Since the first time I stood on the bank of the San Marcos River and watched the big boats go by during the Texas Water Safari, I’ve wanted to race in one of those extra-long canoes.
This year, I’m getting that chance. And during a training run Sunday, I sat in the driver’s seat of a five-human boat and – for the first time ever – steered it down a cypress-lined stretch of water.
The Water Safari, for the uninitiated, is a 260-mile paddling race between San Marcos and the Texas coast. Teams of one to six people pile into long, skinny canoes and start paddling. Many don’t stop – not to pee, not to eat, not to stretch their legs or snooze – until they cross the bay and touch the wooden finish sign in Seadrift. Along the way, they drag their boats over bobbing mats of logs, dodge gar and alligators, brush off hundreds of spiders, wallow in mud, try to avoid snakes, and face extreme heat and exhaustion. All they get at the finish is a little patch.
It’s alternately fantastic and horrific. (And yeah, there’s something wrong with anybody who signs up for it.)
I did the race in 2019 with two other veteran paddlers – Sheila Reiter and Heather Harrison. Those two women got me to the finish in 53 hours and change, even though I felt like I’d been run over by an 18-wheeler for the last 12 hours.
This year, I’m racing as part of a five-person team.
Yesterday, our team ran the 31-mile stretch of river between Staples and Zedler Dam in Luling. Our usual driver, Deb Richardson, steered the first 25 miles down the river, dodging gravel bars, rocks, and fallen trees. Then we pulled over and she told me to swap seats. It was my turn to drive.
Our boat is at least 30 feet long. It looks like a missile when it’s loaded on the roof rack of a truck.
When you’re sitting in it on the water, all you can see is the back of the person in front of you. The boat doesn’t bend, either, which makes it important that whoever is driving it positions it carefully as the river winds its way across the state.
The San Marcos River is filled with stumps and branches and obstacles that reach out of nowhere to grab you. But with the help of the other paddlers, who called out directions and dipped paddles to pull the nose of the boat around obstacles, I managed to navigate the 6 mile stretch without any major incident.
It simultaneously scared the pants off me and thrilled me. It takes finesse. I’m learning how to let off the rudder at just the right time to avoid getting sideways or hitting anything. I’m also trying to learn how to catch the current to get the best push.
Sunday’s run felt great. I’m super excited that I’ll be able to take the helm for a small stretch during the race. Terrified, too, but thrilled.
Stay tuned for updates.