The 20th Anniversary Sea Gypsy Race, May 1st 2005.

This was not only the 20th anniversary but also possibly the last Tsunami Ranger's Sea Gypsy Extreme Ocean Conditions Kayak Race. I had whimped out on the race the previous year and promised myself I would go no matter what the conditions were this time. The conditions were good. The swell was mild, although there was a long period southern swell that rose up into large breakers from time to time. These could be avoided with good timing, by simply taking my time on the launch. I had done this successfully in the past and a bunch of my friends were in the race for the first time. They looked up to me and said they would do the same thing. So many people said they would do this that I had a sudden vision of the race starting, the fireworks exploding, the flaming arrow shooting up, but EVERYONE just sitting there on the beach. Waiting.

Michael Powers lit the flaming arrow and pointed the crossbow up. And he waited. And waited. At first I thought he was waiting for one of those big sets of waves from the south to arrive. But apparently there was an explosive device on the arrow and he was waiting for the flame from the road flare to burn down low enough to light the fuse. Last year the explosive went off before he launched the arrow, this time he did a little better and it went off a few feet over his head! The race was on!

Unlike my vision, almost everybody immediately jumped in the water. Even all my friends who said they would wait! They all got in their boats and started pulling ahead without me! Were they pulling my legs earlier? I calmly walked my kayak into the water, calmly got in, calmly paddled out and calmly waited behind the impact zone calmly watching the waves breaking. I thought I must have looked silly moving so slowly while everyone else madly charged over the waves. Two guys in a sit-on top fell out of their boat several times and it almost surfed back to whack into me. Then I saw my window in the waves and sprinted over the impact zone, quickly making it out to sea. Finally I calmed down and started pacing myself. Pushing it but at a rate that I figured I could keep up for the whole distance.

I slowly gained on a guy in a yellow racing boat. This was the same guy who had lost control of his boat in the surf two years ago, making me turn into a dumpy area where I had flipped over. While upside down I had hit something underwater and cut my lip. I was never sure if I had hit him or his boat until just a few hours before this race when I had talked to him. He remembered the incident and says that I definitely hit his boat and not him. He says that one of his rudder cables had broken to make him loose control. It was impossible for him to repair it in time to re-enter the race. He has a beautiful sleek narrow racing boat with a custom yellow paint job. On the front deck there is an airbrushed picture of a half naked Polynesian girl. He says she is his sea goddess and brings him good luck. Stuck in various other places on the boat are stickers of girls in similar grass skirt outfits. Its not overdone, they seem to compliment the sleek lines of the boat.

But if the boat is so sleek, why was I slowly pulling past him in my clunky Coaster kayak? I figured he was pacing himself and would zoom past me at the halfway point. A few minutes later the two guys in the sit-on-top double pulled past me. Huffing and puffing and paddling very fast. They bugged me about this, asking why I looked so relaxed when they were working so hard. I said "It's called Pacing". As they pulled ahead of me I pulled in behind them and drafted them for a while. When they noticed it gave them another laugh. Drafting another kayak works best in calm water which this was not. Drafting also takes a lot of concentration and energy to keep the nose of your kayak right on the tail of the one in front. So it is always difficult to tell if you really gain anything from doing this. After a few minutes I relaxed and let them pull ahead of me again.

When we got to the outer corner of the Princeton Harbor breakwater, the double turned right to go through the slot close to the cliff. I never saw them again until they landed a long time after I did. They must not have paced themselves and run out of steam. I could see a line of kayak hulls being portaged across the slot. Apparently the racers were willing to take the time to portage and launch again rather than go the long way around the reef. I knew that it would require launching out through breakers on a hard rocky beach on an exposed shoreline. I decided to stick with my plan to go around Mushroom Rock like I did on my practice paddle the day before. I worked my way between the shallow spots and made it out over the reef with no problems. Then I paddled as close to shore as I dared and went down the other side of Pillar Point.

This year the Tsunami Rangers had decided to skip making everyone launch twice at the start but had required us to land on Ross Beach. This was where I had landed the day before to assist someone with a broken ankle. I knew to go wide of the start of the beach where waves broke over a shallow reef, then cut back in for a calm landing. As soon as the bow of my boat hit the beach I scooped up handfuls of sand and shoved back off. I backpedaled over a few small waves then found the time to turn around and head out.

As I safely made it out to sea I passed Fred Cooper coming in for his landing. He was apparently the only one of my "friends" who had taken my advice and waited to launch. I had seen him behind me after the start and I had seen him going the long way around the outside of the shallow area before crossing the big Pillar Point reef. He shouted out, asking me where to land. This is exactly what I had done the first time I had run the race here, getting advice from Don "Duct Tape" Barch. So I passed on the favor and told Fred to go wide around the opening and cut way back in to land. He thanked me later saying that my advice worked perfectly for him.

Like the practice run the day before I went wide around the big reef and went looking for trouble and the shallow area inside it. Just like the day before I managed to catch a wave in it and ride 200 yards! I was completely in control, steering mostly with my hips and giving my arms a chance to relax, something that they sorely appreciated. I felt the wind of my passage whistling in my ears and shouted out a loud YAHOO! The problem with this whole maneuver was that there was nobody to appreciate my clever strategy! There were three kayaks ahead and right of me who had just come back through the slot or had gone around my shallow spot. They didn't hear me shout, didn't look back and didn't see me almost catch up to them on a surfing ride. I returned to my normal slow racing pacing rate and they slowly pulled ahead of me for a while.

When I was only a mile or less from the end I tried to cache in on all this pacing I had done. I started paddling harder and gaining on two of the kayaks in front of me. The third one also picked up the pace and beat all of us to the finish line. As we approached the beach one of those large southern swells rose up and started pounding the shore. The two guys in front of me stopped and decided to wait for a calmer window to land. I figured this was what all my surf practice was for and went for it.

I caught the third or fourth wave in the set figuring the ones in front would pile up a cushion of water on the beach for me and also hoping the largest waves were already past. My wave was plenty big and it rose up steeply as it broke behind me. I had to lean way back in the kayak to keep the bow from pearling in front of the wave. The wave broke violently around me and shoved me forward. I was unable to hold onto it and felt the boat broaching to the right. No problem, I whipped my paddle around into a brace on the right and shifted my balance to raise the left edge. The broken wave held onto my boat and I was side surfing to shore in a wild bucking bronco ride. But my boat kept rotating and it slipped backwards over the waterfall at the edge of the wave. This is a problem, I have never been very good at surfing backwards. The usual thing happened, I edged or braced the wrong way and the wave flipped me over. I rolled right back up and found myself behind the wave. Another smaller one came in and I rode that one the rest of the way onto the beach. The race rules require dragging your boat up the beach to cross the finish line and I used the last of my saved strength to sprint it.

I came in 11th place. Although I have placed closer to first in the past, this year there was a huge number of kayakers racing, over thirty at the start. So 11th place is pretty good. My friend Don Flemming once said that if I keep moving up in the ranks every year like this then one day I'll win this race! There's no hope for that now, since this is the last Sea Gypsy Race ever. Michael Powers is tired of managing the race and says this is enough. However, there was one glimmer of hope: Michael says that there were several people interested in doing a similar race again next year in the same location. It may no longer be called the Sea Gypsy Race, but it may still happen again!

All text and images Copyright © 2005 by Mike Higgins / contact