Photo: Eric Ellman

By Eric Ellman

The race hasn't even started, and already Tommy Yonley looks screwed.

"Diez, nueve, ocho…"

As Arturo Burciaga, President of the Durango Canoe Association, counts down the seconds, bystanders furiously strip lengths of duct tape, passing them to Tommy at the water's edge. He can't speak Spanish, and they can't speak English, but eight hands work as one to pull together his spray skirt's busted zipper. An ambulance siren wails, the crowd cheers and Northern Mexico's most elite racers launch themselves down the swollen Nazas River. In a water-logged cockpit, 33-year old Tommy Yonley chases after them, a look of pissed-off determination on his face. This wasn't how his quest to win $2000, the value of a solid gold Mexican "Centenario," first prize in the Rio Nazas Regata, was supposed to begin.

The caravan departs. Beat-up pickups sporting even more beaten-up kayaks, late model SUV's with the family in tow, all head for the highway and an overlook 10 miles downstream. It won't make the night's highlight reel, I know, but history has been made. Regardless of how he finishes, Tommy Yonley just became the first representative of the Texas Water Safari to participate in the Rio Nazas Regata. With a half century of racing in common, and just a 12-hour drive from one another, you'd have thought someone would have crossed over sooner. But the Nazas is south of the Border, and for US paddlers that has always meant it may as well be on the dark side of the moon.

While I philosophize on the geo-politics of paddling, the racers are duking it out far from view. When three figures emerge against a panorama of mesquite-covered mountains last year's soft-spoken champion, Martin Rangel, known to everyone as "Mudo", "the Mute", is in front. Former Mexican Pan Am team member and 4-time Nazas champ Jose Antonio Landeros, "El Cuate" ("the twin," his brother goes by the same nickname) is in second. Tommy has clawed his way back to the rear of the pack. On an unknown river, with neither map nor the ability to talk with competitors about the obstacles ahead, it's exactly where he wants to be.

Several things compensate for Tommy's lack of familiarity with the river: a boat that weighs seven kilograms less than the lightest of his competitors, a foot-operated bilge pump that the Mexicans have never heard of and an edge in nutrition and sports science that might be as significant as the equipment advantages combined. It's not exactly John Henry vs. the steam-powered hammer but there is something iconic in this contest between paddlers from either side of the Border.

The caravan hollers encouragement to the leaders, waits for the rest of the field, hollers some more and relocates downstream to a rock fall called "La Boca de Leon," the Lion's mouth, to wait again. I'm standing below the rapid preparing to video when the racers arrive. Contrary to his game plan, Tommy is in front. He leans left, attempts to right himself and goes over. When he comes up he's holding two halves of a splintered $450 carbon fiber paddle. I don't know where to point the video camera. El Mudo and El Cuate—having snookered Tommy into passing them on the first really challenging rapid—dart by.

Tommy lumbers through the shallows clutching his swamped kayak and yelling for his spare paddle. A Mexican on-looker offers his. It's a nice gesture but Tommy needs the one buried in his van. By the time we put Tommy back on the river the field is gone—and seemingly with them his chances to become the first foreigner to win the Rio Nazas Regata.

In the caravan I focus on the vehicles in front of me rather than Tommy's mishap. Win or lose, I console myself, our one-man delegation from the US paddling community to Mexico's showcase event is a watershed moment. Coming in the middle of Mexico's worst chaos since the Revolution of 1910, it's the latest demonstration of how something as ordinary as a canoe race becomes sublime, helping to transcend imagined differences, even in a place as conflicted as the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Prior to a 2008 race on the Rio Grande, U.S. and Mexican racing associations didn't know each other existed. Though Article VII of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo enshrines the right of residents on both sides of the border to navigate the Rio Grande, no association had ever staged an event there. Fast forward four years and the Laredos Riofest—a cash race with thousands of dollars in prizes on the Rio Grande at Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas—is a fixture on all their calendars. It took 45 years for the Mexican and US kayak communities to start dating, I tell myself. Tommy's participating in the Mexican's ½ century-old Regata is their first kiss.

Pushing this romance along has made an unlikely couple of Tommy—a staunch Republican and devout Christian who questions climate change but not the literal word of the Bible—and me, an atheist, red diaper baby, raised on protest songs. Despite his penchant for conservative causes, Tommy's a warrior for this distinctly Aquarian effort to promote peace through paddling. When a hitch developed in our escort from the Border, Tommy offered to drive his family car. Given the situation on the Border, most Laredo residents won't walk across the bridge to visit their own family these days. My hat's off to this milk-fed engineer from Houston who's ignored newspaper headlines and State Department advisories to leave a beautiful wife and kids and join me for a week in Mexico's backcountry.
Perhaps he sensed family was waiting for him there too.

That's certainly how it looks when I arrive in Nazas for the end of the first day's stage. Chief Judge Gerardo Morales is beaming as if Tommy were his own son. He tells me he's won. In a photo finish. Like nothing they've ever seen.

Racers and spectators eat together in a historic patio, saluting Tommy as they come and go. They jabber among themselves at how he'd recovered from his dousing at Boca de Leon. After a ceremony on the plaza, racers crawl off to sleep. Among support crews, beer-fueled analysis of the comparative merits of Tommy's South African manufactured boat vs. local knowledge of the river ushers from campfire conversations late into the night.

Day #2 concludes with a 10-mile crossing of the Francisco Zarco reservoir. The flat water allows Tommy to stretch his lead to four minutes. If the international display of brotherhood weren't so touching it would be embarrassing how people fawn over him. Non-competitors vie to lend him a spare paddle for the final day, one that features cypress-choked retention dams over 10'-high. Race organizers are so excited by the prospect of an American winning their race they become concerned he get a good night's sleep. Over a communal lunch the judges offer Tommy a room for the night in Lerdo 40 miles away. I agree to join him so that I can shop for a tire. As we leave someone mentions something about a missing child.

I return around midnight, plumbing dirt roads below the reservoir until I find camp and where the morning's final stage will start. Racers sleep in their tents. Fires flicker under giant Cypress trees. A couple of bottles are still making the rounds. There's song, but little talk about the 13-year old son of one of the competitors whose body was found floating beneath the surface of the reservoir that afternoon.

Tommy —sleeping in an air-conditioned hotel room, a guest of the judges—doesn't even know about the grisly discovery. His chief competitor, the laconic Mudo, is much more affected. For reasons I don't understand, he ends up transporting the body, and has a sleepless night after returning to the campsite late that night.

In the 49-year history of the Rio Nazas Regata there's never been a death before. But tradition trumps tragedy. The race continues in the morning.

The final day lacks neither beauty nor drama. There's spectacular Canon de Fernandez, and Tommy's now quotidian feat of over-taking the race leaders after what should be a race-ending mishap. Probably 500 people watch him beat El Cuate by minutes and El Mudo by a boat length. The close finish and the novelty of a foreigner winning Mexico's longest and longest-running race ignites new interest in the sport. Competitors from years gone by swear to resume training. Others warn Tommy they'll be gunning for him come October and the Laredos Riofest on the Rio Grande.

Behind the victory stand Tommy gives $100 from his prize to the race directors for funeral expenses. We hit the road for nearby Saltillo, a meticulously preserved colonial city, to get off the highway by dark. The morning paper has coverage about a bike race and a skateboard competition but nothing about Nazas. The headline from nearby Torreon proclaims "11 People Executed." Passersby give it no more attention than any other. People get used to anything it seems, including death. What's tragic is when they live less for fear of it. We turn the van toward Laredo where Mexican and US paddlers meet en masse in the fall.