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.

Some teams will wear heart-rate monitors to gauge their performance and maintain pre-proscribed beats-per-minute.

A yellow-shirted Safari official moves from boat to boat, clipboard in hand, registering every item in every boat. This serves a dual purpose: to ensure that each team is carrying the required items, and to serve as a reference in case -- as occasionally happens -- one team accuses another of receiving illegal help from the shore-bound team captains who follow each boat down the river. Safari rules are strict. Team captains may provide only water and ice to their paddlers at various checkpoints on the river. Everything else that a team may need has to be carried on the boat from the start. So the race official counts and tallies "every last aspirin."

Then there is the matter of food, and it is the matter of food that separates the true competitors among the 80-odd entrants from the mere adventurers and would-be finishers. A body at this kind of work might burn 800 calories an hour, but the same body can metabolize only about 500 incoming calories in the same hour, and so the inescapable fact is that a body paddling nonstop for several days will quickly begin to consume itself. The primary goal is to feed that body as much sustenance as it will take to minimize self-cannibalization. The secondary goal, for a paddler who intends not just to finish, but to win, is to maximize the convenience and minimize the weight of that food.

Take the Cowboys. Four men, each from Texas, each over 40 years of age, who have been paddling the race together in various configurations for almost 20 years. The Cowboys are famous within Safari circles for wearing weirdly patterned leggings and white cowboy hats and having the best tall tales to tell at the finish line. They usually place within the top ten, because they are strong men, but they don't paddle to win, and they don't pack to win, either.

Their boat is filled with stacks of supermarket chicken cacciatore dinners with built-in chemical heating elements and tin cans of Dinty Moore stew for cold spooning and plastic grocery sacks overflowing with individual serving-size bags of Fritos. Cowboy Gene "3 Dot" Carlile, who his teammates say was "demoted" into the boat after several years of serving as team captain, scans the vittles and explains.

"I like to throw up."
Cowboy sternman John Mark "Lone Wolf" Harras clarifies: "We're not that fast."

Check out a fast boat. Smithville's West Hansen is one of six men who will paddle it, with every intention of winning. He's blond and blue-eyed, handsome, muscled and coiffed like a beach volleyball player or a JCPenney model, and he's methodically brushing wet swaths of contact cement onto tiny cellophane packet after tiny cellophane packet of crumbled Ruffles and halved Oreos and bite-size chunks of beef jerky, and sticking them to the interior hull of his canoe. These foodstuffs are carried for variety, to counteract the drudgery and stomach acid buildup of the competitive racer's primary sustenance, which is powdered carbo-and-calorie mix to be swilled down with water, and petite foil-lined servings of concentrated athletic supplements.

Hansen offers one such to a curious bystander.
The milky goop that squeezes out of the tooth-torn top of the 1.1-ounce bag has the spackle color and viscous consistency of ejaculate and a sick, sugary taste that conjures death and coats the mouth like wax. The flavor is "Viva Vanilla," which is constituted of brown rice syrup, sea salt, potassium citrate and magnesium oxide. It carries 100 calories and substantial doses of sodium, potassium, sugar and carbohydrates. This particular pouch is marketed under the brand name Clif Shot as a "natural energy gel."

If you want to win the 37th Annual Texas Water Safari, this is the kind of crap you have to eat.

The Texas Water Safari began life in 1962 as a publicity stunt.
Bill "Big Willie" George, owner of a San Marcos hamburger stand, and the late Frank Brown, then the chief of the San Marcos chamber of commerce, set out in an 18-foot V-bottomed aluminum fishing boat with the intent of floating motorless from the headwaters of the little-used San Marcos River to Corpus Christi and drawing some national attention to their tiny Texas town. George and Brown made the trip in 30 days, feeding themselves with the bounty of fishing rods, a .410 shotgun and strategic shopping trips at riverside towns along the way. In 1963 the course was institutionalized as a race, and as hoped, Life magazine came to town to photograph a lush spread on what would, in retrospect, turn out to be the precursor of modern-day extreme sports.

The rules have remained simple. Any boat is eligible, as long as it is powered solely by human muscle. And racers have 100 hours to reach the finish line. A boat coming in at 100 hours and three minutes cannot be said to have finished.

Over the years, the course was shortened to the present 260 miles, ending in Seadrift, Texas, and various rule changes were enforced, the most important of which had to do with hydration. In the early years, boats could receive no assistance of any kind from the shore, but after enough racers took ill drinking out of the river, the current allowances for delivery of water and ice were codified. These did not, however, make the race substantially easier. In 1966, out of a field of 16 boats, only one team, Howard and Jay Bludworth, managed to finish.

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