Texas Water Safari takes off Saturday
By WHITNEY DAY
SAN MARCOS DAILY RECORD (SAN MARCOS, Texas)
SAN MARCOS, Texas —
The Texas Water Safari is ready to converge on San Marcos for the 42nd year.
The non-stop 262-mile trek down the river from the Aquarina Center’s Spring Lake to the coast begins Saturday.
Known for the mental and physical strain on the racers, the contest has been dubbed the "World’s Toughest Boat Race."
This year 100 teams have entered the grueling contest in 11 categories. Each team must reach checkpoints by a set time along the way to officially finish the race. Contestants have a total of 100 hours to complete the journey and receive a finisher’s patch.
Leaders usually complete the paddling marathon in around 40 hours.
All eyes will be on the finish line in Seadrift to crown this year’s winner. The Mynar team that has taken first-place bragging rights home since 1997 is not competing this year, so the title is up for grabs and several squads will do all they can to take it.
There are a few teams that look to be the front-runners, all of which are multiple-man teams.
Only human muscle propulsion of boats is allowed in the race. It stands to reason that the more muscle on a craft, the faster it will be paddled down the river.
The team everyone is watching is the seven-man team that won the Texas River Marathon on May 7, which is the prelim race for the Safari and determines its starting positions.
The team is comprised of three Texans and four men from Belize. Two of the men are veterans of the race, having finished 12 Safaris apiece. Of the Belizians, only one has finished the contest, but all are skilled and experienced paddlers.
Irving’s Richard Steppe is a member of the Belizian team and is ready to race.
“We’re psyched, we’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” Steppe said.
The team is disappointed that the Mynars aren’t racing but is excited about the other competitors.
“We think we have a pretty good team,” Steppe said.
According to Steppe, there are three other teams that will make the race close and challenging.
The team that earned second in the prelim is a six-man squad comprised of Wade and Pete Binion, a father-and-son pairing, along with four other veteran racers. Five of the team members have finished at least 10 Safaris.
Another squad to watch is made up of six racers including Tommy Yonley and Jay Daniel, each having finished eight treks to the coast. The remaining team members are also veterans of the race, having from 2-6 years under their belts. This squad will start the Safari in row 11 at Spring Lake.
One more team to look out for is the Cowboy team, which entered at the last minute and will start way back in row 17. It is made up of Steppe’s brother and adventure racer Shaun Bain, 18-year veteran and multiple-time race winner Jerry Cochran and the team captain is Fred Mynar, of the 8-year winning streak Mynars.
Many of these racers are former teammates and there is a sense of camaraderie among them as well as competition.
“We’re all friends,” Steppe said. “I hope we’ll still be friends at the finish line.”
Steppe said a tight race, as the prelim was, may take a toll on the athletes.
“We almost died in the prelim. We had to sprint the whole time,” he said.
But the prelim was only a 45-mile race, the Safari is more than five times as long.
“It’s such a different race than any other kind of race,” Steppe said. “Being fastest doesn’t matter. It’s really a mental game, and some people just can’t fight past the mental part.”
The teams definitely have to have staying power, both physically and mentally.
“At some point you think you’re going to die,” Steppe said. “You just have to convince yourself that you’re not and push past it.”
The Belizian team will arrive in San Marcos Wednesday and will scout a couple of the river’s tricky spots and look for newly fallen trees on the route. They hope to get a good night’s sleep Friday after checking in.
“We’ll be ready to tear it up Saturday,” Steppe said.
Because the race is both mentally and physically challenging, the teams have plenty of room for strategizing. To many, it comes down to food. When using so much energy, keeping their muscles fueled is extremely important.
Making sure the athletes have enough food and drink intake is crucial in this non-stop competition. Some teams have it down to a science and know exactly how many calories per hour they should take in, while others just load their boats full of random foods and go. Either way, all racers need to plan because nothing can be purchased or given to them during the race except water and ice.
Tom Goynes, who entered his first Safari in 1967 and has won the race seven times, said the Texas Water Safari is a unique event.
“You get a real variety of people. It’s a funny event,” Goynes said.
There are world-class athletes who are very competitive, then there are newcomers whose only goal is to cross the finish line.
“It’s a long enough race that it brings in the adventure racers and some of the best paddlers in the world,” Goynes said. “Then you’ve got the other extreme, which is the guy that just jumps into this race, but he can have a good time, too.”
Each participant in the Safari carries his own goal for the race. For some it’s to win, for others it’s to beat one specific team. Some come just to finish and some want to win their division.
But the race is not just about calorie intake and reaching goals. It does take place in nature, and there is physical danger for the teams. That is part of the event’s intrigue.
Not only are there dams, fallen trees and log jams to worry about on the river, but there are also snakes, gators and big alligator gar in the water.
The gators are generally not around until the teams get closer to the coast, and none has ever attacked a boat in the race’s history.
Goynes said that the gators are blinded by the lights the racers wear, but the same light attracts the huge gar. He said that the gar have caused boats to dump over, but no one has been seriously injured.
As for snakes, only two people have been bitten in the Safari’s history, and neither bite was fatal. All boats must carry snake bite kits on board just to be safe.
Veteran racers have come back with stories of creatures they’ve seen on the river banks while paddling in the middle of the night, but there is no evidence of the urban legends such as the famed monkey man on Monkey Island.
According to Goynes, some of the hype is to scare the novice racers. Right now on the Internet, several pictures and stories are posted in a kayak and canoe racing forum at luv2paddle.com that intend to frighten.
But nothing could keep the 100 teams entered in the Safari out of the river on Saturday.
Racers check in at the Aquarena Center Friday and the 42nd paddling of the ‘World’s Toughest Boat Race’ will commence at 9 a.m. Saturday from Spring Lake.
Whitney Day writes for San Marcos (Texas) Daily Record.