Colwyn Bay Blast
Rather than training for and competing in Triathlons this year I’m out to have some fun. Trying lots of new things, giving stuff a go and seeing if I can improve in some of it. With that in mind and the fact that I’ve been having fun paddling around Borth, Ynyslas and Aberdovey on my surf ski I entered the Colwyn Bay Blast. I knew little about it other than the fact that it was a 15km Surf Ski race in Colwyn Bay.
A little out of place in Colwyn Bay
I loaded the camper up on Saturday morning complete with my very old, very heavy and – even in it’s time – low-performance surf ski and made the drive up to Colwyn Bay. It was a lovely morning. There was a SW breeze blowing the trees and the sun was shining as I drove through North Wales. I had plenty of time so it was a nice relaxed drive with no traffic and only took about 2 hours. When I arrived to a calm looking Colwyn Bay there were vans parked up along the prom with surf skis on top. I parked up alongside them and immediately drew attention from other surf skiers with the old fashioned looking ski that I had on the roof.
I chatted to a few other fellow ‘competitors’. They all looked pretty serious and they all had some serious looking surf ski’s too. Surf Ski racing is quite a small scene here in the UK so everyone seemed to know each other and knew what to expect. I was the outsider, the newcomer with clearly inadequate equipment. The newbie with no idea what he’d let himself in for! They were all friendly and welcoming though and everyone had words of encouragement and advice for me. They may have thought my ski was a little antiquated and probably not up to the task at hand, but many of them were also quite taken with the camper. A few of them wanted a little look around and said that they were after one or had wanted one for a while.
As we chatted on the prom, event shelters were being erected on the beach, buoys were being positioned in the bay, surf ski brands were setting up stalls complete with drool-worthy new shiney new skis made from exotic materials and the seaside town of Colwyn Bay was waking up to a glorious sunny day. A sunny Saturday no less, the sort of days that beach towns such as Colwyn Bay thrive on.
What have I let myself in for?
Looking out to sea huge numbers of giant wind turbines stood like sentinels ready to march and invade the North Wales coastline. The bay looked calm and serene but the buoys I had seen the boats putting into position looked quite a way offshore. I’d like to say they were further offshore than I had expected, but I didn’t really have any expectations as I had no clue what I’d let myself in for. Maybe ‘further offshore than I would have liked’ would be more accurate. The SW wind was creating some chop and there was a bit of a swell running along the coast too. What looked like calm, flat conditions in the bay looked a little bumpier out by the buoys.
Race briefing was at 10am so we all headed over to the Colwyn Bay Watersports Centre for the briefing. This is where I discovered what I had really let myself in for.
The course headed from the beach out in the direction of the wind turbines. It went around a large yellow buoy here and headed back towards the beach where we were to round another buoy. From here we headed across the bay to another yellow buoy situated just offshore of the breakwater at Rhos-on-Sea. We rounded this buoy and headed out to sea once again to a permanent shipping buoy. Here we turned left and headed out across Penrhyn Bay to the prominent rocky headland of The Little Orme. We wouldn’t be able see the next buoy until we were partway across the bay but if we headed towards The Little Orme we would find it. Here we were to round the buoy and head back to the shipping buoy and then head straight across Colwyn Bay to the beach where we started. It looked and sounded like a long way!
Safety instructions were given. Buoyancy aids were compulsory – I had brought mine, albeit a very bulky recreational buoyancy aid not really designed for paddling in. Ski and paddle leashes were recommended (I don’t have these). We were told what VHF radio channel the event would be using and that we could contact Race Control on the beach or Race HQ at the Watersports centre and that the various safety boats on the water would all have VHF radios too. I looked around and some people did indeed have VHF radios that they were carrying with them. This was looking quite serious, what had I let myself in for? I took a look at the maps pinned to the noticeboards in the boat house. Everyone else knew what to expect and took it all in their stride. It was all new to me. I decided that it would be quite an undertaking. The challenge would be completing the course under my own steam. I decided that it would be difficult but that I could make it and headed off to get ready.
Colwyn Bay Blast
Before long I was lined up on the beach ready for the start. I still felt quite out of place with my antiquated ski. It was a le Mans style start so we lined up at the flags partway up the beach with our skis at the water edge. The start sounded and everyone sprinted off to get their boats and head off into the sun baked blue waters of Colwyn Bay. The run down the beach was probably the only bit I’d be any good at but I didn’t know what I was doing so hung back jogging gently along with the majority of people just so that I could see what they did. We grabbed our skis dragged them into the water and jumped on. Everyone else was paddling hard, I took it easy, settling in at the back.
I couldn’t see the first buoy as it was quite a way offshore and obscured by all of the other surf-skis in front of me. I simply followed them until things thinned out a little and I could see the buoy for myself.
It was a fairly easy paddle out to the first buoy with the wind behind us. I started at the back and stayed there. As we approached the buoy there were two other people just ahead of me. Most other people were already way off in the distance and almost back towards the beach. As I rounded the buoy with a wide arc thanks to the ocean liner like turning circle of my ancient ski I noticed that there was still one other person behind me. I wasn’t last – yet!
The leg back towards the beach was hard going though. It was into the wind and with a fair bit of chop now that we were further out to sea.
I had my Fenix 3 set to beep at me every 0.25 miles. I usually do this distance in just under 3 minutes or just a little quicker than 5mph. I’d been going a little faster than that on the way out with my watch beeping at me after about 2mins 35 secs. This had now slowed though and it was taking closer to 3:45 for each ¼ mile. It was quite hard work already.
I made it back to the next buoy though and with almost 3 miles completed turned right and headed off towards Rhos-on-Sea. This stretch wasn’t too bad and my speed was back up to between and 5 and 6 mph. I had however now pretty much lost sight of everyone ahead of me. The short stretch out to the shipping buoy was OK. There was a bit of swell coming from the side which added to the challenge of staying upright but with the wind behind me it was fairly short-lived.
The next stretch took us all the way across Penrhyn Bay to the Little Orme. It was fairly slow progress as well. There was a side wind and therefore some small chop from the side. This was accompanied by a small head-on small swell and possibly some current working against me as well. I started to tire a little partway across the bay. It felt as though I was all on my own out here as well with no one else in sight. Eventually I could see the buoy situated off the Little Orme and also saw other competitors heading back the other way. Most were a little further out to sea than me, presumably making the most of the swell and current going in the opposite direction. Before long they had all gone the other way though and once again I was on my own with the large yellow buoy taking seemingly forever to get closer. My speed had been back down around 4mph for much of this stretch.
I rounded the buoy and headed back across Penrhyn Bay trying to spot the shipping buoy in the distance. With the swell helping me along my speed increased back to above 5mph but it was still hard work and I was beginning to struggle. The shipping marker came into sight and I slowly went around it and aimed my ski for the beach. This was now into the wind and the wind was picking up quite a bit. I was tired and uncomfortable. With 8 miles completed I now had a 1.5 mile slow slog all the back to the beach still to do.
The Last Slog
I’m just glad that none of the safety boats asked if I needed a tow as I may well have said yes. It was hard work, the hardest thing I’ve done for a while. My ski is heavy, a bit of a tug as people called it. The wave deflector catches the wind. My paddles are very inefficient and catch the wind too. I was also wearing a buoyancy aid that I’m unaccustomed to. It was big, bulky and uncomfortable. It restricted my breathing and restricted my movement. I couldn’t hinge forwards at the waist into my stroke. I couldn’t twist my core. I was essentially sat there in one position trying my best to paddle. It was uncomfortable, inefficient and ineffective. I was making progress into the wind but progress was slow. I had now been stuck in this unnatural position for close to two hours. My back was sore and locked in place, my quads were on fire. What little paddling technique I might possess had long since abandoned me. I was in survival mode just willing the beach to get closer. The one guy that was behind me went past me here and asked if I was OK. I lied and said that I was.
My pace had slowed considerably and the last mile was agony. There were times when I wondered if I was still making headway against the ever increasing wind. Times when I hoped I wasn’t so that the safety boats would force me to abandon my attempt. Times when I hoped I’d never see a surf ski, kayak or set of paddles again! My body was suffering. I just kept trying to focus on the beach and make headway. Even that was difficult through stinging eyes. I’m not sure if it was salt from sweat, the sea-water or maybe even tears.
But hey, the sun was shining (sometimes), I had the wind in my hair and the sea all around. I wasn’t in any danger just uncomfortable and slow. Surely it had to be good training too, right? I’m not used to being at the back, I’m not used to losing but I kept going despite the pain and uncomfort. I could have blamed my ski, it’s old, it’s slow, it’s heavy and not a match for the modern craft everyone else was using. My paddles don’t help and the buoyancy aid was the biggest handicap of all. But, as the event wore on I shifted the blame more towards myself, my poor paddling technique, my inadequate preparation and my lack of paddling fitness and skill. Rather than dwell on the fact that I was last and losing I had hope. Hope that I could only get better.
Eventually I reached the shore. I wasn’t actually that far behind the guy in front of me. He was still jogging up the beach to the finish line. I gingerly dismounted, not quite sure if my back would move from the 90° angle it had been stuck in for the last 2 hours or so. Not sure if my legs would support me or if the change of orientation would send my burning quads into spasms of cramp. My body responded, I stood up and dragged my ski away from the water.
Someone on the beach said ‘well done’ and told me to head to the white tent for the finish line. I’d already worked that out for myself. I jogged off, paddles in hand, across the sand to the tent. Jogging was fairly futile though. I was in last place what were a few more seconds. James was stood next to the tent. I kind of wished he wasn’t as I didn’t really want people seeing me finish last. I might have been suffering but I still had some sort of ego. He told me to sprint to the line, I just scoffed – that wasn’t about to happen.
The officials simply noted down my time and confirmed it with each other without even a word to me. Kind of an anticlimax after what had been quite a challenge for me. As I left the tent I heard them get on their VHF radios to race control to let them know that all of the surf skis were off the water and accounted for. Apparently there were still some SUPs out on the water though. They had been racing at the same time as us but on a shorter two lap course within the confines of the bay.
I collected my ski, hefted it onto my shoulder and carried it up the beach. After 5 mins recovery and some snacks I successfully packed up, loaded the ski onto the roof and headed off for a shower. Colwyn Bay Blast done and dusted!
Chat returned to what type of craft I should get. Really I should have tried out as many of the demo boats from Think, Nordic Kayaks and Knysna as I could. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to do so.
I had some lunch, had a cup of tea and then headed off to the prize-giving.
Colwyn Bay was alive with activity. The Surf Life Saving Club was giving rides in its little zapcat boats to a line of expectant families stood patiently at the waters edge. People were playing volleyball and badminton on the beach. Touch rugby and football was taking place on the beach too. Kids were circling around a bike skills course on the prom while parents watched on from red and white striped deckchairs. Occasionally one would fall of their bike and rise with a bloodied knee or elbow. Parents would jump from their canvas chairs to tend to the scarlet wounds as tears welled in the child’s eyes.
Summer was all around. Ice creams and sun cream. Flip flops and funky sunglasses. Short shorts and sandy toes. Teenagers cruised along the prom on long skateboards. The girls in cut off short denims faded to sky blue, the boys in baggy board shorts.
Frisbees glided through the summer skies briefly mirroring the path of soaring gulls. Fallen Mr Whippy ice creams lay melting on the kerb.
I sat there in the camper watching the world go by as my wetsuit dried in the sunshine. Loads of people admired the van. Mainly fellow Surf Skiers from the event who all had questions about the conversion, the cost and the camper lifestyle. Complete strangers stopped to admire it too. Most people who wanted one of their own. Some even asked permission to take photos of the interior for inspiration should they ever be able to get one. I obliged and they stayed chatting about campers for a while.
Eventually I dragged myself away from the beach and headed off to the hills. I was still exhausted after the Colwyn Bay Blast, but already my reticence to ever see a surf ski again was turning into a determination to get better at it. Today’s efforts only show that there is plenty of room for improvement. Winning and doing well is an achievement, it’s fun and it feels good but it’s kind of easy. Losing is hard, it’s punishing but it’s where lessons are learnt and where characters are built. Winning is what dreams are made of. Losing is where ambition starts.