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Day One: Unfinished business, clear lead at Texas Water Safari (w/gallery)

By Johnathan Silver
June 14, 2014 at 1:14 a.m.

Matt Bondurant, left, and Doug Johnson paddle their canoe down the Cottonseed Rapid during the first day of the Texas Water Safari on Saturday. Although their boat was from Port Lavaca, purchased from a former safari participant, the two men were from Dallas and Grapevine, respectively.

SAN MARCOS - A Port Lavaca man's silver, aluminum boat was enlisted Saturday for the Texas Water Safari, but he didn't compete.

Instead, the boat is being paddled by Doug Johnson, 35, of Grapevine, and Matt Bondurant, 43, of Dallas, both of whom are competing for their first time in the annual 260-mile, marathon-style canoe race from San Marcos to Seadrift.

Johnson's boat, No. 7175, came from family friend and Port Lavaca resident Danny McGrew, who competed in the race twice, more than 30 years ago.

He never finished a race.

"I felt it appropriate to take this boat back and finish this race for him," said Doug Johnson, who, with Bondurant is competing in the Standard class.

Johnson had to make repairs to the boat, but elements of the past remain. Two names, "Lester" and "Danny," a city, "Port Lavaca TX" and a year, "81;" are painted on the canoe, paying homage to its former paddlers and their efforts.

Johnson and Bondurant's partnership for the competition is based in part on a fascination Johnson has with extreme water sports such as this marathon, which is drawing about 100 boats, their paddlers, families and friends to the Texas coast. Bondurant said he plans to document their experiences for an article in Texas Monthly magazine.

So what does competing this year mean to Bondurant's partner, who said he didn't have the means before?

"It means pure badass," Doug Johnson said.

After high school, Johnson traversed the Colorado River to Matagorda Bay by kayak in 1997, enduring Mother Nature's wrath during a storm that brought floods and an interesting element to his trip.

"The stories that I carry from that trip, they're infamous," he said. "They're stories I'll take to my grave. I think this will be the same. I'll have more stories to tell, and, hopefully, I'll do it again."

Doug Johnson's story was one of dozens stories that came with the race's contestants. It's a tradition for many families, who have experienced and participated in the race for generations. Stories come from out of state and country, said Tracy Francis, a Texas Water Safari race official who's worked in that capacity for more than 15 years.

"It's a challenge," she said. "People want to challenge themselves."

And that speaks to the spirit of the 52-year-old competition, Francis said.

"Overcoming everything and doing it on your own," she said.

It doesn't get any better, said James Vaughn Johnson, Doug Johnson's father and one of the team's captains, a duty he's sharing with Mari-Vaughn Johnson, Doug Johnson's sister.

"I pretty much encourage him," the father said. "I support him in what he wants to do."

That sentiment was very much alive across the board Saturday, as some paddlers struggled to make it to the first checkpoints. In some cases, paddlers made poor turns, tipping over their canoes and taking on too much water, but recovered.

Little shook competitors' game faces, though.

Spectators set the mood, cheering on passing paddlers, offering encouraging words to slower boats and cheering on entrants, some of whom were strangers to the fans and families that gathered.

As of about 10 p.m. Saturday, 93 boats remained on the river, no team had finished the race yet, and eight boats were out of the competition. Some boats' trackers have gone offline during the race, affecting their status.

Doug Johnson and Bondurant were in 57th place overall and fourth in the Standard class, traveling 3.9 miles per hour with an expected time of arrival at the Palmetto checkpoint of 10:32 p.m. Saturday night.

Boat No. 150, under the Unlimited classification, with members Andrew Condie, Clay Wyatt, Gaston Jones, Ian Rolls, Jeff Glock and Wade Binion, and team captains Jay Condie and Jill Wyatt, has held a consistent lead among its competitors. The six-man crew arrived at the Gonzales checkpoint at 9:41 p.m. Saturday night and has an average speed of 6.14 mph.



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