Sat - July 14, 2007

2007 Texas Water Safari in a Surfski by Carter Johnson - I. Race and Boat

Carter Johnson Texas Water Safari surfski

I covered the record solo run of Carter Johnson in 2007 Texas Water Safari in several posts following the race using pictures shot by Bob Brooks and Carter's sister, Lela. touring Huki SX-1 surfski

I had a chance to see his touring Huki SX-1 surfski at the finish of Kansas River "Fitty Gritty" Race. Unfortunately, after 7+ hour of paddling in rain I was not ready to change back into wet cloths and try it.

I just got e-mail from Carter with his own race writeup: my fingers finally have enough feeling to type again. It is a long story. I will post it here in three parts. Here is the part one: The race and the boat.

waterproof digital paddling camera

2007 Texas Water Safari Story by Carter Johnson- Part I

1. Do I really want to do this?

The Texas Water Safari (TWS) is billed as “The world’s toughest canoe race”. I was skeptical at first, I mean how bad could it be, you just follow the creek for 260 miles without sleeping or stopping, cross a small 5 mile bay then you are done. It is neither as long or as wilderness as the 460 mile Yukon River Quest or the 300 mile Everglades Challenge. Ok, something is not adding up, time to do the research.

When I first considered the race back in 2004, I went to Mike Shea, a local legend here in San Francisco who has completed the TWS many times. I shot him an email asking a few questions. He simply replied that it was too emotional of an experience to share unless face to face. Hmm, now I am really wondering. Mike was as tough as nails and faster than anybody in California at the time. Ok, perhaps it is time to start worrying. Next chance I got (in person) I ask Mike some more questions. It was a short conversation and my only take away was “You better be ok with Spiders the size of your fist crawling all over your face.” Ok, I’m not the loving spiders. Perhaps I should hit the internet and see what others have to say.

In no particular order I dig up the following hits:

  • full contact paddling
  • 100+ degree heat
  • wild boars
  • alligators
  • 100lb alligator gars
  • deadly cottonmouth snakes
  • panthers
  • log jams
  • sweepers
  • 100 yard swamp portages
  • hallucinations
  • fields of poison ivy
  • cuts leading to nowhere
  • and more, illustrated below for your enjoyment.
Needless to say, I waited 3 more years and a few more races before I gave it a try.

Texas Water Safari elements

2. The Race

The Texas Water Safari starts in San Marcos Texas and goes 263 miles to the sea. You must carry everything but your water, which only a single designated person (your team captain) can hand off to you. There is zero outside assistance allowed. If you loose any mandatory equipment on the river you will be disqualified when you finish. San Marcos River

Here is the course breakdown. The first 85 miles is a narrow creek with white water, some good rapids and 10+ portages. It is said that you just need to survive this section. Next, and perfectly at the night fall for the leaders is 85 miles on the Upper Guadalupe river. The “Guad” opens up and you can finally kick it into gear. There are several portages in this section, but your biggest worry is reading the river and avoiding the muddy banks. The last 85 miles is called the “Lower Guad”. At this point the river has slowed down vastly and is now a maze of cuts thru marshlands that bring you to the final 5 miles thru San Antonio Bay. You finish in a sleepy little fishing village called Seadrift.

The race has no boat limitation so you will see all kinds of kayaks there. Most popular is the multi man 6 person Canoe. Check these puppies out!! If your not from deep in the heart of Texas, I bet you have never seen anything like this before! Perhaps the Duzi will have a 6 man class one year?

 6 man canoe

6 man canoe #314. About an hour after this photo was taken, the same team ran their boat into a sweeper on the river and broke it into 2 physical pieces. No boat substitution is allowed nor can you use any outside assistance. In Texas though, you do not ever quit a race. It is the code that all the locals follow. This team ended up cramming the front half of their boat into the back half and used some duck tape along with tree branches to make a fix. They completed the race in just over 60 hours. Only 4 of them could paddle while the other 2 constantly bailed out water.

3. The Surfski

I keep on finding my self in the same situation. I show up at these long distance races with my Huki S1-X Surfski and people just look at me like I escaped from the loony bin. “That boat is only 17 inches wide..”, “where will you put all your gear”, “He must be a joke, nobody can balance that boat for 50 hours.” These are some of the common responses I get. I just keep on telling them that the Huki is solid, and until recently, nobody was taking me seriously. But Sally Mason and I proved it could be done in the everglades a few years earlier for 300 miles in a tandem surfski and the bar was set.

For this river though, I knew my Ski would need some work. I recruited Safari Legend Richard Steppe for the job. My boat was still in Florida from a previous race, but through a random act of good Samaritans, and a long trip across the US, it ended up at Steppe’s shop in Dallas just 3 weeks before the race.

When Steppe first looked at the boat, he was perplexed, but then his 30 years of river running kicked in. Just a few days later, he had the Surfski finished. His work included an indestructible kick up rudder (which I tried hard to destruct) and by corking the kayak hatches with mini cell foam, he was able to add holders for several thermoses and dry food. It was now a work of art ready for the toughest river we could throw at it.

 touring Huki sx1 surfski
Touring Huki S1-X Surfski – 21 feet long, 17 inches wide, about 38lbs with full hatches; carbon, S-glass and Kevlar layup, uilt to take a hit and survive.

4. The Starting Line

We were all lined up in a lake where the start was staged, 6 per row and some 20+ rows deep. Because I was out of state and was able to enter early, I secured myself a position in the first row. The lake is only some 300 meters long and ends in your first portage at a dam. Ok, how in the world was this supposed to work. 120 boats cramming into 1 portage 2 minutes after the race has started? I was warned before the race to not get in the way of the 6 man boats. No matter how fast you are, they are faster people told me and you do not want them up your backend when you hit the dam.

Of course I did not listen. The gun went off and I hit 10mph within 15 seconds hoping to get to the portage before it became a 30 minute traffic jam. Wow, I was way out in front. This is going to be a piece of cake. Slam, Crack… I just got ran over by a 6 man probably doing 12mph in a sprint to portage. (I guess they had the same idea as me.) They ran over my rudder and spun me out. I should have listened to the words of wisdom. I eventually got back on track and made it to the dam with the masses just in time to get impaled by a tandem team this time in the deck. Ouch,, That was a loud noise! Glad this boat is solid. I threw the boat on my shoulder and scrambled over the dam just in time to get hopeless caught in some vines.

Seriously, I kept on thinking to my self how much I loved the open ocean. I dropped some 20 positions, but was able to slowly real them back in.

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