Solo competitors West Hansen and Salli O’Donnell were paddling side by side again Tuesday afternoon, tied for second place overall on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650.
The two veteran endurance paddlers – both leading their classes – were about two-thirds of the way through the 650-mile race, with about 435 miles of river behind them as of 5 p.m. The race starts in northeastern Alabama and finishes at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay.
The first three days of the race, the 13 boats that entered faced a deluge of water, the aftermath of storms that have caused flooding across the state. The rains, though, have boosted flows along the route, which follows the Coosa and Alabama Rivers as they snake from north to south. The field, now down to 12 boats, is about 10 hours ahead of last year’s pace.
Hansen and O’Donnell are chasing a tandem team paddled by last year’s winners, Joe Mann and Paul Cox, who finished the 2020 race in just under six days.
This year’s rain-fueled, fast-moving water will likely mean a faster finish. Robert Youens, a member of Hansen’s support crew, predicts the top boats will reach Fort Morgan sometime during the day Thursday.
“Records are going to fall,” he said.
But who crosses first will depend on how long each team stops along the way. Hansen has been sleeping three or four hours each night. The racers strategically try to pass while their opponents are down. But it’s tricky – they need the rest to keep paddling.
“It’s all going to be about sleep cycles from this point forward,” Youens said.
Before sunrise on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650, the teams paddled under the storied Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the brutal beatings of civil rights marchers during the 1965 march for voting rights. They glided through early morning fog, but the rain is less widespread today. Highs Wednesday and Thursday are predicted to hover in the 70s.
Challenges on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650
Hansen’s support crew is treating the paddler for chafing on the butt and, more severely, his back. “It’s ugly,” Youens said. “But on a scale of 10, with 10 being out of the race, this is a six.”
Hansen is also has a blister on his right hand. His team scrubbed him down in the shower last night. “He’s physically challenged right now but mentally there,” Youens said.
The race includes portages that the support crews ferry the racers around. Hansen rides with support crew member Max Dugas during those stretches.
“We talk about everything but the race,” Dugas said. “His mental game is on.”
Who will win?
Hansen’s paddling resume is extensive. He led an expedition down the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River two years later. He’s finished the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile race from Spring Lake in San Marcos to the Texas coast, 21 times, and has wins at the Missouri River 340.
“I have good feelings about West achieving his goal of finishing before Salli. I feel good about it,” Youens said.
But they’re not done yet. The race ends with a slog through a massive tidal delta, where the paddlers will face slack water and a long, wind-exposed swathe of water.