Carolina Cup Time Is Almost Here!
It’s April. Finally! We are on the cusp of the 2107 racing season. Oh sure, there’ve been a few events here and there, but this month, it ramps up and big time.
For most of us on the East Coast, April means the West Marine Carolina Cup put on by the Wrightsville Beach Paddle Club. Now in its seventh year, this event is more than a race…it is one big paddle party where pros and Joes laugh, eat, paddle and oh yeah, race, next to each other. It’s where you reconnect with your paddle peeps from all over the country after a long, cold winter. But you don’t have to compete to have a great time, between the board demos, clinics and social events, there’s plenty to keep you engaged and stoked even if you don’t pin on a race bib. If you want to know what the paddle community is all about, then spend Saturday, April 22 at Wrightsville Beach and soak up the stoke. I guarantee next year, you’ll pin that bib on.
The Carolina Cup is a great event to make your racing debut. If you are curious about paddle racing and just want to see if you’ll like it, the 3.5 Harbor Island course is the perfect intro. Short enough to not be intimidating, with just enough current and tide to make it challenging and with lots of participants who are probably doing the same thing you are. Combine the race with a good clinic the day before and with the festival atmosphere, and you’ve set yourself up for a fantastic weekend.
One of the many great things about the Carolina Cup is the progression. Once you’ve mastered Harbor Island, then the next race to set your sights on is the Money Island course. About 6.5 miles, with all the challenges of tide, wind and current you can handle. It’s a great place to improve your racing skills and test your endurance.
Then there’s the Graveyard.
If you’re not careful, it can become an obsession.
From the first time I heard about it, The Graveyard immediately took on mythical proportions.
The North Carolina coastline is littered with shipwrecks, many from the WWII era, because of its numerous capes (Hatteras, Lookout, Fear) where shoaling and offshore conditions wreck havoc with mariners. You’ll hear our coast referred to as The Graveyard of the Atlantic.
And while the course moniker conjures of images of our maritime history, the more obvious, and ominous comparison is not without merit. The ever changing, totally unpredictable conditions can cause many a seasoned paddler to want to bury his or her soul, if not entire being, in the thick, dark mud beneath the marsh grass and oyster beds of Lee’s Cut.
The Graveyard course is a 13.2 mile run that’s part shore break, testy ocean, angry inlet crossings and part gnarly flat water controlled by wind, tide and current.
It is not to be taken lightly.
It is not to be disrespected.
And if you disrespect Mason’s Inlet – THE inlet – you will pay.
Mason’s Inlet is the opening between the barrier island that makes up Wrightsville Beach and its northern neighbor, Figure Eight Island. This is a site of ever-shifting sand…bars that build up, change shape, disappear and reappear completely reconfigured at the whim of every passing storm, extreme tide, or at the hands of man. Dredging occurs every so often to keep a channel clear for fishing boats (and weary paddlers) but as soon as the channel is deepened, it will begin to refill.
Mason’s moods change with the way of the tides, too. Low tide exposes shoals and sand bars, pitches up waves, which can be made even worse depending on which way the wind blows. You will have choices to make in Mason’s …and you will be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Last year, my choice in Mason’s was to play it safe to avoid another huli, which would have ended my OC1 race. The consequences? It took me 45 minutes to battle the chop and the outgoing tide before I found myself safely through and in calmer water.
And you won’t know until race day if you will paddle through the inlet into the sound, or if you will go out Mason’s Inlet back into the ocean to finish the last leg of the race. Whether the course is run clockwise (starting going south off the beach) or counter clockwise (starting going north off the beach) depends on the wind. Which can change multiple times in an hour. For some, it’s preferable to surf the waves in through the inlet, rather than battle them going out, after you’ve slogged in out in the flats, toward the end of the race when you are most tired.
Either way, there is always a Catch-22. Great conditions in the ocean and/or Mason’s Inlet, then bad conditions in the flats. Sometimes it’s just bad everywhere: bad shore break, heavy side swells, outgoing tide running against the course direction, and a cross wind.
Seems like that’s how it always goes.
That’s why this race is a major challenge for the pros – why some of them love it and others hate it. Sure Molokai to Oahu is almost three times longer, but at least it is usually consistent. No other race brings these kind of variables into play.
It’s best not to obsess about things like wind and weather forecasts, in the same way it’s best not to obsess about dam releases and current flow at Chattajack.
It won’t help you.
Because, as the saying goes, don’t like the conditions in NC? Wait five minutes. Then wait another five minutes.
If you are doing the Graveyard, especially for the first time, I highly recommend you find a group of locals, offer to buy them beer and some tacos at Tower Seven and pick their brains. Get all the intel you can, especially on THE inlet. Then, go out and look at it. Paddle into or out of it. Study it. Know it. As best you can.
At the other end of the course, is Masonboro Inlet. It is more protected than its sister to the North. You can thank the jetty for that. It is a deeper, more consistent, more predictable section of the course. You might have some swell there but nothing like what you will find at the other end.
As you paddle past that jetty, take a moment to thank the ocean for letting you play. For letting you race. For letting you paddle. You’ll be glad you did.
The Graveyard will break you, chew you up, and spit you back out, and yet, it will elate you, it will elevate you and it will make you more confident in your ability to handle anything.
Even if you come in last.
Just finishing the Graveyard is an accomplishment to be proud of.
And while the thought of the irascible shore break makes me break out into a cold sweat every time I think about the starting line carnage that always ensues, I absolute cannot wait to be back out there again.