Nine hours into a soggy race, Austin paddler West Hansen is leading the men’s division of the Great Alabama 650 paddling race.
The 650-mile race started in a downpour at Weiss Lake in northeastern Alabama, and Hansen and the other racers have paddled through a steady rain all day.
As Hansen approached a feeding zone at Mile 63.7 tonight, the rain had finally stopped, at least temporarily.
The overall race leaders – a tandem boat paddled by Joe Mann and Paul Cox, who won last year’s event – passed the checkpoint a little after 7 p.m. Hansen and another solo paddler, Salli O’Donnell, were about 5 miles back. The rest of the racers had spread out behind the three lead boats.
So far the teams have made one portage. Hansen stopped briefly to change into dry clothes and swap boats, a strategic move that will allow him to change up seating position.
The area is under a flash flood morning. The river level has risen about 2.5 feet, according to Robert Youens, part of Hansen’s support crew, likely because of dam releases upstream. That’s giving the paddlers a boost – Hansen was maintaining a pace close to 7.9 mph.
He is expected to reach the first dam, where competitors are required to take a 45-minute layover break, before midnight tonight. Hansen will nap briefly in a support vehicle before returning to his boat.
“We’re actually ahead of our schedule by an hour,” Youens said. “One, they’re paddling fast, and two, they have really nice water.”
Hansen was relaxed and prepared leading up to the race, managing to sneak in an afternoon nap yesterday. The race began at 10 a.m. today.
The race finishes at Fort Morgan, west of Orange Beach at the Gulf of Mexico. Last year’s winners finished the race in just under six days.
Hansen paddled the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River in Russia two years la