Join the Phatwater kayaking fun

Published 1:13 am Sunday, October 3, 2010

In the time it will take to read this, lead paddlers in the upcoming Phatwater Kayak Challenge will have pulled more than a mile ahead of the majority of participants, following the belch of the Freon horn which starts the race.

At 8 a.m. on Oct. 9, with God as our overseer, some 400 paddle blades will strike the Mississippi at the Claiborne County Port, churning the river from Grand Gulf to Natchez into a rainbow of foot high waves and more than 150 individual craft, each vying for one goal: the successful completion of Phatwater IX.

Accompanying the paddlers will be a fleet of 10 to 15 safety boats, led by the U.S. Coast Guard out from Memphis. Alongside will be Curtis Gibson and Charles Feltus, with the Adams County Search and Rescue, accompanied by Sheriff Chuck Mayfield’s river cruiser and a score of private sector volunteers including Randy Meng and Forrest Flinn, Mark Coffey, Dr. Randy Tillman and son Clifford, James Schuchs, Jim Lindley, Kevin Colbert, Tanya Butler, Billy ‘Boat Doctor’ Sutton and wife Karen, Brent Bourland, Ron Jenkins, and a dozen or so more whose anonymity is only outweighed by their generosity, each drawn to the water by the promise of a good time and a last minute tan.

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For the follow on 6-plus hours they will monitor the field of what is expected to be more than 200 paddlers, from California to New York, from Terlingua to Ticonderoga and all points in between, in a variety of kayaks, canoes, outriggers and surfskis. Every conceivable configuration of paddle craft, in boat lengths of from nine to 25 feet, and weighing from more than 90 pounds to as little as 28, will spurn the current and headwinds of the Mississippi as they make their way south.

The pro class of paddlers will be in Surfskis, a type of hybrid kayak, minus the cockpit, which originated in Australia to ply the oyster beds, though now used worldwide by surf lifeguards to haul hapless swimmers caught in rip-tides off the coasts of Newcastle, Port Elizabeth and Waikiki. Originally designed for stability, these long needle shaped boats punch through waves and bounce over swells in offshore “downwind” races from Sydney to Chicago to Fiji to Southern California, where the U.S. Surfski championships are held each summer under the direction of Phatwater record holders, DeAnne and Patrick Hemmens, owners of Ocean Paddlesports, in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Patrick and DeAnne reached a new benchmark a year ago, with a record time of three hours, 41 minutes and 53 seconds, but hope to best this time on Oct. 9, by smashing the heretofore unheard of goal of three hours and 30 minutes.

In the solo category, we can expect to see a hard fought battle between returning sub-four hour paddlers Joe Glickman, of New York City, and Eric Mims of Hermitage, Tenn., who, following his third place 2009 finish, had two hands full of blisters, difficult to distinguish from the grapes he was popping into his mouth at the Under-The-Hill Saloon. Talk about wine before its time!

The connection between the Phatwater, Natchez and South Africa continues to grow, as one tandem team expected to give the Hemmens a run for the money this year is comprised of champion canoe racer, Steve Corlew, of Brighton, Mich., and Barend Spies, of Durban, South Africa. DeAnne’s husband, Patrick Hemmens, is also a South African. Together, they are known world wide for their paddling skills and easy going demeanor.

They still manage to get around the racing circuit, which, with three young children, is something of a feat in itself, but one trip to Natchez, last October, was enough to bring them back for more. And as a bonus, on their arrival, they will be unveiling this year’s premier giveaway: a Fenn Mako XT Surfski. This is a $2,500 value, and all you have to do to be eligible to win this classic ski is enter and complete the Phatwater, no matter what type boat you have. So, if you think you’d like to take a shot at this wave-dancing speedster, just go to our Web site,, and sign up before next Thursday. Or, if you’re smitten by sunsets, stop by the Under-The-Hill Saloon, anytime before 9 p.m. on Friday and sign up on site. We’ll be happy to guide you along the way. We’ll even transport your boat to the put-in on Friday, for a modest fee. If interested, let us know now to reserve a spot, because space is limited and available only on a first come-first serve basis:, 601-431-1731, 601-807-1216.

Keith Benoist is the organizer of the Phatwater Kayak Challenge.