“We didn’t lose the game. We just ran out of time.” That was how Vince Lombardi saw it after a particularly painful result for the Green Bay Packers back in the early 1960’s. It’s a way of looking at defeat and pulling some kind of victory out of it, something other than what was intended.
I know a little about this. The Seventy48 wrapped up a week ago and with it, the one and only voyage of the Palo de Basura, the SUP that I made out of marine debris specifically for this race. It did fairly well, for a pile of garbage, but I was not able to finish, although I came achingly close. Some things went well and others went poorly; as expected, I suppose, but when it all came down to decision time, I ended up stopping early.
The race started well. There was a little headwind so I stayed in close to the Tacoma shoreline, as planned. Most of the other racers took a fairly straight route across the bay toward Vashon Island, but I figured I would use whatever relief I could get from the terrain as long as the wind was against me. I started across when I got to Point Ruston and made it to the shore at Point Dalco just as it got dark. The 15-mile push up Colvos Passage began here and would last most of the night.
I actually felt pretty good when I got to Blake Island. One-third of the total distance gone, I still felt strong and the sun was just about to come up. To this point, everything had gone according to pre-race planning and I had no reason to think it wouldn’t continue. The board was getting heavier as the time went on, with water getting into the styrofoam, filling in the gaps between the pellets. I knew it would happen so I wasn’t worried, but the added weight did start to take its toll as I continued.
I rode the strong ebb to Fay Bainbridge Park, arriving about 11:00am, 16 hours in and already at the halfway point. I was tired but I had a few hours rest ahead of me as the tide came back in and I was looking forward to a nap in the driftlogs somewhere. As I struggled to carry the board up to a higher part of the beach, a man came over and offered to help. I accepted, and we carried it together for a hundred feet or so. I thought we were done, or at least done for the moment, but he announced that this spot was not acceptable and that I needed to get it farther up the shoreline. With that, he picked it up by himself and started up. I meekly followed, mostly astonished at how strong he was, and as he put it down, I wasn’t able to anticipate what came next. He set the board down on its side and then let it drop to the sand and as it did, I heard a sickening crack as the weight of the board snapped the fin.
He was a good guy who was just trying to help. The fact of it all now was that I would have to paddle from here on as if it were a sea kayak. Without the fin, I couldn’t paddle a straight line. I left Fay Bainbridge after a short, fitful nap and started across the 3-mile stretch toward Indianola. Somewhere in here was where the wind got turned up another notch and it didn’t really stop from this point onward. Kneeling and sitting, changing position often on the uncomfortable deck, I made it to Kingston and relished the half-mile along the cliffs north of the harbor where the wind couldn’t touch me.
Once around the point, however, the full force of the north wind punched me in the face. I worked hard on tired arms to make it another mile, pulling up on a gravel beach in a gale at 11:00pm. I was tired and cold, but nothing like I would be later.
I got up at 2:30am to a rolling sea but reduced wind. I put on the water quickly and had a productive couple of hours before sunrise, covering the distance to Point No Point before the sky got light. It was obvious that the weather was changing. The sunny skies of the past couple days had given way to a gray, lumpy top with scudding clouds showing the forces working at altitude. As I rounded Point No Point, the wind dialed up to a force I hadn’t experienced yet. It took me almost an hour to scratch my way through the shattered waves to Hansville, still close to schedule in spite of it all.
When I stepped on shore, when I stopped the high-exertion paddling I had been working for the past hour, I instantly got cold. I had been down in the waves on what was essentially a low-quality kayak, feeling the full force of every splash. I was wearing a drysuit but I was still soaked, from sweat or water, it didn’t matter. My hands were bone-white and I was shivering uncontrollably. I have been hypothermic before, but it has been a long time and this was as bad as I ever remember. My arms started to contract with the cold, putting me in a classic T-Rex pose as my shivering increased and my teeth chattered like Morse Code. The wind was wailing just offshore, with whitecaps building all the way across the bay toward the Port Townsend Canal and the reports from Port Townsend called for the wind to continue, building to a gale as the morning turned to afternoon. I was done.
I got warm eventually. Jillian met me in Hansville and we drove to Port Townsend to return the tracker and get a little sleep. We left the board, all 300 pounds of it, at the beach in Hansville for pickup the next day on our way home. After a nap, I went to the Ruckus to see the winners get their due and to have a few beers in the sun. (Still windy, though.) The next morning at 5:00am, we traipsed back down to town to watch the Race to Alaska start as the sun was rising. Everything was great except the part about not finishing.
The sting of the DNF will ease in time and I know I made the only decision I could have made under those circumstances. I hope the message about plastic in the ocean wasn’t completely lost in the drama of the race and I am pleased overall with the way the preparations paid off, even if the result was not the one I wanted. I had a lot of people pulling for me; I could feel all of that positive energy during the paddle and I am grateful for all who sent me an encouraging word. I’m keeping the fin as a souvenir. Palo de Basura, on the other hand, is for sale. Only used once, no reasonable offer refused.
I didn’t lose. I just ran out of time.