A punctured tube took the air out of their record plans. Rowing a 48-foot custom cataraft built for speed, on Jan. 14 eight paddlers from Colorado, including six members of the U.S. Rafting Team, fell short on their quiet bid to set a new speed record down the 277-mile Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.
The original speed record for rowing the Big Ditch was set at a flood-level 72,000 cfs in 1983 in a wooden dory by Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds, as documented by author Kevin Fedarko in the Emerald Mile. They did the run in 36 hours and 38 minutes. That record stood until January 2016, when it was bested twice in one week, most recently by Ben Orkin who paddled a composite race kayak through the canyon in 34 hours, 2 minutes, despite a swim in Lava Falls.
This time, Lava delayed yet another attempt. On Jan. 14, after paddling an average of 8.4 mph for 20 hours straight, at 8:45 p.m. a piece of the raft crew’s frame snapped in Lava, putting a four-inch gash in the front right tube of the custom-built Jack's Plastic Welding cataraft. "It took us a couple of hours to patch," says team member Ian Anderson, a partner at PR firm Backbone Media. "So we lost precious time.”
After procuring the necessary permit and going through the gear-check with the rangers the day before, the Chaco-sponsored team — including U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team members Jeremiah Williams, John Mark Seelig, Robbie Prechtl and Kurt Kincel, Seth Mason and Matt Norfleet; as well as Anderson and Grand Canyon veteran Marty Borges -- put in at Lees Ferry at 11 p.m. on Jan. 13 at 20,000 cfs. While the river was at a much lower level than the 72,000 cfs of the Emerald Mile's record, their craft was built for the task, with custom pontoons and an aluminum/carbon fiber frame. They also attached sliding seats to the top of the frame, with the rowers facing backwards handling 12-foot oars. Borges controlled a sweeper oar and acted as coxswain.
"We were a super strong team, but none of us had ever rowed crew before," says Anderson. "There was a lot a technique we had to learn. We even had a coach beforehand who had us training on rowing machines. Like swimming, you could spend your whole life learning proper technique."
The training served them well, up until Lava. On pace for the record, the boat crunched into a wave, breaking the frame and puncturing the boat. "We successfully navigated all the rapids up until that point, and hit our line in Lava perfectly, but a wave folded back the tube," says Anderson. "We were that close. If that tube hadn't punctured, we would have had a solid shot at the record.
"And it was super hard to patch the raft...it was windy, rainy and dark. We had to boil water to get the patch to stick."
"It was an exciting couple moments," team captain and boat designer Seth Mason told the Denver Post. "There was this elation that we had made it through and we had such a clean line and then coming face-to-face with the reality that our boat was sinking. It was an emotional roller coaster."
Boat finally patched, but aspirations for the record sunk, the team rowed through nine more hours of flatwater before getting stalled again at Killer Fang Falls below Diamond Creek. "We were completely spent and got pushed up onto a rock, where we were hung up for a while," says Anderson. "It was hard to get everyone off."
A few hours later, they finished in 39 hours and 24 minutes, five hours off the record mark. With preparations, rigging and shuttles, they had been awake for more than 60 hours. "The sleep deprivation was pretty hard," says Anderson. "We were all pretty worked."
As for a next time, he says perhaps a shorter craft would be better. "At 48 feet, the raft was pretty hard to recover from a spin," he says. "You need a craft that can survive all the whitewater, but that can also go fast in the flats."
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