Sunday, July 27, 2008

The 2008 Exocet Gorge Blowout


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In her windblog, Temira called it "seventeen miles of downwind misery" and challenged her readers to "try it if your dare" - but most of the 50 or so competitors running the 26th edition of the Gorge Blowout had a great time. Winds looked pretty filled in all along the river on the drive up from Hood River, and quite a few people seemed to remember how windy last year was (more than one person was overheards saying that things looked "just like last year" with an ominous undertone...).

Dale and Bruce, who've pretty much sewed up the top two spots in the race for over a decade now (Bruce told me he has missed 3 out of the 26) split in their gear decisions, with Dale going for formula gear, and Bruce rigging (relatively large) slalom stuff. The rest of the fleet was similarly all over the map - quite few sailors on slalom or freeride stuff, a healthy formula contingent, and the intrepid Kona fleet (ranging in sail size from low 6's to Pepi's 9m). I went Formula, riding a 9.9 (Exocet Warp Formula 08 with a 9.9 Sailworks NXfw and a Finworks formula fin).

The combo was right on for me - right off the start, I was neck and neck with Dale for the first mile or so (we both chose to start at the Washingtong side, giving us the opportunity for a long deep reach to get away from most of the fleet; Bruce was a bit higher, apparently trying to roll us, but suffering from not quite enough breeze, so his angle was off quite a bit). As soon as we got into a bit more breeze, Dale (who was on a 9.1) started pulling away from me bit by bit (Bruce used to joke that off the breeze, we're all just Dale bait...). With Dale slowly but surely pulling away, Bruce (who was doing a remarkable job working his slalom gear downwind) stayed close. I knew that if I wanted to beat him, I'd have to pull away from him in the light stuff at the top of the course, so I pushed hard and led him for about the first quarter of the course until we got into a bit more breeze - and then he started catching up. From there until Viento, we basically traded jibes, depending on who caught a bit of a favorable header, or how much pressure there was (as soon as there was a puff, Bruce's slalom gear came into its own). We jibed around the mark at Viento (half-way through the course, and the start of the junior blowout) neck and neck - pretty cool after over 8 miles of racing downwind/upriver.

After Viento, conditions were a bit light for a stretch and I started pulling ahead just a wee bit; I hoped that it would stay lighter all the way through the corridor, but the pressure started building bit by bit, with the holes getting smaller and the puffs getting stronger. And sure enough, Bruce got past me in a big puff, and from then on, his advantage grew as we were getting into the almost furry conditions in the upper corridor - where I had to work it to hold on, he was able to just send it. By the time we made it to the top of Swell City (where people were sailing 4.5's at the time), it was clear that the wind was filled in all the way to the White Salmon Bridge and Bruce's lead would be unbeatable.

Dale won the race in something like 1:03; Bruce was about 2 minutes behind him (the stronger winds at the bottom allowed him to catch up a bit), and I came in 3rd (2nd Master's) a little less then 3 minutes later (I baubled my first transition of the race and actually dropped the sail on my second to last jibe in plain view of the Event Site - good way to keep the old ego in check...).

Results and pictures to follow - some standout performances, though:
  • Derek Nielsen came in fourth - here's a guy who's really stepped up his game over the past couple seasons.
  • Todd Selby, at age 17, did the full distance and finished really strong (I believe he was in 8th?), which won him the junior division for the full Blowout.
  • Marion, who is all of twelve years old, I believe, won the junior Blowout outright (that's right, she beat a bunch of teenage boys - I'm sure there were a few bruised egos...)
  • Ben, age 11, I believe, was the youngest competitor.
  • Shelley won the women's fleet - and placed very respectably overall.
  • Pepi won the Kona fleet and pulled off some very stylish looking jibes right before the finish as he was duking it out with another competitor for a photo finish.
Thanks to Exocet for supporting the event (US distributor Steve Gottlieb raced as well, placing second in the Kona fleet and showing good spirits despite having gotten stuck in the light air at the beginning on too small a sail and having to work pretty hard to get down the course). Thanks to Scotia for pulling off another flawless event, Darren for providing great race management on the water, and all the volunteers who helped out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

5 weekends back to back...

This weekend marked the 2nd of five weekends of back to back racing for me - last week's Gorge Cup, this weekend it was the Harrison Blowout, next weekend it will be the Exocet Gorge Blowout (14 miles downwind/upriver from Stevenson to Hood River), the weekend after that (August 1-3) will be the Gorge Challenge, and to cap it all off there'll be Canadian Nationals in Squamish Aug 8-10. Not a bad run - hopefully conditions cooperate.

This weekends racing at Harrison Lake was really fun - Carey and Jackie Caronni have been putting on a weekend of racing every summer for a very long time now. Saturday's are scheduled for the Blowout (downwind race from the Harrison boat launch to the Bear Creek campground), with formula racing and some figure 8 fun slalom at the boat launch on Sunday. Harrison is only about 1 1/2 hours from Bellingham, so it's practically in my backyard. Still, this was the first time I've been able to go - for the past five years, there's always been some scheduling conflict for me.

Saturday's downwinder had to be canceled for the first time ever due to no wind (try that on for size - the event's been running since the late 80's, and they've finally got skunked on one of the days - who says lakes are flukey?). Sunday, however, offered up really nice conditions - super smooth water (hardly any fetch upwind), good breeze, and brilliant sunshine. The lake is amazingly clear (and nice and cool), and with the mountains all around, it's quite scenic.

We had three races on a pretty fun course - start slalom style off the boat launch, go deep downwind to a mark in the middle of the lake, round that and go way upwind to the upwind shore (where you had to figure out the tradeoff between the lift on shore vs. the slighly flukier wind), then beam reach to a mark below a few hundred yards below the start, and finish upwind. I was nicely powered on 10.8 in the first race, then switched to my 9.9 which was the right call for heats 2 and 3. I got three bullets (recovered from a really big crash right after the start on the third heat when I made a lucky call in favor of the near shore lift to lay the top mark with double tacking - sorry, Carey), Carey got three 2nds. Big shout out to Elliot, who came in third and race really well - maybe he should reconsider not taking his formula gear to the Bay Area.

After the racing, I got a chance to spend some time sailing with my kids (yep, both of them at one time - nothing like a 3-year-old whooping with glee and saying he wants to go faster...). Hope's getting quite good at handling the sail, and uphauling is no big deal for her anymore; she's looking forward to doing the Big Winds kids camp next week.

Huge thanks to Carey and Jackie - this was awesome, fun grassroots racing. They had the whole thing well organized, had gotten a huge box of very cool prizes and raffle items, and just spread the stoke all over the place. Great fun - I'll be back.

Next weekend is the Exocet Gorge Blowout (big shout out to Exocet for sponsoring this heritage event!). Check out Scotia's VMG Events site for details on that, as well as the following weekend's Gorge Challenge.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Da Kine Derby - July 14 Gorge Cup race report


Originally, we'd hoped for slalom, especially since we had a two day window to run either on Saturday or Sunday. With the sudden emergence of a short heat wave on Friday, though, when the wind switched West again on Sunday, it wasn't slalom material (despite Bruce's best attempts to convince us otherwise, milking it hard on his 8.2 as Darren was setting the course). Instead, the call was for Formula, and that turned out to be the right decision, as instead of holey/flukey slalom of questionable quality, we got to do some really good course racing.

The course was short and fun - a quick upwind to the gate, round the jibe mark, back up to the gate, back down to the jibe mark, and reach for the finish (the juniors did only one lap). That made for an interesting combo - because the races were so short (only one heat in which the wind crapped out on us, took more than 8 minutes for the leaders; most were around 7), good starts were crucial. The gate added a tactical dimension - if you rounded to the right side of the course, you'd have two jibes and might overstand the jibe mark; if you rounded to the left side (and into shore), you might not make the jibe mark and end up with three jibes - and you pretty much had to make that decision as you lined up to start either port or starboard, as throwing in more than one tack would have taken you out of the race right away.

In most of the heats (especially early, when the start line was pretty long), starting on port was the ticket - you'd get into the current, flop over, then ride the smooth water on the inside all the way to the jibe mark. Later on, a shorter start line, along with a bit of Northerly slant to the breeze, mixed things up a bit. There were some great fights for position at the bottom mark as people jockeyed for the inside lane going up. Off the breeze, we had to occasionally go for close calls when going into shore and navigating around the large "dolphin" style pilings, which must have made for entertaining spectating from the Event Site bluff.

We had seven heats. Bruce dominated, winning 6 and then sitting out the last one. I had 4 seconds, one 3rd, and one 4th (horrible start on that one), and won the last one in Bruce's absence. MacRae, Jac, Derek, and Eric Sinclair all had some really good heats - it's fun to have close racing like that, with lots of little duels all over the course. I got reasonably close to Bruce a few times, but his solid tactics and consistent speed and angle left no doubt that he owned this one. It's nice to see that now that I'm tuned up on my Exocet and the Finworks fins, I'm competitive with Bruce on speed and angle (if you've ever lined up with him, that's not easily accomplished).

Speaking of gear - I'm pretty happy with my overall setup. The Sailworks sails continue to give great range, stability, and performance. My Exocet WF08 is a joy to sail with its responsiveness. And the Finworks fins are working really well - it's nice to have the confidence that you can push on the fin when you need the power, while still maintaining great speed and providing that smooth, predictable ride that allows you to push. I used a Pro all day and later let a friend test it while I provided a benchmark for him and he switched back and forth between the Pro and the fin he had raced all day; afterwards he actually accused me of sandbagging because the difference was so apparent. It took me a while to recalibrate things from last season, as I've made some pretty radical changes in my gear and haven't had enough opportunities to line up with tuning partners. At this point, I'm glad I did, as the investment seems to have been worth it.

One of the things I'm noticing is that my stance has changed quite a bit. I'm using longer and longer harness lines (roughly 26-28", as opposed to a max of about 24" last year). I've also been experimenting with a fixed (as opposed to sliding) spreader bar; while it doesn't give me that tweaked/twisted body position that I used to like for driving the board, the more squared stance seems to provide more leverage to really take advantage of the liftier and softer fins, so I spend more time flying the foils and less time tail walking. Still working on that one, but so far it seems to be a net positive, especially in slightly rougher water. Interestingly, that also seems to translate to slalom, except there I haven't really had a chance to test it against others, so it's just a matter of feel at this point.

A big shout out to Bill from Da Kine, who sponsored the event and provided not just a kick-ass BBQ dinner, but also a really nice array of raffle prizes. Thanks also to Scotia for again organizing a fun day of racing - she's a logistical power house and probably one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Next up for the Gorge Cup is the Exocet Blowout on the weekend of July 26/27 (date to be set based on forecast) - a fun downwinder from Stevenson to Hood River, which usually provides about 17 miles of highly variable conditions and is always good for epic stories.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

I finally found the Meaning of Life

and it's now in my coffee cup. You see, the blend of the day at Grounds Coffee here in Hood River (where I'm having breakfast this morning before hopefully racing this afternoon if the forecast holds) is called Meaning of Life (a robust Italian roast, according to the label). If only I'd known it was that simple ;)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pre-race windsurfari

This weekend's Gorge Cup is the Da Kine Derby (thanks to Da Kine for the support) - and to maximize our chances of running slalom, the schedule called for Blowout-like flexibility with the decision to race either Saturday or Sunday to be made based on the forecast. And that forecast looked pretty stellar by mid-week. After all the up and down and back and forth of the early Gorge season the North Pacific High seemed to finally settle into place, and iWindsurf was calling for solid Westerlies through Monday. My scheme was to get to Hood River by Friday afternoon, tune up a bit, and then be ready for what at this time looked like a Saturday morning skippers' meeting.

And then, just to drive home the point that Mother Nature doesn't work on a schedule, the forecast changed. A massive thermal low was settling in - resulting in a classic heat wave for the Gorge.

So the plan changed a bit -I got some more work done on Friday (conveniently, the little fires that erupted and needed to be taken care of didn't get in the way of time on the water...), then headed south to go sailing at Des Moines Beach Park (see map).

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Rick Martin was already there and rigging his 10.4. Rick keeps telling me that the place on most summer afternoons is just made for Formula, with steady breezes in the low teens, pretty friendly waterstate (no voodoo chop anywhere), and miles of water to explore. I'd have to agree - just peeling around on the 10.8 for a couple hours was a lot of fun. There was more pressure along the shorelines (both west and east), so I headed west towards the Pt. Robinson light, made may way upwind a few miles, headed back over to the east, and rode the pressure downwind along the shore making quick jibe after quick jibe. I had to stop myself from going back for more (the breeze was holding, and the views of Mt. Rainier and the surrounding coastlines sparkling in the sunshine were
delightful), but with a big weekend of racing coming on, two hours seemed like enough exercise for the day.

BTW, the one thing to watch out for at Des Moines is the little shoal right off the launch north of the pier - you can sail around it, or walk out to and over it, but at high tide it would make for a great fin cruncher if you aren't aware of it. This is the venue for the Seattle City League races that are run Wednesday nights in late spring/early summer; too bad that those are usually later in the day when the breeze dies. I could see this being a fun place to race Formula.

This morning, after a good night's sleep, I got a really nice slalom session at Stevenson. I hit the water at about 7:30, among the first few people on the water. The iWindsurf sensor sits on the pier just east of Bob's Beach, and while it was well filled in out in the channel, the windline was about 100 yards off the head of the pier.
The low numbers the sensor showed until way later probably accounted for the rather low turnout; it wasn't until about 10 that there really was a bit of a crowd out there; by 11, the wind started getting a little flukey - nothing to slow you down on slalom gear, but there was a bit more slogging going on among the sailors on small freestyle gear. Excellent session, nicely powered on the 7.2 and my Warp Slalom 67 (about 105 liters).

So far, the sailing/driving ratio is already way more beneficial than for my last trip to the Gorge - time to stretch, do some work on my gear, and get ready for tomorrow; at this point, the forecast is for slalom conditions - I'm keeping my fingers crossed.