It was sunny and beautiful in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the morning of March 18 as racers converged on a cove at the eastern end of the Back Bay of Biloxi for the Battle On The Bayou canoe and kayak race. This would be the eighth annual edition of this event, and for those who like to ask "What's new this year?" the most obvious answer would be the new race course. In past years paddlers started in this cove, turned up into Old Fort Bayou, and followed this coastal creek some nine and a half miles to a finish line next to The Shed barbecue joint. Looking to rein in the sprawl of the event, race director Mike Pornovets decided to make this year's course an "out-and-back" configuration, looping around an island about four miles up the bayou and returning to the same place it had started. This allowed the event to be concentrated at one venue--the Gulf Hills Hotel just up the hill from the starting area--and eliminated the need for a shuttle to get racers from The Shed back to their cars.
When I arrived at the race site I found a familiar cast of characters assembled. There was little question who the favorite was to take the overall title: even though it's been quite a few years now since he made his three U.S. Olympic teams and won his medals at the world championships, Mike Herbert of Rogers, Arkansas, has kept himself in outstanding physical condition and continues to be a factor in races all over the country at the age of 56.
Another boat expected to be in the hunt was the K3 paddled by the 15-year-old Pellerin triplets of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Carson, Conrad, and Peyton Pellerin have grown up racing across the Gulf South region and in the past year they have surpassed my own racing ability. I'd last seen them in September at a 9-kilometer race up near Jackson, and while I was able to hang with them for most of that race their sprint off the starting line and their final surge toward the finish line were faster than I could handle. I came to Ocean Springs this weekend curious to see if they could sustain a higher rate of speed over the entire 8.25-mile course; if so, they would be out of my league.
I figured my own competition would come from the likes of Phil Capel of Sherwood, Arkansas; Shane Kleynhans of Brandon, Mississippi; Jeb Berry of Gulfport, Mississippi; and the Louisiana tandem of Randy Hargroder and Brad Rex.
Nearly 150 boats--kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards--maneuvered onto the starting line, and just after nine o'clockthe starting gun fired. Mike Herbert sprinted into the lead with the Pellerins in pursuit. I quickly found myself vying for the third position with Jeb Berry on my left and Shane Kleynhans on my right. As we rounded the tip of a sawgrass marsh and headed up into Old Fort Bayou, I settled onto Jeb's wake and we opened a couple of boat lengths on Shane, whose training has been limited this winter due to a knee-replacement surgery in early December.
I was hoping that if I could withstand the triplets' initial sprint I might be able to climb up onto their stern wake like I had done at Jackson last fall, but they were having none of that. Their rapid development has indeed continued through the winter and steadily they pulled away from the rest of us. As they approached the Washington Avenue drawbridge they appeared well within striking distance of Mike.
I let them go and focused my attention on Jeb, who as far as I could tell was alone on my stern wake. I threw in a number of surges during the first half of the race with the hope of dropping him, but he wouldn't drop. As we rounded the island for the return trip I let him take the lead for a while, and even though he told me he'd been working hard to stay on my wake, he wasn't paddling like he was on the ropes now. I sat on his wake and tried to save some energy for a strong finish.
The story up front, as recounted to me afterward, was that the triplets were hanging close enough to Mike that Mike decided to drop back and ride their wake for much of the race. By the time they entered the final stretch he'd had all the rest he needed to turn on his world-class speed and pull away to win by about eleven seconds. It was a good win for Mike, but I'm impressed by the Pellerin boys' accomplishment: while I'd figured it wouldn't be long before they were able to hang with athletes of Mike's caliber, I didn't think they would be there quite yet. I look forward to rooting them on as they travel through the world of flatwater sprint racing and national teams and all that kind of thing.
I felt anything but rested after some ten minutes on Jeb's wake, but as the Washington Avenue bridge came back into view I knew it was time for me to make my case for third place overall. Once we'd passed under the bridge it was tempting to think we were "almost there," but we still had the better part of a mile to go. I tried to paddle as strong and efficiently as I could without blowing out everything I had too early. Finally, when we rounded the last turn and could see the finish buoys, I decided it was time and I began my last furious push. Even as I became more confident that I had third place in the bag, glances over my shoulder revealed Jeb's bright yellow boat still there, closer than I would have liked. At last we crossed the line two seconds apart, according to the official results.
Shane came into the finish about seventy seconds later--not a bad effort for him considering his recent medical experiences. The Hargroder-Rex K2 came in several minutes behind Shane, and Henry Lawrence of Brandon, Mississippi, completed a very respectable effort shortly thereafter. Phil Capel was the first non-race-boat finisher, winning the class for fast touring kayaks. The top overall female finisher was Lauren Drummond of D'Iberville, Mississippi. The complete results are now posted here.
No question about it: the 2017 race season is now underway here in the southern United States. I'm reasonably satisfied with my first race and I look forward to more competitions with many of these same paddlers along with a host of others.
PHOTO CREDITS to Doug Heller.