x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Blazing paddles

The Abu Dhabi Camels canoe team is about to compete in the Texas Water Safari - 'the toughest boat race in the world'. We catch up with them at their final training session.

James Dauman, Simon Dowker and Jean-Marc Laventure of the Abu Dhabi Camels endure the elements as they train in the waters off the capital to prepare for the Texas Water Safari, which starts on Saturday.
James Dauman, Simon Dowker and Jean-Marc Laventure of the Abu Dhabi Camels endure the elements as they train in the waters off the capital to prepare for the Texas Water Safari, which starts on Saturday.

The Abu Dhabi Camels canoe team is about to compete in the Texas Water Safari - 'the toughest boat race in the world'. Katie Boucher joins the endurance racers as they take part in their final training session in the waters off the UAE capital It is 10 o'clock in the morning and already the temperature has reached 35°C when the Abu Dhabi Camels - a trio of young British investment bankers from Abu Dhabi and Dubai - arrive for their final session on the water before heading to the US for the Texas Water Safari, dubbed by Forbes magazine as "the toughest boat race in the world".

One need only look at the statistics to see why: 416km, 100 hours, 90,000 calories, 32°C, 75 per cent completion rate and zero sleep - it's enough to make you wilt just thinking about it. James Dauman, Simon Dowker and Jean-Marc Laventure make up the first team from the UAE to take part in the race - a marathon non-stop canoe charge along a 416km stretch of the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers in Texas, which starts on Saturday, and can last for up to four days and nights.

Not one to shy from a challenge, I decide to paddle up and join them for their final excursion before leaving. As they launch their canoe into the warm shallows off Salam Street in Abu Dhabi, my fellow oarsman and I follow in a two-man. In the space of a minute, they have gained 100 yards on us. While every dip of their paddles propels them forwards about three metres, ours seem to flick in and out of the water with little result, other than the odd drenching.

The team saw the challenge partly as a way of getting in shape. They have been training since November last year, combining twice-weekly sessions on the water with daily visits to the gym to build their strength. "We've had a fairly structured training regime," says Laventure, who works for the Abu Dhabi Investment Company (ADIC). "We've been doing a lot of research and having discussions with other entrants from the race or people who'd done it in previous years."

For Dauman, who works for ADIC-UBS Infrastructure Investment, there is also an element of unfinished business: he took part in the race in 2007 but had to pull out at the halfway point, suffering from dehydration. "When we moved out here a year ago," he says, "I decided I really wanted to have another go at it." The Camels aim to raise Dh50,000 for both the Calvert Trust, a charity based in the UK that runs outdoor breaks and courses for people with disabilities, and the Red Crescent, the UAE charity that supports a range of humanitarian causes across the Middle East.

The race started in 1963 after Frank Brown and Bill "Big Willie" George spent 30 days taking their V-bottom boat from San Marcos to Corpus Christi. Participants have 100 hours in which to complete the course, but they must arrive at checkpoints by set times to avoid disqualification. All supplies apart from water and ice must be carried in the boat. Any form of propulsion other than an engine is allowed.

Although there have been no deaths in the past, there have been incidents of broken limbs, heads smashed into bridges and people trapped under logs. And they don't call it a safari for nothing: aside from hazardous rapids and logjams, the river is also home to the comfortingly named but in fact poisonous snake, the water moccasin, as well as wasps, fire ants, mosquitoes and a host of biting bugs. Inhospitable surroundings aside (I spotted a lone dozy hermit crab), they feel their sea training has adequately prepared them. "Generally," says Dauman, "paddling in the sea is harder than in a river because you have wind, currents and waves. So actually, I think our training has been good for us."

Fifteen minutes later and we are about half a kilometre behind them, the men's matching "Bite off more than you can chew...then chew it" T-shirts barely visible in the haze. Blisters are starting to appear between my thumb and forefinger, and relations in our canoe have cooled after some misjudged moves with my paddle resulted in several sharp clunks over my partner's head. It's just a taste of what the Camels have to come, it seems. "Because of the length of time - you're in this canoe all day and all night," says Dauman, "the psychological pressure is actually quite intense. For the first 24 hours you're OK. It's partly the nature of the river, because the first 100 miles is quite technical. Then as you get further down, it gets wider and slower and more tedious. And that's when people start to break. It can get so boring, and it's so hot - you're out there with no shade."

The fallout can be dramatic. "There are moments where you're hallucinating," he says. "There are moments where you have nothing left; there are moments where you're grumpy and you shout at each other. You hear crazy stories about guys who get out of the boat and refuse to carry on." The Camels, however, have a strategy: "We've agreed upfront that if one of us sits down and we're shouting at each other - and we know it's going to happen - we're just going to carry on, take a deep breath and just support each other," he says.

They will also have Dauman's wife, Charlotte, on motivation duty. As well as delivering water and ice to the boys at the checkpoints, she will be on hand to keep up morale. "I think that is one of the most important things," says the schoolteacher from Abu Dhabi. "If they start flagging, I'll tell them about how much money we're raising and also how important it is that they finish and that they don't wimp out."

After Dauman's failure to finish in 2007, they have a strict dietary regimen in place. "Simon has come up with a very scientific plan," says Dauman. "Over that length of time and burning that amount of calories, you need to. We've got a special supplement - a protein carbohydrate mix - and we'll be very disciplined as to how often we have them, because as soon as you dip below a certain level, it's very hard to recover."

Back in the warm, silty shallows, it is time for our water break. The boys have come back to join us since we were unable to catch up, and are staring at another couple of hours in the boat in the midday heat. Last time around, Dauman was living and training in the UK. Training in Abu Dhabi, he says, will definitely help. "We're all quite comfortable going out for a whole day in the sun here." They have their bases covered when it comes to equipment, too: for the safari itself, James has ordered a state-of-the-art lightweight vessel that has been fully outfitted with the crew's needs in mind, and that they will collect on arrival in the US. "The one we're getting is shaped to cut through the water more," says Dauman. "Having done it before, I knew what other people had on their boats and what I thought was good."

However, despite being as prepared as possible in terms of fitness, equipment and weather conditions, Dauman concedes that a large part of it is down to what the river throws as them. In fact, a recent check of its condition has revealed some worrying news: the low water level has resulted in severe logjams - of the literal kind - in the upper part of the river. "It's quite extraordinary," he says. "I never saw anything like that last time. It's not like the Thames in London. It's just a wild river. But the danger is that people will try to go straight over them (the logs) and they just slip or catch their ankles. And there are snakes in there - it's not a very nice place to be."

Instead, they have made a team decision to carry their boat along the river bank. It may take more time, but for Dauman, safety comes first. "To save 10 minutes," he says, "I'd rather not risk it." Finishing fastest was never their intention anyway, he adds. "Our main goal is to finish. In some ways, we'd like to finish in a relatively decent position. But at the same time, that isn't our focus because we don't want to burn ourselves out by pushing too hard."

Dauman hand-picked the team to ensure a balanced dynamic. "I bring experience and a little more technical ability in the paddling; Jean-Marc brings just a silly amount of strength. And he's quite single-minded - he will keep going and going; and then Simon's also a big strong guy, but he's also the sort of guy that, when you've been in the boat for 20 hours and you just want to go home, he'll always come up with some story or question to keep us going."

Despite worries about the river's condition, Dauman is looking forward to it. "What I'm looking forward to is just being part of the whole event," he says. "There are over 100 boats now. The people are so nice and they love this race." It seems the exotic-sounding Abu Dhabi Camels are causing quite a stir in Texas, too, and online paddling forums are abuzz with questions about the mysterious team. "They love the fact that we've just come out," says Dauman, "because most of them don't even know where Dubai is."

Now they've got themselves to this optimum level of fitness, what's next? "We're definitely looking for the next thing to do now," says Dauman. "There's a kayaking event in Sweden in August, and we're all fit enough to just go and do that without any planning at all. We definitely want to keep our fitness levels up." For us, however, it is time to head home. Our very brief insight into the world of endurance canoeing has resulted in the following: two large bruises on the head, two even larger blisters on my hand, a rather nasty cut on my thumb where I kept hitting it on the side of the boat, light sunburn and a complete soaking. I don't think we'll be taking on any water moccasins just yet.

? The Texas Water Safari starts this Saturday. To check on the Abu Dhabi Camels' progress, or to find out how to donate to Red Crescent or the Calvert Trust, visit their blog, which will be regularly updated, at abudhabicamels.blogspot.com. kboucher@thenational.ae