Kayakers to descend on Natchez for 11th annual Phatwater Challenge

Published 12:03 am Sunday, October 7, 2012

Keith Benoist

Special to The Democrat

NATCHEZ — In the spring of 2001 KayakMississippi.com was founded and the Phatwater Kayak Challenge enjoyed its beginning, surrounding a kitchen island at a place called Tattooed Serpent Lane in the kind of neighborhood where every dog knows every fire hydrant. It was the dinner hour. A pot of black beans and Cajun venison sausage were the defending champs; an upstart microbrew the rookie-of-the-year.

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“We should have a kayak race,” someone said, reaching for a brown bottle with a skull on the label. “On the Mississippi. We’ve got the whole river just sitting there, unused. Nothing out there but barges. A boulevard of barges. It’s a crying shame. We should have a kayak race out there. Kayaks and canoes. We need to do something about this.”

So, they did.

After a decade of fits and starts, the Phatwater Kayak Challenge, born in the land of hoop skirts and white columns, has now earned its berth alongside the ubiquitous Natchez Fall Pilgrimage, boasting its own considerable following.

In its genesis, organizers hadn’t a clue if such a thing was possible. They didn’t know if a downriver race, in kayaks and canoes, had ever been attempted.

“That’s insane,” they were told by one local physician. “It’s too dangerous.”

“History has proven the Mississippi River a cauldron of doom,” warned one goggle-eyed harridan, knotting her kerchief at her breast, clinging to her ladder of social fabrication and invoking antebellum angst.

“We should do it anyway,” the kayakers said.

“I’m from New York,” said one of the organizers. “If we hesitate, someone else will do it ahead of us. That’s not the New York way. New Yorkers aren’t known for hesitation. Here,” she said, “take my money. Make it happen.”

So they did.

Thus was created the Phatwater Kayak Challenge. In October of 2002 the first “Great Mississippi River Kayak Race,” as it was initially known, took place. There were 11 paddlers. International representation was offered through a French Canadian school teacher and a woman who’d spent her childhood summers in Paris.

Among them was the Long Island benefactor, recently moved to town, alongside a brace of backwoods twin sisters who’d sung professionally throughout Europe when they weren’t tightlining for channel cats on the shores of Rodney Lake.

There were a couple of clam diggers from the Gulf Coast, and a dedicated pirogue racer from Des Allemands, La., who was certain to take first place in his hand waxed “ocean kayak,” the likes of which the handful of locals who made up the balance of racers had never before seen.

There was a pickup truck under the watchful eyes of a pair of Labrador retrievers, and there was a borrowed starter’s pistol and an ancient carton of .38 Special Winchester blanks with the old Sports Center label on the box to get things under way. Then there was this thick shroud of fog waiting for the crew when they all got to the port of Grand Gulf, in Claiborne County. The port had been chosen as the starting point, and to the Phatwater’s everlasting relief still is. But the fog had chosen the wrong place at the wrong time for the kayakers and canoeists.

“What should we do?” asked everyone, peering into the soup of white mist that blanketed the eddy line, at the point where the Claiborne County Port meets the river.

“Should we go ahead? Or should we wait?”

“We should wait,” said one organizer. It was 9 a.m., Saturday morning, Oct. 12. It was also an hour past the scheduled launch time.

“I’m from New York,” the New Yorker and benefactor boasted, “and New Yorkers don’t wait.” With that, she and her companion from Laurel Hill dragged their Poke Boats into the still waters of the port, paddled into the mist, and the race began, with brave women of New England sensibilities leading the way.

That was 10 years ago, and at the festivities following the culmination of the first “Great Mississippi River Kayak Race,” none who celebrated its completion could have predicted a future involving kayakers, Surfski paddlers, canoeists and stand up paddleboard athletes from Honolulu to Bar Harbor, from Sydney to Johannesburg, traveling to Natchez each fall, to cut a swath through 42 miles of the Mighty Mississippi.

Yet to date, in its 11th iteration, the Phatwater has done just that, encouraging more than 1,500 paddlers from all walks of life and every corner of the free world, in every fashion of craft imaginable, to make the annual pilgrimage to this oldest European Mississippi River settlement. Come Saturday, Oct. 13, as paddlers gather at the shore of the Claiborne County Port, outside historic Port Gibson, the Phatwater Kayak Challenge will enter a new decade as a truly international sporting event of worldwide recognition.

The Phatwater Kayak Challenge is each second Saturday of October. Those who wish to witness the best visual of the Phatwater, the start, should travel to the Claiborne County Port and be in place by 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13. A map to the port is available at www.kayakmississippi.com.

The Phatwater is open to all who wish to participate. The Phatwater will begin at 8 a.m. at the port, 8 miles northwest of Port Gibson. The cost of participation is $75 per paddler, plus $10 per paddler for a one-day membership in the American Canoe Association for non-members, in order to cover the cost of insurance.

A free shuttle is provided to paddlers only on Saturday morning, from the Natchez Grand Hotel. An after race party will take place at the Under-The-Hill Saloon.The U.S. Coast Guard will stop all barge traffic on the river between Natchez and the Claiborne County Port for the duration of the Phatwater. Prizes and trophies in all boat classes will be awarded. All participants will receive a Phatwater catfish badge, t-Shirt, bandana, Phatwater stickers, and a certificate of completion. For questions or comments, e-mail info@kayakmississippi.com.

Registration can be completed online, or at the Under-The-Hill Saloon Friday Oct. 12 until 8 p.m.

All participants must provide their own equipment, to include a boat, personal flotation device, and paddle. See the website for a recommended gear list or for any other information. If you have no Internet access, call 601-807-1216 or 601-431-1731.