Record stand at challenge? Phat chance

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 11, 2009

NATCHEZ — The final length of Patrick and DeAnne Hemmens’ journey down the Mississippi River during Saturday’s eighth annual Phatwater Kayak Challenge was unlike any other.

The professional kayaking couple from California worked with the river’s current to come in first place with a new record of 3:41:53 — shaving off 12:47 from the record set last year by Steve Woods of Durban, South Africa.

Kayaking enthusiasts from across the country gathered at Natchez Under-the-Hill to watch as the Hemmenses led a group of 161 kayakers down 42.5 miles of swirling, cold river.

Email newsletter signup

After arriving at the finish point, DeAnne Hemmens said the course route was indeed a challenge.

“I saw the (tugboat) and thought it was the casino.” “When I found out it wasn’t, I was completely demoralized.”

DeAnne, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Sprint Kayak Team, said this was the first time she and her husband have been a part of the Phatwater Challenge, but had heard a lot about it from co-founder Keith Benoist.

“Keith has been trying to get us to come out here, and we finally did,” she said.

But before records could be broken and races won, the Hemmenses’ kayak had to hit the water, and Susan Orgeron of Breauxbridge, La., helped make that happen.

“I was helping put people (in the water) and it suddenly hit me how expensive these kayaks are,” Orgeron said.

Orgeron said she is new to the world of kayaking and was in attendance to cheer on a friend competing in the challenge. She was also checking out the scene to see if she wants to participate in the future.

“I’ve been kayaking for six months,” Orgeron said. “I’ve never seen a body of water this big.”

While the Hemmenses were the first to finish the race, the first kayaker to touch shore was Gary Simon of Wisconsin.

Simon, who has been kayaking for 38 years, underwent back surgery in May, but still braved the chilly waters early Saturday,

However, halfway though the race, Simon requested to be taken back to land due to difficulties created by weather conditions.

“There was a lot of swirling water. It wasn’t rough, it was more like confused water,” Simon said. “I think the current was faster this year, that’s the way it felt to me.”

Also participating in the challenge was Olympian kayaker Mike Herbert.

Herbert, a resident of Arkansas, has not only participated in three Olympic games, but has also participated in three Phatwater Challenges.

“It’s a fun race. There’s a lot of good people around here, and it’s just a good experience,” Herbert said.