Row your boat Sat. for Phatwater

Published 12:01 am Sunday, October 2, 2011

John Holyoak, boat No. 98, paddles in the 2009 Phatwater Kayak Challenge along with several other participants. The 10th annual Phatwater Kayak Challenge is scheduled for Saturday Oct. 8. (Submitted photo)

NATCHEZ — The mighty Mississippi River will be beaten to a pulp Saturday Oct. 8, by people from all over the country, who will be furiously paddling their kayaks, canoes, surf skis or other paddle driven craft to try and conquer the 42-mile trek that is the 10th annual Phatwater Kayak Challenge.

Challenge director, and Natchez native, Keith Benoist said he expects approximately 200 paddlers to occupy approximately 150 crafts when the challenge starts at the Claiborne County Port at 8 a.m. It will be up to the determination of the paddlers whether or not they finish the challenge at Natchez Under-the-Hill Saturday afternoon.

“We try not to focus on the racing aspect of (the event), because everyone is a winner,” Benoist said. “It’s quite a feat for everyone to paddle 42.5 miles.”

Benoist said the event has come along way since it started 10 years ago with 11 participants. Last year’s event featured 198 participants, he said.

“It’s our desire to promote the Mississippi River as a recreational resource and not just a commercial highway,” he said. “It’s really an ego boost for me to have people come down and realize what we see all year round. It’s good for Natchez and the State of Mississippi.”

Benoist said he has huge hopes for the future of the challenge.

“I go to a lot of other races, and I want ours to be the best,” he said. “I have a lofty goal to have a $50,000 prize package.”

The larger the prize package, the bigger the event would be, and Benoist said he wants Phatwater to compare with the major competitions around the world.

“There is a race in South Africa on the Fish River on the same day as our race that has 2,500 paddlers, and that’s what I want to do here,” he said.

Benoist said the popularity of the Phatwater Challenge stems from its location.

“The Mississippi River is one (draw),” he said. “It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to be in a 12-15 foot boat on a river a mile wide moving 5.5 miles per hour in the midst of an urban environment. On the river it is complete wilderness. The waves, wind, calm, sunset, twilight and the wildlife like beavers, otters and alligators make it kind of a communal thing.”

Natchez’s Adam Elliot said this year would be his sixth challenge.

“I just try to best myself from year to year,” he said. “So far I have, but this year I’m going to take it easy. I have enjoyed myself every year. It’s a great community of people from all over the country, and I get to see friends in far away places that I see every year. It’s just the excitement and thrill of doing what society says you’re not supposed to be doing, being on the big bad Mississippi River.”

Elliot said he enjoys the self-satisfaction that completing the long-distance race provides, and being on the river is a definitely a perk.

“It’s one of the most incredible experiences,” he said. “For the better part (of the race), it’s a mile wide and the water is zipping down stream. You have the big open sky above you, and being subject to the wind and weather is pretty nice. It makes you feel alive.”

All participants receive a pub-glass and T-shirt, and cash prizes will be awarded to the top finishers, including a $1,000 prize for the first person to break the challenge record, Benoist said.

One of the favorites to do just that is six-time Olympian for both France and the United States, and bronze medalist, Philippe Boccara. Boccara, who now resides in the U.S., is expected to participate in the event, Benoist said.

Registration is ongoing until noon Thursday, and those interested can register at www.kayakmississippi.com/phatwater.

Elliot said newcomers to the event could expect a hard, but fulfilling day on the water.

“I remember being exceptionally tired at the end of it, and having a good day in the outdoors,” he said. “Also, seeing friends that are like an extended paddling family, having great food at the end and getting good SWAG when you sign up. Plus you get the opportunity to donate money to the local humane society.”

Registration is $65 plus $5 for ACA insurance. A free bus shuttle will be provided for all paddlers, and it departs from the Natchez Grand Hotel at 5 a.m. Saturday. All canoes and kayaks must be dropped off at the Claiborne County Port from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Walk-up registration will be Friday at the Under-The-Hill Saloon. Participants must provide their own boat, paddle and flotation device.

For more information visit www.kayakmississippi.com/index.php.