1:29.5 - that is the split you needed to post the fastest time in the 1x at the HOCR4702.
When we first learned of the plan to run a 'global remote' Head Of The Charles in which rowers would row 4702 on any rowable stretch of water and submit the time, I am pretty sure the first question asked in response was 'can you do it anywhere - even on a really fast river?'
Having spent considerable time rowing on fast and even tidal bodies of water - the Harlem and Hudson rivers, the Raritan, the Willamette - row2k folks have seen some fast water and couldn't help thinking immediately about a full bore piece on a full following current.
We weren't the only ones.
Since his job as the BU boatman no longer involved weekend practices, hosting regattas (the HOCR start line crew sets up upstairs in the BU boathouse), and keeping a fleet on the water, and boathouses were largely closed, Russ Cone had spent weekends during 'Covid times' exploring local bodies of water in his single. Cone did rows on the Merrimack between Nashua and Lowell, the Concord River near Billerica, and more.
"I was without a boathouse all spring and summer, and I got pretty comfortable cartopping and wet-launching, which fit well with my natural inclination to explore," Cone said. "I really miss competing, but I got to row in places I have never rowed before."
Many of those new places were on pieces of water that had a fair amount of current, which stuck with Cone when the Charles announced the remote event.
"My first question was 'is there a limit on how far you can travel to do the row?," Cone recalled.
Cone had selected a few places on the Merrimack that he liked, but as fall approached the Boston area had entered a drought, and local rivers had slowed down considerably. Cone said he had largely given up on finding a very fast stretch of water on which to do the piece until a bike trip took him alongside the Cape Cod Canal.
Cone started investigating how to do a row on the Canal, including figuring out different put-in and take-out spots.
"I estimated that I could do a 13-minute race, but it would take me over two hours to row back," Cone said, laughing. He started to hatch a plan to put in at one end and take out at the other end, then ride his bike back to the car, then go pick up the boat.
As the plan started to come together, however, Cone found out that no human-powered vessels are permitted on the Canal, so he returned to the search for a suitable body of water.
Cone's view of the I-95 bridge
"Some friends suggested I look in Maine, and as soon as I discovered the Piscataqua, I knew I had a winner," he said, noting the narrow river leading to a large bay that was connected to the ocean.
"I knew any tidal action was just going to rip through there," he said, and he started making plans.
He was right; the Piscataqua, which straddles the border of Maine and New Hampshire, is considered 'one of the fastest flowing commercial port waterways in the northeastern United States,' according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Cone checked NOAA tidal and current charts for the river and identified three opportunities that met his own criteria for timing, safety, current speed, and accommodation of his work schedule.
"It was a lot harder that it seems to get everything to line up," Cone said, noting that he wanted to row in the morning before winds and pleasure boat and shipping traffic arrived. His schedule and criteria also dictated that he would have to row upstream instead of downstream, but he was confident there would still be enough current for a fast piece.
He found a very hospitable spot to do a wet launch on the Maine shore, and drove up to do his first piece on Friday October 9, the first day that HOCR entries opened.
On that first attempt, Cone posted a 16:20, but ended up in areas of mixing current for parts of the piece, so was not going much faster than he would elsewhere. Cone realized he had to start further downstream, on the eastern side of I-95. He went back for another go on Thursday, October 15, and got his money's worth.
As he rowed southeast, Cone said he encountered "massive eddies that were quite challenging getting through, and I was having a lot of second thoughts on whether I really wanted to try it. It was pretty intimidating how much water was moving.
"On a normal row while warming up for a piece, I usually see 2:20 or 2:30 splits, and there I was seeing 10 minutes at some points," he said. "I did know that I would be going pretty quick in the other direction if I could just get through that area."
He was right; as he started the piece, he was seeing splits in the low 1:20s down to as low as the 1:teens.
He had to look around every five strokes, tried to keep the rating up while dealing with the swirly water, and admits it "wasn't beautiful rowing," but notes that going with the current, the eddies weren't as bad, and he had a decent row overall.
In the later part of the piece where the Piscataqua gets wider and the current is not as fast, Cone's splits settled in around 1:35.
"I was turning myself inside out to keep my average split under 1:30, and I was able to do that," he said; his final average split was 1:29.5.
Cone's view of a very large and very heavy can buoy
The fastest current would have occurred on the last day of the challenge, and Cone said that piece would likely have been a downstream piece, but Cone was satisfied with the 14:01 result.
"It was a good piece, and I was happy stopping there, but I did leave a lot of current on the table," he said. Cone, who has done a lot of open water and even ocean racing, is not sure he would recommend the row to others. "There is a lot of water, it is really moving fast, there are these really scary nun buoys that weigh a lot and have huge wakes coming off of them, and they can ruin your day - so it's not really a light-hearted row."
That said, he cherishes the experience.
"The planning and executing it was really fun as well, and the row challenged the skillset I have of liking to explore, training on flat water but being comfortable in ocean conditions - I felt like I was using all my abilities as a rower, and got an experience I will remember for a long time."
Ocean Rower Ray Panek Takes Up Where Cone Left Off - Downstream
You may have noticed two courses on the map of the Piscataqua. That is because the next day, Ray Panek, who mostly rows in the ocean off the NH coast and who 'often visits the Isle Of Shoals for quiet time,' learned about Cone's row.
"I was made aware of the virtual HOCR still being open for registration and was also sent a link of Russ Cone time of 14.01, with the location & map," Panek said. "My 15 years of rowing in the Piscataqua and the ocean made it intriguing that he went under five-minute miles for a single scull. Knowing that stretch of river is mostly straight and has powerful tidal currents, I decided to evaluate all weather factors following the heavy rain and wind predicted for the afternoon high tide."
Panek launching on the Piscataqua
Panek started his piece where Cone had ended his, fully embracing the maximal following conditions for his Saturday afternoon row.
Panek said he launched later than he thought would be ideal, but still felt that the combination of outgoing tide, current, tailwind, run-off, and the amplifying element of the spring tide on the new moon would still work well.
In his Echo Ace 24, Panek posted a time of 15:03, pretty much hauling for an open water boat. Then he had to get home.
"I launched about 1 mile below my anticipated starting point, because I knew I would have to row BACK upriver to my car," Panek recalled. "The GPS was out of my sight, and I missed doing the full 4702 by less than 100 meters. The NW winds were decreasing shortly after 4PM, but given my time of 15:03 and the fact that my entire loop took 1h 27m, it was nothing short of BRUTAL coming back up river the final 2 miles.
Panek's full roundtrip took 1:27; the map clearly shows the difficulties rowing upstream
"I got sucked into massive vortex pools on two occasions, losing 200 meters each time, and it was the closest I've come to flipping in many years. My boat went sideways in such a manner that I lost my equilibrium and felt totally helpless until my skeg jammed into the other side of the spinning water and abruptly whipped me in the opposite direction. Upriver was the most difficult situation and easily the hardest effort that I've ever made to accomplish a row on the Piscataqua!"
You can see the map of their respective rows by zooming in on the Portsmouth NH area at https://rowingtracker.com/hocr/2020.
Not Everyone Nailed It
Then there are folks like this one in the M50+ race, who seems either not to have had a skeg at all or just likes mapping shenanigans; if you zoom in, you can see he even hit a bridge. Maybe it was a massive current as seen in Ray Panek's map; those Jersey lakes are tricky.