Dense fog condensed off the bow of the Maas Open Water Double Rick and I raced in. Over my shoulder I could just make out the schooner ‘Merrie Ellen’ emerging from the mist, her pink hull and off-white sails ghostly shades of grey. I hate fog, it scares me, and I wondered briefly at the logic of having a day sail in these conditions. Then again Adam, Rick, myself and about 50 other people were out here at Port Townsend racing tiny rowboats in it. Fog, however, was not the most immediate challenge. At our present location a mile off Point Wilson, short, steep waves up to three feet in height pummeled our boat in unpredictable fashion. Water filled our cockpit slowing our progress considerably, and I began to contemplate the cold, dangerous one-mile swim to shore in case the boat actually swamped. Off our starboard side and slightly to our stern was Robert Meenk, a man with fifty years of canniness in a body of what might as well be a very fit 25 year old rowing his single scull. Although we were in a double we had been racing off him for the past 14 miles. On his port side a large glossy black mass appeared out of the water. It was too big, too dark, and too shiny to be a sea lion. It was not a grey whale and I saw no white or the characteristic dorsal fin of an orca, but it was most certainly a whale. It did not appear again and Rick and I were not going to slow down in this washing machine water to look for him, nor were we going to let Robert pass us. At this time the fog had completely obscured the last point to the turn. Robert, the experience open water veteran that he is had brought a GPS. We would find out later that this was not working the way it should, thus negating our already less than stellar strategy of trying to find a point off his course. By the time one of the race boats pointed us in the right direction we found ourselves passing Even and Tyler, our main competition on the way to the finish line, but in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile a mile or so back in the washing machine around Wilsons Point, Adam flopped about in the rough water and wondered why he was here in the first place. Although having a gold medal in flat-water rowing and literally over ten thousand hours in a rowboat, the consistent water over the deck was a new experience for him. Over the course of the race this had elicited frustration, anger, rage, and now fear as he also contemplated swamping his boat and the very cold swim back to shore. After accepting this reality he would tell me back on shore that he reached a “Zen moment” and continue the race in a much less volatile mood.
Back at the final buoy before the finish, it turned out that Robert, Rick and I were not the only ones lost as six boats appeared out of the fog from nearly as many directions around the last point resulting in a mad dash towards the finish. Such is the antics of open water racing. Rick and I got a distant second to Evan Jacobs and Tyler “Golden Blade” Peterson. Although not in the same kind of shape they were racing as lightweights on the national team the two have a great combination of many hours rowing a boat together mixed with a fair amount of open water rowing experience. Adam got seventh in the single, probably the first time he’s gotten seventh in anything, then again this was the first time he was ever consistently inundated with waves. I feel next time he does one of these races he will have found his way a fair bit up the steep learning curve of open water rowing.
Open water rowing is a lot more like ocean rowing than flat water rowing but is still very different to ocean rowing. Open water rowing requires much more fitness and demands a bit more acute pain out of the competitor, while ocean rowing requires a different kind of suffering that I will get into over the next few blogs.