Full Contact Paddling

Safari tests brains, strength, endurance and the willpower to persevere when you're puking out of your boat. And pissing in it.

The upper part of the course, the first 90 miles of the San Marcos River, is the most technically challenging. The river turns and narrows. It flows under water crossings too low for a boat to clear, and if you let yourself get swept under one, your boat is liable to snap, and you could drown. The river spills over 20-foot dams with currents at the bottom that can suck you up like a hairball in a Hoover. The river rushes around logjams in narrow channels strained through sweepers, the hanging branches of the riverbank trees so favored as resting places of cottonmouths and fishing spiders that look like tarantulas. A submerged stump in the hull can cripple a boat. A jutting branch in the ribs can disable a man. A big boat carrying six men and equipment can weigh 1,500 pounds and travel eight miles per hour in a sprint on fast water, easy. You don't want to get stuck broadside in front of one.

Six minutes into the race and the lead boats hit the first such obstacle, Rio Vista Dam. Rio Vista is a scenic little spillway of five or six feet with a notch in the middle through which flows a diagonal squirt of river water to the surface below. There are two accepted ways through: run the squirt, which almost invariably leads to a capsizing or at least the need to jump out in the shallow water and tump the boat free of water, or a full portage out the left bank above the dam, through a small corner of park, and back into the water below the dam.

The Mynar boat hits the dam first, double-bladed kayak paddles flashing like synchronized swimmers, and does neither. The members of the Mynar team have practiced the river so often, and so recently, that they recognize a smaller subsidiary notch at river left, with a smaller current, and they paddle their boat until the front 20 feet of it hang over the dam, scurry out of their seats and down the stone drop in their Aqua Socks, pulling the boat with them as they go, and scamper back in at the bottom in a collective motion as fluidly seamless as the river itself. The expertise involved is stunning. Slightly higher water would have swept the 40-foot boat uncontrolled over a six-foot cliff. Slightly lower water would have turned the notch into a boulder.

The California Boy boat chooses to portage, and the portage is clumsy. The California Boys are trained to race outriggers in open ocean, and they are inherently uncomfortable getting out of a boat. They lose a few seconds.

John Bugge's boat is right behind, shooting the squirt, righting itself on the down side and paddling away strong.

The Cowboys follow, and then the sloppier, slower pack, for whom it is a good thing that there are no more 1,500-pound boats coming up behind, shooting over the dam at them at eight miles per hour. There's enough trouble ahead.

Flash back a day. City Park, San Marcos, Texas, Friday, June 11, 1999, just after noon. The teams are arriving, unknotting canoes from elaborately padded pickup-top scaffoldings and lugging them to an oak-shaded grove swarming with no-see-ums and raining asps. Here, Texas Water Safari administrators have set up a card table with clipboards for check-in.

The boats are battle-scarred and epoxy-patched wonders. Seventeen-foot AlumaCrafts -- your father's aluminum canoe, the purist's standard. Translucent fiberglass We-no-nahs -- United States Canoe Association-sanctioned class boats built to fit exacting category specs. Homemade and custom-built wooden canoes, heavy as the weight of the world but glowing with varnish and the pride of craft. Short plastic whitewater kayaks -- detractors call them "Tupperware boats" -- backbreakingly slow but sturdy and hard to flip.

Then the monsters. Some over 40 feet long. Menacing black amalgams of molded Kevlar and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber like the Stealth Bomber. Kevlar like a bulletproof vest. Lightweight and strong. Boats with four and five and six seats with drafts so shallow you could paddle them across a wet piece of glass, and 19 inches wide at midships.

There are lighting systems to be rigged and tested, and these come in as many variations as the boats whose paths they are meant to illuminate through the nighttime stretches of the 260-mile paddling marathon that will begin the following morning. One boat's crew has spent almost $300 to purchase, from a military contractor, ultra-lightweight lithium cell batteries originally designed to power missile guidance systems.

Another racer mounts a 12-inch MagLite to his bow and leaves it at that.
Some supplies are dictated in the Water Safari rule book: life jackets, safety flares, first aid and snakebite kits, and a signaling device, like a whistle.

The canoe floors are littered with strategically mounted foam squares with indentations for the securement of water jugs, Leatherman tools, pen lights and film canisters with caps labeled in Magic Marker: vitamin B-12, Vaseline, vitamin E oil, Advil, antacid tablets, caffeine pills.

Some teams carry two kinds of paddles: traditional single blades and double-bladed kayak paddles. The best of them cost $260 and weigh 11 ounces. Double blades are faster but can be hard to use in tight spots. The two use slightly different muscle groups, and switching from one to another can relieve tedium and provide rest, of a sort.

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