Eleventh Lagoon/Reef Eco-Challenge Held in San Pedro
Twenty-seven teams in brightly coloured ocean-going kayaks – forty-two gruelling miles from San Pedro Town to the northern-most creek bordering Mexico, and then back to town. The eleventh Lagoon/Reef Eco-Challenge, observers say, was one of the closest ever, with the teams finishing in record time. The annual race is a test of physical and mental strength and stamina, but its founders say that it’s also about raising awareness of the importance of preserving the island’s precious ecosystems. Our News Five team tagged along and tonight Mike Rudon has part one of the amazing and unforgettable two-day eco-challenge.
Mike Rudon, Reporting
By six a.m. Saturday morning, the twenty-seven teams taking part in this year’s race were making final preparations – checking kayaks and paddles, water, Gatorade and fruits to sustain them during the gruelling first leg. There was excitement and anticipation from the participants and also from the service crews and observers who would follow the race from start to finish. And just in case you’re getting the impression that this is just a leisurely two days on the water…it’s not. It’s a serious race for serious paddlers only – maybe smaller in scope than the Ruta Maya, but just as challenging.
Armin Lopez, Ruta Maya Expert
“The two of them are really hard. You can’t say one or the other. It’s just different because of the river but back here is shallow and its sea. It gets really shallow and muddy. It gets very competitive back there. I love the race. That’s why I come follow it every year.”
Elito Arceo, Organizer, Kayak Eco-Challenge
“We leave San Pedro, behind the San Pedro Lagoon, we go through the middle of the island which is the creeks and different lagoons…we come out at an area called Brasilete. From there we head on to the Mexico/Belize border at which point we go into another lagoon, cross…run…jump, however you want to do it…to the other side of the island where we’ll camp out for the first night.”
Jordan Santos, Team Chicken Puff
“We trained for like two months…mostly all we need to do is long distance training because it’s a lot of miles.”
Jimmy Polonio, Team Bulldogs
“Yu hafto put in the mileage…you hafto put in the hours because it’s a really long distance race. If you only put in a little bit of time you won’t make the race because it’s not an easy race. It’s a brutal race.”
“This is a challenging race due to the fact that we have to go through a mudpit…mud to yu knee.”
After a minor delay to secure kayaks for all participants, paddlers lined up at seven thirty, awaiting the countdown to signal the start of the race.
And they were off, with some of the stronger teams already jockeying for position while some of the newcomers just struggled to keep up. The first part of the trek would take the paddlers about four miles up the lagoon to this inlet where they would be lost from sight for almost two hours as they manoeuvred the shallow creeks meandering through the centre of the island. They would emerge here in Frenchman Lagoon in an area known as Brasilete. To get back into the main body of the lagoon they would have to carry their kayaks over a stretch of land and mangrove swamp.
And that’s when the first team, one of the front-runners, called it quits…
Victor Hernandez, Team Cool Riders
“We mi deh way da front but mi knee mi caan’t go nomo.”
Jessie Smith, Team Cool Riders
“We mi deh right deh pon di top three. Yu know but like di man seh if he can’t paddle I noh wah force di man fu paddle. Health come first so we decide fu just quit.”
“This is the fastest we’ve seen this race run. Usually we’re in this particular area around one o’clock, two o’clock in the afternoon and as you can tell right now it’s a little after eleven o’clock so we’re two hours ahead of schedule.”
Shortly after that another team called it off…and a half hour after a third – but the organizers made the decision to switch out paddlers so that one of the teams could continue the race…just for the fun of it. By that time two kayaks paddled by the Fisheries and Coast Guard teams were in first and second place, far from the rest of the pack.
The Fisheries team entered this narrow waterway at least ten minutes ahead of the Coast Guard team. Incredibly, this creek separates Belize and Mexico – Belize to the right and Mexico to the left. That’s a Mexican skiff passing by on their side of the border, so to speak. We waited around only long enough to see the Coast Guard kayak enter the creek – and also to drop off this young team which wanted to finish the race paddling – before heading around to meet the race at the finish line at Robles Point, where we would camp for the night.
And at a little after two pm, a new record for the race, the Fisheries team came in paddling strong, with the spectacular reef as their backdrop.
James Alford, Team Fisheries
“Ih mi good. We only ketch wah lee cramp now and then but da mi still wah nice race. Ih mi easier this time. I done mi come last time but ih mi easier this time.”
Carlos Ramirez, Team Fisheries
“This has been pretty hard because you have a lot of guys that know a lot of shortcuts…so you’d be in front then sudden one you’d see the guys them pop up next to us..so that was actually the challenge for the race. And then the mudpits…mein that was no joke.”
“Mi partner midi shove…although ih old ih midi do wah thing still yet.”
Minutes after, it was the Coast Guard team coming in.
Alfonso Lind, Team Coast Guard
“We put in the hours that we needed to put in, and we trained hard so we could race easy.”
“We saw that Fisheries was just fifty feet ahead of you guys…what happened?”
“When we were there we closed the gap, we got on the wave, but we worked too hard to get on the wave so by that time we were all the way at zero. We were worn out already so we couldn’t stay with them. They dropped an attack on us and they left us.”
Daniel Gregorio, Team Coast Guard
“On the distance they took on us it will be hard but maybe…you never know. But to me I say it’ll be hard to try to close that gap.”
And then Team Bulldogs, obviously exhausted from trying to catch up to the two front-runners.
Roy Bradley, Team Bulldogs
“We hafto deh chase and lotta thing back deh…kill we body like dat.”
“Unnu deh wah lee distance behind…maybe wah ten, fifteen minutes behind. You think you could mek that up tomorrow?”
“We can’t mek that mein. Da too much minutes that. If we lef dem like twenty minutes then maybe we could win the race like that. Cho ih too hard how dem bwoy deh paddle hard. They deh drill too.”
It was a spectacular finish of the first leg of a hard-fought race – a spectacular finish in a spectacular setting, reminding all those present that the Eco-Challenge is designed to draw attention to the environment.
“We want to bring an awareness of protection and conservation of the areas that we’ll be paddling through…and one way to do that is of course to highlight it so everybody can take a lot at it, enjoy it and keep it the way it is.”
Paddlers camped overnight at Robles Point, resting tired bodies for the final leg of the race which would end at the central park in San Pedro Town. Mike Rudon for News Five.
Day 2 of Weekend Kayak Challenge
Day One of the eleventh Lagoon/Reef Kayak Eco-Challenge ended at Robles Point, a secluded beach on Northern Ambergris Caye near the border with Mexico and a stone’s throw from the Barrier reef. There participating teams camped out in preparation for the second leg of the forty-two mile race back to San Pedro Town. News Five was along from start to finish and tonight Mike Rudon has the story on the champions of the lagoon, creeks and sea…the paddlers of the Kayak Eco-Challenge 2015.
Mike Rudon, Reporting
Bright and early on a beautiful Sunday morning, on a pristine beachfront just off the barrier reef, the participants of the Kayak Challenge prepared for the second gruelling leg of the race. They were competitors on day one, and would be again in a matter of minutes, but for the moment they shared a meal and companionship, exchanging stories and comparing strategies. Some of them have paddled the waves before, and for some it is a first, memorable experience.
Rubio Salazar, Team Rendezvous
“First time, first time…I just decided that for the years I live on this island, for over thirty-eight years, I decided that I will try to see what I can do.”
Miguel Castillo, Paddler
“It’s hard…we never expect it fu be so long.”
“But unu wah mek it all the way to the end right?”
“We noh wah give up mein.”
Samir Mejia, Paddler
“Today I wah do it by myself and I wah try reach it by myself. I’ll do it by myself and I’ll try to finish it and I’ll try to prove to all of my friends that I don’t need any partner. I’ll do it by myself and I will make it. Even if I do it dead last I will make it to the finish line.”
Jordan Santos, Paddler
“When we touch the water we’ll find out.”
David Daniel, Paddler
“You know I hafto push it. I hafto try hype up mi teammate fu push it with mi but the man lee slack up. You know I noh fight with the man or nothing but the two ah we still push it.”
And then, after an intensive cleanup of the camping ground, it was time, and twenty-four teams of the twenty-seven that started lined up. Team Fisheries, Coast Guard and Bulldogs were in first, second and third place by a considerable time margin… but when the horn sounded, it was all guns blazing.
The roar of the waves over the reef competed with the shouts of supporters spurring on their favourite teams, as the kayakers paddled past remote luxury resorts and the beautiful beaches of Northern Ambergris. That scenery was for the observers to enjoy, and we did. For those in the ocean-going craft battling the waves and wind, the focus was absolute.
Even though all left together, by the time we were halfway to the finish line, the three top teams from day one were out in front. This is Team Fisheries and Coast Guard going at it, neither wanting to get left behind. Closer to the reef Team Bulldogs kept them in sight even as they tried to veer into the calmer seas near the Coast.
Most of the paddlers were in high spirits, knowing that they would not finish in the top bunch but determined to finish the race anyway. The youngest team in the race were obviously struggling, but their paddles never faltered.
By early afternoon a crowd had gathered at the Central Park, waiting to greet the champions – all of them – whether they arrived first or last. And when the first kayaks rounded the pier heading into the final stretch, nobody was surprised to see the Fisheries and Coast Guard teams fighting for first. In the end, fisheries won by only a kayak length.
Carlos Ramirez, Team Fisheries
“No race is easy. All the races are hard. You need to put your mind and your heart and definitely you need to work out when you come to these races. It was a good challenge, the wind was nice and everyone tried their best to make it.”
Alfonso Lind, Team Coast Guard
“Well today, all we had to do was try to hold off the guys that were behind us from yesterday because we know we had them like five minutes and they could have closed that. So we just kept it tight with the guys that were leading and hung in there to the end and we did a sprint…put on a show for the crowd.”
And then it was Team Bulldogs in third place, followed close behind by the rest of the weary paddlers. But none received a welcome like Carlos Esquivel, sixteen years old and Miguel Castillo, fourteen. They were greeted like heroes and given the MVP award for paddling a total of thirteen hours and forty-two hours over the two days.
It was a spectacular finish to an amazing two-day race which showcased the beauty of the lagoons, creeks, beaches and coral reef which few Belizeans ever see. The Lagoon/Reef Eco-Challenge, in its eleventh year, has earned its place as one of Belize’s best, and we’re assured that it’s going to be even bigger next year. We’ll see you there. Mike Rudon for News Five.
According to creator and organizer Elito Arceo, the planning committee is looking to make some major changes to the race in 2016. And that, we are told, includes opening it up to regional and international competitors.
Kayakers Battle at 11th Annual Lagoon Reef Eco Challenge
What at Tight Race! – Last year competitors of the San Pedro Lagoon Reef Eco Challenge battled the elements as rough seas and high winds tested each paddler to their limit, but this year it was each team against each other. The battle for first place was hotly contested by two teams only ten seconds apart. The 11th kayak race took place on Saturday, May 22 to Sunday, May 23, 2015.
The overall sentiment of all the participants is that the kayak race is very difficult, testing the strength, endurance and will of each team. Out of the 24 teams that started the race on day one, six did not make it to the finish line the next day. The race includes a 25-mile paddle to the northern border of the island on the back side and back down to the 17 miles to San Pedro Town and the finish line.
Ten seconds or roughly ten hard strides was what separated first and second place in this year’s competition. Taking the first place trophy and $3,000 was Carlos Ramirez and James Alford, the Environmental Defense Fund team under the name ‘Hole Me Tite’. They beat out Alfonso Lind and Daniel Gregorio, the Belize Coast Guard team under the name BCG Boys. It took both teams roughly about nine and half hours to complete the two-day race.