FakeOut

It was windy. Even for here it was really windy.

MY ALARM WENT OFF at 7 a.m., but I wasn’t there to hear it. I’d been up for hours, moving restlessly about the house, loading my van, making a breakfast that I could not eat. I looked out my kitchen window across the Columbia to the White Salmon Bridge—a sea of swirling turbulent white-caps. The wind had been whistling through the house since the wee hours, slamming doors and rattling blinds. It was windy. Even for here it was really windy.

Today was the day of the Blowout, more importantly, my first blowout. I’ve been dabbling in racing for a little over five years, mostly in the Bay Area, a couple of national events, nothing to brag about. I’d heard of the Blowout for years, heard the stories: 17 miles of hell, people breaking equipment, breaking ribs, breaking their ankles, dragging themselves to shore through thickets of blackberry thorns and poison oak, only to reach Interstate 84, where motorists whizz by with gaping looks at the bleeding, neoprene-clad unfortunate. Blowout victims have been known to shlogg to the point of total dehydration, only to be blown off the water minutes later.

I had been in a patrol boat last year, up at Mitchell Point, taking every fifth wave over the bow, bilge pumps running non-stop and not keeping up, my paramedic crew pale and nervous (and near mutiny) when we spotted the first windsurfer—Dale Cook, on his way to his fifth victory in six attempts. Just as I recognized the sailor, he disappeared into a blur of liquid smoke, his rig, and body and board tumbling in a protracted, high-speed wipeout, the kind that makes you cringe. The kind that when you come up for air, assuming you do, you float for a while and take inventory: Conscious? Check. Arms and legs still attached? Check, etc. until you are ready to mount the beast again. That wipeout cost Dale a spot in history. He was seconds away from summiting the Everest of the Blowout—breaking the one-hour barrier. He still won, but his time of 1:00:20 was twenty seconds short of windsurfing legend.

I was thinking about Dale as I crossed the Hood River Bridge on my way to Stevenson, to the start. That kind of crash would put a normal human like me in the hospital—if I was lucky enough to get there. And this year it was even windier. Windy enough to peel the paint off the Canadian Winnebago in front of me.

“Okay, we’re not going for a win here,” I told myself. “This is about survival. We want to finish, that’s all. Just finish. We can talk about placing next year…”

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As I drove by the Hatchery someone pulled off the biggest push-loop I’ve ever seen. Jesse Brown. The pros were all in town for the freestyle event. I was so tempted just to blow off the race, pull into the Hatch where my buddies were on 3.5s and having a blast. Rig my smallest sail and have FUN.

I kept driving. Swell City. People on gear so small they had more mast sticking out the top of the sail than in it. On to the Narrows. Liquid smoke everywhere. Swirling, angry micro-bursts dancing about, sending spray straight up, then sideways. Sailing into one of those is like having Satan grab your mast and stir you like paint in a bucket. My mouth went totally dry.

“Okay, 4.5,” I said to the empty van. “The biggest thing I’m going to let myself rig is a 4.5.”

I started humming a little tune: “Four-point-five, to survive, gonna get to Hood River, still alive…”

When I pulled into the start area at Bob’s beach in Stevenson the river looked like a tamed monster. There were whitecaps, but they were barely discernible in the mid-morning glare. I could easily hold down a 7.5 race sail in those conditions.

“Don’t be fooled,” I told myself. “Remember what you saw in the Narrows. Rig for the conditions here and you’ll never make it.”

I almost had a bit of luck when I went to register. I had been assured the night before that there were plenty of spots left, I could register on site in the morning. I found out that I was 17th on the waiting list, no way was I getting in. This gave a moment of relief, then total let-down. All that adrenaline, the mental preparation, for nothing? Then it was announced that everybody on the waiting list was in—they had lots of no-shows. When I thought about how windy it had been in Hood River, this was actually not surprising. The will to live remains strong in normal people.

During the skippers’ meeting, I edged my way next to Dale. I knew he wouldn’t tell me what size sail he was going to use.

“What size are you going to use?” I whispered. “C’mon dude, you KNOW I’m no threat, just TELL me—what difference could it possibly make?”

I think he actually had pity on me.

“Six-0. Don’t say a word.”

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I didn’t, but I promptly went and rigged my 5.0, figuring a one-meter margin for safety was about appropriate.

When I hit the water I caught a puff and actually planed out of the footstraps for a while. This was reassuring.

“Okay, no problem,” I told myself. “Almost planing here is what I want. As soon as I hit that wind line I’ll be able to barely plane downwind—perfect until I get to the crazy stuff.”

Unfortunately, the aforesaid windline never materialized. At least not for me. As the rabbit-start boat went by I sank to my knees in the starfish-shlogg position. There was no wind at all, it died the minute I got to the middle of the river. When I sank to my butt I knew it was over. My 90-liter slalom board wasn’t going to float me down to Viento, which is where the wind had retreated to. When I fell in, there was not enough wind to fly the sail, let alone waterstart. I watched the fleet bob down river, all on floatier boards (D’oh!) and/or larger sails. After a few unsuccessful attempts at uphauling, I started swimming for shore.

After a few minutes of side-stroke, towing my gear, I realized that I would probably hit the Bonneville Dam before I made it back to Washington. I was quickly about a half-mile upwind of the start. It dawned on me that I had never actually crossed the starting line, and was not likely to at this point. More importantly, I was looking out for barges—I didn’t want to be turned to diced ham this early in the morning.

“You want to keep trying there, or have you had enough?” came from the patrol guy on an approaching Sea-Doo. I knew that voice, oh god! Rick Bruner from Windsport Magazine! Nowhere to hide, I was never going to live this down.

“Hi Rick, got a rope on that thing?”

As I was being towed in (after more than a few chuckles) I heard Rick call over the radio “Yeah, I’ve got race jersey number 68, he’s retiring, out of the race.”

The reply was almost poetic. “Rodger that, 68 okay, he’s the first one…”

The first one. I was dead last in a race of 140 sailors, a race I lost without even starting. I started laughing so hard I swallowed a major portion of the Columbia.

“Okay, it’s a good start,” I said to myself. “Next year can only get better.”

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FROM LAST TO FIRST: Here’s Bruce Peterson’s account of what it was like to actually WIN the race, as plucked from his post on rec.windsurfing:

The early morning winds were 30-35 from Hood River to Home Valley, which had all the competitors wary of a pending wind thumping. Lots of 4.5 to 5.5 sails rigged prior to the start. The wind teased in at 15-20 at Stevenson all morning and looked set to build before the 10:45 am scheduled start time. The general consensus was that you were going to have to milk it off the start and then hang on for your life. I rigged a 6.0 NX2 on my 9’0” Roberts slalom board. At the other end of the beach, Dale Cook rigged the same sail on his 8’10”.

This year the windsurfers started 15 minutes ahead of the kiters to reduce start line congestion, tangles, and tempers. The field was limited for liability and safety reasons to 140 competitors and was split roughly 60/40 windsurfers and kites.

Just minutes before the start the wind started to crap out. I did a last second sail change to 6.6 and just made it on the water for the start. The first few reaches were really light and aerobic. Lots of pumping and ooching but not getting into the footstraps—full park mode after every jibe. Dale Cook and Jace Panebianco bust out the early lead while I struggle to get out of my parking lot. Seeing Dale a half mile ahead in the first minute of the race had me thinking about racing for 2nd place for the sixth year in a row. Fortunes turned on the next reach as Dale and Jace lose the breeze and I find a good puff on the other side of the river that sends me rocketing past them.

The breeze I hooked into turns out to be the lucky puff of the day and apparently the last good ride up the river. Fifteen minutes later I have a five-mile lead and can’t see anyone behind me. I’m thinking Dale has broken his mast trying to pump too hard (turns out Jace did that).

I find the usual Blowout conditions prevail from Home Valley onwards. Big wind into the narrows; glory puff through the narrows (sailing port tack TOWARDS the Oregon shore); pick-a-puff out the narrows; gusts from above at Viento; then a steady cruise down the corridor.

By the halfway point at tunnels, I can see Cory Roeseler’s big orange 13.0-meter kite on the horizon chasing up behind me. The kites are faster straight downwind (no need to reach on angles) and I know that Cory’s got me hooked and is reeling me in.

By Swell City, the wind is backing and the sailors at the Hatchery on their 3.5 and 4.0s are all upright and not moving too fast. Still enough wind to boogie through on the flat water opposite crowds.

I got to the finish line first at 1:09:33. Cory is rounding Wells Island as I finish and comes in a few minutes later. Having started 15 minutes after me Cory has clearly won on elapsed time, or has he? Brain fade takes over and Cory fails to pass through the finish line (duh!), as does the second kiter to the finish area–Jim Bison.

Realizing his mistake after he lands his kite, Cory wads up his kit and runs up the beach to swim through the finish line. The third kiter down the river, Chris Gilbert, is the first to actually pass through the finish line at 1:02:51.

Out on the river, the wind has backed way down. Twenty kites finish before Dale Cook (five-time Blowout champ) arrives 42 minutes later at 1:51:53. The war stories begin. My glory puff at Home Valley was the last gust of a dying breeze. The river is littered with bobbing windsurfers. Dale claims schlogging for two miles, unable to get planing. Two-thirds of the windsurfers retire due to a lack of wind.

Third place finish is Jose Gruart sailing a Mistral Superlight and North 7.5 Katana. Jonny Davies and Tom Bell finish 11th and 15th on Windsurfer One-Designs.

By 2:00 pm the wind is back up and pumping. A few more diehards come in with the replenished breeze.

True to form, the Blowout lives on as a crazy race. — Bruce Peterson

I met up with Bruce after driving to the finish line to turn in my jersey (they don’t even let you keep the thing). “Hey Bruce, I got first!” I shouted from across the parking lot. He looked confused for a second like he was looking at an escaped mental patient. “To retire!” I explained. At least, I was able to give somebody else a laugh.

Mr. Will Harper’s ego is in stable condition and recovering nicely after some emergency therapy sessions. Bruce Peterson is the owner and lead designer for Sailworks R&D. He will be lording his victory over his protegé and employee Dale Cook every day until next year.

by Will Harper, Bruce Peterson

Mr. Will Harper’s ego is in stable condition and recovering nicely after some emergency therapy sessions. Bruce Peterson is the owner and lead designer for Sailworks R&D. He will be lording his victory over his protegé and employee Dale Cook every day until next year.

photos by John Chao

Publisher / Editor is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines

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