The Great River Amazon Raft Race and Easy Living

by Captain Bill

The Great River Amazon Raft Race, and Team Easy Living

The Great River Amazon Raft Race, and Easy Living

A Log by John Fenner

Wednesday September 17, 2008

The beginning of the adventure aboard Dawn on the Amazon III

We boarded in the dark after a skiff ride across a bay, very reminiscent of classic WWII movies involving stealthy embarkations on secret missions, all quiet and dimly lit.  We boarded assisted by smiling Peruvians, one of whom showed us to our cabins.  I have one cabin mate, a youngish fellow whose wife is one of the rafters!  Everything, I mean everything, is spotless.  The entire craft is fashioned from local hardwoods and gleams.  We departed quietly as well; the engine makes a soft sound which is quite pleasant.

I am sitting at the dining room table amidship as I write this.  The table seats six, three on a side, and the space is open to port and starboard, with a rail along each side.  The two facing walls, fore and aft, each house a shower and a water closet carefully concealed behind handsome wood doors.  The vessel was designed and built by the skipper an Expat from Indiana of all places.  He is congenial, flowingly verbal, and full of information about our surroundings.

It is nearing mid afternoon now.  Predictably the close quarters and limited alternatives for independent activity promotes interaction between the four of us Gringos aboard (the captain and 3 passengers).  So gatherings around meals (two so far) have proven to be extended well beyond eating.  Fortunately my fellow travelers are congenial, very well informed where their interests are concerned, well spoken, and warrant my attention.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

We have arrived at Nauta

The Great River Amazon Raft Race, Team Easy Living

It is 6:30 AM, and we are well under way, the engine gently and steadily rumbling in the stern below decks. It is two decks, the upper one for the galley aft of the dining room and two large single cabins fore, between the dining room and the wheelhouse.  Down the ladder below decks and going forward are two cabins with two bunk beds each then a storage room. Aft has more storage and finally the engine room.

The food on board is both splendid and over plentiful.  The cook is a charming Peruvian woman who speaks English well, and she concentrates on local dishes but adds some extra seasoning.   We are lucky in having a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruits all carefully cleaned.  So far lunch and dinner have featured huge green salads, peppers, tomatoes, olives and the like.  It’s great.

Weather so far has been a low overcast and mild temperatures, I would say in the upper sixties or low seventies.  I’d love to have this weather continue for the next four days.

Last night before dinner we were treated to a cocktail they call Pisco sour. It is the national drink and it’s marvelous.  I think it is made from distilled grapes and included fresh squeezed lime juice, but it had other ingredients as well (I know one of them was a touch of cinnamon) which made for a complex taste I really cannot describe.  The drink was served in stemmed glasses and topped with beaten egg whites with a little sugar!  I could have made dinner of them, but oh my, too powerful!  Had to make due with one.

The race begins tomorrow with a mass start at 8:00 AM with about 50 teams on the water.  The skipper of this boat, Bill, is one of the co-sponsors of the race, which began ten years ago and has grown steadily but rapidly in the past three years.  This year will feature many more international teams than ever, who will compete with each other and with the five or six local teams.

The locals have always won and for several good reasons, not the least of which is knowledge of the river.  But Bill tells me there is another even more important reason, the monetary incentive.

In the past the locals have always finished 1,2,3, and the twelve crew members have all been cousins, so it’s been a family affair.  They have always shared the prize money equally among all twelve racers.  The money is huge on their scale, and they will go to any extent to win it.  It’s like a year’s wages or even more.

Their strategy is always the same: charge to the front of the race, disappear around a bend in the river as soon as possible never to be seen again until the finish of that day’s competition.  Since it is a stage race, their lead time would be carried over to the start of the next day’s leg.  According to Bill, no international team has been able to sustain an effort that would stay with them.  Just as sure as shootin’ David and his team mates will endeavor to do exactly that.  If they can keep up with the front runners, they will not have to worry about reading the river currents, just follow the leader.  These guys are tough and are used to long super strenuous efforts. If they build a proper raft, and I think they can, their chances look good to me.

Breakfast has intervened.  It is now 8:30 AM, and we have arrived at Nauta, the point at which the race begins.  The racers are coming by bus from Iquitos and are not here yet. One of the ship’s crew says they were reported lined up and ready shortly after 7, and it takes a little more than 2 hours for them to get here. This sizable village is actually on a tributary of the Amazon a short distance upstream from the main river.

Across from the village is an island and the other side of that island, across another tributary, is another island with a gently sloping shore, almost a beach.  There is a great pile of balsa logs on that beach; this is obviously where raft construction will occur this afternoon.  I’m getting a little excited!

Moored among the many small and medium crafts tethered to the shore (There are no docks or piers.) are seven launches with twin outboards all the same color scheme.  I’m guessing they will be used to ferry the competitors over to the construction site.  If so, they will do it by turns.  I estimate the capacity of the launches to be 12 to 16.  If there are about 200 racers plus support crews, it will take 2 or 3 runs to get the job done.

Sitting at the dining table typing enables me to stop when I like and look out on the panorama before me, and I can turn round and look the other way.  Meanwhile the boat crew goes about it duties around me.  Every now and again someone stops next to me and asks if there is anything I want.  This is like a mini-mini-cruise ship with all the amenities!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Easy Living’s raft design

The support boat and Easy Living

Two hours into the race and David’s team, Easy Living Paddle Club, is in the lead!  They are only a few hundred yards in front of the strongest local team, which, in turn, is about 6 hundred yards ahead of one of their brother teams, and they are a little more than that ahead of the next Peruvian raft.  There is one other raft fairly close to this group, but behind them rafts are scattered widely back up the river.  The total spread between the slowest raft and Easy  Living is already between 2 and 3 miles.

I was in one of our launches, and we came close enough to talk to the team briefly.  I heard David advise his mates that they had covered about one third of today’s race leg.

Easy Living has come up with a radical design for their raft.  All rafts are required to use 8 balsa logs each 5 meters long.  Heretofore rafts were built placing all 8 abreast and fixing cross pieces and ties to secure them in place.  This positions a paddler in each of the corners of the raft, and they must, because of their position, always paddle with the same arm.  David’s team decided to build a raft with only 4 logs across.  In order to do so they had to fashion a joint at each end of opposing logs so they could be spliced into a single log 10 meters long.  The four longer logs were joined by drilling a continuous hole through all four and threading a steel bolt through them, using large washer and steel nut to draw them tight.  Six such bolts were placed up and down the raft.  This concept allows paddlers to stroke alternately on each side of the raft and improves efficiency and endurance.  Not surprisingly, it also allows the team to paddle in the familiar manner they usually employ.  In addition it reduces friction across the bow as it moves through the water.

The endurance of Team Easy Living is established; they are all seasoned long distance performers, so unless illness or some other exogenous mishap occurs, they are very likely to win this race!

Yesterday, as they were building this new raft concept a sizeable crowd gathered to gawk.  The tools the team had brought with them were exotic to bystanders, and I’m sure the smooth fashion with which the crew went from one task to another was most impressive.  I even got to lend a hand in small ways that actually mattered.  I steadied logs in place so that accurate saw cuts could be made quickly and easily  and lined up drill bits so holes would be perpendicular to surfaces in all three planes, fetched something now and again with the result that time was saved and progress moved along a little more quickly.

Construction on all rafts did not begin yesterday until a little after 2:00 PM, and sunset was a little after 6, so work went on far into the night.  This morning at 6:00 AM the boys were out on the river testing their design.  From my vantage point on the Dawn on the Amazon they looked great, but when I went over to their building site in the launch, they were busily shaping the bow end of the four logs using draw knives and files so it would slip through the water even more smoothly.  They were still doing touch-ups one minute before race time and even fashioned a small centerboard made of shingle-like wood that could be slipped down between two logs and wedged into place.
I was down at the front in the launch about an hour and a half ago.  We just got an interim report by radio phone saying Easy Living has widen their margin over the second place raft by a few hundred yards.

Our boat and another even larger one are the “support boats” for all racers.  The two support vessels alternate cruising in opposite directions back and forth from the front of the race to the back.  From time to time rafts have signaled us using a special orange flag each has to call for assistance.  A broken paddle has been the most common problem so far.  A radio signal can be sent to the larger support vessel and they can dispatch a replacement paddle via launch having been told the number of the raft and its position.  The race is now almost 4 hours old, and the spread between front and rear is more than 4 miles.  David’s team should finish in a little over an hour.

In these last two days I am truly glad I came.  What is happening seems worthwhile, a pleasure and a reward to be part of.

Friday, September 19, 2008 (late afternoon)

The boys won!  They finished today’s leg about 8 minutes ahead of the Peruvian raft.  It is the first time an international team had finished ahead of the top three locals.  And they did it in record time, approximately 3 hours forty minutes.  The whole village is buzzing, and of course so are the other teams.  A great day for North America.

There is a carnival atmosphere among the contestants creating an easy feeling of comradery and good humor. Here on Dawn on the Amazon III, Bill has cordially welcomed racers to come aboard sit or stand in the dining area and be served cold bottled water or beer.  He sells it to them, but it is the only source of either one here in this tiny village.  They have been well pleased to be his guests and his customers.

Perhaps 15 or 20 competitors have come through while David and Jen have been here.  The conversation has naturally centered on the days endeavor, and some of them looked done in but cheerful and, to a person, genuinely appreciative of what Easy Living did on the day.  David never volunteers what his team did, and even indirectly disclaims any special achievement.  He always congratulates his competitors in a believable manner doing so by pointing out a significant achievement on their part.  For example the team that finished last today was here, and David lauded them because they had accomplished more than anyone else, because they had spent so much time on the water and come through it well.

Team Easy Living has selected a campsite on the river bank almost directly opposite to where I am sitting just now.  They are so close I can hear their conversation, and all I have to do to see them is look up from my keyboard.

It is undeniable that they will very likely win this race.  It will take a completely unexpected event to forestall that outcome.  I must admit that possibility was entertained when we arrived but seemed unlikely to me.  There are times when a forecast goes astray, but the outcome is never-the-less sweet.

Saturday, September 20, 2008   (9:15 AM)

We are lucky to be alive, thanks for saving us

The battle for first and second

A little more than two hours into this leg, which is the longest one by quite a bit, Team Easy Living is in a bit of trouble. The strongest Peruvian team has passed them and leads by a couple of hundred yards.  We are cruising along side of Easy Living and something seems to be wrong with David.  He has stopped paddling several times for several seconds and seemingly clutches his chest.  When he resumes paddling his pectoral motion appears constricted, like he is experiencing a spasm or the like. They are pretty close to half way into today’s race. We will see.

Their lead from yesterday was about 7 minutes, so if they can stay about that close until the finish, they could begin even with the Peruvians for tomorrow’s final leg.

15 minutes later: The lead rafts are about to enter a “short cut” channel that shaves several miles off the course distance if you stayed in the main channel.  Easy Living is hanging in at least as close as a few minutes ago.  We are leaving them to go back up river and check on the general race.  The great thing about being on this vessel is that whenever I’d like to, they will take me in a launch back up to the front of the race!

3 hours and 29 minutes into the race, and we are back at the tail end.  Rafters back here are more or less drifting in the slow current with occasional paddle strokes.  We are miles from the front, I don’t really know how many, and at this rate these back drifters won’t make port before dark.

In a few minutes I will jump into the small launch and zip to the front of the race to see what’s coming down.  Meanwhile I have showered and shaved and changed clothes.  The air temperature aboard this moving vessel is just super.

We departed down river to catch up with Easy Living.  Shortly after turning left into the “short cut,” we came across an Aussie team signaling for assistance.  Pulling alongside we discovered they were out of water.  We were plentifully supplied so we took their water bottles, drifted back out of their way, filled them, and pulled back alongside to hand them over.  Then we were on our way down river.

The current in this “short cut” channel is much faster than the main Amazon, and when there is a sharp bend it swings to the outside, gets even swifter, and tends to undercut the bank.  Since the water level has come up a meter or more in the last ten days, the undercutting is more pronounced and will take support from beneath trees close to the riverbank.  When they topple into the river they create a definite hazard to unwary floaters like rafts.  Back home we call them sweepers, and often part of what protrudes from them into the river is under water and cannot be easily seen.

We came upon exactly that situation as we proceeded down stream, and lo and behold there was a raft caught in a big tree sticking into the water.  Clinging to parts of the tree there were four desperate rafters.  We quickly steered over to them.

The first rafter we came up to looked terrified and was clinging with one hand to a branch stump on the tree.  One of our crew extended his hand and the man in the water lunged for it successfully and was pulled into our launch.  A second man was somehow perched on part of the tree base with water rushing by him.  We secured rope to a life ring and tossed it to him.  He caught it and was motioned to jump clear of the tree into the water.  He did, and quickly floated down stream toward us and along side of the launch.  One of the crew hauled him in as well. The third rafter got the same opportunity, and the operation was again successfully completed.  About this time, or just prior to the last rescue, a small boat from the Peruvian Coast Guard had arrived and got the fourth rafter off the fallen tree successfully.

The apparent leader of the raft team had been the first to be rescued.  Almost as soon as he was aboard he began fuming about having  “lost all our gear!”  One of the rafters admitted the accident was entirely their fault and, “We’re lucky to be alive, thanks for saving us.” I loved that fellow right away.

The Coast Guard delivered the fourth crewman into our launch and we proceeded down stream in search of Team Easy Living.  It turned out that the point of the incident was at the halfway point in the day’s race, and David’s team had passed there at least an hour and a half earlier.  It could have been more.

We keep a steady throttle for mile after mile occasionally passing a lonely raft seeking the village where we are to stop for the night.  At about 11:55 AM we sighted a repeater tower we knew stood half a mile or so up stream from the race’s destination.  We passed, at a distance, two rafts separated by several hundred yards, but no David.  Finally the village hove into view, and when we were near enough we could see Easy Living’s raft being hauled up the bank out of the river.  They had finished first on the day again!  I could feel tears welling up and my smile was tight but incredibly warming.

We beached the launch and I scrambled up the beach in my awkward way and made my way over to David, Wes, Mike and Carter.  They were beaming as well and greeted me warmly: “Hi John, it’s great to see you.  Where is your boat?”  They had arrived at the finish before the official boat that clock’s in each raft’s time across the line. Carter asked me if I knew their finish time, and I told him it was right at 12:20 PM, 5 hours and ten minutes after starting.

The first Peruvian raft beached at 12:35 and the following Peruvian craft was 20 minutes later.  So by my calculations Team Easy Living leads the race by 22 minutes going in to tomorrows’ finale.  It is most difficult to predict anything but a win for Team Easy Living.  In terms of distance their present lead is more than 3 kilometers, too much to make up unless disaster strikes our team. What a day.

We have been moored here at the finish line for quite a while.  It is now about 5, and there are still a few rafts not in, nearly ten hours after the start.  This is a grueling race at all levels, more so in some ways for the slowest teams who suffer the heat all those extra hours.

Tomorrow is the shortest and most direct leg of the race.  The only difficulty will affect the weaker paddlers a little bit is the last 200 meters are upstream in a tributary to the finish line.

At race’s conclusion there will, of course, be ceremonies, pictures, interviews and such, but Bill assures me they will be over by mid-afternoon.  Then in the evening there is a party downtown.  We fly out early the next morning.  This is my last night on the Amazon

Sunday September 20, 2008

Watching this morning’s start was a thrill

A great start on day three

At this moment we are cruising along side of Team Easy Living, and laying about 50 feet off their starboard side.  They are far in front of two Peruvian rafts pursuing them mightily, and the race is maybe an hour and a quarter old.  The boys are stroking smoothly and easily.  Their coordination is wondrous particularly when David calls “switch” and they change paddle sides in perfect synchrony.  Their craft seems to be performing exactly as they hoped.

Watching this morning’s start was a thrill.  We were moored just down stream from all the rafts, which were floating abreast of each other up the shoreline.  The start was signaled from the bridge of the huge support boat, which was upstream from everyone and in good view.  The starter held a white flag mounted on a four foot stick straight out from his waste, and then dropped it, and they were off seemingly from a single starting gate.  Easy living sped to the front angling across river and down stream to gain the swiftest current, which they did in jig time, the three Peruvian serious contenders in hot pursuit.  It was great to see every raft bend to the task!

Forty-five minutes later.  We are still tracking Easy Living though from a distance behind and to one side.  Their lead has grown to more than a kilometer over a single Peruvian pursuer.  My estimate is they are within a couple of hours of finishing.  If so, they will cross the line at about 11:30 AM and will be at least half an hour ahead of raft # 2.

It rained heavily during the night, and at dawn a high solid overcast remained.  It persists, and the temperature is at least 15 degrees cooler than yesterday, a big break for the competitors.

Every few minutes I get up from this writing and look down stream at the team relentlessly paddling.  They resemble nothing more closely than a well-tooled, finely assembled living machine.  Incredible!  Their cadence is a steady sixty beats per minute, a biological rhythm, and they are far from pushing themselves    I just gave them a large “Wahoo!” at the top of my voice.  They returned it with gusto.

Pretty soon we, in our large vessel, will surge ahead to the dock at Iquitos, secure the boat and then return upstream in the launch to witness the finish.

The ship’s pilot just informed me he thinks our team in only an hour out of port.  That would put them there closer to 11:00 AM than half past.  These guys are way better than they think.  Using binoculars and scanning back up river, I can see no following raft (2:40 into the race).  Easy Living must have at least a mile lead.

I haven’t commented on it as far as I can remember, but they have been reading the river and its currents at least at well as the locals.  In some instances my impression has been they did it better.  Remarkable.

10:35 – Their lead appears to be nearly two miles. I can’t imagine they are pouring it on, but they are indeed moving like a shot.  Very soon they will reach a left turning, the mouth of a tributary river they must paddle up for at least a quarter of a mile to finish. The Peruvian crew on this boat is full of enthusiasm for Team Easy Living.

The finish line and loud cheers from the crowd on shore for the ”Norte Americanos!” blasted out over huge speakers.  When the team beaches their craft they are swarmed, and I cannot get anywhere near them for the moment.

A few minutes later I reach them and we exchange hugs.  They are well and justly pleased with themselves.  They have run the three-day course more than an hour quicker than any team before.  They are eager to secure their gear from the support boat which is anchored a couple of hundred yards away, so I am left to stand guard over the raft and the paraphernalia like water bladders and cushions still laying on it.  I don’t mind; I am wearing my copy of the Easy Living Paddle Club T shirt, so I am getting admiring stares.

Equipment run down ensues and does not require or interest me, and I have not had my lunch, which is awaiting me aboard Dawn on the Amazon III resting next to the support boat.  Off I go.

So this little log is closing shop.  It has been fun to write it.

The Great River Amazon Raft Race, and Easy Living

A log by John Fenner

Many thanks to John for this eyewitness account guest post. Ed Hudson wrote a nice article about the Great River Amazon Raft Race 2008, titled; Americans Smash Amazon Raft Race Record, published in Living in Peru (with four Bill Grimes photos) and in the Iquitos Times with Ed Hudson photos.

Check back here in the next couple of days for my behind the scenes account of the greatest raft race. Subscribe to my RSS feed to make sure you do not miss it.

Bill Grimes, Dawn on the Amazon

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