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Texas Water Safari 2008
by Marc W. McCord

Most paddlers take to rivers for the sheer joy of paddling a canoe, kayak or raft. For many, the experience of being outdoors among the trees, open skies, canyons, prairies, animals, birds and such is reason enough to take to the water. There is another breed of animal within the paddling community that is embued with the "killer instincts" of hunting, overtaking and devouring their competition. These paddlers are marathon racers, and for them nothing is more satisfying that being the fastest boat in a race, or at least in their own class and category. Races are held worldwide, and just like rivers no two are the same.

One race stands out from the others in terms of difficulty - the Texas Water Safari - "The World's Toughest Boat Race". Those who have never paddled a Safari may doubt that claim, but if you ask anybody who has entered they will attest to the veracity of that tagline. No event in most paddlers' lives will match the humbling, tormenting, painful task of completing a race of about 265 miles that includes numerous portages around dams, over, under, around and through logjams while avoiding snakebites, fire ants, mosquitoes, gnats, mayflies, summer temperatures and high humidity of June in Texas or the alligators found along the lower 100 miles or so of the race course.

The Texas Water Safari began in 1963, after a publicity stunt by Frank Brown who was the manager of the San Marcos, Texas Chamber of Commerce. Frank began the race as a way to draw attention to tiny San Marcos, and hopefully attract some much-needed tourism dollars to this small hamlet of a Texas town located between Austin to the north and San Antonio to the south. The concept was for a completely self-supported race that pitted paddlers against one another in any type of human-powered craft, though in those early years some did use sails for the Gulf of Mexico portion of the course that started at the headwater of the San Marcos River, followed it down to Gonzales and the confluence of the Guadalupe River, then on down to the Gulf at San Antonio Bay before heading to the finish line in Corpus Christi. The early races were about 375 miles, which makes today's "much shorter" 265 miles look like child's play. Rest assured that the Texas Water Safari is not "child's play" at all. In fact, few would refer to it as play of ANY kind!

In 1996, Texas got soaked just before the race, and there was talk of postponing it until the water receded. Eventually, the decision was made to go as planned, though it was a high water year - the highest on record for the race. A carbon fiber river rocket of about 45 feet in length powered by a six-man team propelled their vessel down the twisting, turning San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers, over and around obstacles and through oppressive heat to a dominating 29 hour 46 minute finish at Seadrift, the site of the curent Safari finish line. Since that date no boat has even come really close to their record, and those who paddled that boat live in Safari fame, most of whom still race today, though not as the same team.

Every year boats get better, eqyipment improves, teams experiment with composition, nutrients, drink mixes, headlight systems (the winning boats paddle non-stop, day and night, from San Marcos to Seadrift), seating assignments inside the boat, techniques for the various whitewater rapids, dams, logjams and low-water crossings they will encounter in an effort to win the coveted Argosy Trophy and perhaps even have a crack at the 1996 record time. So far, breaking the record remains a dream.

Teams form soon after one year's Safari to start training for the next year, and throughout the following 12 months they are building new boats, modifying existing boats, or making repairs to damaged boats to be ready to start intense training soon after the start of the following year. Seldom does a team remain intact between two consecutive years though the Mynar brothers and their sons (there were four Mynars in the record setting boat in 1996) seem to be the most consistent. Some of that is due to the search for the "perfect combination of skills and teamwork" while some of it is due to the animosity that sometimes developes between team members, especially if they "almost won" the race.

Starting after the first of a new year teams begin to train in earnest for the coming June. Some train in secret places to hide their team make-up or some new-fangled boat design that they hope will give them the edge over the competition, but most can be found on any given weekend paddling various reaches of the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers. They get to know the river on a personal basis, memorizing every turn, every obstacle and every sweeper current along the racecourse. Knowing the course can be the difference between winning and losing, or just being able to reach Seadrift in your boat. If it rains big in the spring, and the river floods, then everything a team learns may be washed away as the river changes course and adds new deadfall or live trees in the water to the mix. It keeps you on your toes.

The race officially kicks off with the TWS seminar in February or March. This is specifically oriented toward the first-time Safari paddler who needs to know what to expect, what the rules are and how to finish the race. Seminars are conducted by veteran Safari paddlers, most of whom have many finishes under their belts. Next comes the back-to-back Texas River Marathon, aka "The Pre-lim" and the Barrier-to-the-Bay" races the first weekend in May. The "Pre-lim" sets the starting positions for the first 5 of 6 boats in each row. The sixth slot in each row is reserved for out-of-state teams who were not able to attend the "Pre-lim", and positions are assigned according to race entry postmark date, which is the same way other positions are filled for non-participants in the "Pre-lim". Many paddlers don't really care about starting line position, and just paddle these two races to see critical parts of the racecourse. The "Pre-lim" covers approximately 45 miles of the race from Cuero to Victoria City Park. The B2B race the following day starts at the GBRA Saltwater Barrier about ten miles above the mouth of the Guadalupe River, flows through Alligator Alley to San Antonio Bay, then across the bay about 6 miles to Seadrift.

The month following these two races is spent fine-tuning boats, gear and teams. Competitive teams spend almost every weekend on parts of the Safari course trying to be as prepared as possible for their trip to hell which begins the second Saturday in June at 9:00 AM sharp. For the record, running the Texas Water Safari is not truly a trip to hell. In fact, a trip to hell would be a vacation compared to paddling over 265 miles in a race in Texas summer heat and humidity. The good news is that the race has a time limit of 100 hours, so you know you are only going to be on the river a little over four days MAXIMUM unless you become hopelessly lost and nobody can find you. To my knowledge that has never happened.

Safari teams consist of one to six paddlers in a boat plus a mandatory team captain whose duty it is to follow the team downriver by car providing much-needed ice and water along the way, monitoring team progress and condition, informing the team of new rules instituted out of necessity, keeping race officials apprised of the team's condition and location on the course, or the progress of competitor teams. The Safari course is broken up into sections with manned checkpoints through which either the team or its captain must sign them in and out on a split time log. Each checkpoint has a mandatory cut-off time, and those arriving late at a checkpoint are pulled from the race because it is assumed that they have no chance of reaching Seadrift in under 100 hours. Though not always an accurate assumption, it is generally true, and the rule is reasonable given the conditions and circumstances facing paddlers on this racecourse.

Finally, it is game time, and teams are rarin' to go! Check-in starts on the Friday before the race. Boats, gear and teammates gather at Aquarena Center where the San Marcos River bubbles to life from an undeground spring. Race officials visit each boat to inspect its contents. By rule, anything a team uses during the race MUST be in their boat at the starting line, the only exception being that team captains (and team captains ONLY) can give them water and ice at any point along the racecourse. Also by rule, there are a number of required items that must be in every boat. These items include a PFD (lifejacket) for each paddler (and they MUST be worn when crossing San Antonio Bay), three red aerial flares to signal an emergency, a First Aid kit, a snakebite kit (a rule with which I and the American Medical Association strongly disagree), a signaling device such as a whistle or airhorn and adequate flotation to prevent the boat from sinking if it swamps. Everything else is optional.

After check-in there is a mandatory Safari briefing that alerts teams to last minute rules changes, hazards, river conditions and other pertinent information to safely guide teams to a Safari completion. The briefing ends around 16 hours before the starting horn at 9:00 Am the following morning. Some teams are still rigging boats for headlights, testing lights and bilge pumps systems, outfitting boats with flotation, paddle holders, jug holders and other last minute rigging to make their trip more comfortable and efficient. Mostly, paddlers just socialize with one another, family and friends in a casual atmosphere under the shade of giant oaks and elms beside Spring Lake where the river rises to life. It is now Safari time!

In November, 2005, I was leading a trip in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, my favorite place to paddle a canoe. In the group were my good friends and veteran Safari paddlers Zoltan Mraz (17 starts and 10 finishes of which 7 were solo finishes) and Gib Hafernick (number of Safaris unknown), each of whom had won his class and category at least once in different types of boats. Also along on the trip was my good friend Larry Rice, who has been a contributing editor and staff writer for "Canoe and Kayak Magazine" for over 30 years. In camp one night the discussion naturally turned to the Safari. Larry asked me if I would do the race with him so that he could write a feature story for the magazine based upon our experience. I replied, "Are you (expletive deleted) nuts? Do you have any idea what that race is about, or how difficult it is to do? Larry retorted, "Come on, man, I need a central character for my story and you are the biggest character I know." What could I say? Larry had thrown down the gauntlet, and I quickly grabbed it. That was my first mistake!

Being a couple of marketing "wizards", Larry and I immediately started thinking about an angle to get some free swag by having sponsors for our race. The cost of doing a Safari can be staggering - several thousand dollars per paddler to cover the cost of a boat, spray cover for the bay crossing, headlight system, bilge pump system, carbon fiber paddles, boat rigging, and the costs associated with training including gasoline, camping and/or motel rooms, meals and the expenses of our team captain. In addition to the demands on the mind and body, doing a Safari makes big demands on the wallet. Finding sponsors to assist us with some of the essentials was a logical way to underwrite part of our cash outlay, so we complied a list of what we would need and we "got 'er done!", as Larry the Cable Guy would say (a different Larry, but every bit as looney as my partner in crime.)

Read previous "On the Water" Feature Stories
[ Surviving Hypothermia ] [ Rescues in Hydraulic Currents ]
[ Wilderness Tripping Protocols ] [ Dangers of Low-Water Bridges ]

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Last updated October 31, 2009

Copyright © 1998-2010, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.