A bit sunburned, a bit beat up and a bit exhausted, “Team Occoquan-Prince William” recently completed the grueling four-day, 170-mile “Belikin La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge” for a good cause.
Occoquan Mayor Earnie Porta learned about the race after a trip to Belize. He wanted to do it but needed to find two others willing to jump in a canoe and paddle down in the longest canoe-endurance race in Central America.
“I thought it would be a cool thing to do and researched it for a while,” Porta said.
He found willing local teammates in Mark Yingling and Aaron Tolson and a support driver in Patrick King.
After talking with Tolson, development director for the local nonprofit Action in Community Through Service, better known as ACTS, Porta said, “I thought it would be kind of cool to do this thing with a purpose.”
With the help of local sponsors -- Harbour View Events, Patriot Scuba, Madigan’s Waterfront and Compton and Duling -- the team sought pledges of about 10 cents a mile in hopes of attracting donations from people less inclined to give to big charity events.
They chose ACTS and CASA to be the recipients of the donations. CASA is the court-appointed special advocate for children program.
So far, the team has raised $2,435.50 and hopes more pledges will be honored.
While many on the 61 canoe teams from around the world trained for three to six months ahead of the race, Team Occoquan Prince William did not. Unless you count the night before, when the team put their canoe in the water and paddled around for about 30 minutes. Before that, they had never even shared a canoe.
While the men worked out regularly, after the race they admitted this was different.
“It was way harder than we thought,” Porta said, with Yingling and Tolson nodding in agreement.
When they told fellow participants and others they would be joining the race, “people thought we were making it up,” Yingling said.
Misadventures on the river
On the first day, the team covered 49 miles. They capsized four times, including right in front of the finish line, where they hit a rock.
“It was in front of everybody. [The canoe] was stuck in the trees and we had to get it out,” Yingling said.
Things only went downhill from there. “The second day was really the worst,” Porta said.
During the second day, 60-mile paddle, the team also capsized four times to include at the Big Falls rapids, which the team renamed “the meat grinder.”
“We really got mangled up,” Porta said.
After capsizing, the canoe repeatedly banged into Yingling, who ended up hurting his foot, requiring medical attention.
The race was big news in Belize, with the local media watching and reporting on it. Team Occoquan Prince William became infamous for the meat grinder. But that also later brought cheers of “Occoquan!” from the crowd as they paddled by.
To make matters worse, on the second day, King, their support driver, did not arrive at the second pit stop in time to provide them with supplies. The team went eight hours without water.
King said it was sometimes difficult to figure out where the pit stops were located after most of the racers and their supporters had moved on.
Suffering both dehydration and sunburn (their zinc oxide lost to both sweat and repeated dunkings of water) “took a lot out of us,” Porta said. “We were getting close to running out of gas, but we powered through.”
Yingling and Tolson joked to Porta that they were thankful he brought them on such an adventure.
While the team did not capsize during the last two days, the third day had them paddling into a direct wind for 39 miles. “The wind was brutal,” Porta said.
They paddled nine hours the first day, 11 hours the second, and an additional nine hours the third.
“But the fourth day we were fine,” Porta said. “It was one of our faster days.”
They finished near the end of the pack after paddling about 35 hours. Some of their fellow contenders did it in about 19 hours.
Still Porta and Yingling said they would do it again, but Tolson would not commit. They all agreed they would better prepare for a re-do.
Reach Aileen Streng at firstname.lastname@example.org