I splash some cool water on my face one last time, and adjust my hat, nodding to our captain’s last words of encouragement.
Right hand firmly gripping the T-shaped extremity of the paddle, left hand down low at the crux between the handle and the paddle itself, twisting the paddle in my hands to make sure my gloves aren’t slippery. Butt cheeks nicely squared in my seat, legs stretched out with knees touching in the center.
“…CINCO, CUATRO, TRES….”
Both arms outstretched now, ready to dig into the water on the signal, paddle hovering inches over water, eyes firmly set on the first buoy up ahead, all muscles tense.
The pistol shot rings out amidst the jungle air and chaos ensues. The start is intense, with quick strong short paddling to pick up as much speed and momentum as possible. After 12 or so strokes, Lucie, our rhythm-setter, sitting in front at the #1 spot, belts out her customary “READY??” and on the next stroke, we each swing our paddles to the other side in a smooth scissor ballet of hands and paddles, without breaking rhythm. With the second set of strokes, Lucie lengthens the rhythm a little as we have built up enough momentum to let the boat glide by itself on each stroke. Lucie and I, at the #1 and #3 spots respectively are now rowing on the right-hand side – my strong side – while Nico and Oriol at the #2 and #4 spots, are rowing on the left side. With each stroke, we reach well forward tp plant the paddle in the water almost at the level of the person sitting in front of us. Using both arms, one pushing down on the paddle, the other pulling the paddle backwards, as well as our shoulders and upper body, we push the Sancocho
along the no-longer-tranquil waters of the Melia Panama Canal race course with all our strength.
The setting is gorgeous: a wide canal with curving coasts smothered in jungle foliage, with small islands scattered about, making for an ideal setting for a boat race. The waterline is as still as we’ll ever see it, with barely a hint of a wave breaking the surface. The sky is completely clear and at noon, the sun is beating down mercilessly onto us. Were this a mere practice, surely we’d take the time to peer at the jungle to spot countless species of birds, and animals, but at this point, the only animals we’re vaguely preoccupied with are crocodiles (rare but you never know) and water-snakes. As long as we don’t capsize, there’s nothing to be worried about. But even those thoughts have quickly been dispelled with the start of the race.
Approaching the first set of buoys, we settle into a regular race rhythm (after all, there are 2 complete laps to be completed, no way we can sprint through the whole thing). A quick cursory look around us tells me most boats are still within a length or two of each other, except for the usual 2 crews of pros who have already distanced the rest of the pack. The first corner is going to be quite a mess.
We are neck a neck with the Déjà Vu-Blitz
cayuco, a crew of 4 Colombian women competing in the female open category. They’re on their third season and have improved their wooden cayuco accordingly. We finished the last race a minute behind them and they’re a good reference benchmark for us. However, coming up on the first corner, they hold the inside and as they drift outwards to negotiate their turn, it becomes apparent we must either slow down and let them pass in front to try and cut inside them, or let them push us off-course in trying to overtake them and risk letting the other cayucos behind us take advantage of our duel. We try and maintain our ground but the screams of the back-markers indicate they are gaining ground and we opt for the safe option, pulling back a little to let them through and conserve the inside on the other boats. BC-Net
is amongst them: they are our biggest rivals, since we overtook them in the last stretch of the last race. Judging from the excited screams of their #1, they are hard bent on seeking revenge.
Following the first corner we set off on a long straight which cuts across the main basin, crossing the main path of the canal where there is the most current. This is one of the tricky spots of the course as what little waves there are come at us laterally, making the boat very unstable. The slightest half-inch move of the butt, an approximate paddle stroke or a shoulder dropping a little too much, and the cayuco starts rocking. There’s only one way to counter instability, and that’s forward movement: it’s crucial to keep paddling, extra hard, whenever we cross these slightly more choppy waters. By now we’re experienced enough to not let it ruin our chances by capsizing but it does mean that water occasionally slips inside the boat over the edges from the rocking, the waves and the hard paddling mainly. This only makes the cayuco more unstable as the water moves from side to side with each lateral movement. As the #3 in the boat, it is my duty to scoop water out if it becomes too cumbersome. This is a tricky process because a) it means I’m not paddling and thus we’re not moving at full speed, b) in order to scoop water out I need to purposely list the cayuco to one side for the water to collect there in order to be scooped out easily, and c) I need to do the scooping in rhythm with the paddling. In addition, it’s a burden on the captain and skipper at #4: while we usually row on opposite sides, when I switch to scooping, he has to switch his rowing to the same side as the Rhythm setter (#1 in the boat). This means that he goes through 2 sets of strokes without changing sides, and by the second lap, this is absolute torture on the arms and shoulders. Choosing the right moment is therefore key, as is communication.
The first lap goes relatively well, although by its end, I’m fighting off some serious cramps to my right forearm and biceps. What is usually my strong side becomes my weak side as I can’t seem to pull back on the paddle with any power. My paddling thus weakens considerably. Every switch of rowing sides is sweet relief, as it allows those muscles to vaguely relax for a few seconds. But every time I switch back to rowing on the right, I can’t seem to manage more than 2 or 3 strong strokes before the cramps set in again. At this point, I throw caution to the wind and decide to quit rationing my camelback of Gatorade/water mix, opting for maximum hydration to fight off the cramps as my skipper yells at us to pick up the pace and push stronger. Those few minutes of struggling allowed BC-Net
to gain back on us. Just as we embark on the second lap, passing in front of the main hillside from which family, friends and other assorted fans are watching the race, we have to fight off a serious offensive. Unable to look back, all we can hear is the voice of their #1 calling out the switches. “CHANGE!”. It’s tough to get an idea of how far back they are behind us, until I catch the bow of their cayuco from the corner of my eye, making a pass at us on the inside, as the crowd cheers us along, horns blaring. Side-by-side, we turn the corner, but cries of “FUERTE!! FUERTE!!” from Nico at #2, the power-rower, encourage us to dig deep into the tank, and put a little extra “oomph” into each stroke. Within 100 yards, BC-Net
is relegated back to about a boat’s length, their resolve temporarily broken.
The second lap thus starts, as the wind seemingly picks up a little. While it feels pretty good and cools us down, it also makes the paddling harder, rowing both against the wind AND the accompanying current. Our fiberglass cayuco is at a disadvantage in those conditions: wooden cayucos are swifter and better gliders in the water, their momentum carrying them much further along the waterline than fiberglass Cayucos. The latter create more friction against water, which, while offering more stability, also kills its forward momentum more easily. When rowing against the current, you sometimes feels as though the cayuco stops after every paddle stroke. The efforts required to maintain velocity are therefore much more important, and what little distance we managed to make up on Déjà-Vu Blitz
we definitely lose in the second lap.
The second lap is also where a lot of races can be won or lost due to silly mistakes: with fatigue setting in comes lack of concentration. It may be as benign as falling out of synch whilst rowing, or a careless shift of the butt inside the cayuco, but each of those will throw off the crew’s balance, and if one isn’t properly focused, capsize can ensue. On the back stretch of the race we passed a cayuco of kids which seemed stuck in water, immobile in the middle of the course. Turns out their #1 hadn’t kept his eyes peeled enough and had failed to warn his skipper of the incoming shallow rocks ahead. The cayuco rammed right into them, piercing the hull and jamming them with no other option but to stay put and wait for the safety boat.
Alternatively, this is also the part of the race where one can fall into a “zone”, the mechanics of the body taking over and reducing the brain to a supervisory role: buckled down, solely focused on the paddle in front of me to keep up the rhythm and stay perfectly synchronized, stroke after stroke. My eyes never leave Lucie’s paddle as it enters the water, slides back along the hull with conviction, then makes a quarter turn as it retracts, to cut the breeze and return to its starting point far ahead of the rower, my own paddle mimicking those same moves as precisely as possible. Taking each stroke as it comes, I am entirely focused on the rhythm, letting my arms fall into a familiar but firm pattern, letting the movement become completely automatic, like pistons pumping. My thoughts are completely detached, my mind blank. Looking up at the horizon is only a source of misery as it reminds me of how far we still have to go.
At this point, we’re all digging deep in the tank. The grunting and panting becomes more generalized and regular. Muscles are burning, legs are tense, backs sore. As we enter the final stretch, BC-Net
makes one last push, trying to match our feat from last week, looking to inflict similar punishment on us by passing us in the last quarter-mile. But it would be foolish to expect us to roll over and concede: we make one last drive, throwing ourselves with abandon into the last sprint, screaming at each stroke until finally, the Sancocho
crosses the line in front of its rival cheered along by a fantastic crowd, which greets every cayuco with the same energy.
The minutes that follow the end of the race are like wading through fog: you just let your self drift, paddle in your lap, leaning back as far as you can, panting, hands drifting in the water, heart pumping stong, face blushed, trying to regain a sense of coherence. Then of course, the temptation to let yourself slide overboard into the cool waters is just too much to resist, stretching those legs, sinking below the waterline momentarily as your heart beat pulses in your ears. High fives all around, words of encouragement and congratulations are thrown to everyone in the crew, first impressions, anecdotes, and analysis are exchanged. The irony is we still have to row back a half mile to the ramp, then carry the damn boats out and onto the trailer, but at least we can take our sweet time doing it.
The overall feeling is one of satisfaction and relief: satisfaction at having completed the physical challenge once again, and relief for that very same reason, knowing that the next race isn’t for another 6 weeks. That’ll be the last race of the season, the main one, the famous Ocean-to-Ocean race, that’ll take us from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean along the Panama Canal and through its 2 sets of locks, over the course of 3 days. The first day is of similar length as today's race, about an hour and change. The second day is a grueling 4-5 hour leg through the main lake (ie choppy waters, with tankers and boats cruising alongnext to us). The last day consists of an hour-long leg up the locks, then 2 x 10 minute sprints... No small challenge, in fact, my shoulders are twitching just thinking about it, but it will no doubt be a unique experience, one we’re all looking forward to despite the pain it will bring us and the sacrifices it will require until then. Now if we could only get into a more disciplined practice mode…