In celebration of this year's head racing season I offer you the following- the story of my favorite head race ever. It all went down at Head of the Port of Sacramento. For those of you who have raced at H.O.P.S., you may already be laughing. For those of you who haven't I'll explain. The course reminds me of the mass steam shovel graveyard from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. It's a fascinating rusty landscape with retired tractors and machines, a train track or two, and apparently random piles of rocks and concrete rising out of the dirt. The morning of this particular race started off with one of our captains instructing us to, "Uhhh, I guess put your stuff down by this dumpster and start rigging."
More often than not the small boat races get canceled due to intensely windy conditions. And so it was on this particular H.O.P.S. morning. Luckily, I was entered in the Collegiate Four and was free to launch for my race. My crew was full of experienced racers who had medaled at NCAAs the previous spring. We had rowed great in practice and I was feeling confident (despite the raging headwind) that we would race well. We took some twenties into the wind during the warm-up. They were fine, but the conditions were so extreme we just had to laugh. Before the race our two-seat shouted to be heard over the wind, "Guuys? I think if we just, like, have catches, we'll probably win." So, that was the plan: have catches, win.
Off we went. The boat felt great- we were rowing well together and it felt easy to go hard. We passed an eight. Then we came to the turn. The head wind turned to a cross and we started getting pushed into shore. A few waves crashed over the gunnels. We heard our first-year coxswain gasp. No problem, our rhythm was strong and we continued toward the line stone-faced and focused.
We started riding lower and the waves did not abate. Water was pouring into our boat. My water bottle floated up high enough that it was hitting my legs. Still, focus prevailed in our crew. I recalled the Peking University 8 I watched sink at Head of the Charles. Stopping didn't even cross our minds. Our rhythm was still so strong and smooth that really the water was just a minor inconvenience.
But soon I did have a rhythm-effecting issue: the water inside the boat was high enough that my jacket had floated up and was getting stuck in my tracks. My three-seat noticed and, concerned, advised me between heavy breaths to "Just... hang it... on... the rigger." On the recovery of the next stroke I reached down grabbed the jacket, and draped it over my wing rigger. Then it was back to the business of winning this damn race.
We still had 2k to go. Things were getting ridiculous. Our coxswain had water in her mic and sounded like she was drowning (she kind of was). Our focus finally broke when bow-seat let out an audible giggle. The scales now tipped, we all started laughing. This was nuts, but we continued to "have catches" and made it across the line.
Our teammates on shore later reported, "we thought you were riding kind of low, but then we saw you pass and we were like, 'oh my god, they're sinking!" A friend's mom was stationed on a bridge and left the following message on my parent's home phone in Ohio: "Lou's boat is sinking! More later."
Oh, but this story only really gets started at the finish. After crossing the line we were all giggles and "oh man"s and "that's the craziest race I've ever had,"and "I think we still may have won," when what do we see, but a fire fighting boat screaming down the course, sirens blazing, waking out everybody (like it really made a difference in those conditions). It slowed as it approached... us! I remember thinking, "Great, firefighters have buckets, we'll be able to bail out this submarine before we have to row it back to the dock." Since we had been rowing so well I hadn't even considered the need for "rescue;" however, it turned out that's exactly what these firefighters had in mind.
Turns out our coxswain was in need of some assistance as she'd been sitting in a pool of rather cold water for a 5k. She got wrapped up in a firefighter's jacket quickly. We secured a tow-line to our four, then climbed out of it and into the rescue boat. Thus began the slow boat ride of shame back to the dock. The firefighters were psyched. "We've been doing this event for five years and this is the first time we've ever had to do anything!" Great. "Can we get a picture?" Out came the iphone.
Embarrassed as we were, the ride back to the dock was fun. We were still giggling like little girls and enjoying the company of our new friends from the Sacramento Fire Department. As we approached the dock we re-focused and cut the smiles (we were team leaders and it wasn't really that funny for us to have drawn a lot of attention to ourselves in a, well, negativish way).
Our coach met us at the dock with his furious face on.
"We came around the turn our boat got some water in it. And then some more water."
"You didn't finish the race?" (Really mad sounding).
"No, we finished it!" (Of course!- Just who do you think we are?- tone).
"Oh." And he left. Later our assistant coach told us, "He actually thought it was hilarious and that you probably won anyway."
And, thank goodness, we did end up winning by 10 seconds, otherwise I may not be looking back on the whole ordeal with so much delight.