What buoy?

In my second head race, the Inaugural Sarasota-Benderson Head Race, I finished somewhat as I predicted…and not as I predicted.

Second bridge at Sarasota-Bradenton Head Race.

Second bridge at Sarasota-Bradenton Head Race.


Friday dawned under thick cloud cover and a steady wind pushing from the northeast. If it hadn’t been so humid, the pictures made it look like a dreary winter day threatening snow in the North.

Benderson Park’s lake opened at noon for practice on the course. I intended to row the whole course like Saturday, starting with a circuit of the warm-up area before proceeding up the canal and around the bend. Coach Randy, from the W8+, offered to give me, and another one of our coaches, a spin around the course. Thank goodness he did.  The lake is only 2000 meters long and for the 5k, it was a minefield of buoys of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  I would’ve ran aground on the island, missed the turning buoys, and pointed at the wrong buoy making the turn towards the finish line. All around the course, sticks jut out of the water ready to pierce a sensitive boat hull, dashing my thoughts of hugging the shoreline.

For this race I borrowed my stroke seat’s 1x, a silverly sleek lightweight Hudson named Prana, and I’d never rowed it before. I spent time fiddling on the dock to calibrate it. I already suspected it’d sit lower for me than for her two pounds, but I had to move another round of poppers, slide the feet back as far as they’d go against the rigger, and pull on my bright pink soccer socks to protect the raw backs of my legs still scabby from the previous weekend’s 21k row. She sank far into the water off the dock when I slipped in, making me a little nervous with the dock launch, but she set up well once I was on the lake.

A rowing friend from Sarasota Crew racing a flaming 1x happened to be launching the same time I did. We headed off along the course together. The time was about the same as our race time as Saturday and the murky brown water was chopped up like a tossed salad. I bobbed out around the red buoy line that divided the warm-up area in half.

The canal water was sheltered and smooth, but we learned quickly there’s a current that pushes you towards the island. My oar struck muck and I had trouble steering off the curvaceous shore line.  I stopped beyond the end of the island to look at the two options: a tight inside turn along the sheltered water next to the island, or a wide turn out towards the far lane. We opted for the wide turn. I used a light post as a point and learned the farther down the 2k straightaway I rowed, the more I’d have to adjust to the right and use the yellow merge buoy as a point. The water was dicey, but the wave action multiplied the moment we cleared the wave attenuation system.  The southern corner of the lake collected all the nasty, chopped-up water being shoved against the shore and bounced it back in a constant tug-of-war. We turned across the south end of the lake, remembering to watch for the dock that Coach Randy had pointed out in the ride-around. The water finally mellowed as we turned another buoy and headed north again.  At the next yellow triangle, I stopped to point out the correct red buoy that marked the next point in the course. The turn here was wide and tough to make, but not as tough as the one around the red buoy marking the last stretch to the finish. It’s beyond a 90-degree turn, about a 110-degree turn, nothing like I thought from the ride-around. This final stretch was littered with rotting styrofoam buoys from the 1500k sprint course and I had trouble pointing my bow to miss the wave attenuation system. My companion from Crew nearly collided with it. The finish line was off at an angle which I did not expect.

Sarasota-Bradenton Head Race

My practice course for the Sarasota-Bradenton Head Race, featuring our return to try the inside route.

We opted to make one more pass around the canal just to try the inside turn option.  The inside turn required three turns, with the first being a tight maneuver with full pressure to starboard and nothing on port side. Again, the lane was a minefield of buoys as it crossed the sprint course and merged with the outside lane.

To get off the water, we cut the course. After all the bouncing around beating from the waves, I was relieved to return to the dock. A course like that, chock full of turns and buoys, needed a row just to comprehend the layout.


My bag was packed with: 4 liters of water, an apple, and orange, a English muffin smeared with peanut butter and honey, rain coat, rain pants, running shoes, hiking shoes, and race gear. Breakfast: Oatmeal mixed with strawberry kefir and pureed strawberries, protein shake, and 16 oz of water.

The morning at the venue alternated cold showers and humid winds. Jackets were on, then off, then on. To kill the time, I walked around the island, stood on the bridge, and watched boats go by. I talked canal strategy with one of my competitors from Crew, number 275. I carried oars for the 8+’s to the dock, walked over the bridges, cheered them on, walked to the opposite end of the island to watch them slowly vanish into indistinguishable specks down the straightaway. I carried oars back and a boat. I sat for a while watching crews from the beach while eating the english muffin and absorbing more water. I observed the winds picking up after a relatively calm morning and formulated the bare bones of a strategy for my second head race attempt.

The time came to prepare for the race. I ditched the hiking pants and shoes for running shoes. After checking down the boat and shoving my 273 bow card into its slot, I headed out of the park and down Cattleman for a warm-up jog. Stroke seat came to help launch her boat and cheer me on my adventure. She pinned my number and I switched into the pink socks.

My plan was pretty simple. In order to win, I had to overcome at least a 1:17 handicap, a pretty tough challenge in good conditions. I knew my two weaknesses were my lack of experience and rowing in choppy water. I expected the southwest stretch of the lake to be a problem for me and that I’d end up rowing slower there. Therefore, I needed distance early or I would be passed. I wanted to use the lee shore and the canal to my advantage and go out as fast as possible for as long as possible, then settle in for the rough water. The winds were pretty consistent out of the east and I hoped to make up a little ground using the tail wind when I turned the boat back west towards the finish line turn.

I opted to go without sunglasses, fearing they’d fog up in the humidity.  The sun had been hiding all day and I didn’t anticipate it popping up now. I also opted to turn on my speed guide and then flip it over and row blind. Since I would take off down the course first, I didn’t need to know time, I needed distance. I had to make sure I was about seven lengths up on the next boat to have any shot at winning.

Rowing a 1x Head Race launch

Launching on race day in the Prana.

The nerves didn’t really hit until I was on the water with all the other boats. The water was worse than the day before in the warm-up area, a foreboding sign. After a spin around the warm-up circle, I joined the other ladies by the marshal. We rowed across together after the men departed and waited. And waited. I dumped half my water. I stuck my oars to stop drifting. Another rower confessed to feeling sick. I was too annoyed to be sick–she was sitting right on my stern and giving me no space to get a good point for my start.

We’d already drifted halfway down the starting chute when the start marshal was given approval to begin our event.

“Number 273, you may proceed down the chute.”

I took a breath, two taps of the starboard oar for a point, and began to row. The annoying lady on the stern took off with me. Ticked me off. When the horn sounded for my start, we were only a boat length apart and all I could think was “TOO CLOSE! YOU ARE TOO CLOSE TO ME!”

I panicked. I didn’t want anyone near me. I started counting 50 for a power 50. I worried she’d catch me being that close to my tail. Slowly, though, she backed down and I calmed down as I passed the second orange buoy and entered the canal. I edged off the rate just a tad and looked over my shoulder to execute the first turn.

I heard stroke seat yelling my name. And then “STARBOARD! STARBOARD!” I’d already been hauling on starboard to make the turn but trusted her and dug in harder. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her following down the shore cheering me on as I approached the first bridge.

“PORT!” someone else yelled. I listened and altered course. I spied a master’s rower at Crew who had given the call. He gave a thumbs-up as I continued under the second bridge. By now I’d had a solid distance on the other women and I felt pleased with my strategy. Now it was decision time.

Since Friday’s practice, I’d intended to take the wide turn out. I didn’t think the tight inside turn would do any favors. The loss of forward speed for a slight shortcut didn’t seem to be an advantage. But before I launched, Coach Randy made a strong case for the inside turn and beach route. Given the increasing east winds, and his belief, I changed my mind and lined up for the turn.

I believe I executed the turn well, losing very little forward speed and setting myself up for a good approach. I was well down the beach before the next bow appeared in view. 274 followed me on the inside track while 275, my competition from Crew, opted for the outside track. The lane was clear of buoys and I whacked nothing as I made the merge back onto the main course having gained an extra boat length on both boats.

But now I was in choppy water. The first 500 was rowable and I maintained a good distance from the other two rowers. I could see that 275 would be passing 274 soon.

My race day course, with a short bit of the warm-up area.

My race day course, with a short section of the warm-up area. The race starts near the number 1.

Then I cleared the wave attenuation system and the dam broke loose.

Water began splashing up over the deck. Every stroke whacked the water, sometimes getting caught on the waves. The boat was rocking and rolling. One poor stroke nearly turned into a crab and flipped me over. I had to take my speed down a notch.

“Row smart,” I reminded myself, wise words from the Crew rower in the flaming 1x I’d rowed with yesterday. “Just row smart. Down the slide, keep the drive, and row smart. As clean as possible.”

The next 1000 meters was a war. My forearms and lats burned from the work of keeping the boat stable and fighting the waves. The mental tirade turned to technique: loosen that grip. Let the oars come back into your hands. Draw those elbows through. Push those legs down. Breathe. In this stretch, my competition closed some ground. I planned to make it up in the next stretch. I just had to survive this nasty section of the course.  Turning the yellow buoy was a relief.

Now the boat pointed right into the head wind. All I had to do was drive and lean into it. I started a Power 20. I wanted to make up that distance immediately. I entered the zone, looking right to see the next turn buoy and the dock I’d have to miss. I turned back forward only to see a yellow buoy on my starboard side.

My heart sank. I’d missed a buoy. There was no going back and rowing around it. I witnessed my competition spying the buoy just in time to correct her course and make the turn around the buoy. I saw a figure on shore, sitting right in line with that buoy, holding a clipboard and knew my miss had been noted.

At any other regatta, a missed course buoy results in a time penalty. Not this regatta. A missed buoy=”exclusion,” a.k.a., disqualification.

I could’ve thrown in the towel right then, eased off, and relaxed my row. I opted not to. I continued rowing like I was in the race, but at that point my mojo had been shattered. I turned back to the north, rowed another power 20. Frustrated with missing that buoy, I took the  next turn too closely to the yellow buoy and spent too much time trying to correct my course to starboard.  My oar smacked a huge orange buoy and nearly flipped me. Frustrated, I continued on only to whack more buoys. I was off course again, heading towards the empty marshaling area and on the outside of the red port buoy marking the turn towards the finish. I corrected enough to skim the inside of the red buoy, but all my hard to port strokes, short on starboard to execute the turn were in vain. The stern barely shifted four inches. 275 was closing more ground due to my poor rowing in this stretch. I kept turning to look down the course. With the wind pushing the boat, I couldn’t make the turn to port in time. I had to dig my oar in starboard which slowed my boat down and cost me more time. By the time I managed to get pointed towards the finish, I’d lost another two boat lengths. I whacked the styrofoam buoys again while trying to regain momentum and build speed back up. The water was rough again in the cross wind, but as I neared the line I sped up and added more power, finishing with a power 12, staring at the finish line tent for the last two strokes waiting for the horn to sound. I crossed about three lengths up on 275, who I’d figured would probably beat me overall before this whole race even started.

Nothing sucked more than sharing the news I’d been disqualified for missing a stupid buoy. The south corner should have been a straight shot, but instead it was turned into a U-shape, only adding to the turns and distance.

Otherwise, I would’ve come in second place.



About camckenna

I write; I row.
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