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North Carolina Pamlico Sound 100 Mile Race

13th October 2014

It’s the 7 am Roll Call before the NC 100 starts and conditions aren’t great: there’s a small craft advisory and the Chief calls a weather hold, letting participants know they don’t have to start immediately and they can choose between the bay or the beach depending on their comfort with wind conditions.  I decide that wind under 15 knts is still good news for me and take off from the beach at the start whistle, keeping a full sail at 102.3 square feet.  Narrowly avoiding a kayaker in the shallows, I get a nice start, averaging around 14knts despite waves coming down from Pamlico Sound. Abandoning my attempt to take a short cut between Raccoon Island and the NW Cape of Piney Island, I stay the course and am rewarded by winds gusting between 20 and 23 knts, which fill my big sail, and make it hard to keep the board on the water.

North Carolina Pamlico Sound 100 Mile Race

I’m determined to sail smart this Race, using technique, not sheer brawn, so I stop at the tip of Raccoon Island to pull my reef out. Hoping to avoid possible oyster beds, I drop into the water 10 feet from the shore only to find the water is up to my shoulders. Swimming to the edge, I discover a wide submerged clay ledge, great for launching back off the edge with my deep fin. (Though this ends up being my only time in the water the entire event, it ends up being enough time for the brackish water to enter my “waterproof phone case and fry my Samsung Glaxy. No more phone for the rest of the race).

North Carolina Pamlico Sound 100 Mile Race

Re-launching, I spot competition; Jestsurfer’s sail is about a ½ mile back. His is the only one I spot. I blast a broad reach, sailing in the 14-18knt range and comfortably keeping the board under control and on the water as I round the NW Cape and make the turn into the Neuse River. The rapid rollers and white caps that greet me stir the first feelings of unease—I know I’m headed for a long downwind run in roller coaster waves, a run far from the more placid waters that hug the shore but are better left alone due to  the military bombing range in the area. Loaded with gear and with a large 298 liter volume, the Phantom is a beast to sail downwind in the 3-4 foot, abnormally fast waves and gusting winds, and I’m exhausted. Forced to abandon my harness due to the downwind, I sail completely sheeted out, my arms catching the full force of the wind. I’m sailing and surfing, and at this point, it’s all brawn. I continually move forward and aft to prevent the bow from plunging into the back walls of upcoming waves or cliff diving into the troughs of some of the rogue 6-8 feet waves coming my way. I surf down these latter waves, both feet on the very last inch of the stern, heels hanging in space.

Not too much later, Justsurf passes me, and the winds soon calm down to about 15knts at which point I pass him quickly and enter Clubfoot Creek with him about ¾ mile behind and no other sails in sight.  Here, I am protected from the waves but still catch a 10 knt tail wind all the way to the entrance of the Harlow Canal, dug in the 1800s by slaves to connect the New Bern/Neause to Moorehead City and the Atlantic Ocean. I’d been apprehensive about the possible presence of large gators lurking in the canal, but now I am just enjoying the totally flat water as I sail to the first low bridge and prepare to derig. Justsurf passes me, his sail down as he stands up and paddles. Fighting my competitive urges in an attempt to take it easy enough to enjoy this race, I take the time to repair my sail reef zipper and batten, and I don’t see him again as I paddle down the picturesque Canal and scan for turtles, fish and alligators at a leisurely 2-5 knot pace.

I set the Phantom back up at the last private dock of the Harlow and enter the Newport River, getting the board pumped up on plane and broad reaching to the Beaufort Bridge. Reaching Beufort Check Point 1, I see my wife,  who, despite our earlier conversations about this checkpoint, is searching for me in the wrong direction—I have to run up and tap her on the shoulder to get her attention. I eat, drink, and wait for my spot to stop blinking so I can get back on the water.  As I get onto Taylor Creek, I can see Justsurf about ¼ mile ahead—the current is running strong against my board; the wind is light and intensely shifty. It’s all I can do to stay on the leeward side of the creek and pass Justsurf 100 yards from its end. I beam at high speed to Harker Bridge, where I lose all wind and tilt my sail almost parallel to the water, being careful to avoid a bundle of woven power lines drooping perilously close to my mast. As I contemplate where to camp, my board hits a sandbar with a BAM!, the centerboard popping up and the fin grounding. It is easy enough to continue and I decide to call it a night, going ashore at a little island above Brown Island at 5:30, settling onto nice, soft, sandy beaches by a campfire, shortly to be joined by Justsurf. The joy of boiling water on my tiny gas stove and chowing on piping hot beef stroganoff MRE is undermined slightly by my urge to get on the water and compete, an urge made even stronger by the sail of a Hobie TI moving briskly up the channel, but I decide to bed down in my bivy and am rewarded by a spectacular nighttime sky and two falling stars.

I start the second day off at 5:30 am knowing that this 2nd half of the course will entail a constant battle to work up against head winds at the best possible combination of speed and travel angle, while fighting oncoming chop and waves.i I’m on the water 20 minutes after Justsurf, but I’m no longer concerned; my Phantom, with its giant centerboard  and powerhouse  9.5M2 Maui Titan GS is made for these conditions.. I quickly catch up to and pass him, and he drops out of view as the sun comes up and splahes the sky with beautiful colors. I see no one: no tribers, no fisherman, no fish, almost nothing, nothing but wind, water, sky and some pelicans and cormorants. It is now just a matter of trying to concentrate on getting  good wind shifts, pointing as high as I can and keeping my speed at maximum efficiency. The winds soon start gusting into the twenties, the seas become steeper and rougher, and wind shifts push me away from my path. I concentrate on trying to orient my tacking leg closer to the shore line to get behind capes and land points and ensure flatter water and faster speeds (and to ensure that I am close to the shoreline in case anything breaks—I’ve been entirely too lucky up to this point to feel comfortable). A brief break at the edge of a marsh to remove the reef from my sail gives me 5 minutes to lay down in the warm sunshine and sawgrass, the latter buffering me from the nonstop wind, and then it’s time to get back to the competition.

At the top of the course I encounter a half dozen dreaded pound nets, long stationary sein nets extending out, in some cases, 100 yards. Reminded of the story I’d heard about an unfortunate Kayaker bleeding to death after getting caught up in one, I try my best to align my beating tacks so that I pass them on the inside, in the small space between the shoreline and their end socks. Occasionally I have to pass around the offshore portion and I lose some time.

Coming around the last cape, I can see the large silhouette of a ferry moored at the dock adjacent to the finish line. This last run is a simple beam reach, very easy on the body and perfect VMG. Eager to avoid screwing things up at the last minute, I keep my centerboard down as an early warning system and back off the throttle. Spotting the little inlet for the finish by the dock, I see a Hobie TI sail entering it first… My attention is diverted as the wind suddenly blanks and I almost take a dive in the last seconds of the race. But I stay up as I clear the point into the inlet, visualizing my loving wife wading into the water to give me a big hug and kiss. I approach the dock and plop into the water, asking the folks on the dock…

Where’s my wife?
You know the rest of the story...

Dedicated to Chief and Paddle Dancer,  thank you so much for all you do and all your sacrifice to make Watertribe so Great!  All the fun and adventure I had on this one I owe to you.

Tony Vandenberg

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