Last Sunday in Austin my cousin and I started training for the Texas Water Safari. We rented a tandem sit-on-top kayak on Lady Bird (formerly Town) Lake
We have been talking about what kind of boat we wanted to get for the race. There's a lot to choose from with pros and cons for each. One of the main things to consider is that the TWS is made up of three very different types of water: fast flowing river with rapids, wide and deep slower flowing river and the bay. That means you've got to have a boat that can handle all of those conditions. Plus, there are a lot of considerations even among boats that could handle all three. There's an inverse relationship between speed and stability. The sit-on-top kayak that we rented was wide, slow and very stable. It was also made of plastic, which compared to some of the other materials like fiberglass, kevlar and carbon fiber, is much heavier and slower. There's also an inverse ratio between weight and durability. Weight is significant for two reason. First, the heavier the boat the slower it goes in the water. Second, there are about 20 scheduled portages in the TWS where you have to carry your boat around dams or rapids or logjams. So, the lighter the boat the easier to lift and carry, especially when you consider that you're going to have the weight of gear and supplies too. But durability is important too because the first 85 miles of the course runs through rapids with rocks that could puncture or break a lightweight boat. Plus, you paddle at night and you can't always see logs or other obstacles, even with the mandatory bow light. So there are a lot of things to consider.
There are several manufacturers in Texas
I have read a lot on boats in the past few weeks. I think the best advice I ran across was from another Safari veteran, who won it last year in a 6-man boat. He basically said to get the fastest and tippiest boat that you could stay in long enough to paddle and then graduate to narrower and faster boats when you learned how to stabilize. Erin Magee, another decorated TWS veteran, listed several Safari style boats on the Texas Paddlers Forum for sale. On Sunday, I called her about them. I gave her our story and she immediately started giving me really helpful information. Once she knew about us she recommended one of the boats she had for sale, a Spencer Raptor. The Spencer Raptor is a 24 ft. long carbon/kevlar tandem racing canoe. Here's the best picture I could find of a Raptor. She agreed to meet us in San Marcos City Park
We got there in the evening around 6:30 (after my Yoga class, which is a whole other post). Erin
I've also got to lay out the scene at San Marcos city park. There were a couple of hundred people there so it was fairly crowded. There was a crowd of 20-30 people right between us and the water. The group looked like they probably participated in the Redneck Games a couple of weeks ago. Rough. Huge beer guts and long stringy mullets. Shriveled women with tatoos. They were all really, really drunk. I saw one wiry Deliverance-looking guy with three or four fold up chairs over his shoulder weaving toward the parking lot. He walked 50 yards to go 20. You get the picture. At one point, as Erin was trying to explain some technical aspect of the Safari, we got distracted by some commotion. There was a dogfight. One black dog had a deathgrip on another dogs neck and ear. They were both growling and yelping like made and all of the people were screaming and shouting. Several people tried to physically unlock the dog's jaws with no success. After what seemed like forever, someone finally poured cold beer all over the face of the one dog and it let go. Then a fight nearly broke out between the owners of the two dogs. Imbeciles.
Once Erin had finished explaining everything we hoisted the boat and headed down to the water. We got a lot of attention with our long strangely shaped canoe. An army of grungy children swarmed us trying to hang on to the side of the boat or just touch it. I was extremely annoyed. Everyone in the park that day was a candidate for selective killing as far as I'm concerned. I wasn't to thrilled about having an audience or having to dodge all of these fuckers. We set the boat in the water and Erin steadied it as Robo and I got in the seats. She let go and we pushed off - Splash!! We tipped the boat over and we went into the water. I surfaced and grabbed the side of the boat to keep it from getting away from us downstream. There was no place to grab on the bank because of all of the people sitting there staring at us and drooling. Plus, the boat was full of water and really heavy. We finally floated down to a point where we could hold on. We got back up on shore and tilted the boat up to drain all the water. What an inauspicious beginning. I thought we'd done something wrong. I immediately blamed Robo for leaning too far to one side. I mean, I had done nothing - I was just sitting there when the boat went over. Erin muttered, "I've been here before." Obviously talking about having seen this with the countless other people she's introduced to the sport. I handed my wet cap, sunglasses and watch to my GF. At that moment, I think, the full force of committing to the Safari took hold. We got back in it and tried again; this time receiving some new instructions from Erin. We lasted at least five minutes this time before we went over again. The damn boat just wobbled like crazy. We repeated that scene a half dozen times. After getting dunked for the fourth time or so I was really frustrated and pissed off. I didn't know what we were doing wrong. I was just sitting there trying to balance. The jeers from the mongoloids on the banks didn't help. At one point this toothless Mexican kid floated really close to me right after we'd fallen over and we were trying to swim the boat back to shore so we could get back in. He was less than three feet from me and in my way. "Can I help you?" I asked. "Can I help you?" he repeated. "What?" I asked. "What?" he said. I glared at him. "Is there a reason why you are so close to me?" He must've sensed that I wasn't going to put up with this shit so he moved along. Good thing too. My strings were tight at that point. I can't believe I didn't yell at the fat drunks who were making comments on the bank either. God, the things I wanted to say.
Erin saw that we were struggling and she directed us to a shallow point in the river as she dove in and swam to it. She held the bow of the boat and instructed us to use our paddles to stabilize ourselves when she tipped us one way or the other. That, combined with just being in the boat and getting used to it allowed us to make some progress. Toward the end, we were actually able to stay in the boat and paddle it for a while. It still felt really tippy.
I had pretty much lost all confidence. The prospect of paddling a river with hundreds of obstacles for 260 miles seemed impossible. We couldn't even go 50 yards! Erin suggested that she sit in the back of the boat with one of us in the front and paddle downstream and back. I thought that was a great idea. I at least wanted to feel like it was possible for the damned boat to stay upright. I went first. It was a completely different experience. I paddled freely and the boat felt stable. We hauled some ass down the river and then back. I don't know what she did, but I never felt like we were going to go over. Robo went next and had the same experience.
It was getting dark. Most of the assholes in the park had gone home. We lifted the boat out of the water and took it back toward Erin's van. Robo and I talked it over. I was really glad we'd made the run with Erin because my confidence had at least been partially restored. We had to make a decision whether we were going to buy the boat. Erin had already suggested to us that we get in a more stable boat and do the TWS for the first time in the Novice division. There were boat size and type restrictions for that class, including no rudder and single blade paddles only. But it would be our best chance, maybe ever, of competing for a class win. In the end, we felt like we could master the boat given enough practice. The boat was really fast. Plus, we could always opt out for a more stable boat for our first time if we just couldn't get the hand of the Raptor.
We talked to Erin a little more about our options and finally told her that we wanted the Raptor. She had to keep it to make a small repair on the gunnel for us, but the deal was done. We gave her the money and thanked her and that was it. Done deal.
We've got a huge task in front of us. We had a huge task in front of us before learning how to stay upright in the boat became part of it.