wrote this shortly after the safari last year but never got around to posting it. Then I realized there were two stories here. That of Tres Leches (Boat 3) through the eyes of their team captain, and then my experience of being a team captain. So here is part 1. (Part 2 is here)
By the time we got to race day, everyone was ready. A long training season was lengthened by flooding and more flooding. When we planned our summer vacation (a week in North Carolina at Nathan’s parents’ house) we didn’t really plan for the possibility of the race being postponed multiple times. That week was supposed to be after the race. But two postponements later, and we were flying home from vacation the Wednesday before the race. On top of having been lazy and lounging on the beach for a week, Nathan wasn't feeling well and went to the doctor on Thursday. They thought it was possible he had strep (faintest line she had ever seen) but loaded him up on antibiotics and drugs to try to get him better before the race. Not exactly the note you want to start the safari on but what can you do? Nathan's parents then flew in Thursday so his dad could TC and his mom could keep the kids for us. Friday was chaotic. I had to work that morning and all the guys were all anxious to get to San Marcos so they drove down early. I eventually made it out of Austin and got to San Marcos in time to catch the end of the pre-race meeting. We grabbed dinner, did some final prep work and everyone headed to bed.
Race day: The guys had a good prelim race and combined with all the boat changes due to the two postponements they were starting out front. We got them into the water to warm up and headed down to Saltgrass to watch the portage at the end of Aquarina Springs. There is an odd calm (if you aren’t racing) in the morning. All your prep work is done, racers are just making final tweaks to the boat and it’s typically a few hours before you have a handoff. It’s really the only time you get to just spectate. Since we didn’t have a handoff until Staples so after the start we stopped by cottonseed. As soon as the guys came through the rapids (cleanly!) we headed to staples.
My dad, who had never seen a safari before, flew into Austin that morning and made it down in time to see them come through Staples. The boys showed up in 5th, just seconds ahead of the 6th and 7th place boats (Cinco de Chango/283 and the Cowboys). When they boys came through they split us, I was on the bank side and Dwight was towards the river. We were finishing the handoff as 283 came though. I almost got tangled up with 283 as I was backing up out of the river and 283 came in before Dwight was able to get out of the water. And then so did the Cowboys. So Dwight ended up hanging out/swimming in the river until all the boats cleared out. My dad was hanging out up on the all watching and took the video (blame him for the vertical framing). While you can't truly explain this race to someone and you can't experience it is just 10 minutes, this turned out to be a pretty entertaining introduction to day one of the Safari for my dad.
The day proceeded like clockwork. Fentress. Luling 90. At Luling 90 they were in 7th place, just 5 minutes behind 283 and 4 minutes behind the Cowboys. The guys kept on trucking. While we were at Zeddler, Michele Horsey called and said she had some stuff for the guys. Something about guacamole? Nathan started racing when racers had to carry all their food in the boat and he lived off of 98% Spiz for the entire race. Even when we raced after the rule change, we had a few snacks but were still 90% Spiz. So when Michele showed up and started making guacamole that Garrett had requested I had to laugh. It was just avocado, salt and lime juice but I still felt like I should offer them a margarita and chips to go with it when they came through.
After Zeddler, the heat of the day was receding and we were on to Palmetto. Boat 150 had already come through by the time we go to Palmetto but we were there to see everyone else come through. The river level was less than ideal. It was high enough that it was flowing over the center of the bridge and lighter, skilled boats could just go over the bridge. But the bridge has a big pipe along the upstream side and the concrete edge raises up and down so there are small openings where a boat can come through but they better choose wisely. On the flip side, it was low enough that on the side of the bridge you could also get swept under the bridge. Tommy Yonley and then Jonathan and Max came through after 5pm. They both gingerly glided over the center of bridge. Not long after Riverfitness came through and they had a different approach. They were full steam ahead and I’m not sure if it was because their boat was bigger and heavier or if they just weren’t dead center on the bridge but they rammed the bridge and came to a dead stop. Palmetto can be pretty noisy but when Riverfitness hit, there was a collective gasp and dead silence for a few seconds. Pretty quickly the current caught the end of the boat and started swinging it around. They were able to jump out and get the boat up on the bridge, made their handoff and were on their way. There was a nice gash in the bow of the boat and of course we all started wondering what that was going to do to their race and just how much damaged was done. 283 was next to come in and they portaged on river right lifting the boat up onto the bridge. However, once the boat was up, Pete Binion who was at the back started getting pulled under the bridge. One of his teammates tried to pull him up but he was getting pulled under as well. Given the debris in the river from all the floods and the force of the current, there was no guarantee if someone went under the bridge they would come out on the other side. It was entirely possible they would get stuck in debris under the bridge. Luckily, someone on the bridge was on their game and was able to pull him up. So, 5 boats through this checkpoint and already one damaged and another almost lost a paddler under the bridge, and it wasn’t even dark yet. Just 2 minutes later Tres Leches came through. Having watched the previous boats, Dwight and I were overly clear in what we wanted them to do in regards to portaging. We weren’t taking any chances. They got river right, lifted the boat onto the bridge and everything went smoothly. They were neck and neck with the Cowboys and pulled out of Palmetto at 5:50pm in 6th place.
Our next stop was Gonzales. The plan was for them to portage on river left around the damn. We got everything ready and then took a seat on the upstream side of the dam to wait and watch. On the grass there was one lone guy sitting in a chair. While I am the classic definition of an introvert, Dwight can strike up a conversation with anyone, and he did. It turns out the guy lived in Gonzales and had just gotten off work and wanted to come down and watch some boats come through. He had done the race maybe 20 years prior and every year he comes down to cheer on the boats as they come through. While we were waiting the sun set, a few other spectators showed up and we waited. The boats are starting to get more spread out at this point and settling into a grove. We were there in time to see 150 come through a little after 8:00 I think and the others trickle through slowly. The boys showed up a little before 10:00. They were on a great pace. (If you want to see, or more accurately, not see, what it's like paddling through the night there is some video from Gonzo here.)
With boats portgaging on both sides of the river and it getting dark it was hard to tell exactly what place they were in but we had to drive down to the gravel bar to check them in at the checkpoint after they came through and on the board they were 5th, just 1 minute ahead of 283 and 6 minutes ahead of the Cowboys. The boys were still cruising at a pretty fast pace so we didn’t have much downtime. We refilled on ice and water and we were off to Hocheim. We parked and both tried to sleep a little in the truck but I don’t think either of us really got any sleep. Sometime after 1, we got up and started getting everything ready. By the time you reach Hocheim the San Marcos River, its clear water and pleasant banks, are a distant memory. Hocheim is a muddy, rocky steep bank with a rope that you have to use to climb up and down. When we got there Mollie Binion and her other TC were getting their stuff down the hill to the river. We followed suit. The boys had been neck and neck with 283 the last time we saw either boat. While the boats do have spot trackers, they update about every 20 minutes and don’t all update at the same time so you can’t always tell who is in the lead. So there we sat in the early hours of the morning on the muddy banks just staring up river waiting to see a light. At some point during the last stretch 283 had passed the boys again and came through at 3:01 am. Our boys came through at 3:05 am still in 6th place. The previous year Dwight had found an additional access point between Hocheim and Cheapside. However, this time around it was dark it took a little leg work to find the place again. While we were waiting, I was finally able to get about 30 minutes sleep in the truck and when I woke up I was refreshed and ready to go. We saw 283 come through and shortly after the boys came through. We did a handoff and then headed to Cheapside. Cheapside has always been mid-day to afternoon and for whatever reason there is no breeze and it is just hot. One would think that since it is up on a bluff there would be some reprieve but not really. Luckily this time, we were still in the early morning hours. This time I prepped everything and Dwight was able to get a little sleep. The boys came through at 6:53 am, still in 6th place just behind 283 and just ahead of the Cowboys.
The heat of day 2 came and the guys kept cruising checking off Cuero 236 at 8:51am. However, they left Cuero without taking all of their jugs. We didn’t get all the new jugs with their water in the boat before they took off. As the temps were going to start rising we didn’t want them going that long without water so we headed to the RV park. We weren’t scheduled to meet them there but were hoping to catch them and get the jugs to them. The silver lining in this was that they got ice socks at an extra stop they hadn’t been planning on.
They kept knocking off the stops. Thomaston. Nursery. Victoria. When they pulled into Victoria Nathan got out of the boat and laid down in the water. It was clear he was worn out. Typically, Nathan doesn’t stop until he gets to Seadrift. Stops are fast and minimal time in the water. It was clear that he was fatigued. In hind sight this was probably the beginning of his issues. They pulled out of Victoria at 2:42 pm in 6th place.
We saw them again at Victoria 59. But there is so much debris in front of the boat ramp it’s next to impossible to get out to them and I climbed out as far as I could sinking into the debris and much and we just threw jugs and ice socks back and forth. On to Dupont.
283 came through Dupont at 7:02 pm and the boys were 37 minutes behind leaving Dupont still in 6th place at 7:39 pm. They were 24 minutes ahead of the girls in 7th place. Late in day two their spot tracker stopped working. Most of the race it wouldn't have mattered much because they were pretty consistently in their speed and split between them and the boat ahead of them. At DuPont we told them to turn their spot on but they said the batteries were dead. We could get them a new one at salt water barrier but that meant they were heading into alligator lake at dark without a working spot tracker so we would have no idea where they were.
The sun went down as we headed to saltwater barrier. We had a guess, but especially without a spot tracker, we really had no idea when we might see them. The girls were the first to come through Saltwater barrier at 11:01pm having passed both the boys and 283. The boys came through saltwater barrier in 7th place at 11:36pm.. But when they showed up Nathan was sick. Really sick. He couldn't hold anything down. We got the spot tracker switched out, gave them food and a coke and sent them on their way. There wasn’t any more we could do for them and the only real fix is reaching Seadrift. We would see them at wooden bridge just a few miles downriver (and the last stop before the bay) and see how Nathan was feeling. When they got to wooden bridge things had gone further downhill. Nathan no longer had a shirt on and now had on his life jacket. Apparently he had decided it was the smell of his shirt that was making him nauseous so he took it off. Then he laid down in the boat, fell asleep and then rolled out of the boat and flipped it. That was when they had him put on a life jacket and somewhere in the Guadalupe between saltwater barrier and wooden bridge lies the blue safari shirt. I'm pretty sure this was safari #3 for that shirt so it was probably time to be retired anyway.
When they got to wooden bridge we went ahead and told them to get out and we wanted to talk. We needed to assess Nathan. That and they said their plan was for Nathan to sit on top of the skirt as they crossed the bay. (Or maybe lay on top?). Either way, if Nathan wasn't strong enough to sit up in the boat we weren't going to let them cross the bay, especially in the middle of the night. So we made them rest.
Nathan wrapped up in their emergency blanket and I tried to sit in front of him to block the wind to help him stay warm. But the wind kept the Mosquitoes off so I ended up swatting Mosquitoes off of him while he rested. (TC Job description fine print: Be prepared to use your body as a wind block while swatting mosquitoes off a lump without hitting that lump and waking him up.) After about an hour he was ready to try eating. After a piece of bread and half a bottle of Gatorade he was getting some strength back. He started getting feisty and upset that we wouldn't let him go yet, so I knew he was feeling better. There was one boat that followed them into wooden bridge and had since left but no one else came through. So despite they two hour wait, they didn’t lose much ground. About two hours after they arrived at wooden bridge they headed out (in 9th place I think). And the rest was out of our hands.
Sitting in Seadrift has a similar feeling to the start. The race isn’t over but your job as the TC is (or so I thought). All you can do at this point is sit and wait. So I sat staring towards the point and just watching their spot tracker. It starts to get light and it looks like they are on track to get to Seadrift about 6:30 am and would be neck and neck for 8th place. After losing two hours at wooden bridge, it would have still been a great finish. They are just feet from fosters point and crossing the barge canal. And then the spot tracker updated. And my heart sunk. They had turned and gone the other direction. I was hoping there was just some glitch in the spot but it updated again and they were still headed away from the finish line. This was the hardest part for me both as TC and as a wife. I knew how tired and worn down they were. They had worked so hard for a top finish and as they paddled the wrong direction other boats kept coming in. It crushed me. Eventually once the sun was up they got oriented, turned back towards Seadrift and made the final push to the finish line. By the time we could see them, they had crossed the barge canal and were walking across the bay. They were a rough looking crew. Ben couldn't manage to sit up in the boat and Nathan, we would find out a few hours later, was severely dehydrated and his kidneys were shutting down and only functioning at 50%. That final walk was a slow one. They crossed the finish at 7:41 am in 12th place overall.
I think we spent maybe 30 minutes at the finish taking pictures and letting Nathan lay down before we loaded him up to take him into Victoria to the ER. When we got to the ER I filled out a triage form with his name and the reason we were there. After I put the form through the mailbox in the wall a nurse walks out and says “I was just reading about you.” Nathan looked at me with a confused face and it took me a minute in my sleep deprived state to remember that there was a reporter at Victoria City Park that talked to Dwight and myself and had taken some pictures. When we walked into the triage room they pulled out the newspaper. They also said they had been talking about the fact that they hadn’t had Safari races come in ‘yet.’ Guess that is just another Safari tradition.
They put four IV's into him and wanted to keep going but Nathan didn't want to be admitted and checked himself out with the agreement that I got to micromanage how much he was drinking until we got back to Austin and he could check in with his doctor. I knew he was feeling better though when he sent me out for chick-Fil-a (while he got IV’s and a nap).
When we got to our hotel, Nathan wanted to shower and set our alarm for 2 hours later to get dinner and go back down to the sea wall. After all, he slept driving to Victoria, slept while getting his IV's and slept on the way to our hotel in Port Lavaca so he was starting to feel rested. Meanwhile, it's 3pm on Monday and remember that 30 minutes of sleep I got on night one? That is all I have slept since waking up Saturday morning but now I get to sleep. Even if just 2 hours. I set our alarm for 5pm. We awoke with a vengeance at 8pm. Apparently in my sleep deprived state I set it for 5am instead of pm (I blame sleep deprivation, Nathan argued it was intentional) and we just slept. We grabbed dinner and headed back to the sea wall. Other than micromanaging my husbands fluid intake, which I know he just loved, I was finally off duty as TC and could relax and just hang out. Safari 2015 was a wrap.