Top paddlers to compete in race

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 8, 2008

NATCHEZ — With record water levels and professional paddlers from around the world expected at this year’s Phatwater Kayak Challenge, organizer Keith Benoist is hoping for a fantastic race on Saturday.

The National Weather Service and NOAA predict Saturday’s Mississippi River level at Natchez to be 22.8 feet, meaning a quicker ride for the roughly 150 paddlers competing.

And the participation of two South African professional paddlers and last year’s record-breaker, Mark Herbert of Rogers, Ark., means this might be the year the four-hour mark is shattered.

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Herbert, a three-time Olympic sprint kayaker, finished last year’s race with a time of 4:16:55.

“We had record-low water last year, which makes the course slower, and he was facing a 20 mph head wind in the last leg of the race,” Benoist said. “He will be back this year to defend his title and try again. If we break the four-hour mark, we will give the first person that finishes under the mark the $2,000 cash prize. If we don’t break it, then next year it will roll over and be $3,000.”

But 90 percent of the participants will not be serious kayakers, Benoist said. They are what he calls “day-trippers”, kayaking and and canoeing enthusiasts who could take six hours to finish the race.

Even still, he expects the end of the race, which finishes at the foot of Fulton Street at Natchez Under the Hill around 12:30 p.m., to be extremely close.

“It should be a very exciting finish,” he said. “We should have four or five people finishing within less than half a minute. We had two finishers within fractions of a second — that’s entirely possible.”

The seventh-annual Challenge is a 42.5-mile trek from the Claiborne County Port Facility at Grand Gulf, 6 miles northwest of Port Gibson, to Natchez. The race starts around 8:30 a.m. in still water, and the kayakers will paddle into the current.

Benoist said this year’s race could be the stepping-stone Phatwater needs to be considered as a qualifying race for world championship events in places like Hawaii and Dubai, where the purse is $100,000.

“Right now, this sport is not recognized as an Olympic event. We’re only now being taken seriously,” he said. “We go to a lot of other races, and they put as little effort into it as they can. We go out of our way to put as great an effort in as we can.”

Spectators can go to the put-in spot to watch the start of the race, or set up anywhere along the river to watch the action.

At the finish line, spectators can hear live music from Barefoot Tendencies and enjoy food, drinks and beer.

They can also enter into a raffle for a Phatwater Bowie knife, donated by Bowie’s Tavern owner Michael Worley.

“The reason for the Bowie knife is that we paddle right over the area where the famous sandbar fight took place,” Benoist said. “We’ll sell 5,000 raffle tickets and make $5,000 for the (Natchez-Adams County) Humane Society. In the seven years we’ve been doing this, we will have given them $30,000.”