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Water Safari paddlers celebrate in solemnity (video)

June 13, 2012 at 1:13 a.m.
Updated June 14, 2012 at 1:14 a.m.

Tommy Schulte, of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority, bows his head in prayer Wednesday before the closing ceremony of the Texas Water Safari in Seadrift. A prayer was said for Brad Ellis, who died of hyponatremia, or water poisoning, on Monday while competing in the race.

SEADRIFT - Usually, the Texas Water Safari seeks divine direction before the start of the race, and that's it.

However, the 2012 edition of the race was far from standard operating procedure. Despite a record number of entrants and finishers, one paddler passed away, another was in intensive care Wednesday.

Because of the contrasting emotions floating through the Pavilion in Seadrift, there were a few additional prayers, and requests for more, during Wednesday's closing ceremony of the Safari's 50th race.

Brad Ellis, one of two men in Boat No. 22, died Monday afternoon in a San Antonio hospital. Russell Luddeke was airlifted to a Victoria hospital once his team completed the 260-mile race early Tuesday morning with suspected kidney damage. The closing ceremony was the first time many paddlers heard the details about their colleagues.

"Right at the end of the race, after Russell finished ... he started not feeling well," said Allen Spelce, president of the Texas Water Safari. "They took him to the hospital and determined his kidney was beginning to fail."

"They immediately rushed him to ICU. They got him there and that's where he is now. Things have stabilized. We understand he's eating and improving. We want all the paddlers and the family and friends to keep him in their thoughts and prayers," Spelce continued.

As Tom Goyens prayed over the luncheon Wednesday afternoon, he summed up the sentiments of many. In his prayer, Goyens said he knew the paddling community was hurting, that Brad was in a better place and that those who love him would see him again.

A record 94 of the 135 boats that set off from San Marcos made it to Seadrift before the end of the race at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The last boaters in were Michael Cade and C.J. Hall in Boat No. 9009.

The men received a raucous welcome as they walked their boat along the sea wall to the finish line 30 minutes before the deadline.

"We've both not made it once. We were determined to make it," Hall said about being the last boaters to finish. "It is kind of neat. It's embarrassing a little bit ... the funny thing is, I knew everyone, anyway, so that made it kind of cool."

Cade and Hall may have made it to Seadrift sooner, but they spent more than seven hours trying to navigate a 1.5 mile portage south of Bloomington. The two friends, who were introduced because Cade's wife works with Hall, were among the half dozen boats that were wandering in through thickets and trees trying to find their way.

"In the middle of the bay, I was thinking I would do that portage all over again," Cade said. "I would swap the bay for that ... We got there in the dark and we couldn't find the spot where we got back in. We were wandering around the woods for six hours."

But amid the celebration and the hush puppies provided by the Port Lavaca Evening chapter of the Lions Club, there was a hint of solemnity hanging over everyone.

Ellis' death touched all of them.

When Spelce noted Ellis was an organ donor, it was in the same breath as chronicling the race of stand up paddleboarder Shane Perrin - an organ recipient a decade ago. Many paddlers walked by the collection box "Donations to the Ellis family in Brad's honor" on their way to collecting their finisher's plaque and patches. And a number of the finishers mentioned Ellis in their brief speeches to their fellow competitors.

The most touching comments came from Chris LaRocque as he and the others in Boat No. 69 accepted their plaques.

"Brad was excited about this," LaRocque said, telling the crowd about his training with Ellis and his partner, Ian Rolls, before the race. "We all practiced and we were doing a log jam together. We spent a lot of time on Google Earth, putting coordinates together, and I did everything I could to make sure I was ready to go."

"I was really nervous. We did the (Traylor's) Cut and we weren't sure what direction to take. And then you look at Brad ... and he says, 'Oh it's so cool. What an adventure.' He's looking around and he had the time of his life."

Ellis probably did.

Regardless of the mixed emotions Wednesday, it is that memory that might soothe the sting of the first fatality in Texas Water Safari history.

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