Tres, dos, uno! With the countdown over, four paddlers spring forward, bows surging up, and as one of the racers takes his first stroke a bucket load of water drenches a surprised teenage boy behind him . Racers displace water as boats wiggle along the foot deep flatwater section. One of the middle paddlers finds himself in a squeeze between two others, not able to put a paddle in the water until he is passed. The ferry around a midstream rock leaves enough room for one at a time and the racing order is decided. Now all that remains ahead are four giant holes surging and spraying on the horizon. Paddlers take little notice of the bikini clad spectators on the shore or the safety kayakers keeping watch. The roar of the water and focus on the finish line are all that matters. In the peripheral; bright colours mix with whitewater as some racers find themselves engulfed by holes and overhead waves. The chugging rapid fills with a rainbow of boats and bright drytops as paddlers carve lines down to the flat water finish. The last stretch finds strokes laboured and cheeks puffing. The winner is decided by only a few boat lengths and his prize is to walk back up and do it all over again.
Within a week of landing in Ecuador the crew here at Endless heard of a race coming to town. A Our good friend Abe from Boof Sessions and instructor with the World Class Kayak Academy, a high school for lucky kayakers travelling the world learning and paddling, and the school promoted a race on a the first rapid after Bridge four on the Quijos River. After the race the event piggy backed on an existing fiesta at the local pools. Las pierdras, where the race winner judged a body painting contest and bikini show after a free kayak session for local children, a good time for the whole family.
The morning of the race Hammer and I finished up our coffee and took a stroll down to Bridge four located in our front yard. The weather was outstanding; hot Ecuadorian sun and fluffy clouds with a vibrant blue backdrop. Levels we at a nice medium flow from a down pour the night before. Hammer and I were toting Jackson Karma Mediums with me in a Kokatat shorty drytop and Hammer going skin to win. We arrived to a large group of paddlers sporting bright coloured gear and kayaks of all kinds. There were male and female paddlers from Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, the UK, Canada, USA, and more. The vibes were full of stoke and friendly competition, a perfect setting for the race to come. A safety meeting from Nice, a Peruvian instructor at World Class, laid out the lines for the race and a few practice laps followed. Our starting point was on river left and the course had us ferry across around a mid river rock and then fire down the rapid followed by a 100 meter flat water stretch to the finish line. There were four pretty juicy holes on the river right and middle of the rapid with large waves and many options for lines. Swims were possible as the van sized holes were retentive and hard to avoid, often surfing one hole meant surfing the next consecutive holes. We were assigned random heats with a pro and open class, racers were ready to go head to head in pods of four.
Race time had the racers square off in seven heats of one minute intervals in boatercross style with local volunteers holding the stern end of the kayak until the countdown was over. The first place racers advanced to the next round. A few swims provided entertainment for the spectators and action for the safety kayakers. A mexican paddler found himself in an unintentional cartwheeling session in two consecutive holes in my heat. The safety crew had the pieces together in no time before the next racers came down. There were three sets of heats in all with the final heat of four paddlers. Raphaël Boudreault-Simard took the first spot as the three other racers including myself found themselves team surfing the last large hole. I took a boat in the arm as a blurr of blue came at my head and I blocked it with my left arm. Although nobody swam or flipped it separated the race from the winner and the non winners. All four finalists were pooped by the end of the race after their third time sprinting down the course and walking back up. We all fist pumped and shared the sentiment that we could all use a nap after the amazing experience racing with such awesome paddlers on an incredible river rapid.
All were into fiesta that night at Las Piedras with the backdrop of body painting, kids kayaking, and a bikini contest with one of the gringa paddlers taking third spot. Rapha sat up next to the stage judging the scene like a warrior earning his spot as winner of the first of many river races in Ecuador. The next race to come in New Years Eve on the Cheese House section of the Quijos river, a 5 kilometre class IV+ section of pool drop epicness. The new age is here, river racing is nudging out freestyle rodeos as the paramount competition in whitewater kayaking. Thanks to all the spectators, safety kayaker, racers and of course organizers for making the event one to remember.