It is no secret among my closest friends that I, a surfski paddler, harbor a crush for the single outrigger canoe. Maybe it is the Polynesian heritage, perhaps it is the high seating position; outrigger paddlers sit perched virtually on the top of their impossibly slender craft (often thinner then surfskis) while we swingers of the double blade drag our butts just at or below the waterline. For whatever reason, as an avid downwinder and a bit of an esthete, it is my opinion that there is no finer craft to watch well driven in a good downwind then the single outrigger. The tap, tap, tap, of the paddle catch as bent back pumps onto the swell, the hissing lay back, paddle in lap, Alma (outrigger) lightly skimming the surface, course steering across the running wave and onto the next crest. Yes, I love to watch Hank blast his ski over eight foot seas, but I paddle with outriggers allot and they make my heart ache.
Standing on the beach at the start of the 2017 Carolina Cup, I was stoked. A couple of world class surfski paddlers had shown up to augment the already strong local field for this year’s 12 mile Graveyard race, including women's World Champ Kiwi Teneale Hatton and the legendary South African Oscar Chalupsky. The Carolina cup is traditionally a very important stand up paddle race starting the pro SUP season, but the weather had really shown up for the longboat racers today. A 26mph SSE wind blew slightly off shore whipping up whitecaps running down the beach and insuring that the three mile start run to the Northern Masons inlet was going to be fun; the seven mile slog back to the South in the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) was going to be brutal, and the one and one half mile diagonal passage to the finish once we exited back out to the ocean through the southern inlet was going to be epic.
All proved true. The OC's (outriggers) launched through the three foot surf first. Five minutes later, the surfskis left the line, followed finally by the headlining stand ups. It was after my ragged passage through the sand choked Masons inlet (I had failed to arrive early enough the day before to properly recce the shifting inlet, and it cost me dearly) as I was trying in vain to claw my way up to two distant surfskis that were working together to gradually pull out of my grasp that I caught up to a three paddler group of OC's leaning foreword, backs bent to the paddle, pushing into the wicked wind. I knew all three of the single blade athletes: John Beausang, Steve Dullack and Leah Ching. Steve is a buddy from Virginia Beach with whom I often downwind. Steve, who is on the 404 team has been generous enough to supply me with a place to lay my head, as well as some pretty great meals, at the team house for the last couple of Cups. John, the editor of the Distressed Mullet website and magazine and one of the masterminds behind the Paddle Monster training program, had brought Olympian Teneale Hatton over to the house for dinner the night before, offering me the very rare opportunity to take part in a conversation with a whole table of people that not only pursue paddling professionally but actually know what a surfski is! The third OC paddler is arguably paddling royalty. Leah Ching is married to Danny Ching, the eighth ranked professional SUP racer in the world. But initially that night I just knew her as a friendly face. As a back of the pack occasional surfski racer, I was feeling a little conspicuous in a house full of professional SUP racers; Leah had turned to me in the dinner line offered her hand with a warm smile and said “Hi I'm Leah.” It was only later when their one year old daughter Kaimana began to fuss and Leah scooped her up out of the crib that I realized she was Leah Ching. That night I watched Leah and Danny gracefully trade Kaimana back and forth, socializing warmly as they both took their time to prepare for the race. I was stoked to find out Leah was going to race an outrigger that Steve had managed to find for her the next day. At the time I had no idea what that would mean for my race.
In the morning, after the SUP racers had left in the team car to go up to the start, boards stacked four high on the roof, Steve, Leah and I dropped our boats in the water to paddle up the Inter Coastal. Danny had gotten Kaimana properly covered in sunblock, Leah had fed and kissed her goodbye, entrusting her to Steve’s fiancé Isabel who would do dual duty baby sitting and running to all the bridges and beaches along the course to monitor our progress on what was to surely be a grueling day, not only for us but for Isabel. As Leah dropped off the dock onto her boat, I could hear the distant angst of a one year old's separation from her mother. Without a blink Leah pushed off from the dock, caught her paddle in the water, and stroked out into the wind. I remember thinking “Damn, Leah is switched on!”
Now, as I slowly came alongside the trio and we turned into a winding canal sheltered from the wind, Leah must have made her move. I didn’t see it, I was too fixated on the ski paddler shrinking into the distance in front of me, but next thing I knew we were back in the wind and shuttling across a wide channel. I passed her as we sought shelter from current and wind, hugging the docks and boats on the left side of the ICW. As we approached the inlet that would release us from this inshore upwind torture and deliver us back to run before the swell in the ocean, I would periodically scan back over my shoulder and see that she was there, head down, driving the green boat in powerful surges against the wind. By some twist of fortune, the surfski I had been chasing had a mechanical issue and we were side by side again (we had started from the beach this way). We all entered the inlet channel probably 200 yards wide and marked by long rock jetties on each side.
The other ski and I went right up the middle, dodging incoming waves and boat traffic, and as we neared the end of the left hand or Northern jetty which would mark our turn to the north and the beginning of the run for the line, he seemed to favor going wide. I was in a quandary; I didn't know what the other ski paddler knew, and I wasn’t sure what was off the end of that jetty, but for sure it held some sand because the small ground swell we were pushing into began to stand up and threatened to break top to bottom. I shadowed his conservative line just to the inside waiting for him to turn. Just as the beach and distant finish came into view two miles away, I looked back to see Leah who had been hugging the left jetty, button hook her boat on the crest of a wave and the stern and about five inches of rudder shot away not ten feet beyond the waves crashing on the end of the jetty. I immediately kicked all my left rudder, put my hip down and leaned my boat onto the next wave of the set. We were released.
We started the drive down to the finish, Leah on my left and inshore. Even though we could not see the buoy that would mark our left turn into the beach, she immediately crossed behind me, taking a more offshore line. I was a sucker for the deep holes that ran towards the beach and stayed on the inside as we slid down the sea trading runs. There is a dialog that goes through my head on good downwinds and today it sounded like this:
wait. wait. wait... just keep it going..tick it over
there is one! power...power... power
relax! hold it up there …. where is the next one...
SHIT! She is on a good line!
edge right....find something going that way...
there! On it …. don't over shoot.... let that one go.
where are the others? (Look back) HOLY CRAP!! were dropping them.
wait....wait ...wait ….keep the momentum
go for that one!
And on and on and on. Each time I glanced over, there she was, probably not even aware I was near. Who was that? … A mother? … The wife of Danny Ching? … A 404 athlete? All three. But most of all, a daughter of the sea, driving her boat beautifully down to the finish. The truth is, I could not pass her, not for lack of strength or want, but because the speed I had was based on rhythm, the right rhythm. When you race downwind you are confronted by a constant series of decisions: go over the wave in front of you or wait for the next, take this little cross wave going out to sea or the big fast wave going towards shore. If you don't charge, you wallow; charge too hard and you bog down and stall. It is all pacing and efficiency and Leah had both.
tap tap tap hisssssssssss
tap tap tap hissssssssss
Properly driven, OC's play to the sea’s metronome. Leah Ching knocked out the beat all the way to beach.