Mud, Buoys, and Handicaps: The Sarasota Invitational Regatta

I have attended four of the five Sarasota Invitational Regattas (I missed the first one because we were hunting for a place to live, ironically, in Sarasota) and this year’s SIR was the first one with GREAT weather.  Sunshine, 70s, and low winds. Sure, the mornings created weather delays, but no one was a frozen popsicle, the lake wasn’t surf-worthy, and everyone was able to point their bows down the course. Success indeed.

My SIR experience began when my Celica won a free mud bath as it was directed towards a parking spot in the lot near Sports Authority. I gunned it through the sliding slush, leaving swerve marks across the formerly grassly lot. I exited my chocolate sports car to hear someone who shall remain nameless but works at SANCA yelling at the poor parking attendant kid about not waving people through the mud pit.

An early morning downpour had left the island a hot mess of puddles and mud pits, delaying the start of races over an hour as the team scrambled to get everything ready after being swamped out in the wee pre-dawn hours. After that, the regatta ran like a breeze. I watched from the finish line as race after race pushed towards the line, often in quick succession as the ROC tried to catch up the day. Occasionally I set off on an errand for someone, but most of the day was in the shade and closely located to bathrooms.

No, the most interesting part of my Saturday at SIR came at the end, when I managed to swerve and navigate my car 30 feet before it tragically sank into the La Sports Authority Tar pits. As I stood ankle-deep in mud, phone flashlight in hand assessing the depth of my tires, car door wide open, the thankful parking lot denizens used my road blockade to navigate safely around the mud pit. I was so happy to serve the public as a giant, muddy safety cone, “DO NOT DRIVE HERE.” And the fire ant pile that I happened to get stuck in was the metaphorical icing on the spa treatment. One SCRC member stopped to ask, “ARE YOU STUCK?” Yes, I was stuck. With a little help and push backwards, then forwards, I made it to solid turf. away from that parking lot, and to a water-only shower.


10 for drop and push

The first event of my day: coxing a Mixed 4+. The boat’s goal was to go faster than the weekend before and my personal goal was not to crash into anything thereby cause damage to boat and ego.

The new traffic pattern on the lake did not allow for significant warm-up time or space, and, since I forgot my dry-bag, I had no way to tell time. I didn’t want us to be late to the start. I did my best to get the crew warmed up on our way down to the lake, trailing behind an OARS boat, until we turned towards the end of the fully extended wave attenuator to the marshal and were called into lane 6. We rowed up in line with the other 4+’s. Thus far we were in our lane and hadn’t hit anything–a good omen. The 6’1 stroke seat in the Miami boat next to us stood up and bent over to touch his toes, to which I got a little cheeky and said, “Show off!” The guy answered, “I’m stretching.” Clearly he didn’t appreciate my sense of humor, nor my request he stand on his head for his next trick.

The marshals called us up to the platforms and now I became nervous. High potential for boat damage, but the light winds had pushed us over perfectly to the starboard side. We rowed up lightly, but one rower responded late to my call and changed our approach angle. We cleared the start platform, but not the shade tent which port side effectively took out. The poor kid flattened out on the dock to avoid the head whack and I had to remind him to grab our oar before we drifted past.

Now we waited. All boats were in position early. I asked different combinations of rowers to tap our point here and there, as the crosswind was light but still pushing us to starboard. Lane 6 had a great reference point at 1000 meters out: it looked like we were perfectly aligned with the Cattleman Road Bridge.

The polling of boats began as we were still askew a bit to starboard. There wasn’t time to fix it. I commanded 3 to give 2 back her oar and wrenched the rudder to port to accommodate as the referee called “Sarasota County.”

“Sit ready,” I said, firmly wedged backwards in the cockpit.

“Tallahassee. Attention. Go.”

And off we shot. I barked the starting sequence followed by the ten, calling “Drop and push!” Counting “ten! Shift! Find our solid pace.” Now I took a glance at the boats. Lane 5 had shot off like a rocket. We were holding pretty firm onto lane 7 and I could see Jacksonville was ahead of us, but not significantly so.

“You’re holding onto Tallahassee, that’s a great start,” I said, before remembering that I was not supposed to reference other teams but to see how fast we could go. That was my one and only call about another boat for the rest of the race.

I remember seeing the first bobbing red buoy for the 250 and calling it. Off the start I kept us in our lane, but I swerved to starboard off the start. I expected to hear a ref boat call it, but none came–I guess because there was nobody for us to careen over. I overcorrected slightly to port, only to have us drift back to starboard. By the time I put us on a straight course, we were running the buoys on our starboard side under the blades and I decided just to stay there than to get us dead center. We were straight, not hitting them, the refs didn’t seem to care, and our crew wasn’t impeding anyone’s progress.

To keep the crew moving down the course, I pulled everything I could from memory that we worked on in practice. “10 for dropping and pushing,” “remember that release position,” “push that oar down and away at the release,” “light on those feet up the recovery,” “eyes up, chins up,” anything at all. I called a 10 as we approached the 500, crossing the red buoy right at the 10. I let them know the island was coming. The red buoys for 750 were coming. Up 2 in 2. Push it in. 20 more strokes. 10 more good ones. A tickle crawled into my throat out of no where; I fought the urge to cough into the microphone but had to, twice. The horn beeped and the race over.  Everyone was alive and the boat intact.

I let them know they’d held onto Tallahassee for quite a while, about 350 meters, before the boat pushed away, and the Jacksonville boat had been relatively close, too. We made it all the way back to the dock, landing safely, boat in slings, and my sprint race cox was checked off the bucket list. And the crew dropped their time by 34 seconds. Five more and they would have been 6th instead of 7th. Not too shabby, I think.

Old, the new first place

Midday I observed our crews having a fantastic day of racing on the course. I filmed and snapped pictures, uploaded videos to Facebook, cheered on the Night Crew out in Mixed 2x’s. The Novice 8+ won by huge boat lengths, and I figured as soon as I spied our women’s 8+ in third across a narrow field that they had probably won, too, with their ridiculous 60+ handicap. They did. Our boats had two gold medals. The Boat Captain came back in hoping for a win, but lost by a second for second place, the 28-second handicap from Miami Beach too much to overcome in 1000 meters. The other Night Crew women came in third and fourth, despite never having rowed with their partners before.

I attempted to get ready for the Mixed 4x, but due to my inability to run (and the mud pit,) it’s not easy. I spent half my warm-up time looking for my set of oars. Someone finally found set “C” buried under all the sweep oars in the trailer but by then it was over.

I composited into a crew with Potomac Boat Club. The guy in 2 had already rowed three races and was apparently sick. At least he was warmed up after hot seating from a men’s quad. We did nothing but steady state down to the start, worried that we would be late although Treasure Coast was also hot-seating and were still waiting next to their boat in slings when we pushed off the dock.

Latching on to the platform switches on a current of emotions. I was nervous coxing, but nothing like sitting backwards in a seat facing the start platform.

When I get nervous, I start talking. First I whined. “I’m not warmed up,” I said. “This is going to be bad.” Stroke nodded. “Why the hell am I doing this to myself again?” I looked right at the younger crews in lanes 2 and 3. “Do you think [Sarasota] Crew is going to show up? Someone’s coming. Oh, that’s Treasure Coast. I don’t see them. We’ll still win, no matter what. There’s Miami (the boat we knew to watch out for). God, this sucks.”

The referees announced Sarasota Crew had not launched and therefore they planned to start ahead of schedule as all other boats were locked on. I blew the air out, then sucked a lungful in and held it, well aware that I was a) not adequately warmed up to race, b) everything that was about to happen to me in the next four minutes would be painful, and c) I would try as hard as I could anyway.

Normally I stare at the flag, but this day I didn’t. My eyes were glued onto the back of stroke seat. We rammed off the start platform, but Treasure Coast got an early jump on us. In the start was all swirls of water, revving engines, yelling, wheels rolling and oars clacking. I never saw the red 250 buoy, but I knew we were in it. The TCRC boat immediately left of us slowly disappeared from my field of vision, but I could hear them the whole race so I knew we were staying close. The rest of the field opened up and with each stroke Miami Beach all the way to our left became more visible in the third position.

Meanwhile the pain accelerated from 0 to burning hot lava. My lungs seared as I gasped for air. I’d gone straight from the freezer to the the fryer and I was smoking. But I refused to slack off, zeroing in on the back of stroke, counting strokes in my head, reminding myself it’d be over before I knew it and to push, push, push. The buoys turned red and we drew a swiggle in our lane. The “Up 2” call came. SMACK! My port oar punched a buoy, jumping out of my hand in a ruckus of water and speed. I lunged and snatched it, driving the oar down out of the water and over the buoy. The incident was a second, but the moment it happened I just knew that one second, that the one hit of my oar on the buoy, had cost us.

We crossed the line second chasing Treasure Coast’s stern. The metallic taste of copper oozed into my mouth. My teeth ached, my heart struggled to pump oxygen, and I felt sick. Water rolled in my stomach. The “S” on my oar had a large circular chunk missing from the collision with the buoy. It took over an hour for my heart rate to finally level out and my teeth to feel solid in my jaw. By then the results had been posted, and sure enough, our Mixed 4x was officially second by a second to Miami Beach, with a 28-second handicap to our 14 seconds.

Oh, buoy

The next regatta is around the corner, and moving forward after SIR I ponder the future of our boatings. The boats that ruled the day were not always the young and fit, but the old and in shape. The women’s 1x overall winner beat the fastest overall raw time on the lake due to a 20-second handicap. Do not take that the wrong way–she had a good raw time, too and I am not suggesting she did not deserve the win. After seeing four, five boats with massive handicaps (including my club’s own) paired with individuals in decent shape for their age, it makes me wonder what my chances are being competitive on the water. A 20-second lead over a 1000m distance is tough to overcome.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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