SEARSMONT, Maine — Being the first event of the season, the St. George River Race is as much a social gathering as a competition.
Winning was well down the list of reasons to race for many of the people that participated in Saturday’s 34th annual event.
“It’s, a matter of fact, the last reason,” said D.W. Smith of Lamoine, who partnered with David Lee of Hancock in the Open Canoe Century class. “It’s a pleasant surprise if you do well. It’s mostly a social [thing]. We had a good time.”
Smith said he has won class titles but doesn’t expect to win any overall titles.
“The competitive desire burns out as you get older,” said the 55-year-old paddler, “and you’re just happy to be out on the water, do the best you can. Can’t beat youth.”
“Only kayakers win races,” he added.
While not a universal truth, Smith’s prediction is correct in most races, and so it was Saturday.
Ray Wirth of Belfast cruised to victory with an elapsed time of 41 minutes, 44 seconds to win the six-mile race by more than a minute-and-a-half in a record field of 130 canoes and kayaks. The previous record, according to race organizer Dale Cross, was 123.
Sunshine and temperatures that reached the low 50s were credited with helping create the record field for an event that benefits children’s programs at the Waldo County YMCA.
“Glad to have a good level [of water],” said the veteran racer Wirth. “The level has come up six inches since a couple of days ago when we ran it, and you had to do a lot more zigzagging then. Today, you could go straight down through more.”
Canoeists Barry and Lori Dana of Solon finished second overall in 43:18. Racers in groups of one to three craft started every minute until everyone was off. A craft’s time was based on its finishing time minus the number of minutes it started after 11 a.m., when the first boat started.
“We’ve done the race quite a few times and when we heard 43, I said that’s a pretty good time,” said Barry Dana.
He said they had heard better times before, but that was with higher water. Higher water means faster flow and faster times.
“We’ve heard a lot slower, too,” he said with a smile.
In general, though, Lori Dana thought the level was just right for the field as a whole.
“I think a lot of people were doing their first canoe race today,” she said, “so it was a good level for that.”
Leslie Gregory of Swanville had her competitive blood up, but as the only participant in her women’s kayak class, she had to find other ways to measure her results.
“I have some people I’m eyeing that I’m always trying measure up to, come within a few minutes of them or look at previous-year times,” she said. “I actually went out with Ray. I tried to keep up with him for a while.”
She said she’s definitely motivated to race.
“I paddle year-round,” she said. “I’ll paddle in a mud puddle.”
Even for a relatively short race, tactics can be important.
“I was happy with my race,” said Wirth. “I’ve been training for this, and felt like I ran a fairly smart race in terms of not burning out too quickly at the top, which I sometimes do in the excitement of the first race, forgetting to pace myself.”
Plus, if a competitor goes off later in the lineup, he or she has to contend with other boats on the river.
“I think a day like today, it is advantageous to be one of the first boats out, so you don’t have to overtake people because there aren’t as many [racing] lines in the whitewater,” said Wirth.
That’s the way Smith and Lee looked at it. They were the first craft across the starting line.
“I’ve never had the first number in this,” said Smith. “It’s wonderful. … It’s nice not to have to pass boats or jockey for position on the first corners.”
Lee didn’t think it would last.
“We were expecting people to catch us, though, because there are faster boats out there.” he said. “Actually, we went wire to wire, which is kinda nice.”
They didn’t look over their shoulders to see if anyone was catching them.
“I’m a firm believer in not doing that,” said Smith, laughing. “Don’t do that. Focus on what you gotta be doing, not what’s behind you. Like a New York taxi driver. I’ll worry about ’em when I can see ’em.”
As the bowman, Lee felt he couldn’t look back, not even to to check on his sternman.
“People tell me he rudders a bit, but we had the boat going nicely,” Lee said. “It was a nice trip, a beautiful day.”