Row, row, row your boat

At the 39th Buffalo Bayou Regatta, Houstonians got a good paddling


Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by James Jackson
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Raymund Codina
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Raymund Codina
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Raymund Codina
Fayza Elmostehi
Photo by Joel Luks
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Raymund Codina
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by James Jackson
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Raymund Codina
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Helena Finley
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Gabe Haarsma
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by James Jackson
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by Raymund Codina
Buffalo_Bayou_Regatta_2011
Photo by James Jackson

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves paddling 15 miles downstream on the Buffalo Bayou in a kayak or canoe of your choice. You may recruit as many team members as will comfortably fit in your craft, or you can compete solo. Your objective is to reach Sesquicentennial Park in downtown Houston while maintaining a secure position in your boat at all times.

And have more fun than anyone thought possible on the bayou, too.

This message will disintegrate in the bayou in five seconds.

The race day put-in — that's a boat launch, for you landlubbers — was just beneath the bridge on San Felipe and Voss. But the excitement spilled out onto the banks and into the street, because a boat race on the bayou only comes once a year.

Houston Fit Adventure Racing club members Helena Finley, Elizabeth Finley, Mark Mueller and Gabe Haarsma, racing two tandem kayaks between them, prepare for what promises to be a great day of paddling.

Now that's what I call a true outdoorsman.

No boat? No problem! Southwest Paddle Sports partnered with the Buffalo Bayou Regatta to get everyone who wanted to paddle into the right vessel. The median on San Felipe served as the pickup location for the watery chariots.

More than 430 boats were counted at this year's regatta, and it felt that way. With even-numbered boats on the south bank and odd-numbered boats on the north bank, it was clear that the popularity of this race — just like the water level — had risen.

Eager paddlers await their starting announcement beneath the bridge on San Felipe. Racers took to the water based on their type of boat in 10-minute increments — racing-class crafts, recreational canoes and recreational kayaks.

Peter Shankman, a New York City-based entrepreneur (not to mention with almost 100,000 followers on Twitter and a verified account, for you geeks out there), flew all the way to Houston just to sing the national anthem at the race. Because he volunteered to do it. No, I'm not kidding.

The recreational canoe category was among the first to kick off the race, and it's normally the default division for regatta rookies.

The recreational canoes weren't permitted to enter the water until the bullhorn sounded, and a mad dash resulted following the signal. Not all teams weathered the stampede well, though.

I'll bet these two paddlers weren't expecting to begin their race with a canoe full of bayou sludge.

Some of the canoes brought a few friends along for the 15-mile float. Dogs, coolers full of beer and radios are only the beginning of what you'll find in some of the boats in the regatta.

I saw this dog further along the course, leaning off the boat with his paws propped up on the side, as if he was hanging out a car window. The paddlers assured me he's a canoeing pup, and he "does this all the time."

And yes, the dog made it all the way to the finish line.

I, on the other hand, enlisted a recreational short kayak with a light-as-a-feather carbon fiber paddle from Southwest Paddle Sports for my race. Because there's no way you'll catch me paddling a canoe in Buffalo Bayou.

Kayaks are faster, provide greater control over the direction of your boat, but most importantly, in a race like this, they're the best stability you can find on the water.

The solo recreational kayaks take their positions in the water and wait for the starting horn.

Recreational tandem kayaks, you're next! Melissa Cox, the front paddler and "motor" in her kayak, prepares to paddle off on her first Buffalo Bayou Regatta.

Many novice paddlers could be found zigzagging along the bayou in canoes. My kayak was T-boned about 10 times by steering-deficient folks. Most apologized profusely, and admitted they had no experience whatsoever paddling.

As I attempted to thread the needle between a pair of paddlers going from bank to bank and bayou debris, one of the guys remarked, "You can tell we're experienced."

In disbelief, I retorted, "Are you?"

"No, this is my first time in a boat," he admitted.

It showed.

But these guys look like they've got the canoe thing under control.

There's absolutely no view of downtown like the view you get from your perch on the Buffalo Bayou. I dare you to find a better one.

Relief is in sight! Helena Finley and Gabe Haarsma reach the finish line at Sesquicentennial Park. Perhaps they're a little wetter than when they put her boat, African Queen, in the water, but they're also 15-miles-down-the-bayou richer.

Melissa Cox and Raymund Codina finish the race strong and with smiles, waiting to pull their boat out of the water.

Where the party at? Sesquicentennial Park, of course. A sea of paddlers and boats floods the downtown bank, with food, vendors, family and friends to welcome them.

Where else can you get away with mounting a skull on the hull of your canoe? God bless Texas.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is constantly challenging the way you view and use Buffalo Bayou. Without their amazing leadership, the Buffalo Bayou Regatta wouldn't be where it is today, after 39 successful years of racing.