In January 2017, the U.S. Men’s Whitewater Rafting Team’s speed-record dream died in the Colorado River’s stout Lava Falls rapid.
They had been rowing for more than 20 hours and were on pace to set a record for the fastest descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when their customized cataraft failed in the roiling rapid. After four hours of repairs in the dark, they limped to the take-out more than five hours past the 34-hour, two-minute record set in 2016 by kayaker Ben Orkin.
Three years later, the Colorado-based team is back with a slightly different boat design and a trio of veteran Grand Canyon guides onboard. They plan to launch from Lees Ferry on Jan. 9 and row their custom-made raft through 130 rapids over 277 miles, rowing six at a time to reach Grand Wash Cliffs in less than 34 hours.
“Everything is going to have to be perfect,” said Edwards-based team captain John Mark Seelig. “The weather has got to be right and water has got to be right where we need it and we are going to have to hit our lines perfectly. We’re feeling good.”
The team, which competes in four-man and six-man whitewater races around the world, kept their heads down as they planned the last attempt, trying not to attract too much attention. They didn’t want to seem presumptuous, dropping in from Colorado for their first speed attempt and possibly irk the tight-knit Grand Canyon rafting community. And while they weren’t breaking rules, they did have sandal-maker Chaco helping with support. The National Park Service doesn’t smile on promotional campaigns in their parks.
This time the team is self-funding its mission and using the record-setting attempt to raise money for Grand Canyon Youth, a nonprofit in the Southwest that gets kids on rivers. They want to raise $10,000 for the group.
The U.S. Rafting Team’s Seelig, Robbie Prechtl, Jeremiah Williams, Matt Norfleet and Kurt Kincel have enlisted experienced Grand Canyon raft guides and endurance athletes Lyndsay Hupp, Omar Eli Martinez and Justin Salamon for the 2020 attempt.
“The first attempt, we didn’t really talk about it. The narrative of the story has changed this time. It’s something more meaningful to us,” Seelig said. “We feel more supported by the Grand Canyon community this time and we are leaning on them for their knowledge.”
Seelig said the expert guides, while maybe not as familiar with the raft, have decades of experience rowing the canyon and can provide critical navigational help as they line up daunting rapids in the dark. Each of them has logged dozens of descents of the canyon, mostly shepherding guests, and they are pining for a speed descent, Seelig said.
“They are three people who are game for anything, and they are easy to be with. If you are going to spend 34 hours straight with someone, you want them to be fun to be around,” he said.
The original speed record in Grand Canyon was set in 1983 during a historic flood that spiked the Colorado River’s flows. A trio of oarsmen — Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds — rowed their wooden dory, the “Emerald Mile,” down the canyon in 36 hours and 38 minutes. The record stood until January 2016 when Orkin, an accountant in Aurora, paddled his carbon-fiber race kayak solo down the canyon, finishing in 34 hours and 2 minutes. That time was even more remarkable considering he swam — at night, alone — from his kayak in Lava Falls.
The speed-seeking team is leaving either the first minute of Jan. 9 or the last minute of the day. The decision to launch at 12:01 a.m. or 11:59 p.m. will depend on a number of factors, but mostly it’s dependent on flows.
Water that flows through the Grand Canyon comes from the Glen Canyon Dam, where releases fluctuate based on electrical generation and other demands. So there are surges of higher water rolling through the canyon every day. The team aims to ride those bubbles through the slower sections of the canyon, where it’s not so steep.
By leaving around midnight, they will catch the day’s bubble into the inner gorge, where the river steepens and the water starts moving faster. They plan to catch up to the previous day’s bubble just above Lava Falls and ride that surge through the final third of the canyon before it meets Lake Mead.
“Most speed runs are done that way,” Seelig said.
But there’s another reason for the midnight departure.
“We want to limit the number of hard rapids we are running in the dark,” he said. “We potentially will be hitting Lava around 9 p.m. on the second night.”
Lava Falls is the final test of the Grand Canyon, with a good 100 miles of relatively calm water before the take-out. The team will know if it is in contention for the speed record when they arrive at Lava, hopefully not after more than 20 hours of rowing, Seelig said.
“That’s when the real timer starts. That second midnight, after 24 hours, is typically when your mind goes to a dark place and you can tank, psychologically and physically,” he said. “Last time we were there … it was absolutely miserable.”
The boat is 40-feet long, about 8-feet shorter than the 2017 rig, making it easier to turn. Peter Hall and his Hala Gear engineers in Steamboat Springs built the new pontoons for the raft. The inflatable stand-up paddle board maker worked with the oarsmen to craft the new sturdier, stiffer pontoons.
Hall used his patented carbon construction, which weaves carbon into his inflatable paddle boards to increase rigidity, for the raft’s pontoons. They were the first raft pontoons his Hala team had ever built.
“Since it’s 90% flatwater, we wanted to make it rigid but flexible enough to go through the big wave trains,” said Hall, a former school teacher who launched Hala Gear in 2011 and quickly became an innovator in the world of stand-up paddling. “When they asked us we were stoked but offered a caveat: this could be badass, but we are not building with tons of experience with rafts. But I think we gave them something really rigid and stout and it’s going to be faster than ever. It think they are going to smoke. I think they’ll do it in 31 hours.”
The rafting team has tested the new boat design on two training runs this fall on the Colorado River. They spent 22 hours plowing through more than 50 miles of flat water and raging rapids in Cataract Canyon and nine hours speed rowing the Ruby-Horsethief and Westwater canyons between Loma and Dewey Bridge in Utah.
Seelig is glad the two training runs weren’t reversed, saying Cataract was “an absolute beat down.”
“Cataract was physically and psychologically more demanding. We walked away from Cat wondering why are we doing this and we walked away from the Westwater stretch going ‘OK, we got this,’” Seelig said. “I think we’d be more nervous if we went from Cataract straight to the Grand.”
They didn’t make any major changes to the frame, a hybrid of carbon fiber and aluminum that allows for six rowers on sliding seats ripped from rowing machines.
Seelig and his wife, Laura, customize training regimens for athletes at their Goat gym in Edwards. He designed the strength and endurance program the team has been using for the past several months as they prepare for the speed attempt in the Grand.
It’s not just endless hours on the rowing machine.
“All these guys are extensive athletes and we wanted to help make their bodies more durable,” Seelig said of workouts that involve a couple hours on a rower followed by a couple hours of running and cycling before returning to the rowing machine.
The team is relying on its fitness to endure 34 hours of endless rowing in both challenging whitewater and long stretches of still water.
“We are training the body to be able to handle this type of work for long periods of time,” Seelig said.