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Phatwater Challenge Wrap-up: Raw Nerves, Courage and Scotch Tape

October 15, 2013: Mike Herbert

Mike Herbert competed in The Phatwater Challenge again this year. He has shoulders and biceps like no one else on the water. Speaking with him prior to the race, I asked, "Weren't you in the Olympics?" With a patient smile he replied, "Eighty-eight, ninety-two and ninety-six." I would learn that he also has two silver medals from the ICF World Championships. He is the same bear wrestling character Joe Glickman wrote of in his article "Beers, Bears, Biscuits and Blues: Paddling Mississippi Style." Mike was one of the first to offer congratulations when I dragged into the finish on Saturday.

For Love of the Sport
If I were a recreational golfer with the name Shankopotamus and I managed to find Tiger Woods, I don't think he would care to discuss the glitch in my swing. Nor does Aaron Rodgers want to have a beer with me and talk football. This is all understandable. What is less clear is why every kayak champion I have ever met has been not only willing but also eager to share their expert advice and encouragement. I suppose it comes down to money. You are not going to get rich in kayak racing so you have to love the sport. Meeting such genuine people is what makes it a privilege to paddle the same water with them in events such as Phatwater.

From fog delays to accidents, things never unfold quite the way a race director plans. In the wild thrash of last minute race preparation, a rogue portable latrine crunched Joe Glickman's V-10 and mild panic ensued. After emergency surgery under the capable hands of Eric Mims and a giant roll of Scotch tape, it was declared seaworthy. Despite three long cracks in the hull, Joe was "in the money" both days of competition. So much for those who claim these lightweight boats are too frail. They are more like well-engineered Volvos that simply refuse to die.

Most of the usual suspects attended this year. J B Hatler and Fred drove in from Chicago. Jack Van Dorp flew from Canada and Anita came up from Florida. Mims drove from South Carolina and Phil Capel made the trip from Arkansas. There were new faces as well. As word spreads about all this race has to offer, I can look forward to moving briskly towards the bottom of the results page.

The Phatwater Challenge is now a triple option. There is a "sprint" across the river on Friday afternoon called The Crossing. Then on Saturday, you have a choice of 18 miles, called Halph-The-Phat, or the traditional Phatwater, a 42-mile odyssey of exquisite beauty and cruel agony.

Friday afternoon, Mike Herbert crushed the field in The Crossing. Everyone received an attractive finisher’s trophy and the purse went surprisingly deep. If you are a reasonably fast paddler, you missed a good chance for some cash. On Saturday, Eric Borgnes placed first in the long race and Anita Allen was the first woman. John and Karen Wellens piloted the first tandem yak to the finish line. They host Paddle Bender, a new race on Lake Murray, SC. In Halph-The-Phat, David Dupree was the first man and Michelle Blair was the first woman. Michelle directs the Gator Bait Race in Brandon, MS.

Natchez, Mississippi is an ideal city for a mini vacation. Jeanette can book you at the Bitter End Bungalow, a quiet retreat convenient to town. The Natchez Grand Hotel has an excellent breakfast and serves as the departure point for the shuttle to Grand Gulf. If you are looking for elegance, a stay at Magnolia Vale is unsurpassed for genuine Southern hospitality.

Magnolia Bluffs casino sits on the water right below the Grand Hotel. They were a new sponsor and they feature a nine-dollar lunch buffet with a beautiful view of the bridge to Louisiana. Hyram Copeland is the mayor of Vidalia and his city supported Phatwater this year. With Natchez and Vidalia working together, the spectator element can only grow. I'm already looking forward to next year when I will visit my favorite place once more, the Under The Hill Saloon, where friends relax, the beer is cold and the struggle is over.

Race History
Phatwater is a physical challenge that draws paddlers of the highest caliber as well as recreational paddlers of impressive mettle. Last year, we met Oscar Chalupsky of South Africa, twelve-time ocean surf ski champion. In 2012, he graciously participated in what Phatwater billed as the "Oscartunity", a fundraiser for this race that also supports the Natchez animal shelter.

This is one of three paddle events in North America that belong on your bucket list. Two others are the venerable Blackburn Challenge in Gloucester, rich in history and scenic beauty. Then there is the US Surf Ski Championship in San Francisco hosted by Helen Workman who serves the best pre and post-race dinners in the world.

For those who have studied the course down the Mississippi and done their training, they also stand to win a prize like no other. If you can make the finish buoy in less than five hours, you will join the ranks of other athletes who already own a unique treasure called the Sub V knife. Designed exclusively for Phatwater, this black pocketknife shines like obsidian. The handle is inlaid with a small silver emblem, the silhouette of a catfish. The Sub V knife is not available for sale, so picking one up at WalMart is not an option. It can only be earned.

John and Karen Wellens tandem kayak winners

More on this story:
Natchez Democrat Article

What Do You Think?

  1. Would you ever attempt a paddling marathon like the Phatwater Challenge?
  2. Will paddling marathons or 5K races become as popular as their running counterparts?

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