Sea Gypsy Race, May 4th 2003.

Every year I intend to participate in the annual Sea Gypsy race in Half Moon Bay. This is an “extreme conditions sea kayak race” put on by the Tsunami Rangers once a year. The first time I participated I came in dead last but proud of it. The second time I came in 11th place out of around 17 people. A friend of mine suggested that if I keep moving up in the ranks like this, I will soon be in first place! I’m actually not interested in the race and do this one because it involves rock gardening and waves. And because the conditions are extreme, just completing the race course is an accomplishment to be proud of.

Kate DesLauriers and I drove down to Pillar Point the day before the Sea Gypsy Race to look over the course a little this year. We launched from inside Princeton Harbor and paddled out into Half Moon Bay and down to Miramar where the race will start and end. The swell was a little larger than I would have liked for the race and probably the largest swell that Kate had ever paddled in. I was nervous about the beach but determined to practice for the race so I went in for a landing at Miramar and fought my way back out through the surf. It took me three tries to get back out to where Kate was waiting for me at sea.

We ran into John Somers and Fred Cooper who had launched earlier and checked out the north end of the race course. They went way too far north, and landed on the wrong beach. It sounded like they went to Montara Beach, where the race had started three years ago, but ever since then it has been a round trip out of Miramar and back. I pumped John with questions about getting through the reef at Pillar Point. Kate and I did not have time to go check that area out ourselves.

The next morning we all met again at the start of the race. John and Fred had decided not to paddle in the race! The racers were drawn into a circle where Steven Littlebear blessed us with salt water. I had an icon of Saint Peter the Aleut in the pocket of my dry-top and took it out to get it blessed.

Apparently there had been some excitement the year before when one of the racers had fallen out of his boat, been unable to get back in, become hypothermic and had to be taken to the hospital. So the Rangers made a change in the race course to try to weed out some of the less experienced paddlers. This year we had to paddle out through the surf and around John Lull waiting just outside the impact zone. We had to turn back and land long enough to scoop up a handful of sand. Then we had to paddle across the surf in front of a rocky area to get around a buoy before we could finally leave the surf zone and start across Half Moon Bay. The thought was that the less experienced paddlers would crash and bail out of the race close to shore where it would be easier to rescue them.

In a previous year I waited after the start of the race for the rest of the boaters to finish crashing and get out of my way. This year I foolishly decided to launch early when there were still a lot of boats in front of me in the surf. John had parked his referee boat behind a spot where the breaking waves rose up the largest, probably on purpose. Most of the racers decided to cut to the right to avoid the waves and then left at the last moment to make the required turn around the other side of John’s boat. But as I headed out through the surf one of the racers fell out of his long sit-on-top racing boat and I had to start turning left to avoid him. At one point his boat surfed out of control away from him and forced me to turn farther left. This positioned me sideways to the waves and heading into the rough spot I had intended to avoid. A large wave rose up and crashed over me, surfing me sideways and upside down back towards shore.

I positioned for a roll and had a little trouble with my paddle at first. Something seemed to be pinning it against the side of my kayak. So I turned around and rolled up on the other side. To my surprise, the owner of the out-of-control boat was swimming in the water next to me. He immediately started apologizing and asking me if I was all right. At first I figured that he thought being upside down was traumatic for me and I replied, “Of course I’m all right!” Why wouldn’t I be? Then I turned my boat straight out to sea and managed to make it over the waves on the second try. As I approached John in the referee boat my lips started to hurt. I touched my face and my fingers came away bloody. Apparently I had run into that guy or his boat while I was underwater and had not felt the impact at all! To this day I still don’t know what really happened and if I hit that guy or his boat or if he hit me. He was unable to get through the surf, gave up and went home before the race finished so I was never able to talk to him about it.

As I rounded John’s boat I asked him what my face looked like and told him I had bumped into another boat. He replied, “It’s bleeding just a little” so I continued the race. I turned and surfed back toward shore. I fumbled a wave close to shore in very shallow water and had the wave throw my boat over on its side. Rather than fight it I tucked, rolled under the boat and came back up on the other side. The water was so shallow that I think my head and shoulders bumped the sandy bottom. I slid up on shore, scooped a handful of sand, and backed out into the surf again. Sidling through the surf to get to the second turn in the race was easy, since the waves were smaller there and there weren’t as many boats in the way any more.

As I paddled the long straightaway across Half Moon Bay my lip swelled up as I considered my strategy. Most of the boats were cutting close to shore at Pillar Point. The waves were breaking across the reef in large steep white breakers. I imagined that these would push me back several times before I could get through them and waste more time than going the long way around. I watched a double kayak disappear into the reef and come out a hundred meters farther ahead of me because they took the shortcut. Another boat just in front of me took an even more conservative route around the reef than I, and ended up a hundred meters behind me.

The Race Rules require landing on the sandy beach just north of Pillar Point. As I headed towards this I met Don “ducttape” Barch heading back already. I asked him “Is there a good place to land around here?” and he suggested landing on the far side of a rocky formation in the middle of the beach. Most people, he told me, were turning into the beach too soon and landing at a spot that was difficult to get back out of. The place Don recommended was exactly the place I had landed two years ago. The Race Rules also require that you land long enough to scoop up a handful of sand before launching again, but you don’t have to get out of your boat. So the usual trick is to slide just close enough to reach the bottom, then back out again. But as I surfed into my landing a huge wave rose up behind me, broke and side surfed me way up the steep sandy beach. It left me high and dry there, so I took the time to turn my boat around to face the waves on my way back out. The trip back out through the surf was uneventful.

Both the double that was in front of me and the guy behind me had turned in and landed before me at the spot Don had discouraged me from landing at. As I went out I saw the guy with the single on the beach out of his boat. I wondered if he had exited his boat trying to get out through the surf. The two guys in the double also had trouble in the surf and came out so late that I almost caught up with them again. My strategy was this: Fighting your way out over breakers on the reef is difficult, but surfing back over the reef with the waves is fun. I went the long way around on the way out but planned to take the shortcut on the way back. To my surprise the two guys in the double did not turn into the shortcut but went the long way around the reef! I surfed over the reef with no problems and got so far ahead that I never saw the double again until after I landed! Strategy and local knowledge wins out over having two engines in your boat!

I paddled hard trying to catch up to one boat I could see ahead of me. He slowly pulled farther ahead of me despite my best efforts. But then when he got to the surf he was knocked over by a wave and exited his boat! By surfing in through the waves without falling over I was almost able to catch up with him. But he still dragged his boat across the finish line before me, putting me in 9th place. However, I’m still moving up in the ranks from 11th place last time. Perhaps I’ll do even better next year!

At the party afterwards my swollen lip was a big hit. I had managed to hit my face in about the same place that I had been injured on the American River, and the same long-suffering tooth had been cracked again. So I took myself to my dentist to check it out and to my doctor to look for other problems. They found a small fracture in one of my facial bones and put me on antibiotics for 10 days. Maybe next year I should get a face grill to mount across the front of my helmet.

All text and images Copyright © 2003 by Mike Higgins / contact