Sunday, August 21, 2011

our big downwinder last weekend

Kevin V and I at the bar at Coco Pazzo (an excellent restaurant, I should add...) toasting our upcoming adventure
I know you've all been anxious to hear the full report from last weekend's Windy City Waterman paddle.  Despite the fact that the weather did not cooperate at all, we had an amazing experience and accomplished a lot.  I'll run through the events via photos and captions here, then at the end I'll fill you in on all the details.  Here goes...

We arrived at the launch at about 5:45 on Sunday morning to an ominous sky... fortunately, the weather was pushing east and away from us.

After a quick skipper's meeting and a look at the shorebreak, we decided we were a go.

So we started unloading and rigging all the gear.

A special Thanks to Gary Stone of Paddleboard Specialists for loaning Kevin his personal Bark Dominator.

Kevin and his wife Jenney... don't worry, Jenney, we'll make sure you get him back!

Kevin, Dimitry and I ready to get out there.

The photos make it look smaller, but the shorebreak was about head high.

Kevin and I pushing out.

And, into the fray we went...
4 1/2 hours and 15 miles later, we surfed onto the beach in Waukegan.
Post paddle, looking pretty exhilarated.
Thanks a ton to Jenney and my Dad Gary for driving the chase car with our equipment and provisions.
And before I go, as always, Thanks to Kim and Tiz for all your support and encouragement!
The Story:
     As you know, our original plan was to do our big 50-mile paddle on Saturday.  Kevin was coming to town on Friday evening, so we were going to head straight up to Racine, get a good nights sleep, then launch around 5am on Saturday.  Well, once the forecast for Saturday came in calling for thunderstorms, we decided to hold off until Sunday.  And good that we did, because those storms did come in, and in addition to lightning and strong, gusty winds, quarter-sized hail was reported on the north shore, right where we would have been paddling.

     We knew that strong north winds were in store for Sunday, which meant waves.  Although I've spent a ton of time sailing and windsurfing in strong winds and big waves on Lake Michigan, I hadn't done a downwinder in those conditions yet on the SUP.  Dimitry hadn't done any downwind runs at all, and while Kevin had done some big downwinders on the ocean, those experiences were quite different from the short-period, mixed up wind swell we get on Lake Michigan.  So, it was going to be new territory for us all, and we were all excited for it, but with these conditions, it seemed very unlikely we'd be doing the full 50 miles.  For that matter, it was even possible that we wouldn't be able to get out at all.  On big Nor'Easters like this the shorebreak can be monstrous.  I fell off to sleep hoping that the morning wouldn't bring disappointment. 

     The alarms went off at 4:30am.  I was up in a flash, put on a big pot of oatmeal and started mixing the Infinit Nutrition mix that would sustain me throughout the day in my hydration pack.  You can imagine my eyes, bulging in panic, as the drink squirted out of a hole in the bladder of my pack all over the bathroom vanity.  DAMMIT!  Catastrophe already and we were barely out of bed.  Fortunately, I had a backup bladder for the pack, and I loaded it up feeling quite pleased with myself for being so prepared.

     After the short drive to the launch site, we checked out the shorebreak and called it 'a go'.  We rigged up and launched by about 6:45, paddling with the wind and waves on our left side for the first mile or so as we pushed to get away from the lee shore... the last thing you want is to get caught too close to a rocky or otherwise inhospitable shoreline with a 30-knot wind pushing you.  Once we were safely away from shore, we turned downwind and started getting into a rhythm, catching the bigger swells and surfing them toward the far distant Chicago skyline.

     We had been paddling about 30 minutes when I saw that the nozzle on my backup hydration pack hose had broken off.  I checked the pack and sure enough, my full ration of Infinit had gone to the fishes, and along with it went that 'good feeling' of being prepared.  I couldn't believe my bad luck... fortunately I had a few packs of goo and an extra 30 oz. water bottle on board, so I knew I'd be OK for a while at least.  We pushed on as the wind and swell built.  By 9am the waves were 8-10 feet and the wind was gusting into the 30's.

     All three of us were falling a fair amount, being tossed around by the mixed up swell.  In contrast to ocean swell, which tends to be consistent and rhythmic, Lake Michigan wind swell is very chaotic.  The waves are steep and short-period, meaning there is very little space in between them.  They tend to change angle from one wave to the next, so you are constantly tweaking your heading to stay lined up, and the bigger set waves are punctuated by many smaller pieces of chop that come at you in between, around and on top of them.  It's kind of like paddling through a washing machine on 'agitate'.

     I have to say, even in these tough conditions, my Naish Glide not only performed, but shined.  The Glide was able to get down the face and surf the swells much easier than either Kevin or Dimitry's boards would do.  And I will tell you, the feeling of shooting down the face of a 10-foot wave out in the angry soup of open water Lake Michigan on a big Nor'Easter is something I won't forget, and hope to experience again soon.  This was without exception the most exciting paddle I've been on.

     Still, for all the exhilaration we were feeling, we were all surprised to see that after 2 hours we'd only covered about 7 miles - not even half the distance to our first possible landing spot in Waukegan.  We had all been expecting to hit speeds of 7 to 9 miles per hour since we had the wind and waves behind us... A pace that would be typical of an ocean downwinder.  Whether it was our course, the amount of time we spent falling and re-mounting our boards, or some other factors we hadn't counted on, we were making much slower progress than expected. 

     As part of our safety protocol I had my cell phone sealed up in a couple of ziploc bags in my hydration pack, so I took a minute and called my Dad & Jenney, letting them know that we were doing fine and not to expect us in Waukegan for another couple hours.  They were with our chase boat driver and informed us that the boat would not be able to launch in the wavy conditions.  "No problem", I told them.  We were all feeling good and we could land in Waukegan and decide if we would continue or not then.  Once we knew that they wouldn't be worried, and that we'd have to make shore somewhere in Waukegan at the very least to replenish our food and water, we settled in to having fun in the crazy conditions.  By this time, the overcast had given way to an outrageously blue Midwest sky dotted with fluffy, grey-lined clouds so low that you thought you might reach out and grab one.  Of course, you wouldn't dare try, because it took every ounce of concentration and balance to stay on your board, and every bit of your focus to read the water so you could catch the next big wave and feel that high of screaming down its emerald face.  With every ride, you'd catch yourself laughing and hollering, caught up in the rush of riding this ultimate roller coaster.

     After another two hours of fun, we headed into the beach at Waukegan having covered 15 miles.  It was after 11 already, and after a bit of discussion we decided it would be best to call it a day.  The next leg of the paddle toward Chicago was about 24 miles, and would have had us landing with barely enough time to race Kevin and Jenney to the airport for their flight.  We'd had an amazing day and paddled a good distance in the most intense conditions that we (or anyone else in Chicago, as far as I know) had ever paddled in.  We had fun, pushed ourselves and our equipment, and learned a lot.  This was a very successful experience.  I will definitely be watching the weather for the next opportunity to do a big downwinder like this again.

But... But... But, we didn't do our 50 miles.  Could we have?  Absolutely.  Had we not been worried about time, we could have just sat on our boards and let the wind and waves push us to Chicago.  But riding downwind in a gale is not what we set out to do or what we've been training all summer for.  We wanted the challenge of paddling for 12-plus hours... working our way across a great expanse of the Lake by our own endurance and effort.  So, we've re-set the date for our half-century paddle for September 10th.  Stay tuned for location info and other details.

Thanks for reading everybody.  See you on the water.

PS I took a bunch of video footage while we were out on the water, so you can look forward to a short film in the coming days...

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