The Fluidesign 4x is ping-ponging down the course: left, right, left, right. The starboard oars have whacked two buoys, jarring the rhythm, and there’s a turn approaching. The glasses are fogging; it’s hard to judge the distance. And still we ping-pong, losing time, not setting up for the turn…
“Get your act together, Casey!” I snap aloud through gritted teeth, jamming the toe steering straight.
The Head of the Giblet Regatta
Over in the land of mouse, there’s a notorious regatta called the Head of the Giblet. Rowers know it primarily for one reason: the 5k course is one giant circle. “Hard on port!” “Hard on port!” “Hard on port” “Hard on port again!” “Okay, hard on starboard!” “Port!”
The other thing the Head of the Giblet is known for is really turkeying up their theme. It’s always the weekend before Thanksgiving. It’s rowed on Turkey Lake. They sell “gobbler sandwiches,” a delicious smashing of turkey, cranberry, and stuffing in a roll. The first place in the men and women’s master 1x wins a frozen turkey. All-points is a turkey fan. And each winner in every event, in addition to a turkey-themed medal, takes home a plaque showing a preserved turkey foot.
Some people find themed events childish and this detail especially grotesque. Memories of The Monkey’s Paw resurface from middle school. Who wants a taxidermed turkey claw in their living room? How many turkeys died in the creation of the turkey trophy? They cringe at the display of plaques. But me?
I love it.
Curse of the Giblet
My first introduction to the glories of the Turkey Regatta was back in 2009 when I stroked a Womens master’s 4+. The most distinct memory I have of this race is of coming into the last 1k towards the finish. I’m hurting like crazy trying to move the boat home when I glance right and see this guy in bumblebee stripes rowing outside the course towards the start line. He’s passing us. We’re a racing 4+ and this one guy is faster than us on our warm-up! It was demoralizing. We were 2nd of 2 entries and a time of 27:28.
Two years later I convinced three other women from Sarasota to try Turkey Lake in pursuit of the claw. It was a horrible experience. Our cox box died, we had a novice coxswain so green she’d never coxed before, and I had to call steering from the stroke seat. A bunch of high school 4+’s passed us, and at the very end of the race, we ended up smushed between two 4+’s that were racing hard against each other. I remember an oar blade flashing before my eyes; I ducked back and avoided a broken nose. At the end we were slapped with a 30 second penalty that wiped out our 33-second handicap. We debated protesting, but let it go. It bit us in the butt, because we were second with a time of 26:00 (Raw 26:03). Without the penalty, we would’ve won. That was 2011.
I have considered Giblet, with its crazy curves, cursed ever since.
Shall we go turkey hunting?
For three years, the Giblet regatta has been pushed aside. No one in Sarasota likes to go to the Giblet because of the course. We’re straight line kind of people: A-to-B rowing, forget the scenic route.
This year, Masters has pretty much been following the Scullers around to their regattas. The one regatta they chose to participate in separately was canceled. Scullers, for various reasons, opted out of two regattas this year. But, having promised the varsity four head races, they needed a number four. That left the Giblet, the last head race of the season in Florida.
When the decision was first made, I hemmed and hawed about it. I’d written off winning a turkey plaque. I thought after the Duathlon, I’d be finished for the season. But…we were so fast at Hooch…and there was only one other entry…and I really wanted the claw…but no one liked the course…but still…?
And the next day, it was a go!
Rowing in circles
The quad carpooled over to Orlando early in the morning for our 8:30 a.m. race. Forecast: cloudy, winds out of the east at 9-10 mph. The closer we drove, the more it rained. I smeared eye black on my baby cheeks and tucked red feathers in my hair. We rigged the Fluidesign 4x in rain jackets and peeled them off at first call. The rain stopped as we joined the queue of men’s doubles waiting to launch.
The announcer jumped the gun on calling events, making us extremely early. The little bit of warming up on land I had attempted was for nil as the ref asked us to stand aside and let the late doubles launch ahead.
I missed the coaches and coxes meeting and had little time to study the course, so I used our row to the start to eyeball the buoys I could see. The course had more buoys than I remembered from previous experience, but I had not been responsible for steering back then. Our warm-up was negligent: picks, steady by 3’s, then 4’s, a power 10, and one “up 2” before I had to stop us and join the men’s 2x curling around the lake’s shoreline. The east wind pushed the boat towards the lily pads and weeds. As I was chopping the boat forward, I noticed stroke chipping in.
“Why are you backing?” I called.
“Because we’re getting blown in the weeds and I don’t want us to get stuck!”
“Yes, I get that–but why are you backing?”
“Oh! Never mind!”
We curled around the corner into the cove used for the start. The marshal had us wait to allow the doubles race a solid head start. The pause gave me time to assess the starting chute and the first two turns of the course.
“Guys–I think we should reassess our start plan. The chute is really short. We’re going to be on our high 10 when we hit the first turn.”
The girls turned and looked.
El Capitan made the call. “We’ll row into it. So let’s just get going, and we’ll keep taking the beat progressively up and when you have a good point, say, ‘clear,’ and we’ll take a high 20.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“When we have clear water, shout, ‘clear,’ and we’ll go. If Casey calls ‘move,’ then we’re going to do power on so we pass a boat.”
The marshal ordered us to turn and point towards the start. And hold water some more. The quads chasing us lined up behind the stern.
The boat started trembling, which kicked off my nerves. I stared up at the cypress trees and took a deep breath. I knew the fate of our turkey claws rested solely in the decisions I was about to make. The morning had gone by too fast for me to fret about steering.
I told 2-seat, “You’re going to have to be the power for me. My first priority is our course.”
“Got it. It was the same when I was bowing–I completely understand.”
The boat kept shaking, accelerating my adrenaline. All the moisture left in my dry mouth vanished.
“Whoever’s shaking the boat, please stop. You’re making me more nervous!”
“Oh, sorry! That was me just slapping my legs!”
The bullhorn clicked on. “145, you may proceed.”
“Granny start!” Stroke called.
“Sit half-slide.” I ordered. We slid up on our seats, the red “S” of our blades flashing as we rolled onto the square and buried. “Attention. Row.”
We started the row, slowly building up our rate to a steady, controlled pace. Halifax, our chasing boat, started after us. My heart rate spiked. We needed serious distance on them to stand a chance of winning. Do not look at them, I thought. Focus on the course; let the other three worry about the distance on Halifax.
“Three strokes to start!”
“Three to start!” echoed 2-seat. The power behind the oars ticked up and we surged forward. The horn sounded. We were on.
Three buoys later, I turned the toe hard to the left, making our first starboard turn. “Turn approaching!”
The turn was good. I saw Halifax just past the start; we were five-six boat lengths ahead. I refused to look again, glancing left then right to assess distance to the weeds and lily pads skirting the lakeshore.
“Turn approaching!” The toe turned to port. Again, a solid turn. “Clear!” I yelled.
“Alright, let’s move!” shouted stroke. “Up 2!” I locked in for 10, checked course, another 10.
We were closing in on our first high school 2x. As our next turn, a port, approached, the double weaved back and forth in our path. “Yield!” I shouted. And again, as they hooked back to the right, and then the left. I committed to their outside, and they finally gave way around our third turn.
We had a long straightaway, maybe 750 meters of open water. In my quick glances over my left and right shoulders, I could not spy another double. “Clear!” I shouted. The quad surged down the buoy line. I felt great and solid down the stretch.
I peeked back again. A boat was on the course. Fishing? Marshaling? Couldn’t tell. I opted to steer back closer to the buoy line to go between them and yellow balls. I looked again–now they were blocking my line of sight! I couldn’t see the next buoy and I cursed under my breath. Finally they moved and I could see the next buoys and our turn. We were on the inside now, with weeds pushing the course narrow.
“Turn approaching!” I yelled. I tried to eyeball it; I didn’t realize until we were strokes away how sharp I’d have to turn. “Turn hard on port now!” I yanked the toe to the left. “Hard on port!”
The boat started turning, but the moment we cut around the buoy, barely missing whacking with our oars, I knew it was off. We were heading straight for a patch of weeds and lily pads jutting out from the shore line. “Port! More port!” I screamed, trying to keep us out of the patch. Our water trail continued to curve, but I’d just cut the inside too much, no matter how much I begged for more port pressure. We sliced through two patches of weeds as I tried to angle us back towards the buoy line. Finally–“Equal!” I used the toe to bring us back on a straight line along the buoys.
“Sorry!” I yelled to the boat. “It was sharper than I thought!”
We continued on. The sharp angle gave us a great view of the chasing boats. The double we passed was easily 12-14 boat lengths behind us and Halifax…out of sight.
“Come on, let’s get the next double!” growled stroke. “Let’s go ladies!”
I couldn’t see the next double. The next turn was toe only, a not as sharp hook to starboard. Now I spied the next double, nearing the next turn. “Double’s 500 meters away,” I told 2-seat.
I can see the buoy line, but the glasses are now spotted with water, obscuring my vision a little. The next turn is approaching. I angle the boat where I think it’s good–check left–good, buoy in sight–check right–crap! buoy right behind us!
“Starboard!” The toe yanks to the right. I check again–“We’re going to hit! Keep rowing!” I can see it, so I know to drop my hands into my lap. My oar misses the buoy, but 2-seat skims the top with 3 and 4 solidly whacking on the square. The quad wobbles as we try to continue our pace. “Get it back!” I yell, and we do.
The hard turn to port has messed up our course. Without looking, I had turned the toe slightly to starboard to try and compensate while we picked back up our rhythm. A mistake. On the next look, the buoy is right there.
The four letter word flies out. “Starboard again!” Now I’m pissed at myself. “You’re going to hit again! I’m sorry!” It’s a complete repeat of the last buoy. We’re yelling at each other, about time, tempo, catching back together, mixed with my cursed apologies. But we do it. I don’t have time to apply power–the next turn is here. Despite our whacks, we’re closing in on the next double. “Closing! Turn approaching!”
I manage to miss this buoy on this turn; it’s another hard on port with the toe stuck left. I am determined not to hit any more buoys. The glasses are fogging up more. I check left and right–there’s a green buoy floating about 10 yards off shore. I decide it’s best to keep it on port and stay closer to the yellow buoys. My course is ping-ponging to try and fit between the yellow and green while not getting too close to either. I see our stern trail writing “SSSSS” down the straightaway. The buoys messed up my confidence and calm; I’m jittery and panicking, which is worst possible thing to happen right now with the race halfway done.
I grit my teeth. “Get it together Casey!”
I put the toe straight and deal with it.
The 1500 meter sign is neon orange, black, and bobbing crazily in the wind. “1500!” I yell.
“What?” someone asks. “15?”
I let the sign slide by on starboard as the answer. We have 1500 meters to go and now the next 2x is three boat lengths away navigating the next turn.
We swing to starboard and end up right on their tail. I move to the inside; they mirror me. I growl and move to the outside; they mirror me. “Yield!” I scream at them, tacking back inside. They stay right in my trail. “Yield now!” I scream. The whites of stroke’s eyes are big; I’m using my oar pressure to jab left and right. We’re running right in their boat trail because they won’t move. Finally they tack slightly towards the orange buoys on port side. I stay left, but they haven’t given us enough space to go. My quad mates are screaming for me, “Yield! Yield now!”
I’m fed up. “If you do not YIELD, I WILL protest and slap with you with a penalty!”
The boys move over. They whack some buoys in the process, but I don’t care. They’ve pissed me off and screwed up what should have been a killer straightaway into our next turn.
“Hard on starboard!”
We turn. The next 2x is right there. After a few peeks to assess their course, I take the orange buoy line. After one shout, this boat does what it is supposed to and gives way.
We know this is the end. I expect it to be straight. We’re hammering it along, cruising by the docks we’re familiar with. The glasses are royally fogged now making it difficult to check our course and to judge our depth. I can’t see the finish line flag at all. When the course shanks slightly to the left, it catches me off guard. “Port!” The girls instantly respond; all we need is two strokes to get the angle.
The finish line dock appears off my port. A horn sounds.
“That’s not us!”
“Not us, keep going!” 2-seat echoes.
Seconds later, it is for us.
We slow down.
“Quad, keep going around the flag,” The marshal orders. We obey, tucking around the double that barely finished ahead of us.
I apologized for whacking the buoys and the bad turn as we turn towards the shoreline and cut across the course ahead of two 8+’s. The next quad, the Halifax quad, cruises towards the finish as we’re rowing by pairs through the grass channels on the way to recovery.
“They’re about three minutes behind us!” Stroke called back. “We were around 20:10 and it’s 24 minutes now.”
A little bubble of hope arises…but you never know, not with handicaps.
We de-rig the quad, retrieve oars, snap photos, and parade about the venue in our awesome turkey hats. Random strangers stop and ask us to pose for pictures. Our quad strolls down to the registration area to ask if there any results yet…we’re told to look online. Nothing.
Time passes slowly. We change clothes. Eat gluten-free pretzels and pumpkin seeds. Drink water. Hunt for one of my fellow coaches. Hit refresh on RegattaCentral repeatedly. Nothing.
Eventually I have to switch gears from competitor to coach and depart. The girls are leaving soon, tired of waiting almost two hours for our results, so I don’t expect to see them again. I head to the team tent to await my middle school rowers, turkey hat and all. I chow on a delicious gobbler sandwich.
The kids are sitting on the tarp, eating muffins and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as I hold up my clipboard and explain the middle school course map, when someone walks up on my right. I look up and see three turkey-headed smiling faces and El Capitan holding the grotesque turkey plaque.
I pump my fist. “Yes!”
The curse is broken.