Rules of Engagement

What I Learned at the World Rafting Championship

This story featured in the March 2012 issue.

Photo: Frederick Noland

By Eugene Buchanan

At this October’s World Rafting Championship, teams from 34 countries descended on Costa Rica’s upper Pacuare River for four days of racing, camping, bull-riding and reveling with like-minded kin from the world over. Their goal? A world title crowned after six-man sprint, head-to-head, slalom, and downriver raft-racing events. Me? I was just your everyday C&K correspondent/dirtbag safety kayaker along for the ride. Here’s what I learned, should you ever find yourself in my booties—paddling in distant lands, or caught in the testosterone vortex of international competition.

Know your Derecho (straight) from your Derecha (left): After the first day’s sprint race, the teams practiced for the downriver race on the Class V lower gorge. I followed in my kayak and was quickly left behind, leaving me to paddle the section solo. Luckily, I came upon a Tico safety kayaker who frantically pointed me derecho at the first horizon line. I headed left, running the drop blind, then eddied out to pair up with my new amigo.

Wave the Flag: Carry your country’s banner, because somebody has to keep those darn Slovenian fans in check, with their green “2010 World Champs” T-shirts and obnoxious vuvuzela soccer horns. And polish up on recognizing ensigns of others; nothing says uneducated moron like not knowing a team from the flag on its bibs.
Bring Everything but a Kayak: Follow this down to the nose plugs, removable hip pads and breakdown paddle. It spells freedom. And carry some straps in your stern; being nimble is key, especially dealing with the chaotic cattle-truck shuttle rides.

Don’t be Afraid to Paddle a Pink Boat: That’s what I got stuck with—a fuchsia Jackson Rocker. But beggars can’t be choosers. And at least it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the boat matched my toenails (painted pink by my daughter’s soccer team).

Hone your Circus Tricks: Francis from the Canadian men’s team is a real-life circus performer, and when he began shimmying up a pole one-handed and vaulting over a real-live bull, other competitors had to join in the fun. Which is how Francis’ teammate Phillipe, got himself gored.

Practice your Spanish (and 33 Other Languages): At the very least, bring a phrase book. It goes a long way with locals and fellow competitors if you can ask for more than a beer and a bathroom in their own lingo.
Pucker Up: It’s the custom with the mujeres to plant a peck on the cheek. Don’t be a gomer and just stand there. (Note: it’s an air kiss, no contact.)

Hire the Zip-line Guy to Handle Logistics: The event’s raft-shuttling tasks went to organizer Rafael Gallo’s brother, Victor, whose company builds zip lines. It was the perfect hire. His giant zip line shuttled rafts across the river like a scene from Star Wars, and his tree-mounted, hanging cable system towed them back upstream.
Stretch Like the Japanese: The Japanese men won, and they stretch. You do the math. “They’re stretching all the time and they don’t drink beer,” a German team member noted.

Feel the River: The Colombian team’s Juan Gabriel is blind. But he heard commands better than anyone else on his raft. Dressed in shades, a Rasta cap and a colorful shawl, he also held his own at the nightly parties.

Cheer on the Dancing Indonesians: When the drummers and belly dancers, clad in gold skirts and bikini tops, came out for some nighttime entertainment, the Indonesians gyrated right alongside them (of course, they also had more energy, having been eliminated in the head-to-head event’s first round).

Don’t Dis the Family: The Chilean men’s team—comprised of brothers and cousins who all work for the same rafting company on the Maipo River—took first in the head-to-head event and third overall, turning sibling rivalry into a well-oiled machine. “We work pretty well together,” says the team’s Tomas Astorga. “We’re together all the time.”

Realize a Rafting Event can Save a River: It worked when Project RAFT came to the Pacuare in 1991, which helped defeat the Dos Montanas Dam. Gallo hopes this event will do the same for another proposed project on the upper canyon. “Hopefully putting the Pacuare on the international map will help,” he says.

Don’t Rely on GPS: An hour below the downriver finish, after everyone else was long gone, the Hungarian team paddled furiously by me shouting, “Where’s the finish?” They weren’t looking for their Finnish colleagues; they were lost.
But Reward Chivalry: It turns out they had pulled over to help the Argentine women, who had flipped, and then got hung up afterward. When they finally reached the finish line, someone had already taken the banner away. But their gallantry showcases the event’s true river-running roots and good-natured spirit of competition. The altruistic Hungarians were honored that night at the awards party.

Savor the National Anthem: You’ll never feel more national pride from rafters than at the awards ceremonies, where the winning teams’ anthems played each night. (There was no Star-Spangled Banner; the U.S. men’s and women’s teams both finished seventh overall.) “We did pretty well considering there were 29 men’s teams,” U.S. men’s captain Chris Reeder says. “But there’s definitely some stiff competition out there.”

Give the Shirt off your Back: At the final awards party, competitors swap T-shirts as readily as war stories. I ended up with a smelly muscle shirt from Australian captain Graham MacFreddie (thanks, mate), while U.S. team member Seth Mason squeezed into a shirt from the Danish women’s team.

Save Energy for the Final Party: It’s a rager like no other in paddlesports (sorry, Gauley Fest, you don’t have dancing Brazilians), with nearly 50 different teams all swirling in a gigantic, multi-national boating bash. Beers, bands, more bull rides and world-class whitewater have a way of breaking down any lingering language barriers.
Make Plans to Return: That is, to both the 2013 Worlds (in either Serbia, New Zealand or Japan) and to kayak more of Costa Rica. Two tips to trust me on: Hire a shuttle driver to meet you at each takeout, and do an overnight at the Rios Tropicales lodge on the lower Pacuare.

Catch a Ride out to San Jose with the Venezuelan Women’s Team: ‘Nuff said.

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