Phatwater draws crowd

Published 12:17 am Sunday, October 9, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Michelle Blair, center, is greeted by her mother Kathy Joslyn and daughter Rebecca Blair, 4, after finishing the Phatwater Kayak Challenge Saturday afternoon at Natchez’s Under-the-Hill. Blair finished the challenge with a time of 5:48:41.

NATCHEZ — Spectators lined Natchez Under-the-Hill Saturday afternoon cheering on dozens of exhausted kayakers who were fighting the mighty Mississippi River with repeated blows from their paddles as they finished up the 42.5-mile journey that is the Phatwater Kayak Challenge.

It was the 10th anniversary of the event, and event organizer Keith Benoist said the weather was wonderful for the race.

“Everything was perfect,” he said. “The weather was perfect.”

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Although the warm but breezy conditions gave the participants a beautiful day to be out in the sun, they also created some difficulties on the river, Benoist said.

“It was a tough day,” he said. “We had really hard southeast winds knock us around at about 10 or 10:30 a.m. Below Waterproof the river was real aggressive, and the last 6 miles were really tough. We had a couple of people capsize.”

Benoist said he was disappointed, however, at the amount of participants for this year’s event.

“I don’t know the final numbers, but we had about 150. We had 200 last year, and I expected 225-250,” he said.

Benoist said he did not know why the numbers were down this year, but he hopes to continue to grow the event for years to come. He said he thinks he made some strides toward that goal today.

“We probably recruited a few return paddlers, people that did it that will come back again and get some buddies to come,” he said.

Benoist said his main goal is to make people aware of the benefits the river provides.

“I want to expose people to the Mississippi River and other surrounding waters as a recreational resource not just limited to fishing,” he said. “(The event) exposes people who might want to (kayak) to the opportunity. In the long-term I want Natchez to be a destination for something other than weddings and antiques.”

Debbie Carpenter from Grapevine, Texas, said the lure of the Mississippi River is what has brought her to the Phatwater event the past three years.

“In Texas we don’t have rivers, we have creeks,” she said. “(The river) adds an epic feeling. (It’s special) to be on the mighty Mississippi that people have written about. It holds more stories than the creeks in Texas.”

Carpenter said she also enjoys the people she has come to know as Phatwater friends.

“The atmosphere of this event for me is what makes it,” she said. “It’s one of the most fun events I do.”

David Lloyd from Fairmont, Minn., also complimented the atmosphere of Phatwater.

“It has awesome hospitality,” he said. “Everyone knows your name after a few years, and it is a family environment. It’s (like) an awesome Phatwater family.”

Lloyd started participating in the event four years ago when he was stationed in Meridian with the Marines. That’s when he met Benoist and began helping with the Phatwater Challenge, he said.

One Phatwater regular, Chris Van Meter from Milwaukee, Wis., said his trips to the event have inspired him to look for property to retire to in Natchez.

“It’s such an amazing town,” he said. “We come two to three times a year.”

Van Meter said the event itself is special because of the self-satisfaction the participants get when they finish.

“It’s a really cool challenge,” he said. “The great part of it is you are really racing yourself and the river.”

The event hosted paddlers from all across the country, and that was evidenced by the paddlers of the two-person surfski that finished the event first overall.

Joe Glickman from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Eric Mims from Heritage, Tennessee clocked in the fastest time Saturday. The two men finished with a time of 3:54:32. That was one second faster than last year’s fastest time by Patrick and Deanne Hemmens, from Newport Beach, Calif.

Glickman, a journalist, said this was his third Phatwater Challenge. The first time he came he wrote an article on the event and learned about the culture of Natchez, and he’s been coming back ever since, he said.

“Anyone who has ever read a book knows Huckleberry Finn and stories about the river,” he said. “History feels alive here.”

Last year Glickman said he finished second in the event riding solo, but this year he decided to team up with Mims.

“It’s much easier to (race) with someone,” he said. “You go a little faster and are a little more stable. There’s a synergy of having a partner. When you have someone counting on you, you kind of lift your game.”

Six-time Olympian Philippe Boccara finished first in the solo category and third overall with a time of 4:05:57.