The Inland Paddler: What a difference a year makes! Recapping the 2017 Carolina Cup

OC2 View of the Carolina Cup

OC2 View of the Carolina Cup

Last year, after training all winter in the OC1, which I was still new to, I made a big splash on my first-ever Graveyard course. Literally. I flipped or huli’d four, count ’em four, times before even making it past the shore break and the buoy that everyone must round before running in the open ocean toward the inlet. Apparently, I delayed the start of the SUP race for five minutes, according to the live feed of this year’s race streamed by SupRacer. As if I needed a reminder! Were it not for Larry Cain and April Zilg yelling encouragement from the beach, I might have quit. It took me 45 minutes to pick my way through Mason’s Inlet because I knew another huli and I’d have no energy left to make it all the way around and back to the beach. My race was tentative yet determined and when I finished, almost last, I was tired, but happy just to have endured.

Fast forward to 2017

I spent all of last season working on my outrigger skills, practicing huli recovery, and racing it in as many regional events as possible. I took a clinic with Johnny Puakea, I received tutelage from The Mullet and Jason at the shop. There were struggles but there were epiphanies, too.

The plan was to do Chattajack solo, but the Universe had another idea. I was compelled to switch gears and paddle the two-man 32 miles down the Tennessee River in what a) would be the smartest race decision I’ve ever made because conditions were hellacious and b) the best, most epic outcome on the water since I’ve been paddling. After that magical moment in ‘ Nooga, I knew I wanted my Graveyard redo to be in the OC2.

The Power of Two

Paddling two-man in some ways is easier…two people can generate more momentum to get through the surf. Two people can more easily recover the boat after a huli and it’s easier to get in when the other person can stabilize the canoe. You have someone to talk to, and someone to help motivate you and shut up your counterproductive self-talk. And the best part, someone is right there with you sharing the whole experience. If you’re lucky, you are a bit faster, too.

But OC2 isn’t a big, easy water toy. Communication is key. Trust is essential. Humor is mandatory. Tandem craft of any kind are often referred to as “Divorce Boats” because, if you don’t have these components of teamwork dialed in and the egos checked, the frustration, disappointment and even anger that will ensue can end paddling pal bliss if not total friendships or even relationships. Not only do you have to paddle well together, but each of you needs to be able to listen to each other, and to be able to take, as well as give, direction or correction when needed. There is no room for judgement, superiority or control freakiness in an OC2 cockpit. In this vein, the OC2 can teach you a lot, if you open yourself up to it.

Dana and I paddle remarkably well in the OC2, especially given the fact we live six hours apart and don’t get to train together. Our first time in the ocean went almost as smoothly as our first time paddling on the river last year. I could not ask for a more skilled, confident, authentic and easy-going team mate and honestly I’m still amazed that she chooses to sit in Seat One with me. We were able to laugh when we huli’d, hoot and holler together catching waves, recover from our mistakes and correct each other– okay she corrected me when my mind wandered and I was grossly out of sync at about Mile 10 in the 20 mph headwind – with equal ease.

Made for the ocean

My two-man is a Tempest from Ozone. Sleek, with a cockpit that is more shallow than my Puakea Designs Ehukai OC1. A bit longer and with an ama that is shaped differently, she is fast on flatwater. But as I learned last Saturday, she really wants to run in the ocean. Why this surprised me, I don’t know. Even though it was the first time I had her in the ocean, my first OC2 experience was on Maui, with Jeremy Riggs in his Tempest. But, that was also my first Maliko Run and I was scared to death. And he was steering. I was so focused on his shoulders, I didn’t notice much else.

For the Carolina Cup, I had the helm. We had good sized, downwindy swells. I was not at all afraid offshore, thanks to the experience gained in a year. I could feel the canoe underneath me move, surge forward and run when we caught the bumps, I could feel her respond when I tapped on the rudder, or put my paddle out to brace. On our practice run the Friday before the race, we ran the inlet on a seemingly endless little wave that took us all the way in, past the sand bar, fast and flawlessly. Dana would stabilize the canoe leaning to the left with a hand on an iako while I would brace on the right. Teamwork. The three of us together.

Honestly though, as much fun as surfing waves and catching the bumps is, my favorite thing in the OC2 is when canoe slows down and the swell “backwashes” over it, drenching you. That’s the point where I feel most at one with both the boat and the ocean. It’s a feeling I am not sure you get paddling any other craft. Perhaps it happens with surf ski, but I wouldn’t know.

Photo credit Rod Clayton

The Graveyard

Race day started with confidence. The shore break was not nearly as bad as last year. But even if it had been, I was resolved to get through it no matter what. I worked hard to put the reminders of last year out of my mind. Visualization, using my mantra cue cards and generally thinking nothing but good thoughts helped immensely. Having that good training run was a huge boost. And writing out a good race plan in my race notebook was also effective.

Our start was good and clean and we sliced through the waves with no problem. Just outside the break, as we started to make our turn to the north, a swell caught us off guard and we did flip, but we laughed, got back in the boat and headed toward the inlet. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

We kept an outside line and when we got to Mason’s inlet, the buoy marking our turn was not visible. The race marshals on a jet ski told us it was gone and to just go. As a result, we overshot the narrow channel, came in hot and got sideways on a small wave. Had we not huli’d, we would have hit the sandbar nose first and pitch-poled, possibly breaking the boat and us. Recovery in the calf-deep water was easy and we were soon off the bar and keeping pace with the likes of Annabel Anderson and some of the elite men. To be there and have that vantage point during this race in particular was fun, exciting and a bit gratifying. Annabel made her move and was soon long gone, but then we were able to paddle for a short bit with local favorite and friend April Zilg, who despite severe full body cramps, came in fourth in the women’s division.

The Intracoastal Waterway was a slog, as expected with those headwinds hitting everyone and the tide not cooperating. We had a smooth, brief respite in Lee’s Cut where we also enjoyed a nice conversation with Joe Bark, who was paddling prone. There was lots of laughter. Here, in the lee of the wind and the eddy of the docks, we caught a rest, ate a snack and stretched the legs a bit.

Once we got out of Lee’s Cut, we were back in the headwinds, which were picking up. The short distance between the sound side of the Blockade Runner resort and the opening to Masonboro Inlet seemed like an eternity…and that’s where I zoned out for a bit. Apparently I was paddling as if I was alone, not paying attention to Dana’s paddle strokes or calls to switch sides.

Photo: Carolina Cup

Home Stretch

Once we were in the southern inlet, I knew we were home free. Passing the jetty, we both said thank you to the rocks for letting us play – a tradition taught to me by the Mullet on our first OC training run together over a year ago. As we neared the mouth of the inlet, we saw other paddlers cutting the corner tight and we started to follow suit. But, the incoming swells, bolstered by the incoming tide were wrecking havoc on the jetty and we saw an OC1 go up on the rocks. We swung wide.

Clear of the jetty and back in the open ocean, with that wind at our backs, it was glide time. The Tempest seemed just as relieved as we were to be in the ocean again. We caught bumps and began lining up for our beach finish.

Shore break at Wrightsville Beach is notorious. Ever-changing sand bars create inconsistency. Waves jack up out of nowhere, and the second, inside sand bar often has teeth of its own. There’s often not a lot of time between waves, and when you’re in a 24 foot, expensive piece of carbon, it can be dicey, to say the least.

I really don’t have much recollection of what happened next. I watched a fellow OC1’er slightly ahead of us cut in sideways between sets, or so it seemed from the outside. I knew if we tried to do that it would end in tears, so instead of trying to come in as close to the gantry as possible, we stayed with the swell line and angled a bit up the beach.

There was no hesitation. We just paddled hard. I kept my eyes on the wave in front of us, glancing over my shoulder from time to time to see what was behind. But I could hear it, and feel it. The first wave lifted us up and we somehow paddled into the second wave on the inside sand bar. I think. Dana leaned back onto the iako, I braced right and then I concentrated on making sure I pushed the correct rudder pedal to keep us from going parallel to the wave. Handling the canoe on a wave is an exercise in multi-tasking and some times, it’s easy to push the wrong pedal, sending the canoe sideways into a rolling nightmare of a huli.

That was not going to happen on this day. Not on my watch.

Remember the scene in Star Wars Episode IV, when Luke is lining up for the last attempt to make the killshot that will destroy the Death Star, and he hears Obi Wan telling him to let go and use The Force? Yeah. It was just like that.

SpeedCoach indicates that we went from about 4.5 miles per hour to almost 11.

As we emerged from Hyperspace, I see the Mullet in front of us on the beach. He’s jumping up and down, pumping his fist. As we slide into the shallow water, he yells “LIKE A BOSS!!!! LIKE A BOSS!!!! YOU OWNED IT!!!” He has the nose of the boat and he tells us to jump out and run for the finish gantry.

Usually, after any significant length of time in the OC, especially under tough conditions, getting out of the canoe is a painful process that looks a lot like a baby horse trying to stand for the first time. Legs buckle, arms flail. The bum is numb. Not this time. I shot out of the canoe with legs as fresh as …I dunno…Irish Spring? Dana somehow ended up under the ama. We made it through the gantry with a time of about 2 hours and 50 minutes.

Later, John would tell me that the ama was in the air, flying as we soared across that wave, and he was sure we were going to eat it, but our team work of bracing and weighting the ama kept everything under control.

Sadly, I will have to take his word for that. There are no pictures, at least none have emerged at the time of this writing, of us on the wave at the finish. If anyone dares to say to me, “Picture or it didn’t happen” I’ll probably deck them!

That surf finish, and the technical yet thrilling ocean portions of this year’s Graveyard totally mitigated the grind on the backside. On the beach afterward, I could not stop saying how much fun it was. It was certainly the best Carolina Cup I have ever had. Paddle Monster Coach Cain reminded me that had I NOT had the experience of last year, this one might not have come to pass, and I might not have taken those lessons to heart, making this year’s so sweet. I also know it would have not happened without Dana.

There are other lessons learned from last year – experiences from other races, some good and some bad. As I get ready to run down Maliko again in this year’s Olukai Ho’olau’lea, I cannot wait to see what bubbles up to the top.

Imua, y’all!



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