I never served in the military, but I view traveling to an out-of-state race to be like going on a mission. The objective of this mission was simple – complete the 260 mile Texas Water Safari. The team was assembled.
Tom Dyll, 45, would be in the bow of the canoe and in charge of the lights, GPS and SPOT tracker. Tom has completed three 300-mile Everglades Challenges in sailing canoes. The TWS would be his first multi-day paddling race. In the months leading up to the Safari, Tom and I paddled a few hundred miles together including a 70-mile overnight run on the Suwannee River.
Ed Morris, 66, would be our team captain. In the TWS, only the team captain is allowed to have contact with the racing crew. We would be dependent on Ed for ice, water and food. A lot of the checkpoints in the TWS are in some desolate areas. Just like Tom and I, Ed would be going without sleep and dealing with the heat, bugs and other critters. I also hoped that Ed could give us some updates on the competition.
Logistics are a part of every mission. We rented a canoe from Holly Orr, a Texas outfitter who rents aluminum canoes for the race. Airline reservations were made. A rental car was reserved and a hotel room was booked.
At 4:30 am on Friday, June 13th – the team met at Ed’s house in Winter Park, FL. We transferred our gear into one vehicle and Ed’s wife, Beth, drove us to the airport. Aside from an irritating TSA agent at the security check-in, we managed to board our flight without delay. We had a connecting flight to Atlanta and transferred to our airliner bound for San Antonio.
A little after 10 am Central Standard Time, the team arrived in Texas. We collected our checked bags including the long cardboard box that contained the carbon fiber canoe paddles. The rental car agency was close by, and we were able to upgrade to a Ford Explorer SUV. After stopping to buy some flares and food, we headed to Martindale, TX where our canoe awaited.
Ed and Tom navigated the way to Holly Orr’s location on the San Marcos River north of the race start. Holly pointed out our canoe and I was immediately impressed. The aluminum canoe was equipped with cushioned seats, adjustable foot braces and water jug holders. There was even a battery operated baler system. The batteries were missing, but I was sure that a spray skirt was all that we would need. Holly gave us a green spray skirt for the canoe. As Tom and I grabbed the canoe to hoist it on the SUV, I felt a sharp pain in my hand. A jagged piece of aluminum had cut my palm. It bled a little, but was not big enough to cause a problem in the race. After examining the canoe for anymore jagged edges, we loaded it up and tied it down. Holly wished us good luck and told us to be careful with the canoe. She had a $500 security deposit from us in case we were not careful enough. Holly was racing in the TWS for the tenth time.
The big deal of the day was the check-in and registration at the race start in San Marcos. After a short drive, we pulled into a park at the registration site. A race official directed us to drop off our boat and gear and come back out and park a quarter-mile away. So naturally we located a parking spot close to the registration tent and left our vehicle there for the duration. We found a shaded area to put the canoe and began unloading our gear. It was very hot and humid – a lot like Central Florida. A race official named Jed checked to make sure we had all of the required gear. We also had to list everything else that we were bringing like: duct tape, spare batteries, extra lights, sleeping pads, etc. Jed told us that our cell phone was supposed to be in a vacuum sealed bag. The race officials did not have a vacuum sealer on site, so they allowed us to put the phone in a zip lock bag which we sealed with duct tape and Jed signed over the duct tape. The rest of the process went smoothly and Tom and I were officially registered. The prerace meeting was delayed about 40 minutes, which gave us time to look over the other boats.
The Texas Water Safari is known for its six-man, forty foot long, carbon fiber boats. Decades ago, some serious racers asked themselves what type of water craft would be the fastest and most efficient for the various conditions of the TWS. Engineers were consulted and lots of money was spent. What evolved was abnormally long and narrow carbon fiber boats with a rear rudder. The TWS canoes have very low gunnels and powerful electric balers. The low gunnels make it easier for paddlers to get in and out of and reduce the volume of water the canoe would hold when swamped. The TWS canoes also come in one-man, two-man and four-man editions. I would guess that two-thirds of the 100-plus boats in the TWS were made out of carbon fiber or Kevlar. Fortunately, Tom and I were not racing against them. We were only concerned with the aluminum canoes and one fiberglass boat in our class.
The prerace meeting went over the usual aspects of a multi-day race. Two years earlier, a 30-year old paddler died during the race from a sodium deficiency caused from drinking only water during the event. Since that incident, team captains have been allowed to provide basically any assistance that their team needs. Not surprisingly, the meeting moderator focused on safety. He went through the course talking about rapids and dams and which ones we were advised to portage. Looking out at all of the racers , their team captains, friends and families – it was great to be part of the tradition of the Texas Water Safari.
After the meeting, we drove a mile down river to survey the Rio Vista rapids. These rapids are composed of three distinct drops. The first is a slide down a flat rock into a pool. The other two are more conventional and definitely doable by an experienced team. Tom and I are not an experienced white water team. Last year, a team flipped before one of the rapids and managed to get their aluminum canoe wedged in the rocks so tightly that a tow truck with a cable had to pull it out. End of race and in our case – goodbye $500 deposit. We decided to be smart and portage the whole section.
It would have been nice to see some other areas of the river, but we were getting hungry and we still had not checked into our hotel. We saw a Texas Roadhouse restaurant and had a decent meal. After satisfying my hunger, I realized how tired I was. We found our way to the hotel and by 10 pm I was asleep.
We were all up and moving by 5 am. I felt like I had gotten some decent rest which is critical before a sleep deprivation race. I spent the next hour organizing my food bags. I had purchased some large containers of Cheese-its, trail mix, cookies and snack bars. I divided these up into smaller zip lock bags. Ed made me a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which also went into zip locks. At 6 am we all went down for the complimentary breakfast that the hotel offered. We met another team in the dining area. One guy looked like a college football player. He was big. They were also racing an aluminum canoe in the novice division. I wondered about the big guy’s stamina over a long race. After an adequate breakfast,we loaded up and headed for the San Marcos River.
I was pleased that we arrived early at the race start. We were able to park very close to the staging area. Tom and I spent the next hour setting up our canoe for the long journey. We brought two extra carbon fiber paddles that we attached to the boat. The first checkpoint was 16 miles away. I thought it would be a good idea to skip getting water there and continue to the Luling checkpoint at mile 39. So Tom and I started out with about four gallons of water / Gatorade. When we carried our canoe down to the launch in Spring Lake it was very heavy. It was easily over 100 lbs. maybe 120 lbs. I half-jokingly said to Tom that I hoped the canoe would float with us in it. But aluminum canoes are the “pack mules” of water craft and we had plenty of freeboard once we launched.
We were assigned the 30th starting position in row five of the boats lining up in Spring Lake. Looking at the sleek carbon canoes around us, this meant a lot of boats would be passing us in the first mile. Following the playing of the National Anthem, all of the racers awaited anxiously for the start of the race. At 9:01 am the air horn sounded and the mad dash was on. The first portage was only a quarter-mile downriver. Known as the island portage, we were told that you can go left, right or up the middle of the island. I was thinking of going right until I saw Holly Orr go for the middle in her C-1. We followed and awkwardly maneuvered our heavy-ass canoe over rocks and around trees until we hit the water again. Back in the boat, we had a short paddle to the Rio Vista rapids. We portaged to the left and quickly walked our canoe along the river through the crowd of race watchers. I looked at the rapids and there were canoes and kayaks everywhere. Some made it through cleanly, others made it through but had to stop and bail out their boats. Tom and I smoothly reentered our canoe and resumed paddling.
A short time later, we had another portage at the Cummings Dam. A few miles later we approached the Cottonseed Rapids. Judging from the amount of spectators on the shore, this area must be an entertaining part of the race. I thought Tom and I had a good line going through the white water. We were almost through it when the front of our canoe got hung up on a rock. The current grabbed my end of the boat and I thought we could go down backwards through the last of the rapids. Before I could relay my evolving strategy, Tom had jumped out of the canoe to push it off the rock. Now it looked like the canoe might flip, and I bailed out of the boat into about three feet of water. The crowd cheered and I gave them a bow as Tom and I waded into the calm water and reentered our craft.
We carefully portaged around the Martindale Dam and after the three-hour mark we arrived at the Staples Dam – our first checkpoint. We cautiously approached the dam on the right side of the river. Ed was on the left side of the river, so it was good that we had enough drinking water to continue to the next checkpoint. We pulled the canoe up onto the bank and one of the spectators pointed us towards a steep set of metal steps for the portage. It was about a 20 foot drop to the water on the other side. Tom guided the nose of the canoe down the steps and I held onto a rope securing my end. We were soon on our way again.
In the next 20 plus miles there were fewer portages and we passed a few canoes that were obviously better at portaging than us. Tom and I were now introduced to the San Marcos River sweepers. The water level was in the low range and when the river turned left or right, most of the current was on one side or the other. Most of the time there were logs or bushes that the river swept through. Our goal was to stay in the current but to avoid being swept into the debris. Sometimes getting slammed into a log was unavoidable. I was glad we had an aluminum canoe. Tom and I wondered how the six-man boats made it through some of the tight areas. At least we were paddling and not portaging.
Tom and I arrived at the Luling checkpoint about 5 pm. Ed was there with ice and water. He told us that we were tied for second in our division with the aluminum canoe that pulled in behind us. The leaders already had a 40 minute gap on us. We would keep running our pace and see what happens. Tom and I asked for sub sandwiches at the next checkpoint. We thanked Ed for the support and shoved off. Forty miles down and 220 to go.
Tom and I continued to successfully navigate the sweepers and were maintaining a five-mile per hour pace. About three hours later, we paddled up to a rocky dam known as Son of Ottine. I was glad that we arrived in the daylight. Trying to run this rapid would have been a big mistake. There was a five foot drop that was all rocks. Tom and I carefully pulled the canoe over the rocks and resumed our pace. Next up was the Ottine Dam portage. We pushed and pulled the canoe up a slippery, six foot high, muddy bank. At the top, Tom lost his balance and landed hard on the ground. Fortunately he managed to keep from tumbling into the river. We carried the canoe around the dam and were soon on our way again.
The next checkpoint was at mile 60 – Palmetto Bridge and Park. Tom and I pulled up to the low, stone slab bridge and Ed directed us to just lift the canoe onto the bridge. He had a sub for both of us. We filled up our water jugs and continued on our journey. It was after 9 pm and Tom had the front light turned on. I could still see most of the details of the river with the natural light that was available. At this stage of the race I was feeling well. I had balanced my energy output with enough calories and hydration. I was taking electrolytes and Advil every few hours. Earlier in the day, Tom and I caught up to a C-1 paddler named Pete Binion. Pete was competing in his 25th TWS. We talked briefly and Pete asked us if we knew about the two log jams before the Gonzales checkpoint. He said it was best to portage the first jam on the right and the second one on the left. It was not long before we came to the first log jam. Tom and I looked at the high river bank and decided to drag the canoe over a couple of logs on the right side of the river. It took a lot of effort, but we made it through.
About thirty minutes later we came up to the second log jam. Once again, there were not any obvious choices to portage. The river banks were high and seemed to be a solid wall of vegetation. We decided to drag over a log on the left side of the jam. Once over the log, Tom and I both smelled a reeking dead animal. It turned out to be a cow that was floating next to our canoe. We made a quick decision to pull the canoe over anther log. Now we were halfway through the log jam, but all of the remaining logs were floating. When we tried to step on the logs they would sink. The jam was too dense for us to bull our way through. Tom and I could now see a few of the boats behind us portaging up on the river bank. I really hate to backtrack in a race, but that was our only option. We had exerted a decent amount of energy getting to the middle of the jam and now we repeated the process getting out – including going by the dead cow. Once free of the mess, we paddled over to the right riverbank. We clawed our way up the muddy bank and hoisted the canoe up the steep bank. Tom and I then carried the canoe along the riverbank for about 50 yards. Next was a steep descent back to the water. We had probably lost about an hour with the screw-up, but at least we were heading in the right direction again. Tom and I had another long, energy zapping portage around the Gonzales Dam. Now I was not feeling well. My legs were cramping and I needed some downtime for my body to recover. At mile 81, the San Marcos River merged into the Guadalupe River. We made it to the Gonzales checkpoint four miles later. This stop consisted of a large gravel bar and many racers were stretched out on their sleeping pads. I decided an hour of rest was needed. I inflated my Therma Rest and spread my rain fly over me to keep the mosquitoes away. It was too noisy to sleep, but just having an hour to rebound made a big difference. Tom and I were back on the water by 5 am.
I was very happy to be off of the San Marcos River. The Guadalupe River was twice as big, and the increased volume of water made the sweeping turns much more manageable. Tom and I had about 60 miles of straight paddling ahead of us without any portages. At 9 am we had covered approximately 100 miles in the first 24 hours of the race. I was pleased with our pace. Tom was having a few minor issues with his hands and a rash he referred to as “monkey butt.” About 1:30 pm we pulled into the Hochheim checkpoint at mile 122. Ed had a tough job at this stop. Team captains had to use a rope to lower themselves and their supplies down to the river’s edge. I used the rope to get to the Port-a-let while Tom cooled off in the river. The total stop took about ten minutes. Ed said we had about an hour lead on the third place team. Apparently, they slept a few hours at Gonzales. The first place team was several hours ahead of us.
The next checkpoint was 25 miles away. There was less cloud cover than the first day and it was definitely hotter. I paid close attention to my hydration and nutrition needs. It was amazing how fast the racing field had spread out. Tom and I saw very few boats from the second day to the finish. To help liven up the afternoon and keep us alert, I switched on the waterproof mini-stereo that my girlfriend, Stacey, had bought me for the race. Listening to classic rock from Jimi Hendricks, the Doors, CCR, the Who and U2 helped the hours roll by. We pulled into the sixth checkpoint at the Cheapside Bridge at 7:15 pm. Once again, Ed had some subs and Snickers bars waiting for us. Tom and I were now over halfway finished with the race.
Back on the river, we caught up to Pete Binion again. He seemed a little more talkative than when we met him the previous day. Pete asked if we knew our way around the log jams before the Bay. When we told him that we didn’t have a clue, he suggested that we run together. Of course Tom and I agreed. This was the perfect scenario for us. I had heard some horror stories about racers getting lost in the swampy delta area before the salt water barrier. Pete said he had scouted the river a week earlier and knew where we needed to portage. So off we went with our new running mate. Pete and I had both completed the Yukon River Quest and the Everglades Challenge. We knew a lot of the same racers, but somehow had never met each other. Pete’s son, Wade, was racing on the leading six-man team and his daughter, Mollie, was leading the women’s C-1 division. Binion was a well known name at the TWS.
We pulled into the Cuero checkpoint at 10:30 pm. This was mile 161 – approximately 100 miles to go. Ed resupplied us and we told him about our plans to sleep a couple of hours before the next checkpoint. Back on the river, we discussed our strategy with Pete. He said that he knew a great gravel bar downriver that would be ideal for a few hours of sleep. Unfortunately, it was three hours away. It had now been over 40 hours since Tom and I had last slept. I decided to drink one-half of a five hour energy shot. It had little effect and I found myself nodding off. Every so often Tom would hear a “whack, whack, whack” that would be me slapping myself in the face to stay awake. One thing that helped Tom and I maintain our focus was the periodic rapids and sweepers that we followed Pete through.
Finally we arrived at the gravel bank. We decided to sleep for two hours and Tom set his watch alarm. I inflated my Therma Rest, laid down with my rain fly and was fast asleep. The two hours went by quickly, but I felt refreshed when Tom awakened us. Fifteen minutes later, we were back on the river paddling away. Our two canoes arrived at the Victoria Boat Ramp checkpoint around 10:30 am. I was looking forward to this checkpoint since it was at mile 199.84 – essentially the 200 mile mark. Sixty plus miles to go !
Our finishing strategy was to get through the first log jam in the daylight and find the short cut around the other jams soon afterwards. We had received reports that the bay was windy and wavy. If it was going to calm down at all, it would be in the hours before dawn. Tom and I maintained a steady pace and around 5 pm we reached the Invista Plant checkpoint at mile 231. After resupplying, we were on our way again. Pete led us to the portage for the log jam about 2 ½ hours later. There were a few houses in the area and Tom and I carried the canoe about 100 yards across an open field. Back on the river, we continued to count down the miles.
We reached the short cut as nighttime was approaching. It appeared to be a muddy ditch that was marked by blinking green Christmas tree lights. Pete went into the woods to make sure we took the right route. Five minutes later, he signaled us to follow him. Tom and I drug our canoe through the muddy ditch and soon we had enough water to get in and paddle. We were following Pete’s C-1 through a winding slough only about five or six feet wide. It was soon totally dark and the over-hanging trees made it seem like we were paddling in a tunnel. When we came to intersecting creeks, Pete always seemed to know which way to go. I could see how it would be easy to get lost in this swamp. We traveled about three miles in the enchanted slough before finding our way back to the main river. Pete said we had avoided three nasty log jams.
Several miles later we arrived at the last checkpoint – the salt water barrier at mile 248. The salt water barrier is a dam that keeps the salt water from mixing with the Guadalupe River’s fresh water. This allows the area’s ranchers to use the water for irrigation. Tom and I pulled our canoe up on the bank. It was a little after 11 pm. We were now very close to the bay and the wind showed no sign of letting up. Pete decided to continue on and take his last break at the wooden bridge before the bay. We thanked him for his help and said we would see him at the finish. Tom and I wanted to cross the bay at dawn. We decided to leave the Barrier at 3 am. This gave us time to clean out the canoe and leave some of our gear with Ed – as permitted by the rules. We slept for about an hour and then it was time to attach our spray skirt.
This should have been a quick process. You spread the skirt over the canoe and fasten the snaps together. I immediately noticed that the spray skirt was too small for the canoe. I also observed that there weren’t any snaps on my end of the canoe. This was a big problem and could keep us from getting to the finish. Thankfully, Tom had brought a full roll of duct tape. I knew the waves would be hitting us on the right side, so the goal was to make that side watertight. After taping up the front and the back of the canoe, we ran a couple of strips over the top and bottom of the canoe to hold the skirt in place. Tom and I taped a trash bag across the middle of the canoe to provide more protection. This still left a six inch gap on my left side. I decided this would allow me to quickly remove some water with the bailer.
Shortly after 3 am we left on the final leg of the race. Tom and I had a relaxing eight mile paddle down the canal to the bay. The wind was still howling so we knew it would be a rough crossing. We passed under the wooden bridge and entered the bay. Tom had his GPS on and directed us to Foster’s Point about a mile up the bay on our right side. From here it was a straight shot across the bay. We spotted a ten foot alligator on the shore as we shoved off. It was just over a mile to the other side of the bay and Tom and I were paddling hard into the waves. After making it across, we paddled into a patch of weeds so I could bail out the canoe. We had taken on about four or five gallons of water. Tom and I now were less than two miles from the finish.
We paddled up the shoreline of the bay before turning left to follow the shore to the finish. A snap on the front end of the canoe had come loose, so now we had another source of incoming water. We crossed the barge canal in between outgoing and incoming barges. Tom and I were paddling in the troughs of two to three foot waves. The water was collecting at my end of the canoe. It was soon over my ankles. Tom’s GPS initially indicated that we had another mile to go. I knew we would sink before then. The water was now up to my calves and the canoe was pitching precariously. I spotted a big white tent off to our left and saw Ed on the end of a dock waving at us. I turned the canoe towards shore. Now water was pouring into the unprotected back end of the canoe. About 50 feet from the finish line steps, our flooded canoe flipped. Tom and I were in about three feet of water and pulled our canoe to the steps for an official finish. Ed had an ice cold chocolate milk waiting for me and a beer for Tom. We toasted our finish – 71 hours, 29 minutes. Tom and I came in second in the novice class and 36th overall. Mission completed ! Three hours later, 65 year old Pete Binion completed his 25th TWS by walking his canoe along the shore to the finish line.
So how does the Texas Water Safari compare to North America’s other ultra-distance paddling races ? After completing the MR 340 last year, I assumed correctly that the TWS would be tougher. I definitely underestimated the difficulty of the portages. The first day of the TWS is a real ball-buster. With rapids, log jams and portages up steep muddy banks there is not much time to get into a comfortable paddling pace. Because of the seemingly limitless opportunities to damage your boat and injure yourself, I would put the TWS above the Yukon River Quest in terms of difficulty. Also, the YRQ has two mandatory stops totaling ten hours. I would still rank the 1200 mile Ultimate Florida Challenge and the Yukon 1000 ahead of the TWS. The Everglades 300 miler is very close to the TWS in toughness. A couple days of headwinds in the EC would probably surpass anything the TWS can throw at us. Of course, if the TWS had extremely low water and 100 degree temperatures – I might think differently. Here’s to adventure!