Letting his kayak paddle do the talking, 23-year-old Martin Rangel, aka “El Mudo” (the Mute), held off a furious charge by the Villela Landeros twins to win the mid-July Rio Nazas Regata. It was a rousing finish to Mexico’s longest, and longest-running, canoe and kayak race. The 48th edition of the 148-km, three-day race, July 10-12 through the Sierra Madre of Central Mexico’s Durango State had a smaller field than usual. Just 49, half the usual number, fought for bragging rights, a T-shirt and new carbon-fiber paddles donated by the Mexican Canoe Federation. Paddling hand-me-down fiberglass stilettos built to Olympic specifications by their dads and granddads, they raced to maintain a tradition that goes halfway back to the Revolution of 1910, the last time—incidentally—that Mexico suffered insecurity like today’s.
Despite its vibrant paddling culture, the violence in Northern Mexico has kept it, for all practical purposes, off the American radar. The country is entrenched in a bloody war with the cartels. Kidnappings are common. Farther to the north, along the U.S.-Mexican border, The city of Nuevo Laredo has declared martial law—the entire police department is under house arrest. The Texas Department of Transportation—presumably to lessen the adverse impact of the publicity on visitation—has removed references to Nuevo Laredo from interstate highway signs.
Many elite Mexican racers have never heard of the 267-mile long Texas Water Safari, the “Worldʼs Toughest” Canoe Race, held every year for 47 years in San Marcos, a one-day bus ride away. And many Texan paddlers are just as oblivious of the nearby 48-year-old Regata. Two storied canoe races, each with traditions stretching back over the same half-century, neither aware of the other.
Participating in the Rio Nazas Regata costs $20. Your entry fee gets you a T-shirt, all your meals, camping (in tents that are set up and dismantled each night by the state tourism department) hot showers, and three days of racing. In good years, first prize is 100 grams of gold. But just like the first time I raced in the Regata two years ago, I’ve come in last place.
The entire event—the parade, the generations of racers, even the fiberglass boats passed down from father to son to grandson, are all part of a rich and, apparently, unstoppable tradition. Drought has caused the race to be canceled twice since 1961. But it hasn’t paused for the worst violence in Mexico since the turn of 20th century.
There’s even new paddling traditions starting. Last year, the first-ever Laredos Riofest had 200 competitors and over $28,000 in prizes for this 33-mile Texas race event on the Rio Grande. And in anticipation of this October’s upcoming RioFest—at $30,000, the richest-purse canoe and kayak race in Texas history—the Nazas racing community is sending its best to put on a Summer series of paddling demonstrations on both sides of the Border. Low-income kids, people suffering from obesity-related disease and/or lower limb impairments are all targeted for paddling lessons.
Back on the victory stand, Rangel is accepting a new lightweight Bracix paddle for his win. There are four teenagers there too—kids I recognize from the ﬁrst Laredos RioFest. Just 14 to 16 years old at the time and paddling an old K-4, they had beaten the Las Animas team from Austin—repeat champions of the Texas Water Safari who train year-round and paddle a six-man canoe—off the starting line and led them for 14 miles. Two years older now, with a dawning inkling of what they had almost pulled off, they all say they’re going back to Laredo this fall. (CLICK HERE for more information on the October 15 Laredos RioFest.) —Eric Ellman, Head of the Big River Foundation.