The Great River Amazon Raft Race 2009

by Captain Bill

The Great River Amazon Raft Race 2009

This is a guest post by Caleb Whitaker, one of the best at telling the tale of the Great River Amazon Raft Race 2009, and it’s right here on the Captain’s Blog for the first time. Enjoy!

The Great River Amazon Raft Race 2009

On a sunny morning in late September, more than 130 people showed up in the sleepy town of Nauta, a small outpost on the Maranon River in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. Many were locals, while others hailed from the USA, England, Ireland, Holland, Belgium, the Basque region, and elsewhere. All these brave souls were there for the same reason: to spend three grueling days paddling a home-made balsa raft down the Amazon, from Nauta to Iquitos, covering 112 miles (180 k) along the way.

The Great River Amazon Raft Race, as it is known, is now in its 11th year. It is said to be the longest annual raft race in the world. And it attracts a special kind of person, willing to submit themselves to a mental and physical endurance test, under extremely adverse conditions, all in the name of sport. With four people to a raft, there is a lot of teamwork involved. When three friends of mine suggested we form a team and compete against thirty-two others that signed up, I thought it might be a fun way to spend the weekend. Perhaps we’d even win some prize money.

After sitting through a series of announcements by local politicians and officials from the Tourism Bureau town, the group headed down to the river to take a boat over to Isla de las Pescadores, where a long stack of balsa logs was laid out on the beach. Each team selected eight logs, and went to work. All the rafts fell into three general categories. There were simple squares, formed of eight logs lashed straight across. There were also catamarans, formed of four logs on each side, with smaller logs lashed across port and stern for stability. Then there was the ‘long canoe’ design: four logs in width, joined in the middle with bolts or nails, so that the craft was twice as long and half as wide as a square raft.  Most of the native Peruvian teams used this design.

We chose a modified catamaran, with three logs each lashed in a triangle to form the pontoons, and the other two lashed to the inside of each. We had brought extra lumber at our own expense, and used these planks and cross-ties to form a platform between the pontoons. Several locals who had come out to watch the spectacle declared our craft the fastest. We had a daring, original design, they said, and we stood a chance to win it all.

I had heard about the local teams from Padre Cocha, all cousins, whose teams had won year after year.  In fact they generally dominated the race completely, until the 2008 race. “Easy Living,” an American team led by David Kelly, crossed the finish line that year in a record time of 12 hours and 19 minutes. But they had not returned to defend their crown, and so “Los Increibles” and “Los Invinsibles” were the heavy favorites.

Early the next morning, the crews were assembled at the edge of the Maranon, which joins the Ucayali below Nauta to form the true headwaters of the Amazon. Many teams were flying a flag of their nationality. Our team, “Coca Loca,” was flying a Jolly Roger with coca leaf epaulets.

Chewing coca leaves is a popular pastime in many parts of Peru, It is a natural stimulant and provides sustained energy and nutrition. The crew of the Coca Loca carried a healthy supply, along other provisions: a case of water, food, sunscreen, and a bottle of Siete Raices, a local favorite. It is aguardiente, a cane liquor similar to rum, infused with a blend of native botanicals.

After some delays, the race began in earnest. We paddled furiously, trying to position ourselves in the current. After twenty minutes, my arms and back were aching, and I was forced to slow my pace. The front of the pack had already opened up a healthy lead. After another half hour, I could see a fleet of long-canoe style rafts already disappearing around the far bend of the river. I couldn’t understand it. We were four strong, healthy guys, paddling just as hard as anyone, yet we were falling behind.

“What’s going on?” I asked my team-mate Alex. “Why are we losing ground?”

“Keep paddling,” Alex said. “Let’s all stay in synch. It’s more efficient that way.”

David and Stacey, who manned the front of the Coca Loca, tried to keep up a steady rhythm.  Far ahead, the Padre Cocha teams were cruising briskly along. The four sets of wooden paddles flashed in sync with clockwork precision. The looked like they might have been competing in the Olympics. The Coca Loca, on the other hand, was creeping to the back of the pack, where it remained.

The saving grace that day was the cloud cover. The mid-day sun in the tropics is just brutal. When we drifted in to the small settlement of Porvenir, drummers on the bank of the shore played a salute to welcome us. We were exhausted, but everyone there seemed to be in good spirits. Dinner was served, and afterwards the locals in the town entertained everyone with a show of traditional dance.

The destination the next day was Tamshiyacu, a small town located upriver from Iquitos. It was the longest leg of the race, and when the race started the sun was already blazing hot, with no clouds in sight. We had decided to follow the advice of Juan Maldonado, a jungle guide who was observing the race from one of the support boats. He had told us that at the first island we encountered, to bear left where the current ran more swiftly, and we could make up some time. As we did so, another boat carrying the race organizers hailed us and pulled alongside.

“Coca Loca, you are going the wrong way!” we were told. “Let us tow you back to the main river. Our river guides say the water is too low, there hasn’t been much rain lately.  You won’t be able to get through.”

We voted on it, and I was the odd man out. Juan’s advice was deemed reliable by democratic process. Besides, my crewmen suspected that the organizers were just covering their own skins. We had heard that the previous year, a team had tried this route and their raft had come apart. So we declined their offer. The die was cast, we were pirates.

“Yarrgh, don’t make us board yer craft,” I added for good measure.

They told us we were now responsible for ourselves.

That little tributary meandered slowly through a tranquil stretch of raw jungle, and we threaded the narrow, anemic current along the riverbank, finally losing it altogether about halfway through. Expecting rapids, we landed in the doldrums. We drifted by men with fishing nets, hauling in great quantities of fish, so much that the nets writhed and undulated as the fish leapt out of the water trying to escape.  And we began to see many botos, pink river dolphins that have pride of place in the upper Amazon. The botos made a display of leaping and splashing, and some came in near to the raft. To see such graceful, evolved creatures up close for the first time is just an awesome thing. There are no words for it.

The botos were doing their own fishing. I began to feel for the first time like a tourist, gawking at a scene that was really just another day on the river for the locals and the dolphins, working peacefully alongside one another where the fishing was good.

When we entered the tributary, we were roughly in the middle of the pack, but when we rejoined the main river we were dead last. We spent much of that afternoon cursing Juan Maldonado and snapping at one another as morale wore down. We were all getting weaker. We had chewed coca all day, and gone through our second and third wind. The bottle of siete raices was half empty. For the first time I seriously wondered if we were going to make it.

Finally a support boat idled up, and one of the organizers called out, “Ahoy Cocal Loca! We were worried about you! You’ve fallen way behind! Do you need anything?”

“Cerveza,” we croaked. “Bring us some cold beers.”

I spotted Juan in the boat, and we took the opportunity to tell him all about the quality of his advice.

“Listen, you’ve got to take the next left where the river splits,” the organizer said.” You’ve got another five hours to Tamshiyacu. Keep going!”

So we continued. We had no choice. I tried to relax and pay attention to the exquisite tangles of jungle foliage spilling out everywhere along the riverbanks. Here and there locals perched atop the banks, having lunch and reclining in the shade, waving at the crazy gringos paddling like fools in the roasting equatorial sun.

Paddling the Amazon is not exciting. The river moves excruciatingly slowly.  It contains so much water, even at its source, that you can lose the current easily, and even get spun backwards along the shore where it is usually swiftest.  The river here is very wide, but all rafts must to cross it at every bend in order to follow the current. So having to travel by diagonal distances, over and over, makes the trip even longer. There are many places where the current disappears completely, and paddling seems to do no good at all. The path forged by the Padre Cocha teams was followed by everyone else, as long as they could keep up. We followed the line of red dots ahead of us until they disappeared.

Hour after hour crept by. Every stroke of the paddle became excruciating. Finally we quit altogether, and simply drifted, taking turns jumping in the water. We had heard the warnings about piranha and alligators, but I was only worried about the toothpick fish. If you relieve yourself in the water, it takes the opportunity to swim inside and lodge itself there with a pair of very sharp spiky fins. Surgery is required to remove it. But at that point I didn’t care. I was trying to will the clouds to move along faster and cover the sun.

Right about that time the support boat reappeared.

“Coca Loca!” they called. “We’ve brought you a couple of cold beers! Don’t give up, you can make it!”

The Great River Amazon Raft Race 2009

I can honestly say that was the finest beer I ever drank in my life. I drank it in two gulps, like Popeye digging into a can of spinach.  We set off again to paddling and after many excruciating hours, we did finally make it to Tamshiyacu.

By this point it was painfully obvious that our raft design was fatally flawed. The triangle-shaped pontoons sat deeper in the water, and thus displaced more water than the other rafts. Plus we had the added weight of the extra lumber we had used. It was like paddling a Volvo down the Amazon. If the raft race had been across Cape Horn, for example, we would have had the clear advantage—our raft was a solid, armored beast. But on the river we moved along like a sloth through molasses. We dubbed it ‘El Tanque,’ the tank.

In Tamshiyacu, I swore openly I would not board El Tanque again unless it was redesigned. The next morning we cut loose two of the balsas, and one was discarded completely. That technically disqualified us, but then again, we were pirates.

On Sunday morning hundreds of locals came out to watch the rafts depart for Iquitos. In the raft next to us, I heard a woman with a thick Southern twang, cracking jokes with her three Peruvian teammates aboard the “Vamos Ya!” (Let’s Go Right Now!). This was ‘Gringa Linda’, from Mississippi, and it was her third race.

“Good luck y’all,” she said. “Take care of yourselves out there. I had to switch over to the other side to paddle, because this one here is my drinking arm!”

Though El Tanque was now able to keep up with the middle of the pack, the exertions of the race were catching up with us. I was numb from the heat, and my arms and shoulders just didn’t want to paddle anymore. We had been warned in advance to save some energy for the race’s final stretch—500 yards up the Nanay river, against the current, to the Iquitos Fishing Club.

Rounding the point from the Amazon to the Nanay, the current nearly spun us around. We turned upriver and had to paddle at full strength to avoid going backwards. Progress was inch by inch. I could see other rafts behind us, getting swept out to the middle of the confluence. Some had to be towed in by the support boat. In front of us a raft was trying valiantly to make it through the floating gates of the finish line. They were paddling like mad, but not moving forward. Whose idea was this? I wondered. What a sadistic way to end a race!

We hugged the water’s edge, at one point clinging like rats to a waterfront bar while the local cheered us on. A bit further up we came alongside a military barge painted in camouflage from stem to stern. Alex jumped up and grabbed the railing to try and maneuver us around the side, out of the current, but nearly tipped us over in the process. We all began yelling and cursing at one another, as water rushed over the craft.  At that moment the crew of the Coca Loca very nearly mutinied against one another. I noticed a uniformed guard eyeing up with suspicion. He did not look at all amused that four gringos flying the Jolly Roger were latched onto his ship.

It was not a good situation. We shoved off and made the final, excruciating push to the finish line. Several hundred people had come out to watch the spectacle, and the party was in full swing. I stumbled ashore and saw Gringa Linda. I was amazed that she had already been there for a couple of hours.

“Oh honey, y’all did great,” she said. “I had three Peruvians with me, they’ve been doing this their whole life. But it sure was nice to watch you boys rowing your hearts out on that final stretch, you looked good, yes you did!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. She had the right idea, traveling with locals. “Vamos Ya” placed 9th out of 33 teams on the day, arriving in five hours. It took us almost seven and a half hours, finishing 28th. The Padre Cocha teams had made it in four. And though “Los Increibles” won the overall race, the record time set by “Easy Living” still stands.

In the taxonomy of extreme sports, the Great River Amazon Raft Race occupies a unique place. It’s the most low-tech concept you could imagine. Strap some logs together, grab some paddles, and off you go. But the disclaimer is right there in the event’s motto: “Not for the faint of heart!”  It takes a certain type of person to attempt such an ordeal, and it’s a victory to cross the finish line at all. Some of them, like Gringa Linda, are even crazy enough to return next year and do it all over again.

Photos here:

A guest post by Caleb Whitaker

If you enjoyed Caleb’s account of the 2009 Great River Amazon Raft Race you will want to read his blog, Jungle Love, Life In Iquitos.

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