The final of the Iceberg series at Balmoral had been spruiked as closely contested series decider. Gary Hancock was vying for men’s 50-59 victory, Kimberly Flemming was chasing the same honours in women’s 40-49. Kate and I were up for the doubles category.
When I declined friday night drinks after work because I was racing for a series doubles win on Saturday morning, my workmates were suddenly interested in how this could be possible. I had to explain that although we’re paddling well together, we aren’t actually the fastest doubles team in the series. We’ve never placed better than a third. After three races we were leading the series doubles table because despite twenty teams starting across the series races, only two teams had raced more than once. The series table is decided by points awarded to pair of paddlers. We were in the lead because we’d turned up to more races with the same crew.
Our clubmates from the Sutherland Shire Canoe Club, Bob and Kristy were the second doubles team on the table. We regularly train and race with them and are pretty well matched. After the Stroke the Lion at Pittwater in July, we’d found ourselves in first and second place on the doubles table, separated by just three points. First place at Balmoral was always going to elude us, but bragging rights back in the Shire were definitely up for grabs.
We’ve been competing regularly since the the start of the year when both crews first formed. There’s been a steady escalation of faster boats and some close racing through club time trials, and the Vajda marathon series. We’d been hanging onto division 2 by our fingertips, while Bob and Kristy had been working their way through division 3 with successively faster times as they settled into a new double ski. In the harbour series, we’d been leading while they were coming to grips their new V10 Double and the margins were closing. In the Windsor marathon, we’d turned out in a new Carbonlology double ski and they’d beaten us across the line by three minutes over the 20km. They’d advanced to division 2 while we were the ones coming to grips with a new boat.
Going into the Balmoral, we were all focused on the weather and water conditions. Bob and Kristy are faster on flat water. We’ve always had an edge in rough conditions. Our new double was the big unknown. We’d switched from a big fat Fenn XT double, stable as they come, to a svelte Carbonology Viva II with a beam of just 44cm. We’d only raced it a couple of times and it had been a thoroughbred handful amongst the boat wash. Since the last race, we’d put in some serious training miles and hoped we were finally getting it under control.
Race day promised 4m swells off the coast but these weren’t having any impact on the course at Balmoral. The course was set over four 4km triangular laps with a final run to the beach. During the race, the cross winds on two legs had the biggest impact on the field. A bit of bounce, some shifting currents and some wind gusts to push on your bow throiugh the turns.
Our race priorities were clear. Stay in front of Bob and Kristy. Stay upright. Then worry about where we placed in the race. Once we got out on the water, we realised that the conditions favoured us. The new ski, which was twitchy at the start, soon settled down as we got over our own nerves. Then our focus turned to staying upright out of the corners and not buggering up our series position.
While we played it safe through the race, we worked hard and held our race position against the paddlers we normally race alongside and crossed the line in 15th place in 1h16m19s. Four other doubles had beaten us by as much as 11 minutes. We were the first mixed double to finish. Bob and Kristy finished 2m20s behind us in 22nd place overall, and the second mixed double crew.
At the series prize giving, our names were announced as the series winners with Bob and Kristy in second. As we went up to collect the medals, I felt like we were winning because other teams had defaulted. Amongst the onlookers were the four teams who had just beaten us across the line, how could we have won? Did they even see us behind them on the course? It was heartwarming to get a supportive cheer and a clap from the other paddlers and friends we’d raced against through the series.
We were not the fastest double crews in the series. David and Toby were so far ahead of us at Pittwater that I didn’t know they were in the race. We weren’t the fastest mixed crew. We’d been soundly beaten by Steve Newsome and Allison Roberts at Pittwater.
What we had done was turn up to more races, and with more time to reflect I’ve realised that wasn’t as simple as it sounds.
An account of the race at Balmoral is pretty bland. It was a good race, but for us it wasn’t close and the conditions were too mixed up for the neck and neck racing that makes for a good yarn. There were a couple of humorous moments that should never be recounted in full. Bob was talking to the boat, not to Kristy. Apology accepted. End of story.
The story worth telling is the story of our series, how we started the season as a pair of paddlers in a double and finished as a crew.
Paddling a double in a race is a bit of fun. Racing through a series as a crew is a journey.
Throughout our journey, there were things we had to learn as a crw and in our case as a couple. I’ve worked out that they boil down to four T’s. Timing. Teamwork. Talking. Trust. Bear with me while I explain…
Armchair experts will try to tell you that timing is all about making sure that the power phase of both paddlers strokes are synchronised to maximise the transfer of rotational force into forward thrust. blah blah blah.
They have a point, but I have a training tip – concentrate on looking good in the post race photos.
Looking good in photos reaps many rewards. Firstly you’ll have lots of good photos that will make you feel good about your paddling. People will actually take more photos of you just because you look good. Your opponents will also look at the hundreds of awesome looking photos of you and be intimidated.
By contrast, if your photos make you look like a pair of drunken football fans doing an impromptu Mexican wave, all your paddling buddies are going to point and laugh at you.
The secret to a good photo is fairly simple, the paddler in the back follows the paddler in the front. Some people try to match the paddle striking the water, but when I’m in the back, I match the shaft angle and rotation of the front paddler. The key to making photos look bad-ass is having your paddle shafts parallel. Even your parents who still refer to your favourite sport as “rowing” will recognise you’re doing it right if they see the paddle shafts are parallel. Incidentally, it compensates for differences in reach, stroke length, and means you are both hitting the bottom of the power phase at the same instant, see blah blah.
While the back seat is responsible for following, the front has to remember that the back seat isn’t clairvoyant and is well positioned to belt you round the ears with a paddle if you continually do unexpected things with your paddle. If you’re in the front, be consistent and predictable.
Unless you and your partner are identical twins, you’ll probably find that your natural cadence is different. Mismatched cadence has probably ended more partnerships than any other single cause. A pair of mismatched paddlers will quickly exhaust each other as they struggle to find a comfortable compromise pace. Too fast for one and too slow for the other.
Kate and I were fortunate in this respect. She started paddling by joining me in a double rather than spending enough time in a single to develop her own cadence. We spent a big chunk of time in the early days finding a balance between my longer, stronger stroke and Kate’s shorter, lighter stroke. Kate uses a medium wing paddle at a length that suits her conditioning. I paddle with medium plus about two inches longer. That slows me down enough to produce a pace that suits Kate.
This solution poses a problem for many budding double paddlers. If you’re a dedicated paddler, you probably have a paddle which is exactly the way you like it and quite expensive. If you’re really serious, you think adjustable paddles are the work of the devil. Adapting to another paddlers stroke probably means buying another expensive paddle in a size you don’t really want.
Luckily for me, Kate approved that purchase.
Usually one of the first decisions a doubles partnership has to grapple with is who’s going to do, or sometimes not do, the steering. After getting lots of advice from many people, I’ve settled on three tips that are golden.
1) Put the heaviest paddler in the back. This lifts the nose, moves the power and weight to the widest part of the boat and often improves steering by keeping the rudder in the water.
2) Put the most experienced paddler in the front. Good advice, because setting an even pace and running a good line will get you in more photographs (see good photos above).
3) Let the person who owns the boat do the steering. Because when their kevlar/carbon baby ploughs across the submerged rock under the bridge at Alfords Point, you really wanted them to be driving.
In real life, I’m the (much) heavier paddler who sits in the front of the double ski because I set a consistent pace. When we tried the same tactic in our K2, the bow sank and it became an unsteerable juggernaut, so Kate is learning to paddle in the front seat. That’s our project for 2013.
Never break rule three.
Having made the decision about who’s doing the steering, there are other tasks that naturally fall to the paddler who’s not. Aside from following the front persons stroke, they have two important jobs.
Firstly, the back seat does the bracing. This is where the heavy in the back theory pays off. If the bigger paddler in the back leans on their paddle, they have lots of leverage and the front doesn’t have to break stroke. When the boats level again, the back just slips back into the rhythm. By contrast, when the front paddler hurls out a support stroke, the best that can happen is that both paddlers are thrown out of synch and somebody else slips past you while you’re sorting timing out again. More likely that in the confusion, the back paddler drives into the next stroke, only to find their partners paddle blade under their catch and spearing their partners paddle into the deep, followed quickly by them, their partner, water bottles, and the brand new GPS which wasn’t secured properly… Hypothetically.
Their second job is to use all the spare thinking time not consumed by steering to keep a watch for hazards outside an imaginary track 3 metres wide and extending out to the boat in front or the next turn marker. The back seat should assume that everything from jet skis to small cargo vessels falling outside that zone are rendered temporarily invisible to the driver.
With everybody clear about their job in the boat, it’s time to get in the boat together.
As soon as your partner climbs into the boat, you’ll suddenly notice they have a terrible sense of balance and can’t stop fidgeting. But stop for a moment and think about when you paddle alone.
Fast boats are unstable boats and most people aspire to something that’s about as stable as my Aunty Alice when she’s unmedicated. Much like my Aunty Alice, they aren’t good at sitting still. They become more stable when driving through the water, water forces working on the sides of the hull and the paddler moving through regular cycle of strokes. In many ways it’s like cycling. Nobody falls off while they’re riding down the street, but when you stop at the lights it all gets wobbly. That’s why you often see paddlers waiting at the start line slowly sculling their paddle on the water to keep upright.
To understand balance in a double imagine that you and your partner are now conjoined twins, joined at the hip, about to go ice skating, blindfolded. Now you’re in the right frame of mind.
In the boat, if they raise their legs, you’ll lower your shoulders, if they shift left on their seat, you’ll move right on yours. You’ll react instantly and subconsciously and so will they. Some movements will take you closer to neutral, others won’t. And at this point, you’re still at the beach.
As you finally start moving away from the beach, the motion of the boat and paddles will settle the boat down and things start to feel good, but this is merely the eye of the hurricane.
Like newly weds, every move is slow, gentle and you’re thinking considerate thoughts about your partner, but eventually you’ll need to turn up the speed and make the run to the finish line. Outside, the wind is starting to pick up…
Anybody watching our newly weds will probably notice that they’re paddling in time and have a nice regular rhythm. But look closer and you’ll see it’s all arms and shoulders. Torso and legs are rigid and static. They have to be, the minute you start swinging your body like you would in a single, the wobbles return with a vengeance. That’s because as you speed up, you open up and throw your weight around, pushing closer to the edges of your balance. When you do that in a double for the first time, bad things start to happen, very, very quickly.
Your next goal is to make the boat neutral in the water so that you’re not reacting to each other and you can direct all of your energy to making it go forward.
Again, think about paddling your single racing boat. Is the boat sitting level? Really? Look again. If you still think you’re level, think about which butt cheek starts hurting first when you paddle over distance, or which side is your strongest for a brace. Most people have some sort of natural lean, much like the way you will stand with your weight on one foot when you’re standing still.
I’m strongest on the right. Kate tends to rest on the left. When we speed up, it gets worse. In an all out sprint for the line, it’s sometimes all we can do to stay upright. That’s a recipe for disaster. If we weren’t married, we’d probably both find different partners. Because we are married (and only have the one boat), we’re dealing with it. I think it’s worse for the paddler in front because I can’t see what’s going on in the back seat, but I can feel it. At the same time Kate can’t see the bow which makes it harder for her to judge the trim of the boat.
The secret to getting the boat level is to realise that almost everybody thinks they’re level when in fact they’re leaning like an Italian tower. This means they’ll see any attempt to level up as a tilt away from level. This is when you need to start talking.
All of this came crashing together for us during a Saturday afternoon 5km friendly. We were pushing hard trying to stay ahead of some wash sucking K1 paddlers who we knew would ride us to 100m short of the finish line and then sprint past us to the line. As the race wore on, Kate started to settle more to the left and I started to pull back to the right. After kilometre or this, we were so far apart that the side of the seat was digging into my ribs and I breathlessly spluttered, “Can you stop leaning to the right?”
“I’m not leaning to the right…” she said, also breathless.
“you’re leaning the boat to the right!”, more insistently, but calmly.
“I’m not leaning to the right, and stop yelling at me”
“I’m not yelling. I JUST WANT YOU TO STOP LEANING RIGHT!”
“you’re yelling and I’m leaning as far left as I can, you’re leaning right!”
At this point, I will admit that even in my forties I still I get my left and right mixed up.
It was, by now, too late for apologies. What followed was an exchange that ended with us dropping out of the race and me sleeping on the couch for the night.
After the heat subsided, we agreed to give it another (potentially final) go. We went back to the water and just sat in the boat. She levelled it. And then I levelled it differently. This went on for about ten minutes while we discussed our perception differences like mature adults intent on solving a problem together. Finally I laid my paddle across the sides of the cockpit and got her to look at how far each end of the shaft was from the water. Up front, it’s easy to see the boat is level because you have clear sight of the bow, from the back, it’s not so obvious and I think there’s a tendndy to look at the front paddler who will naturally sit level, rather than the boat.
Months later, I have a new approach to this problem which is a bit sneakier. If your partner is leaning left and you want them to lean right. Say nothing. Lean left. Further left. And wait. First they’ll think you’ve gone bonkers, then they’ll correct you and you can relax back to neutral.
Communicating is an ongoing challenge in a double. Because you’re both facing the same way, the front seat can’t always hear what’s being said behind them and there’s a tendency to speak loudly when talking to compensate for facing the wrong way. Anybody who’s married will instantly recognise the no-mans land that lies between talking loudly and YELLING at me. Add the fact that you can’t see each others facial expressions in the boat and you have another reason to sniff for weedkiller in your morning coffee.
After our disastrous experience, my advice to new doubles teams, particularly married teams is to discuss technique on the beach, face to face. The nearest available beach.
The bad news here is that once you’ve fought to get the boat level, the next step is to lean it over again. This is where trust comes in.
In order to drive the boat hard, the front paddler needs to control more than just the rudder pedals. They need to be able to lean the boat. Leaning the boat allows the driver to make minor adjustments to the trim without causing the rudder to drag. It also lets them brace up for crossing currents, side winds, the hull twist of the rudder on a hard turn, or the side slip from the wave they’re trying to catch.
While all this is going on up front, the back paddler needs to be constantly assessing whether this lean is a carefully considered outside edge to run across the face of a diagonal boat wash, which they should just go with, or is it the start of something going pear shaped which is the time for them to throw in the big brace and save the day. If you’re bobbing in the water beside the boat, you got it wrong.
“Easier said than done” as my parents used to say.
When you get it right. When the timing, teamwork, talking and trust all converge, the feeling of your double ski thundering across the water, paddles flying, venturis howling, is unbelieveable. Getting to do that with your best mate is even better.
Our journey from two paddlers in a double, to a doubles crew is our story of the Iceberg series.
That’s the real story behind the two medals we got for turning up.