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.

For most, there is at least the simple pleasure of canoeing, the erasure of daily distractions and responsibilities -- no wife, no husband, no kids, no job -- the distillation of fragmented lives into a fundamental goal and its infinitely repeatable achievement: one more stroke. All of these people, awaiting the starting gun, sitting back in the pack, can expect triumph to be logged, experience to be had, drama to unfold.

For the remaining few, those so bored with their own mundane success that only in extremity can they find pleasure, there is something at stake far more precious than mere triumph, experience or drama. There is winning.

After ascertaining that this story would be published after, and not before, the race, West Hansen described his team's strategy.

"We are going to consider this a 90-mile race, and we are going to kill ourselves. We are going to go like a sprint all the way down the 90-mile stretch of the San Marcos River, because that's generally when the Mynars get their huge lead. I graphed all their checkpoints for the past few years and found out where they're good and bad. And they kick butt on the San Marcos. It's the most difficult section of the river. So Allan and I have gotten to know every bump and bruise on that river, and we are going to kill ourselves to stay with them on the San Marcos and not give them a break, and just hammer and hammer and hammer, and then when we get to the Guadalupe, we'll start making our move then. Their advantage is driving. Brian Mynar is probably the most talented driver out there for big boats. If we can stay with them on the twisty water, we have enough muscle to catch them on the open water."

Team captains are the designated unsung heroes of the Water Safari, and racers at race's end trumpet their virtues loudly as the without-whom-this-never-could-have-happened support group on which all success hinges. This praise is true of course (without water, no one could paddle nonstop for 260 miles), and yet hyperbolic at the same time, an especially meaty bone tossed to the gullibles tricked into performing a team's crap tasks.

Team captains -- every team must have one -- wait at predetermined checkpoints along the river until their boats come through. If the boat's water supplies are fresh, the team captain merely shouts encouragement -- invariably a variant on "you guys are looking great." If the team needs water, it is the team captain's job to have water and ice, or ice water, prepared in water jugs with plastic tubes for hands-free sucking, ready to drop into the boat. He or she may have to stand in waist-deep mud to accomplish this. Or they may have to swim to mid-river with a full ice chest and sit on a stump.

At the same time, the team captain is responsible for gathering the empty water jugs that his team has just thrown to random spots in a flowing river. Littering the river is grounds for disqualification under Water Safari rules.

The team captains also yell out the boat's split times, or the amount of time elapsed since they passed the previous checkpoint, and the boat's distance behind the boat that passed before, and maybe that boat's split times too.

And then, when their charges are safely downriver, the team captains register the boats' time-in and time-out on the Texas Water Safari log sheet posted at riverside, get in the truck and leapfrog downstream through a maze of county roads and private bridges and interstate overpasses to the next checkpoint, where they may have to wait five hours for a boat, and where likely as not, they'll be greeted with complaints about the unacceptable warmth of the ice water and yelled quotes of reciprocal encouragement like, "I'll get me a real team captain on the bank if you can't get me some fucking water."

In their favor, team captains enjoy the camaraderie of their peers, they can afford to drink beer, and for large chunks of hot days in June, they've got nothing better to do than swim in a cool river.

At Staples Dam there's a tree-nailed poster advertising "BBQ, Burgers and Cow Beer" and a gorgeously slapdash house cantilevered over the eddies beneath a 15-foot drop-off. Upriver, local kids are swinging from a rope tied to an oak over the water, and downstream a 12-pound channel cat rots dead on the shore.

When a boat hoves into view, two things happen. The first citizen to see it, not always the team captain, yells, "boat." Then a cheer rises up from the peanut gallery.

The Mynars portage and pull away, but in the same frame of vision, the Cali Boys hit the dam. The Mynars had leaped and landed. The Cali Boys didn't trust their feet. But they were close, within sight. They rounded the bend with a skidding oversteer, but righted themselves and pounded on.

John Bugge was a distant third, chased tightly by a three-man boat manned by Wade Binion, David Rechel and Rob Wytaske.

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