Erin Magee paddled up shortly after 5 p.m. Monday to the Texas Water Safari’s finish line in Seadrift. Magee, 56, is a veteran of the 260-mile canoe race, and she has a tattoo on her lower back to prove it.
“It’s just the story of my life,” Magee said. “You get in a boat, and the places you go, the people you meet – it’s so different than you thought you’d ever have.”
This year, Magee finished for the 16th time as a solo competitor, more than any man or woman who has participated in the race.
Two records were broken by Night Witches, a team of four women: Morgan Kuhut, Kaitlin Jiral, Virginia Condie and Mary Schlimmer. Their boat reached the finished line in 37½ hours, making the team the new record holders for women in the categories of Unlimited and highest position.
“No female finish has been under 40 hours, so it was time,” Jiral said.
2019 was a monumental year for women racers in Texas Water Safari, but 25 years ago, when Erin Magee first started racing the Texas Water Safari, it was a different story.
“When I started, there were probably about five or six women who participated regularly,” Magee said.
This year, 48 of 384 racers were women, said Texas Water Safari president Allen Spelce. Although women still make up a minority of racers, Magee said gender isn’t something she thinks about when racing.
“We’re kind of people first, gender second,” Magee said. “The water does not care if you’re male or female, if you’re tall or short, if you’re strong or skilled or completely inept. It treats you just the same.”
Nonetheless, she has a list in her apartment of male racers she’s beaten.
“I saw my name up there and I was like, ‘Hey!’” said Magee’s team captain, Grady Hicks. “But I deserve it.”
Like Magee, Jiral didn’t have gender on her mind during the race.
“It didn’t occur to me at any point in the race that maybe what we were doing was at all inspirational to anyone else,” Jiral said.
That is, until her friend and Texas Water Safari participant Jonathan Yonley, whose boat also broke a record for men in the Tandem Unlimited category, told her something she wasn’t expecting.
“He just said all these girls who are kids of all our friends were like, ‘How old do we have to be to do this? We want to try it,’” Jiral said.
Though they weren’t expecting to make waves for future women in the Texas Water Safari, Night Witches paddler Virginia Condie said her team’s name is inspired by a group of Russian women who went against the odds to help fight Nazis in World War II.
“These women were like, ‘Put me in, Coach,’ and they gave them the beater plans,” Condie said. “With these sh---y tools, these women took out a ton of really bad guys. The Germans called them the night witches because they did it at night.”
Like the night witches, Condie said the team did its most important work, making it to the finish line, at night.
The Night Witches haven’t yet made plans to return next year, but Jiral said she expects to be back.
“It’s kind of just a way of life now,” said Jiral, who’s been coming to the race for years with her father.
Magee also attests to the race’s addictive qualities.
“The race is kind of like you see the brand new baby and you go, ‘Oh, how cute! I think I’ll have another one,’” Magee said. “Pregnancy is fun. Training is fun, but you do have to give birth.”