Old Unlimited Kayak racers don’t retire – they become canoeists. Or so it appears from the makeup of the gang assaulting the St. Joe River at the St. Joe River Canoe & Kayak races this past Saturday. With the entire participant roster composed of entries into either canoe or sea kayak classes, we appear to have accomplished the long-sought goal of some within the USCA: class simplification. The reasons varied as to why we had no K1 Open/Unlimited entries this year, but a surprising number centered around pain experienced while operating the double-blade paddle. All of which was unfortunate for Ted Beatty, who showed up with both a canoe and his down-river kayak, hoping for the traditional end-of-year K1 match between Ted and me. But with the rest of us paddling canoe of some sort (mostly C1’s, but the Gilmans were in a C2 and I was in an OC1), Ted yielded to peer pressure and paddled C1 as well. As it turned out, Ted and I had the closest race we’ve ever had (or probably could have) paddling the single blade, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
New, newer, and returning female racers were the order of the day, with Wendy Brinson back (not yet racing, but she did take a C1 out on the water to do some paddling with us), Colleen Curran gamely paddling K1 Sea Kayak in a plastic sea kayak borrowed from Lori Blaylock, and two new paddlers trying out this competition thing: Sue Douglas paddling a conventional touring-type (not class) sea kayak in the 3 mile race, and Megan Ray paddling a shorter plastic boat in the 3 mile rec race. I understand the Megan came over from Chicago for this race, and Sue joined us after just one race – the 7 mile Louisville race on the Ohio River the prior weekend, where she did quite well. It’s always great to welcome new paddlers to the racing scene. We saw a few changes in the game as well: Brent Ernsberger borrowed a nice Kayakpro Sea Kayak from Earl Metzler to run Sea Kayak instead of Down River, and Lori likewise opted to paddle her S18S in Sea Kayak instead of running the RPM in Downriver. Paul Kane was one of those K1 Unlimited guys who sometimes paddles Sea Kayak, but he opted for C1 Canoe on Saturday. And I opted to paddle the outrigger instead of my usual K1 Unlimited boat. Somehow we made it all work.
Saturday morning dawned…uh…overcast and cool, but actually quite perfect for a hard-core paddle race. The water was still decently warm, and with temps in the upper 60’s and the sun blocked we found that overheating wasn’t a problem; neither were we cold, as has happened at this race on a number of occasions. For several of the paddlers – namely those who relish high doses of early morning pain in the same manner that most mere mortals relish a cup of coffee early in the day – the warm-up for the water races began with a 5K (or, more commonly, 24.855 furlongs) run in quest of the coveted iron-man (or woman) award. Competitors at this race found themselves confronted with a bevy of options: running-only race, biathlon with a 3 mile paddle, biathlon with a 7.2 mile paddle, Iron-person with two 7.2 mile paddles, 3 mile rec paddling race, and 3 and 7.2 mile competitive paddling races. Just sign on the dotted line… Not being a runner, and coming from afar (Julie and I were camping near Silver Dunes, MI), I avoided that section of the competition, but it was exciting to watch the racers finish after I arrived. Matt Meersman easily took first, but the exciting race was between Ted Beatty and Ken Stelter, with only 1 second between their finish times. A true “photo finish”, and just a taste of things to come for Ted… Wendy followed, putting in a good time as the only female in the run. That crew was now warmed up for time on the water…
Launching our frail craft into the clear waters of the St. Joe River, we could sense the excitement building that can only be found in the heat of intense competition. With a moderate current, perfect temperatures, very little breeze, and good water levels we were set for some excellent racing as we lined up across from the dock. Situated between Matt Meersman to my left and the Gilmans to my right, I could hear just behind me and to my left the quiet voice of Bill “Cannonball” Kanost taunting me, asking how well that OC1 could accelerate. I had come too far to just meander off the line with that comment. Immediately upon hearing the command “GO!”, I made good use of that OC1’s stability and the aggressive paddle, laying into it for all I was worth. I think the water caught fire around boat; she leaped off the line, pulled ahead of everyone else, and charged headlong for the bridge, hitting 9 mph indicated on the GPS before it was time to settle down. I knew there was no way for me to sustain that pace, but looking good off the line is always fun. As I backed off, Matt Meersman pulled past me, running a steady but fast pace. Charging hard off the line put me in good position to latch onto his wake, of which I freely availed myself for quite a ways on the journey down to the first turn bridge, with Ted Beatty hanging onto my wake. Meanwhile, the Gilman’s weren’t sitting still; they pulled their beautiful strip-wood C2 alongside Matt, revved their engines a bit, and the race was on. As Matt charged off to keep his lead over the Gilmans, I couldn’t stay in his wake, so I drifted over to grab the wake of the Gilmans for a time, but they too were running a bit too fast for me to hang on. Meanwhile, “Cannonball Kanost” was making time a little further to my left, seeking to work his way up to the Meersman/Gilman juggernaut. No real surprises here; I knew all of those characters were fast with the single blade; what surprised me was what I saw next: a UFO! No, but close: Paul Kane was moving up on my right, and he was moving that canoe in a way that was beyond what I expected. I tagged onto Paul’s wake and rode it to the bridge, where I put the nose of the OC1 into the water right behind the bridge pylon, kicked the rudder hard, and let the current swing the tail right around, putting me ahead of Paul’s wider-turning C1. But now the game changed: we were heading upstream, balancing running the typically slower shallows that were near shore, with the advantage of keeping out of the current, against running deeper, faster waters but fighting stronger current. The disadvantage for me is my OC1 doesn’t do as well in the shallows, and Paul caught back up after a bit, passing me. But from there we all pretty much held position up the island.
Kamm’s Island. It has such a romantic sound to it; you can almost hear Tattoo yelling “Boss! The plane! The plane!” But to paddle racers Kamm’s island is either a dreaded foe or a cherished friend. With a combination of significantly boosted current, shallows, and sometimes obstructions beneath the water, it can make or break your race (usually the latter for me). Heading towards the island, I was staying ahead of Ted Beatty, who couldn’t close the distance on me. Ted made a better choice in where he decided to move towards the side of the river where we enter the island, and closed a lot of distance, but I still led as we came into the island channel (Brent Ernsberger, leading the Sea Kayaks, was just a little behind Ted). Ted knows the island well, and as we entered the channel he upped his game, intently focused on getting around my OC1. One advantage I had was the width of the boat with the outrigger kept Ted at bay in the narrow channel for a while, and as we approached the downed tree cutting off half the channel, I knew I needed to keep my lead, so I accelerated hard and held him off through the passage. Once passed the tree, however, Ted laid the hammer down and managed to slip by me, generating some serious distance in the process. I played it conservatively going around the top of the island, wanting to preserve my boat and rudder from the very shallow, high-current tip of the island that has laid many a boat to waste. I think the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald may be there somewhere. At any rate, working back into the channel I was dismayed to see Ted now an 1/8th of a mile or so ahead of me, and Brent pulling up alongside me. But now things were in my favor; the OC1 loves deep, fast water and I saw my speeds climb back to serious levels – usually between 7 and 8 mph, or more. I knew I had the speed now, but did I have the distance to reel Ted back in? The others were too far gone, but Ted was a possible target, so it was hammer-down – and keep directly behind him so he wouldn’t know where I was. My strategy paid off; I caught Ted about the time we got to the last bridge before the finish line and pulled up beside him. Now we had a horse race, in spite of the lack of equine stock anywhere nearby. I pulled the nose of the OC1 ahead of the black carbon C1 as we approached the line, but Ted wasn’t about to back off; we were both giving it our all, muscles crying out in agony, sweat pouring down our faces, paddles slamming the water as hard and fast as our over-exerted arms and bodies could move them. Just before the line, I desperately wanted to switch sides with the paddle, but knew I couldn’t take the time hit to make the switch this close to the end. With boats bumping together Ted gave his boat several heroic strokes and literally pulled that black bow dead even my outrigger boat as we screamed across the line. It may have been the closest race in the history of this race. What a way to finish! We may have been back a ways from the leaders, but the race-within-a-race can be one incredible adrenaline-boosting experience.
I know we weren’t the only ones with an exciting race. If you check the times, you’ll see that Bill Kanost came within 22 seconds of tying Matt Meersman. Note that Bill is 62 years old and had surgery just a couple of months ago. That’s some incredible paddling by “Cannonball!” In Sea Kayak, Lori Blaylock and Ken Stelter continued their rivalry, Lori taking the lead with Ken following by just 12 seconds. Both of them have new boats this year, so it’s going to be exciting to see how they fare next year. And all the racers turned in superb performances (see attached results). C4 racing in the afternoon was equally exciting. Deb Kanost opted not to paddle at this race, so the “Adirondack 65” warriors of the Gilmans and Kanosts substituted Paul Kane. Facing off against their Wenonah Minnesota IV was the team of Matt Meersman, Brent Ernsberger, Colleen Curran, and myself. Poor Matt – he was stuck with a bunch of cross-over kayakers. But in our favor we had Matt’s superior boat, and his great piloting skills. The racing was close and very exciting, with the lead changing a couple of times, but again the island was the locale that decided the race. Matt’s boat does far better in the shallows than the Minnesota IV’s do, and we pulled ahead and never looked back. In fact, our boat came within 1 second of the C4 record set for that course, by a crew that included Matt Meersman and Mike Davis. So, either we proved that mid-level kayakers make better C4 canoe paddlers, or we had some really good conditions. Or both. J
Those who showed up only for the morning races missed a special treat. Roger Crisp – our ever faithful timer and dispenser of paddling wisdom – returned to the water in a beautiful new stripwood sea kayak he recently picked up, driving all the way to NY to get it. Roger opted to paddle the course in the afternoon since he isn’t back in racing shape just yet, but he’s not far off. Roger reports that the boat handles nicely, and he’s enjoying it!
Many thanks to Matt and Danielle Meersman for running a really nice race. It was followed up with an excellent meal at the Crooked Ewe restaurant and a great time of fun and fellowship. What a great way to end the season! I want to thank all of you for your support this year, and for another excellent year of racing. May the Lord bless all of you, and give us all another great year of racing in 2017.