When Austin paddler West Hansen scrapped plans to kayak the Northwest Passage this summer, he subbed in another daunting adventure – a paddle race that winds 650 miles through Alabama.
This Saturday, Hansen will line up at Weiss Lake in northeastern Alabama for the start of the Great Alabama 650. If all goes well, he’ll chug down the length of the Coosa and Alabama rivers before reaching historic Fort Morgan west of Gulf Shores less than six days later.
Hansen has finished the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile race from Spring Lake in San Marcos to the Texas coast, 21 times. He has also paddled the entire length of the Amazon River and all the Volga River in Russia. He couldn’t sit still.
“I inadvertently found myself with a lot of time off and no goal,” he says of postponing his Arctic expedition due to the ongoing pandemic. “I really needed some reason to go exercise and do something interesting and exciting.”
He’ll switch between three different boats as he makes his way down the course – a C1 canoe with a rudder, and two different sea kayaks. He’ll face everything from Class 2 and Class 3 rapids – and one Class 4 rapid, organizers say – to long slow stretches through a tidal delta.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been ready for a race, and I really wish I had trained more, but those things aren’t out of the ordinary,” Hansen says. Preparations included a lot of time to rig boats and work out problems loading the course onto a GPS unit.
‘The race will give you nothing’
What sets this race apart, says race director Greg Wingo, is the racing mindset needed to cover such a long distance nearly non-stop. The event, in its third year, is billed as the world’s longest annual paddle race.
“This race is less about the type of vessel you use or way the water flows or doesn’t flow, and more about your will to truly paddle day after day after day, because the race will give you nothing. It will give you no flow, no perfect weather conditions, and even good weather is still Alabama hot and humid,” Wingo says. “The only thing that gets you to the finish is the will to keep going when nothing else is going right.”
Paddlers pay $500 for the privilege of entering, and the winner in each of three categories will win $2,000. The field is capped at 20 competitors. This year’s race initially sold out, but some of those who entered have since dropped out. Thirteen boats are expected to line up for Saturday’s 10 a.m. start.
The West Hansen forecast
Wingo says he is keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Nicholas, which is predicted to inundate parts of East Texas and Louisiana. He doesn’t expect any delays – just some steady rain for the first four days of the race. That might benefit the racers, cooling off typically hot and muggy temperatures and providing a boost in flow rates on the water.
“I’m feeling way better with it being overcast and cooler,” says Robert Youens, part of Hansen’s four-person support crew, which also includes his wife Lizet Alaniz, sister Barbara Hansen Edington, and veteran paddle racer Max Dugas. “West ain’t a spring chicken and the heat hits us more as we get older. If it’s overcast and cooler, I think he’s going to rock.”
Youens, who is coordinating logistics for Hansen’s team, says proper sleep management will be critical.
Unlike the 260-mile Texas Water Safari, paddlers will have to stop and sleep periodically during this race. Youens says Hansen will nap in one of his team support vehicles along the way.
“The thing I believe that’s going to be difference in this race is taking care of yourself. Three days of fungus between your toes you can handle, but six days – that’s an issue,” Youens said. “That’s why he’ll strip his clothes and clean up at the dam portages.”
Paddlers are only required to carry their boats over two of the race’s many portages. Racers will load their boats onto vehicles and drive around the others, some of which stretch for several miles.
Three Water Safaris in one for West Hansen
Wingo put it in terms some Texas paddlers can understand.
“It would be like if you put three Water Safaris back-to-back, but you made it all flatwater except for 80 miles of bay water, about 100 miles of delta tidal water and a stretch that’s 7 miles long where there is some whitewater,” he said.
Last year’s finishers, a tandem team comprised of Joe Mann and Paul Cox, finished in five days, 23 hours and change. (That number does not include more than 4 hours of mandatory down time at portages, so the total time on course is closer to six days and three hours.)
Wingo wouldn’t predict who will win this year’s race, but Hansen is likely in the mix, along with Sally O’Donnell, who finished second in last year’s race.
“West is an accomplished paddler and I think it is to his benefit that he’s done difficult things before,” Wingo says.
Track West Hansen’s race
Fans can track the paddlers live at https://www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com/calendar/great-alabama-650/. I’ll be posting occasional updates too.
“If you have any sort of interest in the way in which people will destroy themselves physically or mentally for a goal that is quite possibly not achievable, you should follow this race,” Wingo said.