A Story of Courage and Determination on the 2014 Texas Water Safari
The 2015 Texas Water Safari is only weeks away. This 260-mile ultramarathon race is more than the world’s toughest canoe race — it is the context in which ordinary people display amazing resolve. Every year, paddlers in canoes and kayaks line up in San Marcos to begin the grueling journey toward the finish line in Seadrift which is, by some estimates, a quarter of a million paddle strokes away from the spring-fed waters of the San Marcos River.
Every year, inspirational and sometimes heartbreaking stories are written in the currents, one paddle stroke at a time. Most of these stories never make the headlines but instead become a treasured part of safari lore that are retold by paddlers. In the short time that I have been a part of the paddling community, I have come to especially appreciate the stories that never make the headlines — stories of courage and resolve that happen quietly along the arduous journey.
After attempting and finishing the safari two years in a row, I took a hiatus from the race in 2014. Showing up at the starting line of the race last year proved more painful than I could have imagined. Although I wanted to be on the water, I was excited about cheering on several friends. My son Jonathan, a three-time finisher, also took a break from the race and followed friends from checkpoint to checkpoint. That’s how I learned about boat number 7481, a novice tandem team racing in an aluminum canoe.
A young lady named Melissa James and her partner Gary, a competitive athlete, were paddling boat number 7481. This was Melissa’s second attempt to finish the safari. The year before, Melissa and her partner had paddled as far as the Salt Water Barrier, the final checkpoint located only 16-miles from the finish line. That’s where Melissa’s partner had to drop out of the race due to life-threatening heat stroke. Melissa returned in 2014 to attempt the race a second time — this time with a new paddling partner.
Those who compete in the Texas Water Safari, no matter how strong or experienced, will vouch for one thing — and that is that anything unexpected can happen along the way to put you out of the race or seriously compromise your chances of finishing the course. And that is exactly what happened to Melissa a second time. Gary had to make a tough decision to drop out of the race at Gonzales, the 80-mile checkpoint. Melissa and Gary were in third place in the novice division when they reached Gonzales.
Celeste Richardson, co-captain for boat 7481, encouraged Melissa to keep going. Fighting her emotions, Melissa agreed. She put a huge log in the bow of the canoe to trim the boat and paddled on toward the next checkpoint at Hoccheim. With every painful paddle stroke, Melissa contemplated ending her bid at Hoccheim and returning to Austin. When another novice team paddled by and asked how she was doing, Melissa broke down and wept.
How was she doing? In her exhausted mind she was moving too slow to finish, she was battling doubts about facing the infamous log jam, and she was wondering how she would survive the 5-mile crossing from the mouth of the Guadalupe River across the open waters of San Antonio Bay to the finish line in Seadrift. The guys in the other boat reminded her about another paddler who had faced similar circumstances the year before and finished the race without his partner. Melissa paddled on.
As if to add insult to injury, just before sunset and only a few miles from the next checkpoint, Melissa got caught in a sweeper current that flipped her out of her canoe and sunk the canoe. She wrestled the boat out of the water and replaced the log with three large rocks and paddled on. To her surprise, her speed jumped from just over two miles per hour to four. That’s when she knew she was capable of finishing the race.
Melissa continued paddling but did not have the luxury of getting much rest. She had started the race on Saturday morning and lost her partner on Sunday morning. Over the course of the race she slept only thirty-minutes on Sunday, one-hour on Monday, and thirty-minutes on Tuesday. Exhausted, she found herself repeatedly falling asleep while paddling and suffered intense hallucinations, something that paddlers know they will experience to some degree over the course of the race.
The most frightening time of the race for Melissa happened at the infamous log jam. Without question the most brutal portages on the race are found on this section of the course just downriver from Victoria. Every year, paddlers get lost or give up at this point in the race. Melissa’s canoe got sucked into the logs where she had seen an alligator. But somehow, summoning extra-human strength, she managed to get past the log jam and arrived at the Salt Water Barrier where her partner had dropped out the year before.
Only 16-miles from the finish line and a little more than 10-miles from the mouth of the Guadalupe River, Melissa trudged on stroke by stroke. When she reached San Antonio Bay at the mouth of the river, the wind was blowing hard, making the bay crossing that much more difficult. Melissa paddled and also jumped into the shallow bay and dragged her canoe toward the finish line. When she reached the barge canal, she jumped onto the bow of the canoe and paddled across the deep waters.
After paddling across the barge canal, Melissa again jumped into the water and waded through an infestation of jellyfish and shuffled her feet to avoid stingrays. At 12:59 PM, just one-minute from the 100-hour cut-off time Melissa caught sight of Holly Orr, a multi-safari finisher and paddling instructor. Holly waved and gestured to Melissa to keep going.
Melissa arrived at the finish line at 2:01 PM, one-hour and one-minute after the cutoff. To her surprise, a big group of paddlers and supporters had gathered to see her reach the finish line. Jon Schoepflin, a paddler who had encouraged her soon after she had left the Gonzalez checkpoint on Sunday morning, walked up to Melissa and gave her his safari patch — a coveted prize for safari finishers. Others were standing in line to do the same. “Those moments,” Melissa told me, “I will never forget.”
Melissa James’ story captures the true spirit of the Texas Water Safari — digging deep and making discoveries about yourself that you can only make in the context of a hard task. And her story reminds us of the importance of encouraging and cheering others on, especially when they don’t think they can muster the strength to take another paddle stroke. And, of course, the magnanimous gesture of good sportsmanship demonstrated by Jon and other paddlers who offered Melissa their patches says something really good about the people in the paddling community.
When I asked Melissa if she will attempt the safari again, she said yes. Her third attempt will be in a solo C1 boat. I’m looking forward to seeing Melissa at the starting line in San Marcos in just a couple of months. You can be sure that she has my deepest respect and that I will be cheering her on toward the finish line. That’s what we in the paddling community do here in Texas. Go Melissa! You are an inspiration to us all.