Water Safari prompts good memories

June 18, 2009 at 1:18 a.m.

Wow, where does the time go? Another Texas Water Safari has come and gone, and the event always brings back memories, primarily of the first few years of the Safari's history when it started as an annual event in 1963. A couple of fellows, Frank Brown and Bill George, on a dare, made the first trek sans motor power in 1962, taking about a month to make it from San Marcos to Corpus Christi.

In the first couple of years of the organized race, it was a pretty basic canoe/kayak race, or as we used to call it out at the Aloe Field Drags, a "run whatcha brung" affair, with no classes of boats and just a first team to the finish line conclusion.

In preparing for this story, I realized just how early on my partners and I were part of the race, and exactly why at that point in time it got tagged "the world's toughest boat race." Early press coverage was pretty much limited to The Victoria Advocate and the San Marcos Daily Record. It caught on as a regional and national event, and the Houston Post gave it pretty good press. One year, Post staff writer, Stan Slaton, had a go at it. Those were the days pre-Power Bars, no packaged-energy food and drinks, and certainly no support teams waiting with ice water at regular intervals. We packaged our own energy food: rolled balls of wheat germ, honey and peanut butter. We stapled them inside the rail of our 22-foot redwood and fiberglass sculling rig the second year, along with sealed freeze-dried meals of scrambled eggs - food we would consume when, or if, we made it to the coast, where we would wait to begin the three saltwater-day legs of the race. The year I finished the race was 1969, and my partner was Jim Trimble, a former high school classmate from Calhoun High School, who in later years went on to win the race a time or two, as I recall.

Thinking back now, in '68 and '69, the years I raced, there wasn't much for precedents except for the short five years of mostly battle stories and triumphs: the horror stories by those who had broken bones, broken boats, been snake bitten, or were just plain broken by the Texas sun and the blistered bodies. We learned how a race like this was best run and what it took to finish it. Do not get me wrong, the race is still a grueling test of endurance for anyone who finishes. They still must paddle two or three days and nights, non-stop, and that is no easy feat. I guess if there is anything I am most proud of, it is finishing it in those early years when we were still blazing a trail for today's racers - learning and teaching the ways of the river to those who came after us.

After the first couple of years of local racers, professional paddlers started coming down from Michigan in some nice fiberglass Sawyer racing canoes, and I honestly think that about '65 or '66 was when the race actually caught national and international attention, and the boats started to show some design and planning. The names in those days were some you won't hear today, except from old guys: Dixon, Oxsheer, the Goynes brothers, Robert "Froggie" Sanders, Charles Hall. Coaches from my high school entered it a couple of years, which really stirred up some attention locally. I think the first real dramatic change in the race came in the mid '60s when a couple of aging shipbuilders from the Houston-Galveston area, Harold and Jay Bludworth, in their 60s, surprised everyone by entering the race in a reasonably light redwood rowing shell, blowing away all of the younger competitors, setting record times and being the only team out of 50 or so to even finish the race. They and their style of boat dominated the race for, probably, the next 10 years. The boat we used the year I finished was one like theirs, and in anything less, I know we never would have finished.

Much has been said of the exhaustion and hallucinations experienced by the racers. Suffice to say it is real. In my case, it was a big beautiful white mansion that I kept seeing on both the second and third nights, along with the flash of oars and paddles in the moonlight behind us, as if we were being overtaken. The other thing I was seeing the first night was plates of food: fried shrimp, barbecue and iced tea. By the third night, that vision had deteriorated to baloney sandwiches and water from the hose. As far as the pitfalls of the river, we never saw any snakes, and we came through the lower river into the bay in the dark of the third night, so any gators were invisible to us.

It took us 73 hours to reach Seadrift. It doesn't go unnoticed by me at this point, that that was exactly 30 years ago today as I write this, that as a boy of just 18, I finished the Texas Water Safari. I did it at a time when there were still a lot of unknowns awaiting each new team that tried it. I do not know what the starter to finisher ratio is after all these years, but it was about two out of 10 back then, so I am aware what an accomplishment it was for us to pull our boat out on the sand and shell beach finish line in the summer of '69, at the Port Lavaca Causeway Fishing Pier Park, with 270 miles of river and 60 or so miles of San Antonio, Espiritu Santu, Matagorda and Lavaca bays behind us, having rowed every mile of it.

Should one reading this want a firsthand account in person from an old salt and a former winner of the Texas Water Safari, I suggest the next time you're in Port O'Connor, run down the Intracoastal Road, and swing by Froggie's Bait Stand. Ask for him. I am sure he'll roll his eyes and grin if you tell him who sent you, but I'd bet that if you can get a story out of him, it will be a good one. There aren't many left on this coast with such a pedigree and a history as Coach Sanders. You may tell him I said that.

I am proud to have participated in the Water Safari, and I can safely say that age 58, there has been no other feat in my life I am as proud of, with the notable exception of being a father to my sons, and trying to teach them that there is more to life than the ways of the city.

Mike Austin is a 30-year resident of Katy/Houston, by way of a 10-year internship in Austin. He was raised in Seadrift and is the father of two boys. He is an electrical designer in the power/petrochemical industry by trade.


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