Read an Excerpt from PADDLEFISH

My publisher Departure Publishing offers this sneak peek of my book, PADDLEFISH. Enjoy!

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CHAPTER TWO – The World’s Toughest Boat Race

 The Texas Water Safari is one of those rare events that boasts an authenticity truly greater than its lore. Since 1963 the race has run continually for forty-seven years. For those of you keeping score, that’s three years longer than the Super Bowl.

The Safari begins in San Marcos on the southern rim of the Texas Hill Country and ends in the sleepy coastal fishing village of Seadrift. As the crow flies, the two towns are only 125 miles apart. By river it’s a 260-mile twisting and winding riparian ass kicking that must be completed in 100 hours or less. There are twelve checkpoints along the route and each of those comes with a cutoff time. If you miss a cutoff, you’re out, even if it’s the first checkpoint—even if you only miss it by a matter of minutes.

The race was originally founded by Frank Brown and Big Willie George of San Marcos. In the early 1960’s Brown worked for the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce and had a hunch that the river could be a bigger recreational attraction for the city. George owned a local burger joint called Big Willie’s Hamburgers and was an avid outdoorsman. At a local archery event Brown asked George if anyone had ever taken a boat from Aquarena Springs to the Gulf of Mexico. No one could recall such a voyage ever happening, so the two decided to do it themselves.

In 1962 Brown and George took a 12-foot semi V-hull row boat from San Marcos to Corpus Christi, an estimated 400 mile trip that took them almost 30 days to complete. They fished and hunted for their food, accepted only the rare candy bar from strangers on bridges, and slept in a pup tent to avoid snakes. They each lost approximately 40 pounds on the voyage.

Deciding that others should experience their adventure, they created the first ever Texas Water Safari one year later. Racers traveled from Aquarena Springs (the current starting line of the Safari) to Corpus Christi (about 140 miles longer than the current race route). LIFE Magazine published an article on the first race in June 1963. Fifty-seven boats started at the headwaters of the San Marcos River; photos from the LIFE Magazine article show paddlers in pith helmets with life jackets tied around their necks. When the race finished twelve days later, only two teams had reached the finish line in Corpus Christi.

Legend has it that one massive logjam they encountered near the end of the race required a four-mile portage through snake infested marshes. One competitor was quoted as saying, “I was praying a snake would bite me so I could get out of this thing honorably.”

Joe Passant and his partner made it through the harrowing four-mile logjam but realized they had dwindling food supplies as they faced the final bay crossing. Clif Bars weren’t available back then, so they caught and ate a stingray instead.

Most of the boats that reached the bay faltered. Some boats had sails but their captains were poor seamen. Others that didn’t have sails simply couldn’t handle the 35 mph headwind and four-foot swells. One racer who didn’t finish praised the four who did when he said, “They had to be a bunch of real mean critters.” One of the four who persevered to the finish line said his team made it on “blood, blisters and blasphemy.”

Just as it was in 1963, The Texas Water Safari is still a self-sustaining race, which means that paddlers must start with everything they’ll need in the way of clothing, food, emergency gear, boat repair materials, etc. The team captains can replenish their paddlers with water and ice at each of the checkpoints—but that’s it. Nothing else. No cheeseburgers, no Advil, no red wine. No bandages, no duct tape, not even a zip tie. Nothing.

The team captains are also required to log in their paddlers at each checkpoint with the race officials. They live in their trucks, napping in folding chairs like bums under bridges or whatever scant shade they can find. Not knowing when their team might arrive at a checkpoint, they scramble from one to the next and then perch on the banks, waiting. At the end of the race they often smell just as bad as the paddlers.

It’s up to each team captain whether they handle their duties alone, or with a support crew. Most of the paddling teams have an entourage of friends and family members that follow them downriver, but there’s one additional hard and fast rule.

No one, besides the designated team captain is allowed to assist the racers in any way. The team captains can hand the racers water and ice, and the racers can hand back their trash and empty water jugs. But no one, not even the team captain, can touch the boat or the racers. No hugs, no high-fives, and no flying chest bumps (until the finish line). They can cheer and encourage all they want, but no physical contact is permitted.

With ten different classifications, such as solo, tandem and novice, the field of entrants in the Texas Water Safari is as diverse as the terrain that they paddle. Some are in it to win their divisions and those hardcore racers will typically attempt to run the course non-stop with only brief pauses at the checkpoints for water and ice. They don’t sleep, they barely eat, and they pee in their boats. The record finishing time occurred in 1997 by a six-man team that completed the race in 29 hours and 46 minutes. The math alone on that one is mind-boggling.

Others enter the race only with the hope of finishing or making a respectable showing. In years of ample rainfall and good water flows, up to 75% of the teams will finish within the 100-hour allotment. In dry years, the sandbars and logjams and portages will eliminate the majority of the novices and a good many veteran paddlers, as well.

The race is unofficially divided into three distinct segments: the San Marcos River, the Guadalupe River, and Guadalupe Bay. The starting line straddles the spring-fed headwaters of the San Marcos River, which flows 81 miles southeast before it pours into the Guadalupe River just above the town of Gonzales. The Guadalupe River originates in the Texas Hill Country west of Kerrville, but the race only covers its final 173 miles before it strains through a marshy delta into Guadalupe Bay. The final segment is the shortest, only six paddling miles, but that quick sprint across the bay to the finish line in Seadrift is the least predictable. Damaged boats, blasting winds, crashing waves, injury, sleep deprivation, and fatigue have claimed many teams in the bay, literally within sight of the finish line.

The race is held each year in June, apparently to maximize the torture from the Texas heat and accentuate the lack of daily hygiene. Space and weight are limited in race boats so luxuries like toothpaste, soap and deodorant rarely make the cut. Most paddlers (and some team captains) are left to marinate in their own human brine.

 Paddling a canoe for an hour or two on a 100-degree afternoon with 80% humidity is not easy. Paddling for four days in those conditions is a physical and mental torment that words can barely do justice. And if the number of river miles between the start and finish aren’t reason enough not to enter this race, one must also consider the number of portages where racers must carry their canoes over and around concrete dams, sandbars and logjams. While the physical barriers are daunting, the cadre of Old Testament flora and fauna that Mother Nature dials up is what truly sets this race apart: rattlesnakes, fire ants, jellyfish, alligators, cactus, spiders, thorn brush, water moccasins, bull nettle, wasps, poison ivy, feral hogs, swarms of mosquitoes—and everyone’s favorite parasite, Giardia. 

It’s no wonder Forbes magazine once listed the Texas Water Safari as one of the world’s ten toughest endurance races. Included in that list were the Iditarod and the Badwater Death Valley Ultramarathon.

When I first started researching this race, I naively dismissed most of the warnings as macho hyperbole. But after a year of training and countless discussions with Safari veterans, I’m now convinced that they may have actually understated this hellish undertaking.

There have been actual snake bites and wasp attacks. People have succumbed to simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea. Racers have lost their headlamps to airborne alligator gar in the middle of the night. Paddlers have been found wandering the riverbanks naked and speaking in tongues. One contestant was so elated to reach the finish line that he did a celebratory swan dive back into the bay and was promptly stung by a stingray.

Other tales are less sensational, but equally rattling. I met a paddler during our training who had to quit the race because the intensity of his bow light bothered his eyes so badly while paddling at night that he couldn’t stop vomiting. Other teams have been taken out by submerged stumps that gashed their boats, or concussions caused by low-hanging limbs. Countless teams have reported getting lost or taking wrong turns that cost them hours and jeopardized their cutoff times at checkpoints. At first I questioned how in the world one could get lost on a river, isn’t it just a line of water running downhill?

Apparently not.

The upper watershed is pretty straightforward from a navigation perspective, but the coastal delta is laced with channels and lakes and marshes that all look the same, especially in the middle of the night after a few days without sleep.

In the 47-year history of the Texas Water Safari, no one has died during the actual race, but a paddler did die during a practice run at Ottine Dam. It was a father-son team and they apparently misjudged their approach to the dam during extremely high water flow. The current pulled them over the top and into the roiling hydraulic below the dam. The boy managed to swim to safety but, sadly, his father didn’t survive.

When I first heard about The Texas Water Safari I appraised it as a gathering of competitive lunatics all driven by the common goal of conquering a nasty stretch of water in an impossibly short period of time, during the exact wrong season of the year. I never paid much attention to the actual prizes given to the finishers and divisional winners, but given the amount of torture they were willing to endure, I assumed that the rewards were substantial. Why else would someone sign up for such a god-awful race?

 At some point during my yearlong odyssey of research and preparation I confirmed the unexpected answer to that seemingly rational question. After months of training, after huge outlays of cash, after time away from family and friends and days of suffering on the water, all in the slightly misguided spirit of adventure and competition, Safari finishers are awarded…a patch.

That’s right. A three-inch diameter swatch of cheaply stitched cloth. No money, no cruise vacations, no fancy gift certificates, no sponsored trips to Disney World.          

A flippin’ PATCH?

Are you kidding me?

I wanted one.