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June 10, 2012 at 1:10 a.m.
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A gentleman with a cane carefully walked away from the San Marcos Aquarena on Saturday morning.
In a life full of adventures, Willie George never thought one of them would include watching the opening strokes of 50th annual Texas Water Safari.
George has never bothered to run in the race. One trip down the river was sufficient for him.
Yet, without George and Fred Brown deciding to paddle down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to Corpus Christi 50 years ago, on a lark, no one would have lowered their boat into the river Saturday for this annual tradition.
"Because we spent 20 days on the river, we basically lived out of the water and off the banks with a .410 shotgun and a spinning rig-full of lures," George recalled.
More than 250 paddlers filled 135 boats to set a new record for entrants. From teenagers to septuagenarians, father-son combinations, to the six-man behemoths the participants all shared an idyllic optimism that they would traverse the 260-plus river miles in less than the mandated 100 hours.
Boat No. 314 led the race as of 10:15 Saturday evening, after traveling approximately 95 miles in just over 13 hours on the river.
Their progress was further proof some were more successful than others Saturday.
Boat No. 2637 was one of the first eliminated for not making a checkpoint in time. One of the paddlers, Austin-resident Jeff McAdams was the subject of a documentary about the race. They made it 12 miles in before failing to reach one of the race's 17 checkpoints in time.
Meanwhile, boat No. 314, the three-time defending champions of the race, were well on their way to winning an unprecedented fourth straight title. Only two of the six men on the team live in the same city - and Amado and Daniel Cruz live in San Ignacio, Belize.
"It took us five years to learn how to run the race," said Andrew Stephens, one of the six on the presumptive favorites. "Once we figured the logistics of the race and how to prepare it became a matter of physical conditioning."
It's not just the paddlers that must be in optimal shape.
Each of the record-setting 135 boats that entered had a team captain. That person was responsible for ensuring the paddlers had enough water, and oversaw the logistics of navigating the rivers.
Prior to the start of the race, the captains were advised to get some sleep to prevent paddlers and captains from seeing hallucinations once they reached Victoria as early as noon Sunday.
Jennifer Brown may not be a team captain for Boat No. 810. However, her father and husband are on the boat. So she, and Peach, the Border Collie by her side, will be paying close attention to its progression.
"It's hot. It's exhausting," Brown said about her past role as a captain. "Being a spectator is nice because you can sleep a little longer. Now my job is to be a photo journalist and take pictures."
Organizers hoped to make the event more spectator-friendly this year by requiring paddlers to use tracking devices during competition.
As everyone came to the first checkpoint, the Staples Dam that separates Guadalupe and Caldwell counties, spectators and team captains checked their smartphones and tablets for information on their favorite paddler.
Such progress is far more than what George envisioned fifty years ago, when it was suggested the trip he and Brown made be turned into a competition.
In 1962 Brown asked whether anyone had paddled a boat from the springs in San Marcos to the coast. George said his response was to inquire when they could get started. They packed salt, pepper, shortening, coffee and cornmeal and set off on an adventure that would become an annual tradition in South Texas.
George said the 50th annual race would not have been possible without the event's army of volunteers, nor the city of San Marcos rallying to support it. His only regret is his friend, co-founder Brown, is not alive to see the safari's growth.
"I've done a lot of things, but to put a number on it (would be impossible)" George said about ranking the adventure. "But I'll say this. I won't do it again."
By the time the 2012 paddlers make it to Seadrift they might say the same.