Wesley's Wild World of Kayaking & the Jackson Action Wagon (JAW)

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2016 Ocoee River Race Report

The 8th annual TVCC Ocoee Race sponsored by WORLDKAYAK.COM went down on Saturday, October 8, 2016.  The race was a great time for the competitors and volunteers as always!  Big thanks to Jen Maxwell and the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club (TVCC Kayaking) volunteers who organized and hosted another fantastic event!!  It is amazing to many of us racers that the TVCC crew can get over 150 race runs down one of the USA’s busiest rivers with such poise.

The race is a time trial event format with racers starting in one minute intervals between commercial raft groups.  The race starts at the Middle Ocoee put-in ramp above Grumpy Rapid and runs the entirety of the Middle Section to the finish line below Powerhouse Rapid (4.4 miles).  Due to the length of the race you really have to set a quick steady pace for yourself to finish well.  It is not a race that you hammer as hard as you can because you will wear out well before the finish. 

The finish line is a raft you have to tag tied to the river right bank directly below Powerhouse out of the main flow.  You really have to carve hard right coming out of Powerhouse rapid to tag the raft or else the main current sweeps you wide left around a pile rocks and you have to eddy out and paddle across flat water to tag the raft.  That mistake can easily cost you several seconds when you are trying to finish.

The Ocoee Race is also unique to itself, because it draws a very diverse crowd of men and women paddlers.  The kayak racing longboats has been the majority of the field in the past few years, but there are plenty of other crafts going fast also: rafts, open single & tandem canoes, tandem kayaks, shortboat kayaks, hand paddlers, SUP, C-1 and even a few play boats.  There are many classes and divisions to choose from during race registration to keep things fair to all who participate.  This gives ample opportunity for the top guns to duke it out with each other while the weekend warriors can have their own heated contest!

Unlike the Green Race and Lord of the Fork Race the Ocoee Race course is primarily on class III whitewater, making the race more accessible for many whitewater paddlers with an intermediate skillset.  However, it is a good step up from racing on the Nantahala Gorge, so the Ocoee Race makes a great bridge to step up the racing game!

One of the more fun aspects in racing for me is the friendly banter and trash talking that goes on in the weeks leading up to race day.  My best racing buddy and close rival, Brian Vermillion, and I had a go at it on social media to try and prove our supremacy this year.  Ryan Horn and Casey Jones also got in on the trash talking action with us this year making some high quality entertainment!  We had a blast racing with each other this year!! :-)

This was my third year racing in the event and I was pumped to put the hammer down with my Mitchell Paddle for some fast lap times!  This was my first year racing in both the Long Boat and Short Boat classes (Often referred to as the Iron Man League in our sport).  I raced my Jackson Kayak Karma Unlimited/UL in the Elite Men’s Longboat Class and I raced my Jackson Kayak Zen Lg in the Elite Men’s Shortboat Class.  I knew it was going to be an extremely difficult task to beat the time I posted last year, because we had some extra flow last year with rain and this year we were going to barley be at normal release flows with the dry weather we have been experiencing over the past couple of months.  So I set the goal to at least beat my original time I posted in 2014 as a benchmark.

My first race run was in my Karma/UL.  Iron Man Racing Tip – Typically you want to race your fastest boat first to be fresh to post the best time overall.  My longboat run was going very good and clean for me up until the second to last rapid in the course.  The right race line at Hell Hole is a fine line to ride through clean.  The line is only about 3 feet wide and since you are in a kayak that is a little over 2’ wide you don’t have much room for error.  If you enter the line with any angle to the left you end up taking a big chest full of water hitting the exploding wave of Hell Hole; which can result in an unintended extended surf session.  If you enter the line with any angle to the right you end up catching the eddy on the right.  I spun out in the river right eddy on accident and slammed into the rock bank losing all my forward momentum.  I tried to quickly spin my kayak back up stream to peel back out into the current to keep from losing too much time, but Casey Jones passed me at this exact moment and I knew that he was going to beat me by over a minute.  I peeled back out behind Casey and I used what energy I had left to charge hard to the finish line raft.  I was happy to find out later that I did complete my race goal of beating my 2014 longboat time even with the spin out at Hell Hole by almost 1 minute, but alas… Brian beat me for his 3rd time in a row in this race.  I guess there is always next year!

My second race run in my Zen started well, but I was already tired early into the race at Gonzo Shoals from the previous longboat race run.  I came into Broken Nose and was lining up for the greasy race line that cuts through the top of the traditional right line to the left through a channel that connects to the sneak line left of the island.  I came into the top drop a little too far to the left and my bow pointing too far right, so I tried to correct with an air plane boof sweep stroke on the right to get me turning left in the drop toward the channel I wanted to hit.  Midway through the stroke, with my head turning left looking the way I want to go, my paddle tripped over the strong eddy line and decided to go for a mystery move taking me with it underwater.  At this point I was in a bit of a state of shock.  I’ve never been upside down in Broken Nose in all my years on the Ocoee and I’ve heard all the horror stories of flipping in this rapid.  I was also sucking wind profusely right before the unexpected flip occurred, so I was not quite ready to be in an non-oxygen rich environment such as I found being underwater!  I tried to setup for a roll and right before I began to execute the maneuver my head impacted into a rock underwater.  Casey Jones started behind me on our shortboat lap again and he said he saw me bounce up out of the water upside down from several hundred feet upriver when I hit the rock!  His exact words were, “It looked heinous!”  

Thankfully my trusty Sweet Protection Strutter helmet took the brunt of the blow and kept me from experiencing any kind of concussion.  However the hit was still hard enough to really ring my bell and leave a nasty looking scratch on my helmet that ripped all the way into the substrate of the helmet (You can see light through the helmet now when you pull back the interior padding).  I’ll have to replace my Strutter now, but I’m glad it did its job well on this crash! 

After the hit, I tried to regain my composure and I tried to roll on two attempts that both resulted in carping, but was thankful to get a couple of breaths on the missed attempts.  I knew I was drifting down river in the rapid, because I could feel the flow around me.  I decided that I had to hit my third roll attempt, before I go over the bottom hole of Broken Nose upside down, so I composed myself to setup correctly and execute the fundamentals as best I could.  I rolled up backwards just in time to find myself cresting over the left side of the bottom hole of Broken Nose.  I quickly placed a couple of back strokes to gain some speed to try and punch the hole backwards and the hole sucked my stern to the right as I began to drop into it. I quickly engaged a big left back sweep stroke to freewheel my Zen around 180 degrees and using my now forward momentum to escape the hole to continue downstream into the run out rapids below the main drop.  In the run out rapids I had to coast for a while to shake off the hit and make sure I was OK.  Once I assured myself I was well, I kept my eyes toward the finish to complete the lap.  I knew I had wasted several seconds with the crash at Broken Nose and I had no chance of trying to beat my goal of finishing the short boat lap in under 35 minutes.  I was happy I was able to finish the lap though coming into the finish line extremely exhausted from paddling hard two full laps!  

Complete overall 2016 Ocoee Race results at WORLDKAYAK.COM:


No one likes to crash or not meet goals, but that is what going fast and taking chances is about sometimes.  I try to take these moments to develop myself into being a better paddler by embracing my failures and focusing on the recovery.  I find no use in making excuses and getting frustrated with myself; this makes me get scared and want to quit.  In this sport we are all in between swims and beatering due to the forces of nature we are dealing with in whitewater.  I have learned over the years that perseverance and shaking off a mistake is key to finishing a race or river run, if I’m within my skillset.  That way I get to come back another time to try again to be a winner! 

Overall I had a blast racing this year again in the Ocoee Race.  It was a great time with many good friends on the river.  Then Brian, Sam and I topped off the day with a delicious meal at the Ocoee Dam Deli!  Good times going fast for sure!!

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