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Aug. 14, 2018
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When split seconds count

By Jane Harrison
 
With pounding hearts that nearly quake the water and sweaty palms gripping their paddles, serious canoe/kayak competitors steady their needle nosed racing boats into the starting gates. Focused on calming a bundle of nerves above the water, most are oblivious about the bundle of wires, pulleys, and electronics that will release them toward their dreams.
 
Brad Wiegand knows what’s below the surface and what’s on the line when athletes wait for the buzzer to sound and the gate to drop. The Lake Lanier native and founder of Boat Dock Works marine contractors rebuilt and regularly installs the 27-gate start system that’s sent hundreds of paddlers stroking toward finish buoys at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
 
“It’s an intricate system,” Wiegand allows, a organized tangle of electronics, flotation devices, wires, hoses, clamps, pressurized nitrogen tanks, relays, cables and gears. Imagine a science project demanding overlapping disciplines – hydraulics, mechanics, electronics, physics, chemistry – and add water, elbow grease and world class athletes.
 
Time consuming
It takes a team of four from Boat Dock Works about 200 hours to assemble gates and string the three starting lines that unleash racers on their 200-, 500- and 1,000-meter sprints to glory or disappointment.
 
It may be stressful and arduous, but “it’s not like we have to go swimming or anything,” said Randy Fuller on the second day of prep work for last month’s Canadian canoe/kayak national team trials. He and Wiegand basically rebuilt the former system, originally inherited from the Canadians, which put installers underwater. Lake temperatures in the 50s motivated them to engineer a better start gate two years ago to keep them basically in the dry.
 
“It was literally trial and error,” Wiegand said. “We pulled it out, took it apart and picked our brains.” They developed a flotation system with cables and wenches that they could put in without getting wet, or at least not much. It takes about three days to install, if the weather’s good.
 
On dock they assemble what looks like a random assortment of metal and plastic objects into boxes and starting boots that attach to three 270 feet steel ladders. Then, by boat, they float the ladders to designated hooks anchored underwater. In each gate there’s a v-shaped boot that holds boats back until an official’s button instigates a submerged frenzy of moving pieces to start the race.
 
Racers need not worry
The complex underwater action is undetectable to athletes like Canadian team hopeful Doug Ellery, who raced last month. He’s glad he doesn’t have to worry about the mechanism that puts him in the race. He admitted to a little nervousness when he noses his canoe into the boot. “But we do it so often in practice, it feels normal,” he said.
 
Before race day, officials put installers’ handiwork through rigorous practice runs. Wiegand, a stickler for precision after almost 20 years of building docks and boat lifts, is nonetheless awed by the split second accuracy officials require. “If a gate is a sixtieth of a second slow, we have to make adjustments,” he said.
 
The gravity of his responsibility hit. “It’s definitely a different type of anxiety” from his daily duties as a marine contractor, he said. “I know what’s on the line with these athletes.” For national or Olympic team hopefuls, “it’s their one shot,” Fuller said. “They’re either going home on the front of the Wheatie’s box or somewhere on the floor of the Wheatie factory.”
 
Boat Dock Works took the starting gate assignment about six years ago after building new docks for LLOP in preparation for the 2016 Pan American canoe/kayak Olympic qualifier. “There’s a lot of history behind them,” Wiegand said.
 
Eddie Foust, long time technical director for LLOP canoe/kayak competitions, recalled when Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club opened a cargo container shipped from Canada “with all kinds of moving parts thrown in.”
 
Rebuilding the system
Local paddler Bob Eckenberry, a retired Marine colonel and helicopter pilot, delved in with a crew that cleaned and reworked the system originally built for a 1997 world championship in Canada. Foust re-engineered the electronics controlling the start gates. The Lanier engineers strung the lines across the Olympic channel for a 2001 World Cup and the 2003 Canoe/Kayak World Championship. Since then, some of the characters and parts have changed.
 
Through the years, Lanier’s marine and paddling community “rebuilt (the start system), changed the technology, and made it reliable,” said Barry Ring, a Canadian canoe/kayak official familiar with the original rendition 21 years ago. In nearly a decade of Canadian Trials at LLOP, he’s observed that the reincarnated system “works wonderfully.” Plus, it’s adaptable, which bodes well financially. Replacing one line now would cost $200,000 just for the hardware, he said. There’s about $1 million floating on keeping those three lines operational.
 
A hundred times a day
The hard part is putting all those pieces together so they function like clockwork. “There are so many working parts, it’s so intricate, it takes a team of dedicated people to keep them running. We’re very fortunate to have that crew here,” Foust said. “It’s hard to make sure 100 times a day they work perfectly” when just one glitch with one part could throw the whole thing off.
 
The job’s still not done after the lines are laid and starting gates pass the tests. At least one expert from Boat Dock Works stays onsite during high stakes competitions just in case something goes awry. Wiegand or Fuller also replace the nitrogen tanks which create the force to open the gates after an official presses a button. They replaced depleted tanks 24 times during the Pan American Games.
 
It’s rare for them to do much more than watch the action unfold. “The system pretty much runs itself,” Fuller said. “An event has never slowed down because of the gates,” Wiegand told a reporter, adding he hoped hadn’t jinxed that record.
 
Well, the almost unthinkable happened on the second day of the Canadian trials. “A line blew … and one of them had to dive down to fix it,” said Tracy Barth, LCKC’s coordinator for the Canadian races. “They did a great job making repairs,” she said, adding they’re well compensated for their efforts. Foust said that after a component failed on one gate, Wiegand donned a wet suit, fixed the problem, and swam out to visually inspect all 27 gates. All in a day’s work. Racing resumed.
 
“We’ve been very fortunate we haven’t had anything shut us down,” Foust remarked. He contrasted Lanier’s remade start system with the state of the art $1 million lines at the Oklahoma City venue. Twice, rapidly rising water on the former canal has washed the lines downstream, wrapping them around bridge supports.
 
More upgrades
Foust said the “very adaptable” LLOP system may evolve still more with upgrades that put cameras at gates and pressure indicators on boat boots. The 2016 Olympics and high stakes races in Europe use the new technology.
 
“The system has come a long way,” Foust mused, thinking back to 1996 when young volunteers stood on platforms on the Olympic channel and physically held boats in place at the start. That experience launched many boat holders into canoes and kayaks, later putting them at the reinvented starting lines that still lift for races today.

Posted online 4/30/18
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