MAYOR’S CUP ‘09: The Gods Must Be Freezing

Thursday, 29 October 2009 16:39 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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"....The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup at a deli" - George Costanza, "Seinfeld:  The Marine Biologist".

NYMC09

Sean Brennan of Team USA heads up through the maelstrom of the Hudson River (Pic: Suzy Allman)

A drunk staggering home in the wee hours could easily have mistaken the shadowy figures huddled beneath the tents by the water's edge for homeless folks at an outdoor soup kitchen. We looked the part: Hoods cinched over wool caps, steaming cups of coffee in hand, we had little to do except stare at the puddles expand around our feet.

It had been unseasonably chilly in New York City all week - there'd even been a dusting of snow 50 miles up river -- but this particular Sunday was particularly hideous, with howling wind, rain, and temperatures around 6C (42F).  The first leg up the Hudson would be a frigid fistfight with the current and wind working against each other - the paddling equivalent of a great downwind run in reverse.

Elites Only

Of course, that would only be a problem if we were allowed to paddle. Race Director Ray Fusco had told me that if the wind was a sustained 25 knots or more the fourth edition of the Mayor's Cup was in jeopardy. On race morning, windguru forecast NE winds at 20 to 30 mph, gusting to 40. Coincidentally, sadly, whatdafuckly, it was a repeat of the calamitous conditions that cancelled last year's race, only worse. How ironic, I thought, that a mile-wide river on the west side of Manhattan was far rougher than the past two ski races across the Molokai channel.

At first light, the 42-year-old former Hudson River guide stepped to the podium. Megaphone in hand, Fusco stood before 132 soggy paddlers, sighed, and delivered the bad news. "We have three-to-six feet seas and sustained winds of 28 mph, gusting to 40," he said. "I'm sorry, but I have no choice but to cancel the race for all but the elite class." Some murmured relief; others mumbled disgust. 

Knowing all that Fusco had been through to rebuild the event that could have easily gone the way of the dodo bird, this was a serious kick in his eggs. After last year's train wreck, he'd had to convince the various maritime authorities that he had enough safety nets in place to rescue a flotilla of neophytes from New Jersey. Toss a global recession into the mix and, long saga short, Fusco had logged copious time on bended knee in order to rustle up swag and a purse of $15,000. True, there were no McGregor's or Chalupskys among us, but Greg Barton, the double-Olympic Gold medalist was back for the fourth consecutive year, along with two dozen decorated racers with international experience. In addition, Fusco had assembled five-man teams from the US and Holland to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson "discovering" the river that bears his name. 

Everything was set for a big bounce-back year: Everything except the weather.

In firm, sober tones Ray explained the rationale behind his decision. Then he paused, struggling to find words to describe his disappointment. He spoke about his vision for the first Mayor's Cup; the obstacles he'd overcome and the joy he felt when it appeared his dream would be realized. Three weeks before that inaugural race he learned that he had a baseball-size tumor on his kidney; 10 days after the race he had his right kidney removed. "That was October 18," he said, voice quavering, tears streaming down his face. "And today is my third anniversary of being cancer-free."

Andy Gould, the Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Sports Commission, stepped over and put his arm around Fusco. The wind shook the tent. Just behind in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty stood regally in the gauzy gray light. It sounds corny, I know; and the scene did have a bit of an Oprah feel to it. But Fusco's emotion was so genuine and his heartache so palpable that only the most callused would have been unmoved. Someone shouted: "We love you, Ray!" Another added: "We'll be back!"

Returning to race director mode, Ray set forth Plan B. He'd lost eleven safety boats and two jet skis, but he had six boats at his disposal and was willing to let as many as 50 paddlers go. "If you have the skills and stamina to paddle around the island," he stated, "you can have a red bib. But you have to look me in the eye and assure me that you are able to do this!"

Before you could say anemometer three times fast, the field of 132 was cut to 37.  I was dressed and ready to go but that morning had learned that the custom Epic V12 earmarked for Patrick Dolan, which had been damaged in transit, would require a shitload of duct tape to be seaworthy.  The 21-year-old U.S. Sprint Team member had flown from Hawaii on his own dime and had a legit chance to win serious coin. He was also a friend, and given that I'd been nursing an elbow injury and didn't feel great about my chances of turning in a solid performance, I took the magnanimous (read: easy) route and loaned him my V10, climbed on the press boat, and provided live commentary for this site.

Race Start

The race started in the shelter of the North Cove Yacht Club in what once was the shadow of the World Trade Towers. Paddling a custom-painted red-white-and-blue V12, three-time Olympian Rami Zur surged to an early lead. At least I'm pretty sure it was Rami.  Bundled up in layers of Lycra and Gortex, the boys were being flung around in the frothing, brackish water like broncos busters in a carwash. Holding a cell phone in one hand and the side of the heaving boat with the other, my first concern was remaining on board.

NYMC '09 Start

The paddlers head out into the raging Hudson River

Relying on high-powered binoculars and the fact that half the field was staying in my apartment in Brooklyn, I was finally able to sort out who was where. Paddling on river right, Patrick Dolan led with Jaka Jazbec on his tail. Further out in the chop, South African Bevan Manson pulled countrymen Sean Rice with Greg Barton chasing a few boats back. The neon yellow nose of Rice's Think ski was easy to ID and Manson, who'd been nervous all week about the cold, had raided my gear closet and wound up looking like one of the Village People gone fishing. Wearing short blue shorts with black knee-high neoprene boots and a matching wool beanie, the macho member of the South African National Water polo team also sported plastic sandwich bags on his meaty paws.

New York Mayor's Cup '09

'...even the whitecaps had whitecaps'

Faster in the middle

When it dawned on Dolan that the faster water was out in the middle, he veered left with Jazbec in tow. Paddling bow-to-stern through the head-high waves, the Gang of Five looked remarkably smooth given the severity of the water. How nasty was the wind? Tim Dwyer, who found the brim of his sombrero-style rain hat plastered over his face like a soggy pancake, said the wind so strong even the Statue of Liberty turned her back. U.S. Team member Sean Brennan reported that he'd launched over a wave at an angle and been blown nearly sideways. Cape Town's Sean Rice had two waves break over his head. US Marathon Champ Reid Hyle, a Floridian who trains in a lake as warm as a bath tub, was nearly hypothermic. Erik Borgnes, his eyes puffed and red from the salty spray, said afterwards: "The wind was so strong that the rain drops were vaporizing before they hit the ground. It was brutal. Even the whitecaps had whitecaps."

New York Mayor's Cup: Jaka Jazbec

Jazbec on the Hudson River, Sean Rice background (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Philippe Boccara

Philippe Boccara heading up the Hudson (Pic: Jeff Chen)

Halfway up the Hudson, Rice and Manson headed further out into the middle of the river to take full advantage of the incoming current. Dolan and Jazbec hung right with Barton in between, four boats back. As the towering expanse of the George Washington Bridge drew near, Jazbec left Dolan and hammered out into to join the Springboks who were now cruising at 15 kph. I didn't know it at the time but Rice later reported that he was growing increasingly frustrated that he and Manson were doing all the pulling while Jaka hung in for the ride. Spying the fast-closing Barton, Rice informed the lean Slovenian that this wasn't "a big island tour," or words to that affect. Jaka made it be known that he didn't give a floating rat's ass about Barton or anyone else and carried on as per his plan.

New York Mayor's Cup 09

Passing under the George Washington Bridge (Pic: Jeff Chen)

Into the Harlem River

Roughly 95 minutes into the slog, Manson, Rice and Jazbec turned right at the northern tip of Manhattan towards a low-lying railroad bridge and into the protected Harlem River. Here the current was against them but the wind mercifully at their back.  Dolan ducked under the bridge in fourth, roughly 20 seconds back, followed a long minute later by Barton, who'd dropped back to work with Great Britain's Glenn Eldridge and Dutch marathon man Joep van Bakel. 

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Glenn Eldridge

Glenn Eldridge on the Harlem River chasing the escort boat (Pic: Jeff Chen)

The pace and prowess of the front seven came clear while we waited for the next few guys to come by. Paddling together, in eighth and ninth, were New Jersey's Sean Brennan, a former sprinter who'd logged copious ski time in Australia, and the 6'8" French-born paddler Phillipe Boccara. Boccara, who participated in six Olympic Games - count ‘em, six! - won bronze in the K4 1000M for France in Los Angeles and gold at the 1990 World 10K champs. Patrick Hemmens, who trains with Boccara in Costa Mesa, CA, told me that Phillipe had been logging as much as 50K per day. Said Hemmens: "If the Mayor's Cup is flat, I think he could win."

When Reid Hyle and Rami Zur entered the Harlem, 10th and 11th respectively, we motored by the hulking, stoop-shouldered Boccara, digging deep to shake a dogged Brennan. Roughly 1000 meters ahead, we slowed to watch Barton, third in line, behind Elridge and van Bakel.

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Greg Barton

Greg Barton (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup 09

Eldridge and van Bakel working together on the Harlem (Pic: Jeff Chen)

"Who is this Eldridge guy?" I wondered. On the other end of the line in Cape Town, Rob Mousely took a break from typing the live coverage and told me that was a 37-year-old Brit who'd come 8th at the Euro challenge this May. Three weeks ago, he said, Eldrige and a mate set a record in a double Fenn ski for the fastest crossing from the Scilly Isles to Lands End in the UK.

As we motored off, Eldridge, who'd been quick enough to sit in Great Britain's' K4, dropped off Barton's wash to chase the wave left by our motorboat. Paddling patiently behind the Dutchman along the bank, Barton remained impassive, biding his time, I thought, for the rough water ahead. 

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Patrick Dolan

Dolan chasing the leaders(Pic: Jeff Chen)

Minutes later, we were back with the leaders. On the Hudson Manson had appeared strongest, surging ahead several times. But heading south, halfway through the 46K circumnavigation, Rice seemed the fresher of the two, twice sprinting for the wave off a passing Coast Guard cutter. Manson chased him down each time with Jaka in tow.

Hell's Gate

Two miles past Yankee Stadium, roughly two hours and forty-five minutes into the race, the leaders reached Hell's Gate, a narrow tidal strait where the Harlem and East rivers and the Long Island Sound converge at Randall's Island. With the wind and current now in their favor, the leaders moved in stony silence. 

New York Mayor's Cup 09

Barton and Eldridge dicing on the East River (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Jaka Jazbec

Jaka Jazbec, chasing (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Greg Barton

Barton heading south on East River (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup: Pat Dolan

Patrick Dolan paddled most of the way on his own (Pic: Jeff Chen)

With roughly 10K to go, Rice finally laid his paddle in his lap and flat-out told Jaka to pull. "It was frustrating racing like that at just 12 kph," Rice told me later.  But he had no intention of burning himself out only to have Jaka pass him at the end.  As they discussed the merits of socialism versus democracy, Patrick Dolan, who'd been all but out of the picture, was now close enough to hit them with a peashooter. "Where's your Greg Barton now?" Jaka asked.  Rice picked up his paddle and snapped: "Here comes another guy who can beat you downwind."

New York Mayor's Cup 09

Leaders chasing wave off the coast guard cutter, East River before Hell's Gate (Pic: Jeff Chen)

Afterwards, I asked Bevan and Sean why they didn't ditch Jaka earlier. In fact they had tried but, as Bevan said of the former member of the Italian National Sprint Team, "Jaka has hectic speed."

At three hours the cold, wind and waves were taking their toll. The cheeks on Jazbec's chiseled face puffed out rhythmically like a trumpeter reaching for High C. Rice kept leaning back in his ski, wincing as he stretched his back. Though Manson countered each of Rice's breaks, each time it took him a bit longer to return.

New York Mayor's Cup 09

Manson and Jazbec chase Rice towards the Williamsburg Bridge as he breaks away (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup 09

Rounding the battery towards the finish (Pic: Jeff Chen)

A baby-faced 20-year-old with close-cropped hair and a GI Joe style scar across his right eyebrow, Rice is a happy camper off the water, with a booming laugh, ravenous appetite and penchant for baggy-assed jeans. On the water, he's an astute and fiercely competitive racer. This May at the Euro Championship in Spain, his first international race overseas, he half killed himself over the last few kilometers, scratching by six-time World Marathon Champ Manuel Busto to finish third. At the U.S. Ski Champs in August, where he finished sixth in a stacked field, he spent three hours studying a high-tech oceanic model of San Francisco Bay.

5K to go

With roughly 5K to go in the Mayor's Cup, Rice opened a gap of five boat lengths. Manson gave chase again, dropping Jacbec, but Rice hit it harder. Glancing back, Rice amped his stroke rate, widened the gap, and knew if he could maintain his pace the $5,000 first place prize was his.

New York Mayor's Cup 09: Sean Rice

The finish is near; Rice heading home up the Hudson (Pic: Jeff Chen)

Rounding the Battery at the tip of Manhattan, the last 2K up the Hudson was against the current and the wind. With waves ricocheting off the sea wall and the wind gusting to 40 mph, staying upright and moving forward was a cruel test. "It was disgusting!" said Manson. "Ya, it was disgusting."

Head bowed, jaw clenched, Rice scratched forward at 7kph. His finishing time of 3 hours and 36 minutes was 22 minutes slower than the record notched by Herman Chaluspky two years ago.  Manson held on for second, just 50 meters ahead of the fast-closing Jazbec, but he had set the record for the fastest time around Manhattan for a man wearing sandwich bags.

New York Mayor's Cup: Bevan Manson

Manson working the wall up the Hudson to the finish (Pic: Jeff Chen)

New York Mayor's Cup 09: van Bakel

A relieved van Bakel heads to the bar (Pic: Jeff Chen)

Barton, who'd dropped Elridge and van Bakel below the Brooklyn Bridge, caught Pat Dolan halfway up the wall. Hammering through the slop perilously close to the wall, he powered by in classic Barton form: legs pumping, hands held high, nailing each catch.  It was a triumphant finish, one that Lady Liberty, Henry Hudson and certainly Ray Fusco could be proud of.

---

NOTE:  Ray Fusco, who confessed he was enormously relieved that he was able to stage the race in such hostile conditions, said he's keen to move the race to earlier in the year, hopefully to coincide with the US Ski Champs and Chicago Shoreline Marathon. "If I had my druthers," he said, "I've put the Mayor's Cup a week before the US Champs. We're working on it."


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