The river was shallow at that point and I had no chance for a roll so I just grabbed onto the boat and swam the rapids. These were the rapids that led to the starting line so I’m sure I made a great impression getting to the starting line in full swim mode.
Good thing no cameras were around.
Doh! Can’t get away with anything these days.
Getting to the starting line in style
I was told there were still 20 minutes until the start of the race so I relaxed a bit, pumped out my boat again, and had time to fiddle with the foot peg. I was finally able to reach it and much to my surprise, it was not broken so I was able to simply slide it back up the rail and click it back to its position.
I was already tired, embarrassed, and worried about what the rest of the river had in store for me that day.
I went into survival mode and just wanted to make it down the remainder of the river section with as little drama as possible.
As we lined up in the eddy for the start of the race I found myself next to a gentleman paddling a Pyranha Speeder that he had borrowed and only paddled three times. He told me he was uncomfortable with the tippyness of his craft and said when the race started he intended to stay back and let everyone get a solid start and that he did not want to interfere with me. I quickly confirmed that I, too, was in survival mode at this point and his plan sounded solid to me and I would hang back with him.
The race began and the two of us let all the wildwater and long boats get off to a good start before we even paddled away from the shoreline.
Wildwater boats lining up for the start of the race
I made it through the first few sets of rapids without a problem so I started thinking about race mode again.
When I got to the first flat water section I started throwing down the best flat water wing paddle sprint strokes I had to try to click back into race mode.
I rather quickly started passing the plastic long boats and paddled for quite a while behind a guy in a red LiquidLogic Stinger. I was finally able to pass him but was aware that he was not too far behind. I then saw the last of 4 carbon/Kevlar wildwater boats that were in the race ahead of me and came to the full realization that the leaders were at least still in sight. I still had a chance to get back in the race.
Soon I approached a standing wave in the center or the river and at this point I had learned it was better for me to take the wave trains head-on rather than skirt them because skirting them caused more of a rolling action, which was not desirable with such a tippy craft.
As I neared the large wave, I saw the tip of a large rock in the center of it so I quickly tried to adjust to just skim the right side of the wave.
The bow of my boat had already hit the rock and my boat was being pushed up the rock. By the time I got to the top of the rock I felt like I was at the top of the world looking down but quickly feared that I was now stuck on the top of a rock in the middle of the river.
The river had a different idea.
Water pushed on my stern until I was at the 9-o’clock position and then d-o-w-n I went over the top of the rock. I’m sure it was the ugliest sideways boof ever and I plunged for what seemed like an eternity down the 5 or 6 feet into the hole below the rock.
I don’t entirely remember the exact words that came out of my mouth during that incident, but I’m quite sure my mother would not have been proud of me in that moment.
Still rocked by what had just happened, I somehow managed to bob up and get out of the hole with relative ease and keep paddling.
I have no idea how I managed to save that one.
The race continued and I did my best to avoid the many rafts on the river that day while throwing down massive bracing strokes when needed to stay upright. I continued to close the gap on the wildwater boat I could see but alas, I finally ran out of river.
Oh, how I envy the large wings on those wildwater boats
I crossed the finish line in 4th place amongst the men, 5th place overall. I was 2 minutes and 34 seconds behind the overall winner. I was also the first plastic boat across the finish line and the only boats ahead of me were the four carbon/Kevlar wildwater boats, so I felt very good about what I actually accomplished once the race began.
My accomplishments were rewarded at the awards ceremony with “The Carnage Award,” given annually to the paddler who encountered the most trouble during the event. I will cherish this round little slice or wooden goodness for the rest of my life because my shins paid the price for it.
I’m not sure if I paddled way above my skill level in that boat or whether I evolved as a paddler and raised the bar on my skill level, but after I drove the 5-1/2 hours home I couldn’t wait to jump in the shower and wash the fear and sweat off my body.
It was a long day.
I took a long nap this afternoon after attending church (I gave thanks for still being alive.)
After working on the boat with a heat gun today the boat is almost back to normal and I placed my “Carnage Award” in a position of prominence on my awards rack.
The people who participated in and organized this race were all so wonderful and nice to me. I can’t thank them enough, especially Brian A. who stayed with me up to the starting line to make sure I didn’t kill myself before the race began.
Turns out, he pulled the toughest assignment of the day.
Anyone who can get to this race in future years needs to do so. It runs through absolutely beautiful scenery in the gorge and the water during the dam release on race day makes this mostly a continuous Class III race with separating sections of Class II and one or two flat water sections.
I’ll be back next year in a more sensible boat.
Some video from Eric Jones…
The first Saturday in May came and I was once again back racing a kayak on the Tye River in Nelson County, VA for the Nelson Downriver Race.
This was the first year I began logging all my paddling miles into a spreadsheet and prior to May 5, 2012, I had paddled only 12 workout paddles for ~96 miles. Not much in terms of preparation, but I had spent some time in both the Thunderbolt-X and the Cobra Viper with the wing paddle.
The water was fairly low that day and the Viper scraped many rocks and seemed to stick to each and every one of them. I had what I thought was a good run, but the water was very low so I knew I was at a huge disadvantage because my boat was plastic and heavy while others had fiberglass boats that would skid off rocks easier and float higher in the water because they were lighter.
I placed a respectable second place overall amongst solo paddlers but I was more than 6 minutes behind the first place paddler.
I did, however, get one of the coolest photos from the adventure when I got slightly hung in Rockpile Rapids and reached out to push off against a rock in the middle of the rapid. The picture shows how I maintained my balance over the center of the boat even though it felt like I was going to get knocked sideways.
Rockpile Rapids, Nelson Downriver Race 2012
The “Rockpile Moment” can be seen at 6:30 of this video
Next Saturday would be mine, though, I thought. My local Rivanna River race would be mine because I just had a great warmup race and I would practice hard throughout the week to make sure I was ready.
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.
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
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.