St. Louis paddler becomes first SUP athlete in the 50-year history of the Texas Water Safari to complete the 264-mile race, billed as ‘the world’s toughest canoe race.’
“Logistically, you have zero percent chance of finishing this race on a paddleboard.”
Shane Perrin has heard such comments before: before he became the first SUP athlete to tame the MR340 – the grueling 340-mile Missouri River odyssey – and again when he conquered La Ruta Maya, the four-day, 170-mile ultra-paddle through the bug- and snake-infested jungles of Belize. But the cynicism had usually come from amateur bystanders, not from the likes of Robert Youens. The broad-shouldered, six-foot-five-inch waterman once finished second overall at the Texas Water Safari in an aluminum boat, won the tandem with 16-year-old daughter, Rachel, in just 48 hours and 19 minutes and knows every bend of the 264-mile race down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.
Perrin, however, had just driven for 15 hours from his St. Louis home and had been preparing for the race for months, acquiring a new Crossfit board with a special rubberized coating customized by Pau Hana owner and shaper, Todd Caranto, specifically for river racing. He wasn’t about to turn back now. Sure, the 36-year-old didn’t know the ins and outs of twisty, portage-heavy 264-mile course like Youens did, and had no idea how his 14’ Pau Hana Crossfit board would hold up when bashed by the logs, tree stumps and rocks that could end his race at any point, special coating or not. Before he was motivated and now, with the June 9 start looming, he was locked in on his goal: becoming the only standup paddler to take on and finish the Texas Water Safari.
With 50 pounds of Clif Bars (chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookie), snakebite and first aid kits, Gatorade, 3 extra fins and a couple of gallons of water in CamelBak vests tethered to his board in bright yellow deck bags, the five-foot-eight-inch, 171-pound Perrin bade his ground crew farewell, and paddled to the start line at Aquarena Springs. Standing on his turquoise board in matching shorts, with yellow and gray water shoes peeking out from below his black compression pants and a wide-brimmed tan hat shielding his face, Perrin certainly stood out from the dozens of canoes, kayaks and boats around him. Even at 9 am, the temperature was already climbing into the 80s, and would flirt with triple digits later in the day. The only thing hotter was the indignation that burned in Perrin’s chest, as he mulled Youens’s challenge and stabbed his curved shaft Werner Grand Prix paddle into the fast-moving current again and again.
His mind was soon elsewhere, focusing on the varying water conditions and obstacles of the TWS, which tax competitors mentally as much as physically. “First you have rapids, then the current is hardly flowing, next you have miles of S-bend curves in what racers call ‘Hallucination Alley,’” Perrin says. “It’s extremely technical by day and even harder at night.”
This nighttime challenge was all too apparent when Perrin reached the Son of Ottine concrete dam in the middle of the first evening. Using his headlamp for illumination, he fumbled in his dry packs for his course notes, so he could read where the two-and-a-half-foot gap was. Finding the information just in time, Perrin steered his board just to the right of the dam’s middle and found the hole. The first 13 feet of the board squeezed through, but Perrin was knocked off balance as the seven-inch fin caught on the concrete. He didn’t fall into the water, but the fin was splintered. Pulling over to the side of the course, he removed it and affixed one of his spares.
There was more trouble to come. Perrin noticed that the board nose was cracked at mile 83, and lost time patching it up with a tub of SurfCo Hawaii Quick Fix Putty. 30 miles later he cracked another fin. And as he left the river to go around a log jam at mile 200, Perrin couldn’t use a strap in conjunction with the wheels he’d brought to roll the board along the riverbank because a competitor had touched it – (under TWS rules, any equipment handled by non-racers or team members is off limits). Improvising, Perrin cut the straps from the wheels, grabbed bungee cords from his dry bags and made a harness. He then dragged the board almost two miles over tree roots and rocks.
A few miles later, it was Perrin’s body that became his biggest problem. His left leg, bothered by four days of paddling (with less than four hours of total sleep), swelled below the knee to twice its normal size. Initially, the bloat was concentrated in the gap between where Perrin’s compression pants ended and his water shoes began. But when he stopped at the next check point to get more water and to ice the offending limb, he took off the left shoe and his foot ballooned. He filled a new tube sock with crushed ice, forced the swollen foot inside, replaced the loosened shoe and hoped for the best.
As it became clear to even the most doubtful of spectators that Perrin was going to finish the race, more and more of them gathered along the course to watch him pass and to offer advice to his crew team, Michael Rokos and Joe Baisa. Rokos wanted to get Perrin better information about the final stage, and a woman called a friend who knew the course from her cell phone and passed it to Rokos. The guy, who obviously had expert knowledge, patiently answered all his questions, giving Rokos more than he needed to guide Perrin past the salt water barrier checkpoint and on to the finish at Seadrift on Texas’s Gulf Coast. The man told Rokos he’d see him at the end of the race, and when the two met, the team captain was amazed that he was looking up at none other than Robert Youens, the very man who had pooh-poohed Perrin’s chances before the start.
With Perrin’s board gliding along just 300 yards from the finish, its nose light shining onto the calm waters of the Gulf, Youens turned to Rokos with a grin and said, “You know, it’s still logistically impossible for him to finish this race on a standup paddleboard.” A thought dawned on Rokos: maybe Youens had dismissed Perrin’s chances for the TWS’s 50th anniversary race just to motivate him. If so, it certainly worked: Perrin not only completed the race, but also completed it in 90 hours and 45 minutes, good for 73rd out of 135 finishers.