The following race report is filed by Bruce Barry, a long-time West Coast SUP racer and downwinder, windsurfer and foiler who currently resides in the Seattle area of the USA SUP Northwest Region.
2022 SIC Gorge Challenge Downwind Race – The Agony and the Ecstasy
First questions first: how windy was it and how did it compare to “big” gorge days? It was windy enough and utterly beyond most forecasts. In fact with all the forecast models available none really caught the day prior to the race (windy Friday) and even Saturday morning between the forecasts and the morning gradients I was not expecting the level of wind we had for the race. At the skippers meeting I was telling people to expect solid 20’s with gusts in the 30’s, instead we had solid 30’s with a few qusts to 40. Forecasts aside, the visuals on the drive from Hood River to Viento dispelled any doubt, it was going to be windy.
Taking a detailed look at the wind graphs from Viento, Swell City/Hatchery, and the Event Site we could summarize by saying that during race time it was a fairly consistent 30mph with a few gusts to 40. And of course there were points along the course with some fairly big holes from the bit of SW cant to the wind and I found two of them by staying closer to the Oregon side hoping for current relief. From a race day standpoint it probably was the windiest of the Naish/SIC series of the 11 races so far, the first race oh so many years ago was also quite windy at the start but it fizzled by the end.
From a “big” day standpoint it was nowhere near the intensity of the 2018 Gorge Downwind Champs nor was it anything remotely like I would consider a “big” day based on my years of experience on the river. For me a pretty big day is when I chose to wear a true life jacket, not the inflatable type. A big day is both life jacket and helmet. There have been a few of those. So for those with a fair amount of skill the 30ish average with a few gusts to 40 was just setting the table for a great ride. 40 gusting 50 plus begins to be a somewhat sobering experience. Kind of fun, but with a lot of potential for disaster.
That being said, the wind velocity did pose some interesting challenges for many. First off, the tool underfoot. The problem with the course is that it has significant and generally predictable changes in bumpiness and waves along the course that favor very different board types. While the first mile off Viento can be quite windy, the water is generally flatter and favors a more race (all-water not flat water) oriented board- SIC RS/Allstar/NSP Carolina, etc. With the amount of wind we had during the race miles 2-6 generally favored more downwind specific boards like the SIC Bullet, etc., – my weird little custom SIC DW 14 absolutely reveled over this part of the course and was quite fast, just up to the last ¾ of a mile where the bumps subsided a bit favoring flatter rockered all-water type race boards. I talked to several people on Allstars and similar who got to take a lot of water breaks mid course. Simply put, the narrower or fatter tailed boards all water race boards either lost just a bit of stability or had too much power off the tail leading to river enforced cooldowns. But this is a common problem with this race – choosing DW specific or race board. Because of space constraints my son-in-law had to choose just one board for his trip to Hood River, and based on my recommendation Wednesday with it looking like a potentially very light air race brought his Allstar rather than his DW specific SIC Bullet. Way to go dad -hahahaha. In any event, a 10-20 mph forecast is going to favor all-water race boards of various widths. And narrower will always be faster, as long as you can stay on top. Even with the wind conditions for this race the more talented folks on the all-water boards were a bit quicker overall. Spencer Lazzar was first in the open on a 14x21.5 SIC RS, I was 7th overall in the open and likely the first in on a true DW board as I know that at least 4 of the 6 people ahead of me were on all-water boards. Fins themselves are another perspective and I keep being surprised by the difference in DW performance between the pretty serviceable stock fins on my SIC’s and the stability and controlled afforded by an aftermarket addition like the Black Project Maliko. Huge difference, and the faster you are going and the more mixed up the chop and swell conditions the more noticeable it becomes.
As just noted, over and above the board choice is the level of experience. The river can be fairly unforgiving for the unprepared or unskilled. There were lots of strong paddlers who did not have the best race placement this year based on board use, but they still got down the river just fine with some screaming fast drops although at times a bit wet. There were others that despite the very obvious conditions, may have made a better call by simply letting this one go by and catching the next race in conditions better suited to their abilities. Again, it was very obvious from the beach that this would be a challenge for the lessor skilled.
So to summarize, from a statistical standpoint and looking just at gorge race days, it was pretty windy. An absolute blast for some and a real problem for others. The Agony and The Ecstasy. Somehow I don’t think I can claim coming up with that particular wording.
Next up for those interested: what was the fastest line down the river? Golly gee but I give on that one, except for the last ¾ mile. With the strong current many including me seemed to think the Oregon side was favored and I trended that way. Bob Rueter trended a bit further inside of me towards Oregon and did great for awhile but slowly faded back, so I think I was probably in a bit more wind closer to the middle which overcame the current advantage. A bit east of Mitchell Point life was looking good for me as I couldn’t see any green shirts ahead of me, I could no longer hear Spencer hooting and hollering so I assumed I had pulled ahead, and Marius Lina and I kept trading places – anytime I can even see Marius in a race means I am doing well. But Spencer and Gregg Leion trended middle to slightly Washington and while I thought I was clear ahead of both I was stunned at the mid channel red buoy to find them on my left peripheral vision coming up on the Washington side and slowly working ahead as I was caught in a lull. Yes Virginia, for the unlucky there were lulls to be found. Both got well ahead of me at Split Rocks/Ruthton Point, but then on the Wells Island expressway I ducked pretty tight into Oregon with a direct line from Split Rocks to Wells Island and my little needle nose board settled nicely into the shallows and short waves and I had my fastest miles of the race on this current reduced stretch. By the east end of Wells Island I had caught up to Gregg who had stayed just a bit more Washington side, and was literally drafting him as we entered the flats east of Wells. At which point I made a tactical decision based on my earlier in the week runs that proved wrong by going deep inside the Wells kimchee bowl hoping to ride the usually blasting SW winds out to the finish line. Except I paddled straight into a lull. Gregg and Marius got safely ahead and such is racing. So sometimes the Oregon side was faster and sometimes the middle was faster. Learned a lot there, right on. And speaking of conundrums we follow below……
And no question about what the best line was can be safely answered without understanding what in the world happened with the Pro Men and Pro Women, and Open Women’s groups that started 30 and then 20 minutes ahead of the Open Men. Comparing times, the first 14 men in the Open BEAT CONNOR BAXTER??? And all the Pro Women finished in an impossible less than 40 minutes which has to be a Race Committee error. But the fastest Open Women who started with the Pro Women finished in a likewise hard to believe WAY LONGER time than almost all of the men. Neither the pictures nor the wind graphs give much of a clue. Did these folks go around BOUY 32 and then have a nasty beam on paddle for 1 mile? Was the Race Committee timing somehow off but in different directions for these 3 groups? For the Open Men – I know the timing was right as it was within a minute of what my watch recorded. Could the current have changed that drastically in 30 minutes. Was there a huge mid river lull that the recording stations didn’t capture? I would love someone to fill me in. I will say that just prior to the Mens Open start I was at the east pin end and heard the starter remark that the safety boat was saying the Pro Men were getting the biggest waves they had ever seen in the history of this race. Quite the mystery here. But I am all ears to theories.
So another great DW race is history, and this time with the added dimensions of all the different foiling craft and boats. Great racing. May the force be with you.
Bruce Barry 7/27/22
A few pics follow.
The first below shows me 1 second from Ecstasy. Joel Yang on the safety/photo boat caught me balanced on the tip of a wave, figuring out my line, and one single stroke away from dropping into the biggest bomb of my race. You can kind of get an idea of the elevation by simply looking at the much lower water level behind me.
Next up is a good view of my custom 14x24 SIC. 22#, around 225 liters of flotation, no flotation in the forward third of the board, and fairly flat with the rocker achieved simply by shaving foam off the forward bottom. This board is an absolute rocket if you can keep the nose skimming the water ahead for 14’ of drive and then moving back quickly (I mean really quickly) to avoid playing lawn darts on the drop in. Of course in the flats as this shows it rapidly becomes a 12’6” or so, whatever competitive gains I make need to happen before the flats at the E end of Wells Island.
Finally, the day after. Viento on Sunday in 10mph winds. Even in light air another very addicting kind of rush.