The Battle of The Bay
By Patrick Abbott
In the last few years I have found myself becoming more interested in competitive athletic events. I have never considered myself to be someone who was driven to compete but I think most athletes have some desire to see where they stand compared to their peers, and that desire has been growing in me. It started two years ago with the countries oldest downhill cross-country ski race, the Stowe Derby.
It had been more than eight years since the glory of my high school track days when I set a school record in the javelin. That first Derby took place on an absolutely beautiful late February day with full sun and warm temperatures that offer a winter weary Vermonter's eager soul a taste of the spring days to come. I was pleased with my effort that day and looked forward to the next year. Little did I realize that I had been bitten by the competition bug, and later that summer when I saw that the Downriver Whitewater Canoe Nationals were going to be held on the Dead River I just had to enter. So I enlisted my father as my paddling partner and we toted our Mad River Explorer up to the put in and did the deed. We both had high hopes going into the race figuring that we had more combined experience on the river than any other crew. We didn't expect to win, but I thought that we had a good chance to place. Well we placed all right, dead last. There were old men and little kids cheerfully passing us that had started minutes behind our group. It was like we had an invisible anchor attached to our boat. So at the end of the day we had two new T-shirts, and my wallet was $90 lighter thanks to registration fees. It seems "experienced racers" had humiliated us with fancy paddles and long narrow boats. I decided then and there that if I was ever going to enter another canoe race it wasn't going to be one that attracted national level competitors. So on the night before the race when my brother Ben asked me to join his team in the third annual Battle of The Bay triathlon as his partner in the paddling portion, I was a little hesitant. I knew that the majority of the competitors would be friends and local folks but I was still having flashbacks of paddling my ass off and being passed by pairs of grinning kids with their paddles hardly in the water and 60-year-old guys. If I was going to enter this race I wanted to make sure that we had a chance for success. So I had some questions for my potential teammate brother.
"You got a boat?"
"Chris Powers dad's old racing beast."
"You got paddles?"
"What time is it?"
"Register by 8:30 a.m., runners start at 9:30."
"You got lifejackets?"
"All right, but I'm going out drinking tonight."
As it turns out I didn't go out drinking that night and was up and chipper the next morning. The night before the race we had acquired our craft from the woods behind our buddy's house and my brother gave it a once over with some soap and water to make that 25-year-old canary yellow paint job really pop! It wasn't a bad looking boat either. It was long and narrow and had definitely been designed for speed. The wooden paddles we had, on the other hand, did not inspire much confidence. The stern man's paddle could have easily done double duty as a pizza paddle, being almost 18 inches wide. While my equipment had improved significantly from my last experience I was unsure if it would be enough to overcome "The Black Stealth".
Now a little background on The Battle of The Bay. It is a triathlon, which consists of a two-mile run, a four-mile bike and a 3.5-mile canoe out the Royal River back to the starting line on Cousins Island Beach. It was started three years ago as a way to support a scholarship that was set up in memory of Evans Albert Spear, who died of cancer at a young age. The scholarship is $5,000, and is presented to a graduating Yarmouth High School senior. Evans was a few years below me at Yarmouth High School but I knew his brother well and Evans was such an energetic and funny character that everyone knew his mischievous smile. He was a fierce competitor and a remarkable athlete, playing both hockey and lacrosse. For the past two years the winners had been a team headed by Evans' brother, Willis "Obie" Spear, and their secret weapon was the canoe that Obie had purchased the inaugural year known as "The Black Stealth".
The Black Stealth is without a doubt the most amazing canoe I have ever seen. Constructed of Kevlar and carbon fiber, the boat weighs 28 pounds, is self-bailing and costs several thousand dollars. It is sleek and mean and definitely takes no prisoners. This piece of aerospace magic had been the deciding factor in the years gone by and I had my doubts that the 80's technology of our tired, old, yellow boat would pull us through when I laid eyes on The Black Stealth for the first time. As Obie pulled into the parking area at the beach I went over to exchange greetings and feel out the competition. I was relieved to learn that he and his partner had been having trouble keeping the boat upright. As Obie puts it, "paddling the boat is like riding a bike," in that you need to have some momentum to keep it upright. But this was the third year that he had been paddling this boat and I couldn't tell if he was just trying to psyche me out. While my brother and I waited at the starting point for the canoe leg, the grass around the launch area slowly filled with all sorts of canoes. From a friend's homemade strip canoe to square stern Grumman's and plastic Coleman's. There was only one boat other than The Black Stealth that worried me. It was a nice fiberglass Wenonah that looked like it could move along pretty well. As our fellow competitors arrived it became clear that some of them had not been so successful as I in fighting the urge to go out and hit the town. A buddy of mine who has recently returned from a tour in Iraq boasted that he and his paddling partner had "drank all the booze in the Old Port." As we waited expectantly for our cyclist to arrive I felt confident that our only real competition would come from Obie and The Black Stealth. The tag off procedure was as follows, the cyclists would turn the corner into the home stretch and be identified by their number this information would be relayed to the canoe start area a half-mile down the road when one of the paddling team would be alerted and be waiting for the cyclist to arrive. After the tag had been made the paddler runs to his teammate and they carry their boat to the water, load in and set off. The tension was palpable as we waited for the first cyclist. Then I heard the race volunteer at the top of the hill yell, "Sixteen!" I let out a mighty yell as I realized that our team was in the lead. We grabbed our boat and were on the water with no delay. As we powered out into the river I took the time for a rearward glance. We were about 100 yards from the put in and no other boat was in the water yet. In a few more seconds I looked again to see that no other boat had started yet. A few more seconds and another look and I was amazed and shocked to see The Black Stealth half way between the starting point and us. They had been out of my view the last time I looked over my left shoulder, but this time they were right there over my right. I alerted my brother in the bow that they were now under way but that we had a good lead. At a half mile in it became clear that The Black Stealth was slowly closing the gap. About one mile into the race I looked up to see a great blue heron emerge from the tall grasses along the riverbank. This majestic bird has always been one of my favorites and I commented to Ben, "Look a heron, that's a good omen." He laughed and replied, "Yes, Poseidon favors us and smiles on our craft." We both laughed as we continued to rhythmically paddle on. A few moments latter a powerboat passed us and I looked back to check the gap. It took me a second to figure out what I was looking at but I soon realized that The Black Stealth had capsized in the wake of the powerboat. I told my brother and he replied with a vehement "YES! Let's do this!"
I said that they were almost back in their boat and that we needed to take advantage and power ahead while we could. As the shore passed by us and the mouth of the river drew closer it became clear that The Black Stealth had capsized again and was fading fast and had been overtaken by the rest of the pack. When we finally hit the open water of the ocean we felt comfortable with our lead and started to talk about our impending victory, which I knew was a horribly foolish thing to do because there was still three-quarters of a mile left to go on the merciless ocean. But as we drew closer to the finish line we knew that victory was ours and we started to hoot and holler and shout our team name, which I had thought up on the spur of the moment that morning, "Yeah, Rock Steady Crew!"
As we pulled the boat to shore and ran to the finish line there was much rejoicing with our teammates and the assembled crowds. We were surprised to be approached immediately by a reporter from a local paper that wanted to capture the moment and get our thoughts on the day's events. We soon leaned that our team had come in first in every event and that we had set a record time. More boats arrived and there were a few sprints to the finish that offered some excitement. Following the event there was a lobster bake and awards ceremony with winners in various categories culminating in the presentation of the trophy cup - which my brother and I will be proud to hold for the next year - and the ceremonial drinking from the cup.
My friend Obie was gracious in defeat and offered congratulations and assurances that our mutual friend and his former paddling teammate Nate Stewart would not have wanted anyone else to have captured the cup from them. Obie went on to say that Nate, who had sadly died in an accident on his tug boat the previous fall, was the key member of their paddling team and had used his whitewater kayaking skills to keep the Stealth upright in wakes the previous two years. I was comforted by Obie's words and was proud that my brother and my names would be etched on the trophy with such great men as himself, his brother Evans and Nate Stewart.
I look forward to defending the title next year, and invite all challengers to come to Yarmouth the first weekend in August and try their luck in the Battle of The Bay. The atmosphere is laid back, the competition is invigorating and the cause is well worth the entry fee.
Patrick Abbott is a 27-year-old diplomat. He represents long boarders in negotiations with all other beings. A college student in Vermont on the 10-year plan, he advocates for sharing the road, and running the river. With any time not spent skiing, hiking, boating or skating he's searching for clues at the scene of the crime. He has spent summers in West Forks forever and yes ladies, he is single.
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