Live from the Grand Prix, stage 2 - Boatercross

The Whitewater Grand Prix is a 6 event series combining freestyle and creekboating aspects of kayaking. In 2014 it took place mostly in Quebec. In 2012 it was a race series in Chile, and Natalie competed. Check out all of Natalie's 2012 Grand Prix writeups, and here are links to the rest of the stages in the 2014 series:
Stage 1 - Big Trick Contest

Stage 3 - Time Trial
Stage 4 - Big Wave Freestyle
Stage 5 - Freestyle
Stage 6 - Giant Slalom

After the big trick contest, we packed up and headed over east to the Rouge river for the big water boatercross. The rains closed in and the weather cooled off quite a bit. Also, of incredible importance, we drove approximately 5 minutes north of a particular bridge, which meant that all of a sudden, everyone started speaking French instead of English.

The Rouge is a pretty sweet river. We were there at relatively high flows, but I imagine there are good rapids there at almost any level. The river is not incredibly large (for our race, the flows were close to 400 cumecs, which is less than 15,000 cfs), but it's steep enough that the rapids still have a lot of power. We had a warmup day, and spent that day searching for waves. The standard wave for that region is White Dog, but it was a little too low still, so instead Natalie and I took a nice little session on a set of three waves up by a bridge upstream. There were no huge moves to be had, but we had a good soul session.
Soul surfing

By race day, we were a little bedraggled. It was certainly hard to motivate to put on wet gear every morning, but fortunately we just got a bunch of brand new Kokatat gear, so we were actually putting on pretty dry gear. On top of that, (or rather, underneath) we also use SeasonFIVE rashguards, which are waterproof breathable and stretchy, so that even when you're changing out of your drysuit you can keep your underlayers nice and dry. Still, the constant dampness associated with camping and cooking in a neverending downpour was definitely having an adverse effect on our moods.

The race was held on a rapid called the Gauntlet. Actually, it started on the wavetrain just upstream, but the crux was definitely in the named rapid, where the river narrowed down and steepened up. There were no really sticky icky holes, just big powerful crashing waves and swirly eddylines. We started river left, and ferried out into the main current right above a slightly blind horizon line. Dropping over the right spot on that horizon line was important, because there was a curling wave over there that could chest-slap you and cost you a lot of time, and you wanted to skim just past the edge of it. After that curler was a hundred yards or so of relative flatwater, then the entrance to the Gauntlet.

The Gauntlet starts with two offset holes. The first is on river left, on the inside of a turn, and the second is just downstream on river right. Avoiding one hole would force you towards the other hole. There were a couple different strategies for dodging both holes. The popular strategy was to stay towards the center, so go to the right of the first hole, then drive back left to avoid the second one. However, it was also possible to sneak down the far left bank, on the inside of the turn, in a little ribbon of current between the leftmost hole and the shore. Nobody was really sure which was faster, but the general feeling was that the center line was where the moving water was, so it was probably faster.

Entering the haystacks, with the offset holes almost visible in the background.

Lane Jacobs in the haystacks.

After the two staggered holes in the entry, there was a short section of flatwater, then the river dropped into a massive wavetrain. About 5 or 6 haystack pyramid waves were relatively stable in that section. Just when you thought the wavetrain was starting to die out and calm down, the river dropped again! The second drop was almost like a slide sort of thing into a confusing mess of very shifty compression waves. Just as these waves started to calm back down, you had to move hard right to get over to the finish line.
Natalie in the confusion.

The finish line was near the bottom of an eddy on river right. The entrance to that eddy was guarded by a nice punchy hole. Again there were two options. You could either zip in high between the hole and the eddy, for a guaranteed eddy catch, but an entry very high in the eddy, or you could go around the outside for a much faster entry, with a higher chance of missing the move (for a time penalty).

We started off with a time trial run, where each competitor paddled the course alone. Originally we were going to use the time trial to determine our bracket position, and the bottom half and top half were going to battle it out within their groups to reshuffle their positions, but with no possibility of moving between brackets. Fortunately, we decided to shift strategies to a more standard boatercross format. Position 1 (Evan Garcia, by the way, had the fastest time trial) would be heat 1 of the first round. Position 2, heat 2. Position 3, heat 3, position 4, heat 4, and position 5, heat 1, and so on. So the first heat of head to head had first place, fifth place, ninth place, thirteenth, and so on. In that first round of head to head racing, we had 4 heats with 6 or 7 people per heat, and the top 4 advanced. For the people that didn't advance, the time trial run broke their tie. The 16 athletes that advanced were put into two heats of 8, with the top 5 from each heat advancing into a super packed heat of 10 people for the final round.

I would say that my round was tough, but hey, it's the Grand Prix. Every round is tough. It's remarkable how confusing it all was, and I don't quite remember who was in my round, except for the fact that Galen was there, which I remember because we made a peace treaty to not mess with each other during the race. Off the starting line, I was immediately in last place. Everyone else seemed to pull ahead a lot quicker. I tried not to freak out, and did manage to start catching up during the flatwater. We were mostly ducks in a row taking the left line past the offset holes. Through the big haystack waves, I seemed to carry a little more momentum, perhaps because of my larger mass, but it wasn't enough to pull me into the top 4. I was going to need some luck. In the jumbled compression waves, I crept a little farther ahead, but still didn't really make any definitive passes. My last chance was the finish line eddy. I was close enough to feel a bit of the jumble that was happening as everyone tried to zip in below the guard hole, and I made the snap decision to take the conservative line between the hole and the bank. It totally paid off, as I got a lucky surge and a smooth turn, landing relatively deep in the eddy, headed right for the finish line banner, ahead of a couple more people and definitely in the eddy. While I was making this lucky pass, at least one person (maybe Chris Gragtmans?) had been unable to make it into the eddy. I managed to luck out and take third in that heat, advancing me to the next round.

I don't even know what heat this is.  Maybe a prelim of some sort?

There's me, in one of my heats.  I think this was semifinals.  I didn't know what was going on, I just paddled.



After a nice hike back up to the start, we were ready for the next round, this time with eight people in the water. Again, it was a huge jumble and I don't really remember who was in the heat with me. Again, I got off to a slow start, although not as far behind as in the first round. I managed to pass someone to move into seventh place at the offset holes, and was gently jockeying for another pass through the haystacks. In the compression waves, I have no idea what happened. I literally have no idea where I was in relation to the other paddlers, except for a vague impression that I was not going to make the cut. When my sight cleared and I started making the finish line move, I again went for the conservative line, hoping that the large pileup would push some people out of the eddy. There was someone ahead of me who had had the same thought. This round, I was not so lucky, and didn't smooth the eddy move, getting spun out pretty high in the eddy. I took a bunch of slow sweep strokes and tried to pound my way to the finish banner. Apparently I ended up in seventh in my heat, not eighth, but either way, it wasn't enough to advance. In the time trial I had finished 20th, so the other number seven semifinals position guy was ahead of me, putting me in fourteenth place.

After being eliminated I took a cue from Chris Gragtmans and ran a couple extra laps on the main part of the rapid, trying some kickflips, and getting my stoke re-aligned. I was bummed not to make top ten, but I consoled myself with the fact that this is a pretty illustrious competition, so I should be proud to have been faster than even a single one of my competitors. I ferried across and chatted with Natalie, where she was taking photos. Pretty soon I was back in the clean-burning happy zone. Eventually the finals round was assembled. They were a huge mess, with tons of paddlers spinning out and getting pushed all over the place. It was a hoot to watch.
Definitely some excitement to be had.

Pretty sure this was finals.  A huge explosion of action.

Stoke re-alignment

Haystack stoke.

Apparently, during the other semifinals heat, there was a bit of a finish-line kerfuffle. There was a big pileup at the finish, and there was a lot of controversy about what exactly constituted a finish, whether taking a hand off your paddle invalidated you touching the banner, and whether you could paddle back up from below to touch or if that counted as missing the eddy. The stakes were pretty high, so obviously there were some really strong feeling involved. I have avoided getting too embroiled in the details, since everyone involved was so bummed out. I think I heard that anyone that took their hand off the paddle was disqualified from that particular round, which made them effectively last in that round, despite their time trial results. However, this is just rumor, not anything official. It's double tough to fix because it was the second to last round, so the people that didn't advance didn't get to paddle finals. This means that any changes after the fact are almost impossible. It sounds like a big sticky mess, basically, and I'm lucky that our rounds turned out so simple. I feel like although it hasn't been perfect, everyone has acted about as well as they can. Ideally, we wouldn't have even had these issues, but now that they're here, they can't really be fixed after the fact.

We loaded up that night and headed deeper into French-speaking territory, bound for Shawinigan for the next stage.

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