With about 85 miles to Fort Morgan, West Hansen and Salli O’Donnell continued to battle it out on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650 paddling race.
The two veteran endurance paddlers, both leading their solo classes, paddled within a few miles of each other all day Wednesday, with O’Donnell out front by a few miles. At 5 p.m. they were both chasing the two tandem teams in the overall lead by another 15 and 35 miles.
It’s going to come down to strategy – and how much sleep the racers take before their final dash across Mobile Bay to Fort Morgan.
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 paddlers are on track to break last year’s record of five days, 23 hours and change, set by Joe Mann and Paul Cox, who are also leading this year’s race. The top boats could reach Fort Morgan before noon Thursday.
Hansen’s crew has focused on keeping the Austin paddler, who paddled the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River in 2014, as comfortable as possible. They have rigged a make-shift backrest for the 59-year-old social worker from Austin, scrubbed him down, treated his chafing and blisters, and let him sleep in their support van for three or four hours each night.
O’Donnell’s crew is working hard to keep the 61-year-old Florida athlete healthy, too.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if the body maintenance Salli and West have done is going to pay off,” said Robert Youens, one of Hansen’s crew members, on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650.
Hansen, apparently, has held on to his dry sense of humor through the ordeal.
“The Texas Water Safari isn’t long enough to know if your boat is truly comfortable,” Hansen joked early Wednesday, according to Youens. “This race is.”
The racers have passed the final portage. All that remains now is straight paddling, through the widest, most windswept section of the course.
Perfect conditions for a fast race
Thirteen boats lined up at the start of the race, now in its third year. Just one has dropped out.
Race director Greg Wingo credits Saturday and Sunday’s flood-inducing downpours for keeping the paddlers moving quickly.
“Normally there’s pretty much no flow, just a very, very slow river that’s dammed in many areas. (The rain) certainly helped to have a faster race for everyone, including Joe and Paul, who are on course to destroy their own record from last year,” Wingo said on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650.
“I cannot imagine the conditions will ever line up more perfectly than they did this year. This was at that perfect spot where we got so much rain it created really good flow, but a little more and we would have had dangerous conditions.”
A front that arrived last night has cooled things off. Temperatures are expected to dip into the low 50s tonight, chilly conditions for athletes who have been paddling for more than four days straight.
The duel continues on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650
As for that neck and neck battle between Hansen and O’Donnell?
“I think it’s been a very traditional battle on the water, but the more interesting thing is the battle on the land between crews,” Wingo said. “They are always jockeying for better position and trying to outdo each other tactically. All Salli and West have to do is paddle.”
The determining factor will likely be how much rest each paddler gets and how much energy they can channel into piloting their boat.
The racers have been stopping to grab snippets of sleep along the way, but down time opens the door for teams to pass one another. As the final miles approach, some may choose to try to push through extreme fatigue.
For example, the second-place tandem team, Rod Price and Bobby Johnson, slept for just an hour Tuesday night, trying to make up time on the lead boat, Youens said.
“They’re just a time bomb waiting to blow up,” Youens said. “They’re trying to go without much sleep and they’re going to explode.”
All the racers tend to sleep for longer stretches as the race goes on, said Wingo, the race director, but the last 100 miles make some of them push the limits.
“There’s a juggling act of feeling like you need a break but seeing light at end of tunnel and not wanting to stop,” Wingo said.
To complicate matters, the last section of the race is when the racers need to stay most focused. The paddlers must navigate an area at the head of Mobile Bay where the river splits into channels. Then they reach the wide, wind-exposed stretches of Mobile Bay. The final 18 miles, where paddles cross the bottom of the bay, is typically the slowest section of the race.
“Conditions can change quickly in the bay and if you are a little foggy in the brain, that can be an issue,” Wingo said. “I certainly encourage crews to really stay hyper focused on how their racers are doing when they are in the bay.”