I have resolved to write down the first day of our Baja Travesia Race. It might be a bit long and there are no pictures because our camera is at the bottom of the pacific. I am writing it down because it is helpful for me to understand what went right and what went wrong. Hopefully, I have learned from this experience and those who read this might learn as well. I encourage any additions, corrections, or clarifications. Also, the headings may become cumbersome and a drawing could help.
I take paddling seriously. I live in the PNW and due to the cold water; any paddling in open water can turn deadly. I am not exactly sure why I let my guard down for this race. Maybe it was the warm temperatures or the fact that the water was glass last year. In any event, no serious piece of emergency gear was required and I didn’t bother to bring flares of a waterproof VHF radio like I would around home in more favorable conditions. The basic required emergency gear was a whistle and “family style walkie talkie”.
After the surf entry/exit testing the day before the race we noticed that our rear hatch had some water in it. It was a red flag that was not noticed at the time. For big water in rough conditions, it is recommended that inflatable bladders be placed in hatches and compartments. This ensures that water taken on is limited and the boat will always remain buoyant with the cockpit cowling above the waterline. Unfortunately we did not take action to remedy this situation.
These gear issues would not prove to be catastrophic but in the end they would effectively limit out choices at critical points.
We were configured with RVG in the back, JVG in the middle and myself upfront. We chose this setup because RVG is the heaviest and should be in the back. He steers and keeps a visual of everything around us and calls out instruction from his vantage. I paddle a great deal and would focus on power and cadence. My focus is the 5 to 10 feet in front of the boat. JVG has great power to weight ratio and while paddling hard, she also focuses on keeping me steady.
The race started with a 1 kilometer paddle out of the harbor in calm water. We were paddling well. We had paddled so much together that this pace was easily sustainable compared to our training paces. By our conversations and feel, I could tell that the team was in a good shape at the pace. We were leading the pack and pulling away.
We were warned the day before that swells were predicted for up to 9 feet. As we rounded the jetty we immediately faced 3-4 foot swells and a wind off of our starboard quarter of about 10-20k. Our first checkpoint, CP, was the southern tip an island about 8 miles out in the ocean at a heading of WSW 247d true. The swell was from the NW 315d and the wind was from the NNW 337d. Also, there was a 2K southerly tidal drift. We opted for a heading of approximately W 270d to compensate for the above factors. This was approximately the northern tip of the island. It also allowed us to take the waves more frontally which is safer and efficient and we would spend some time approaching from the lee side of the island which was calmer. Our heading did ultimately give us a 247d course made good. However, the pack behind us opted for an unadjusted course of 247d. While we were putting distance on the field, we were also taking a more northerly route. If the pack continued their heading, they would need to make constant course corrections to the north while we started more to the north and drifted south toward the CP as we paddled.
I expected the crossing to take no more than 2 hrs, or 4 mph. I took us almost 3 hrs. During that time the swells had grown to 6 feet. At approximately 2hrs, we started pumping. Going through large waves in a 24ft kayak water naturally works through your skirt and into the cockpit. We were constantly blasted by waves as we moved forward. Being in the front, I would take them full on right over the top of me and could occasionally feel the water drain down my wetsuit and out my legs.
We had also noticed the day before that the bulkhead between the first and second cockpit wasn’t sealed at the bottom. This allowed water to pass between JVG and my cockpit. It also meant that JVG could effectively pump both of our compartments. At regular intervals JVG would crack the leeward side of her skirt, slide the pump in and empty our compartments while RVG and I kept it steady into the waves and wind. We attempted to have RVG pump but the boat would become too unstable when he ceased paddling.
I can tell you that waves come in sets. Three to four big ones would come through and then we would have a minute or two of small waves. Without speaking, we could all see the pattern and we knew what needed to be done. When the way was clear, I could feel the boat lunge forward as we all dug in hard.
When we got to the island, we rested near the southern tip in a sheltered cove. We had hoped to go ashore and pump the boat and check the hatches but the shore was covered with seals so we took turns pumping, eating and drinking as we floated in the cove. We knew that it was going to be a long day and eating whenever possible was imperative. We headed S about 200m to the southern tip of the island expecting to find the floating CP. It was nowhere to be seen. We assumed we just beat the race officials out to the island. We took a picture and headed off to the next CP.
Our heading was down the coast SE. As we cleared the southern tip of the island, we entered a confluence where the waves had grown to 9ft from the WNW and the wind, still from the NNW, had grown and was creating 1-2 ft swell across the larger swells. We had about a 3 to 4k open water crossing to a point of land. We were now almost running with the waves. About ¾ across, we dumped the kayak. We quickly sorted out the most efficient way to bail out the boat. First RVG and I would get the rear compartment while JVG worked up front. When the back was empty, the boat had enough buoyancy to keep the cowling above water and we could finish the front. We would do this 4 more times before the day was done.
I always paddle in a neoprene wetsuit. I get ridiculed and hot but a good farmer john and booties are your last defense against hypothermia. RVG had brought his neoprene but opted for tights and JVG had shorts and my paddling jacket. Since I had my wetsuit on, we would get JVG in the boat, followed by RVG, and I would get in last.
Going with the waves is much more unstable that going through them. I learned this from the small swells I encounter at home. In addition, our heading necessitated that we take them at an angle off the rear starboard quarter. If we just went with them, they would ultimately run us into the cliffs. All kayaks are designed to turn into waves. So the effect of these waves if taken at out heading would be to turn us perpendicular to the waves. So like everyone else, we would ford out to sea, and then take the line back toward shore. It was almost like tacking in a sailboat. Unlike everyone else, our boat was more instable because our rear compartment was slowly filling with water from the waves coming over the stern.
We would dump one more time before CP2 but got in and expected to be first only to find out that the course had been shortened, CP1 Eliminated, and we were now over 2 hours behind the leaders. This is something that we went over again and again. One of the race directors admitted that he did not check the conditions before the start of the race. After the start, the other RD went out in a powerboat, saw the conditions and told the “lead teams”, those on a more southerly heading, to just go to CP2. The other DART team told the RD that we were ahead and to the north. I was told that he looked for us but I am not sure how hard he looked. From my perspective, he had an obligation to account for every team and inform them of the change. Unfortunately, he had no water safety director and we didn’t see any of the promised safety boats. He was overwhelmed and undermanned. From his perspective I can only guess that he performed a risk assessment that placed us, a strong lead paddling team, at less risk than the under qualified teams that were already being picked up by boats and returned to the start.
Throughout the day, the swells were building. By the time we had pumped out the boat, ate and pushed off, we would be about 2.5 hrs behind the leaders. They would be finishing in less than an hour and we were just starting out into the teeth of the growing seas. Once again, when we checked our rear hatch, we found it was 1/3 full of water. Another red flag but the urge to catch up and get back in the race precluded common sense.
Soak this up. In the hours that followed, the real mud hit the fan. We happened to be at the right place at the right time and do what need to be done. I will finish the story later.