Austin paddler West Hansen pulled ashore about 10 miles from the finish of the Great Alabama 650 Thursday afternoon, and at 9 p.m. he was still hunkered down, waiting for conditions to improve in Mobile Bay.
A small craft advisory was in effect, and winds were 17 miles per hour. Hansen’s support crew said he likely would wait until morning to cover the final miles to Fort Morgan.
Despite the delay – Hansen has been grounded since about 3 p.m. – he remained in position to win the men’s solo division of the 650-mile paddling race. The next closest paddlers were still more than 100 miles back at 9 p.m.
The tandem team of Paul Cox and Joe Mann, who finished at 7:49 a.m. Thursday, won the overall race. The tandem team of Bobby Johnson and Rod Price were second, followed by solo female winner Salli O’Donnell, whom Hansen had predicted early on would be his biggest competition among solo paddlers.
Cox and Mann broke their own record, finishing four days, 22 hours and 25 minutes after the race started Saturday morning.
Paddling toward the finish of the Great Alabama 650
O’Donnell, 61, and Hansen, 59, paddled within a few miles of one another for much of the race, swapping the lead several times, but she pulled away early Thursday, as they neared the bay.
When told that Hansen had been forced ashore and was waiting for better conditions, O’Donnell, who had already made it back to her home in Florida, groaned.
“Those are brutal miles,” she said. “My heart is breaking for him because I know he just wants to get off that freaking course.”
She said she found it odd that she and Hansen had paired up for so much of the race.
“He’s definitely a faster paddler than I am,” she said. “Each of us has our own ebb and flow. I told him when you’re flowing you’ve got to keep going because if we match each other’s ebbs we’re going to be slow.”
A long race
The 650-mile race started Saturday morning in northeastern Alabama. Rain that fell steadily during the first three days boosted flows along the route, which follows the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. The rain kept up for three days, turning roads and checkpoints into mud pits.
Last night and this morning, as they cut through the wide, exposed waters of the bay, the racers faced buffeting winds, 2- to 3-foot chop, and much cooler temperatures. At one point Wednesday night, Hansen rolled his boat. He came ashore to dry off, warm up and reset, losing more time against O’Donnell. He also experienced trouble with his boat’s rudder.
“Salli was just well conditioned. She knew the course,” said Robert Youens, one of Hansen’s crew members.
The last 18 miles of the race are a slog, as the racers swing to the west, paralleling a narrow strip of coastline at the bottom of Mobile Bay. Waves today were so big at times that the paddlers disappeared from view between swells, Youens said.
A perfect race
Race director Greg Wingo said the race couldn’t’ have unfolded any better. “We have a new record that’s going to be unbelievably hard to beat, and another historic battle between Salli and Bobby (Johnson, in the second-place tandem team) that went down to the wire,” Wingo said.
Youens said he was proud of Hansen’s effort, especially since the racers who beat him all have paddled the Great Alabama 650 before.
“These are experienced people who knew all the tricks,” he said. “He’s a freshman to this race and he ran with three veteran crews. It’s a hell of an accomplishment.”