So what is it like to sit in a boat about as wide as your butt and go as fast as you can? I’m glad you asked because I just found out.
Learning to be an Expert at Tandem Surf Ski
Every time I think I’m done with kayaking, the sport keeps pulling me back in. I met Nik a couple months ago. He’s a national champion in sprint para-canoe and is currently training for the 2020 Olympics.
On my way back from Montana, he texts me, “Want to race tandem in a surf ski?” I had no idea what a surf ski was vs. the kayaks he races, but I said, “Sure! Why not?”
We met up at Lake Lanier a couple of days later and I got my first lesson. What is immediately apparent is that these boats are TIPPY. Getting in and out of them takes finesse. As the non-professional athlete, I got to sit in the back, watch Nik and try to stay in sync.
The second thing I noticed is that their paddles are NOT whitewater paddles. They are way more grabby. The combination of the narrow boat and grabby paddle means you can go forward fast, but you can also tip over easily if you apply too much power before the boat is ready.
Once in the boat, we paddled around and tried to figure out a stroke rate I could hold for a 1000-meter and a 200-meter race. Having not kayaked in a while, my arms were burning after just a few minutes. Hmmm… This was a bit discouraging.
Next, we practiced the start. Nik went through the announcer protocol and how we would begin with two quick strokes starting on the left, and then bigger strokes until the boat was up to speed. This came easily to me, so next was goofing off with some surfing.
Nik paddled us around the lake looking for boats with a wake. I was a weee bit nervous because nothing in whitewater applied. You stroke in the trough of a wave, not the peak, you lean into the wave, not away from it. A couple of minutes later we were riding to shore being pushed by a wave and the water was coming up over the boat. I squealed like a squealy thing.
My race training concluded with one more paddle at the lake and watching a YouTube video. You can learn anything on YouTube, right? I was now a tandem surf ski expert – I hoped.
The day before race day I saw our race schedule. It was the 1,000 meter that I was most dreading. When I looked at the roster a bit closer, I realized we were racing in the Men’s Master division. There weren’t any other mixed teams. Hun? Nik later told me he would rather we earn a podium spot than have one by default. Yikes. He was confident, so me and my weak arms went with it.
We arrived at Lake Lanier Olympic park, got boats and paddles ready, then waited. About 20 minutes before our race we boarded our vessel and headed out behind the start line to warm up. This is where things got fun.
We went through a couple of practice starts and I decided to play around with how much power I put into the first two strokes. Needless to say, I came very close to flipping us before the race even started. Ooops.
I told Nik I was trying something new, and he replied in a very stern, serious voice (which I haven’t stopped teasing him about), “Now is not the time for that!” Ummmm. Ok!
As the other racers came back to warm up, we started the pre-race banter. I let them all know they needed to get ready to be beaten by a girl. It would be embarrassing but they would survive. I told them Nik brought in a ringer and it was me. After a few more minutes of banter, it was time to line up.
Nik asked if I was nervous. Here is where whitewater kayaking prepared me. I thought I’m not going to hit my head on a rock. I’m not going to get stuck in a hydraulic. There is a low chance that I’m going to die in a sieve or undercut. At worse, we tip over because I get over-zealous and it’s embarrassing. I’m good with these odds. “No, not nervous,” I said.
When the announcer said go, I didn’t hear him so Nik got us started and I followed in as soon as I could. Within the first 100 meters, we had a bobble of some sort. The boat tipped quickly and both Nik and I responded with a brace. The great thing about whitewater kayaking is you learn to keep your hips loose (Elvis in the Pelvis) and respond quickly when the boat moves in a way you aren’t expecting.
I noticed one boat taking off ahead of us, but that was it. We were in second. From that point I settled in, focused on the techniques I learned in the YouTube video and tried to keep up with Nik. He would call out distances and pick-ups when he wanted us to speed up. I just held on.
Neck and Neck Finish
About 100 meters from the end I could see another boat gaining on us. I yelled to Nik we needed to pick it up and started to call out strokes so he knew what I could hold. We truly pushed as hard as we could, with us and the boat next to us drifting toward each other in our lanes.
The finish was too close to call. After the line, I couldn’t move my arms. Nik looked tired as well but paddled us around gently. The boat to our left said we beat them, and they were right. Later the results showed we won by half a second. What a great feeling.
Our second race of 200 meters was much smoother. Our start was flawless. We had no bobbles and we took second by a long stretch. I still yelled at Nik to finish strong at the end – because, I mean, how often do you get a chance to back seat drive to a national champion?
I’m sure there will be more races in the future – tandem, and maybe individual. I sat in an actual sprint kayak rather than a surf ski a few days later and was shocked at how much MORE tippy it was. These people might as well race on toothpicks. Maybe I’ll see if I can get a few ladies to join me while I’m at it.
The random collection of adventures continues…