ICF Ocean Racing World Championships, Hong Kong, November 19, 2018
I was definitely nervous the week leading into the ICF World Championships. It was my first time competing in the ocean racing world championships. The women’s field raced the day before and conditions were hot, muggy and dead calm out in the ocean. Just 24 hours later, though, the temperature dropped 15 degrees (Fahrenheit), a huge swell had come in, and the wind was blowing 35 knots. Perfect conditions for the men’s race!
I could not have been more excited about the conditions and the competition, but I was dreading the start. Last year the Hong Kong race was a “deep water” start where everyone lines up in their boats and takes off from the water (as opposed to a “standing start” where racers wade knee deep into the water with their boat by their side and jump in when signaled). Logically, I had been training all year for such a start then, mere days before the race, organizers decided to change the race to a standing start!
Unfortunately, I am terrible at standing starts. Perhaps the story that best demonstrates my weakness is when I got so nervous before a race in Cape Town that when it started, I jumped clear over my boat and landed in the water on the other side, barely even touched the thing. To add insult to injury, I was so flustered at that point that on my second attempt I fell in again, this time over the other side. So, needless to say, I was a little apprehensive for race day and decided to go with a conservative approach. Come race day, the start itself wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was worse! Instead of a timid jump-on that might lose me a little ground, in the hectic free-for- all with 100 paddlers trying to hit the water at the same time, someone’s used me for their right paddle stroke as they fired off the line (and off me!).
(Terrible picture, I know, but you get some idea of how I was used as someone’s right stroke and couldn’t
even put my blade in the water.)
Disappointing, sure, but as soon as I was in my boat, it was over! Though not unscathed, I had survived the race start! Now time to go to work.
I took off to try and catch the guys at the front. I knew the benefit of being with the pack in the early stages of the race. I worked hard, putting in a solid effort and was able to catch the back of the lead pack. Once there, I tried to settle into the pace. I knew that I had burned a few matches making my move, but I had no choice. If I wanted to be in contention with the top players, I had to stay with them as long as possible. The water on the way out quickly changed from mildly bumpy to seriously choppy. We came to the first turn (an island marking roughly 2km into the race) and entered the exposed channel. Here the pack began breaking up as rebound waves bounced off the nearby island. Even though we were still battling upwind
against the waves, suddenly there were waves going in our direction too. Cory Hill took off and the pack quickly fractured.
I was in the back and when the group split and I ended up getting stuck in a bad place. I tried to come around the side and bridge back up to the leaders, but after the hectic anxiety of the start, my push back to the leaders, and the already blistering pace, I knew I had to throttle back. Frustrated, I let the leaders go and tried to find my own rhythm.
The most incredible thing about the World Championships is the depth and quality of the field. Normally, in a race, if someone gets dropped by the lead pack, they end up in no-man’s land with a big gap between them and the next group of paddlers. In this race, after only 30 seconds of changing my pace, I was immediately surrounding by athletes. Some, like me, were suffering and others seemed to just be hitting their stride. I knew that I couldn’t let my frustration get to me. I had lost the leaders, but I couldn’t let that affect my race. This was Worlds and there were dozens of strong athletes all around me who were happy to pass me if I wasn’t focused.
I started to find a rhythm in the confused water, feeling more than seeing the waves traveling in my direction. As I started surfing more, I was able to take small rests and bring my heart rate just down out of the red zone. I had a quick look around and realized there were athletes everywhere. We weaved around each other. Surging ahead and dropping back as we caught and surfed the physical waves.
Nearing the halfway point to the next turn, I made the decision to stay efficient. I was still working hard, but to make any large speed gains would have required a lot of energy to pull up an over waves. I needed energy if I was going to finish this thing strong. I decided to save up as much as I could to have a slight edge and attack the downwind leg where the work-to- speed payoff would be much higher.
As we rounded the turn (marking 1/3 of the race complete and the beginning of the downwind leg), I began to push the pace. Now was my time to make up some ground. “Catch the first wave you can and just start building from there,” I kept telling myself. I was able to catch a big wave and I thought, “This is it! Lets do this thing!” But just as I started to rocket forward, my world pitched to the left. The wave was much bigger and steeper than I had expected. I had hopped out from between two islands into the open, exposed ocean. I was thrown sideways and the top of the wave actually broke over me! Whitewater completely enveloping me, I drove a shoulder hard into the crashing wall of water to stay upright. The wave passed and I emerged, swamped, stalled, and pointing the wrong direction. I spluttered and gasped for air and composure. “Turn back around!” I thought desperately.
The boat began to come around, but the process was agonizingly slow. I finally turned back downwind and caught a small wave, gaining speed and helping the boat to empty the water in my bucket. The racers I had been with moments ago were now shockingly far ahead. I shook my head still trying to refocus. The ground I had given up was astounding, but it also meant the downwind was phenomenal. And fast! I realized that if I had any chance of making ground, I had to move now and maximize the best part of the downwind leg.
I started to go to work. Sprinting, surfing, charging, waiting. The conditions were huge and the speeds were incredible. I found my rhythm and as I synched with the pattern of the ocean, I pushed harder. I started making ground. Fast. As I caught up to another paddler, I’d surf wave for wave with them for a while and then surge ahead in search of the next athlete.
(Picture of Jasper, giving you some idea of the conditions)
I had a few incredible moments trading waves with different competitors. Battling back and forth, I couldn’t help smiling. This is what I had been training for. Not so much the placing and results but the chance to put my fitness on the line and go wave for wave with incredible athletes. I think my attitude changed at that point and the paddling somehow became easier. It was still painful and hard, but I just felt better. My stroke was quicker, my surges faster.
I put a gap on the group I was with and as we turned the final turn at Kissing Whales, I could see that the waves were mercifully wrapping around into the bay and giving some assistance for the final 5km to the finish. Despite my improved mood and my hunger to catch people, the last 15 minutes of the race were brutal. As I drew closer and closer to the finish, I had one final athlete I thought I could reel in. I did everything I could to chase him down. He seemed to draw tantalizingly close when I surged onto a wave, only to slip away again when I failed to jump the next wave. It turned out that my elusive prey was Matt Bouman and I chased him all the way to the finish line.
In the end, I managed to cross the line 9th. I had given the race everything. I worked as hard as physically possible and tactically had executed a good race. I was extremely happy with my effort, my resiliency and my result. I am still so thrilled with a top 10 finish at my first World Championships!
(My Heart Rate during the race. Average for the 96min race was 175 bpm and max 189 bpm)
Cant wait for the next two weekends of racing. Doctor, here I come!
1) Cory Hill -AUS
2) Hank McGregor -RSA
3) Jasper Mocke -RSA
4) Kenny Rice -RSA
5) Sean Rice -RSA
6) Jeremy Cotter -AUS
7) Mackenzie Hynard -AUS
8) Matt Bouman -RSA
9) Austin Kieffer -USA
10) Valentine Henot -FRA