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Watching the Swifts

Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Tonight I went and watched the Swifts.

No, it's not an 80's punk band, they're a type of bird (called Vaux's Swifts) that, every mid-September, migrates through Portland and stays in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School.

It was impressive to watch. As the sun starts to set, suddenly these small birds start appearing over the school. At first there were a dozen circling in the air above us. Then there were dozens, all swooping around, darting through the air. Then, there were hundreds, if not thousands. So small the eye has trouble tracking them, they darkened the sky over the school as they swarmed, waiting for some appointed time known only to the birds.

Then, as if by great mutual agreement, the birds created a funnel, spiraling into the chimney. But they weren't the only creatures in the air. Some local hawks know where the food is as well. The crowd gasped as the lone hawk dove in, flying low above the spectators before crossing through the mass of Swifts, leaving with a meal in its claws. But even as one was taken, hundreds more continued pouring into the chimney.

All those little black dots are birds!

It took maybe 10 minutes for them to fit in, but each moment was exciting. Even the crowd reactions - cheering for the hawk, providing anthropomorphic voiceover for the actions of the birds - was entertaining.

In all, it was an amazing thing to watch. It amazes me even more that I'm from Portland and I've never seen it - but the adventure here never stops.

Portland Dragon Boat Race 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011
This weekend I participated in the Portland Dragon Boat Races, held down at the South Waterfront Park, the third race I participated in this year.. The race was held over two days, and with 75 teams entered, over 85 races were run!

Day One (Saturday)

Our first race was scheduled for 9:30 in the morning. We all arrived early in order to hang out in the tent, wake up, and have time to get organized and stretch. We'd had an amazing series of practices leading up to the race, and we all felt confident that we'd locked in a rhythm and were going to do well. We loaded up on the boats for our first heat. As was standard, we'd be racing four other boats in a 500 meter run.

As we were paddling into position, the jitters set in. I've done a few races, so I knew what to expect, but still... it was the first race of the day. The horn sounded - actually a half-sound, then a full sound, which threw us off a bit - and we were off. We paddled hard, we paddled well, we had a strong finish, and, though our rate was faster than in our practices (not necessarily a good thing), we came in second. Our time was 2:03, coming in well behind the first place Kai Ikaika team (which, for reference, won the top gold medal, so there's no shame it that.)

After that, we had a break until the next Shibumi race. The open division races were coming up; normal teams are either mixed division (at least 8 women) or all-women, but the open division allowed a team to have whatever mix they wanted. We fielded a all-men team in conjunction with the Canadian Navy Dragon Anchors men, calling ourselves Veggie Pete & Meat Locker. (Pete's the vegan of the group, and he even brought out a small pair of green shorts indicating such.) We got out there against four other teams and, had we had time to practice even once together, would have gotten better than fourth place with our 1:54 time. Still, we were fast and not dissatisfied with the showing, eventhough that meant we wouldn't advance to the final race in the open division.

The time came for our second race of the day. We lined up against a bunch of teams, all of which had posted times similar to our first one. We took off and had a brilliant start but the boat just slowed down at the end; we ended up with a time of 2:05, which landed us in 4th place. I was worried about the increase in our time, but all but one team was 2-14 seconds slower than their first race.

Our third and final race of the day was a 250 meter race. Knowing that we could do it - we had a strong finish in our first race and a strong start in our second one - we were confident going into the race. We lined up... and failed to perform. Instead of the best parts of either of our previous races, we got the worst. Our time for the 250 was 1:20, an abysmal showing that landed us in 5th and, honestly, one of the worst times of all the mixed teams. It was a miserable way to end the first day of racing.

Day 2 (Sunday)

Our first race of the day on Sunday was the semi-final. We'd been placed in the "Morrison Bridge" division (with the divisions being names after Portland bridges, starting with the Fremont and heading south. I guess no one likes the St. Johns bridge. Again we lined up to head out on the boats. Our mood was more subdued today; the previous day's worth of losses had taken some of the excitement out of our team. We went out there, though, determined to prove ourselves. Then we ended up in 4th place, with a time of 2:11. It wasn't from lack of effort or strength; in this case, timing issues plagued our race and we just weren't as efficient as we should have been.

The fourth place showing took us out of contention for a medal. We ended up in the consolation race, the "golly, you have a nice personality" race where maybe we could end up with a ribbon for our efforts. We lined up in the afternoon for this race against several teams who'd already beaten us before. We finally managed to get out of our funk and perform, but still ended up with a time of 2:03, again landing us in 4th place. No medal, no ribbon, no glory. A gloom settled over our team that even the Navy Dragon Anchors, who shared a tent with us, couldn't lift.

We watched the final races go. As horrible as the feeling was to lose and lose and lose again, watching the effort and power in the winning teams was amazing. The timing, the effort, the energy that went into some of the races was a sight to behold.

But after the final races, there were two more races to be run. These were the Guts-to-Glory races, officially titled "Bridge to Bridge", one for women's teams and one for the mixed teams. Instead of 250 or 500 meters, these were 2000 meters, looping around the Hawthorne and Marquam bridges.

Officially, the top teams in each division were invited to participate. In reality, not every team wanted to go, and not all the paddlers were eager to either stick around or push themselves that extra mile (and a quarter.) My team wasn't officially in the race, but a bunch of us were invited to paddle with Team Spitfire SAKE from Seattle. It was a staggered, rolling start; the boats were already moving at the start line, and we were launched every 10 seconds because overtaking was then more exciting and you didn't have 11 dragonboats trying to turn around a bridge piling all at one time. Was it competitive? Sure. Did we win? No. Was winning important? Not for this race. Our team managed 8th (of 11) with a time of 9:36 and, for a few brief moments, I felt better than I should have.

The pain, of course, came later. At some point, I seem to have bruised the heel of my left foot, meaning that, of all the things I hurt in a paddling race, the heel of my foot is the part that hurts the most.

In all, the Portland Dragon Boat Race was exceptionally well run. Despite a few scheduling issues, it was smooth, well run, well announced, clean, and fun. I've only been to a few races, but what I appreciated about the Portland race over the Olympia or Salem ones is the clear view that's presented of the race course. In Salem, the end of the race was hidden behind the Willamette Queen, and in Olympia it was likewise difficult to see the course. In Portland, it was trivial to find a spot where the entire race could be seen from, and that made it all that much more exciting. I'm definitely looking forward to next year - and to winning!

(Full results can be seen here.)

Wind Powered

Monday, September 05, 2011
This past weekend I took a course in Basic Keelboat Sailing from the Island Sailing Club.

The first day was pretty intense. We had 18-20 knot winds on the Columbia River, leaving whitecaps wherever we looked. As we headed out, we saw a sailboat motoring back that had a broken mast. The wind was blowing hard. Compounding this, as we were heading out in a nice little 24-foot boat for our first experience sailing - five green students and one instructor - our Mercury outboard motor quit, leaving us unpowered. Our instructor quickly advised us to raise the sails, which we did. As our jib went up and our mainsail was raised, we entered the real wind just outside the marina as I was handed the tiller. We were sailing a close reach, sort of by accident, and the wind hit our boat, heeling it over about 45 degrees. For five new sailors, the experience of having the side of the boat - up to the lifelife - fully immersed in the water while we scrambled to stay dry was unsettling, to say the least. Images of a capsized boat danced in my head as I mentally went over both my chances of survival (pretty good) and my odds of having to pay for the first $1500 worth of damage to the boat as I'd agreed to do in a waiver I'd just signed.

Eventually, after spinning the boat and generally looking like we were all new to this "sailing" thing, we got the boat under control and realized that having the boat heeled over that far is fun when you know it's supposed to do that. As we rotated through responsibilities of helmsman and controlling the mainsheet, each jib sheet, and an extra person to help winch lines, we learned more about how to communicate on a boat, how to tack, how to jibe, and how to control the boat in a reasonably competent manner. I left that first day exhausted but with a smile a million miles wide on my face.

the magical lesson boat

The second day was significantly less stressful. Our instructor noted that we were going to get all manner of sailing experience. Where the first day was extremely windy, with strong gusts, the second day was significantly calmer. After prepping the boat for sailing and passing muster with our instructor, we went out in the morning and practiced man-overboard drills until lunchtime, when we came back in. We took the test for ASA certification and I passed, thankfully. For a test that's 100 multiple choice questions, I stressed far more than I should have.

At that point we were faced with options. We could go back out on the water by ourselves, we could take our instructor with us, or we could simply head home. While one of my fellow students opted to head home, the remaining four of us pulled our instructor back onto our boat for a few more hours on the water.

This final trip was more interesting. We practiced man-overboard drills with an actual student volunteering to jump in the river; we showed how difficult (or impossible) it is to pull someone out of the water if they're not actively helping. Then, with a very light breeze going, we practiced tacking and jibing in front of the marina. At one point we watched Marine Assistance go out and assist what looked like a disabled boat; a line was hooked up and they started to tow the boat, but it looked like the power came back and the formerly disabled watercraft was able to self-power again. Then a little while later, as we were close to the mouth of the marina, I noticed another sailboat, sails lowered, motoring about 10 yards from us as if they were heading in. I remember mentally noticing the wake they left. Then, when I looked back a few seconds later, I was puzzled by the lack of a wake. I was trying to figure out how they stopped so quickly. At that point we all realized that, the way the folks on that boat were moving about, they hadn't planned on stopping. Shortly after that realization, everyone on our boat realized that, being (at most) 10 yards away from the stuck vehicle, we weren't moving in relation to them at all. Our boat was bobbing up and down, but we had lost the ability steer or really do anything other than sit there. We were stuck too, much to the surprise of the instructor.

Fortunately for us, we'd grounded on a soft, relatively new sandbar just in front of the marina at a maximum speed of maybe two knots. Our experienced instructor didn't really want to pay for a tow, so he had all of us lean out over one side of the boat while he used the outboard to try to swing us around. Our weight did the trick; the keel lifted off the bottom long enough for our boat to rotate and move away. We were free! The other boat, which we realized was stuck more or less where we'd seen the earlier disabled craft, wasn't so luck. Marine Assistance wasn't able to pull them free, as they were moving much faster when they got stuck. As we looked back, the Coast Guard came in with a bigger ship and was able to pull that sailboat free.

In all, the class was a wonderful experience. I had an amazing amount of fun and can safely say two things:
1) I want to take the next level class, and
2) I want a sailboat.

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