Ocean to Ocean race will pass through the locks

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Paddling grannies compete in cayuco race

By Ilene Little

Over 300 athletes in Panama, young and old, have foregone many holiday indulgences to train several times a week for the 61st annual Ocean to Ocean Cayuco Race, April 11, 12 and 13, 2014. The 100th year anniversary of the Panama Canal is marked this year by allowing the cayucos to paddle through the Panama Canal locks.

On Saturday, January 25 the first of three qualifying races will be held. Even the qualifying races are strenuous and draw large crowds of spectators.

Ladies training for 2014 Cayuco Race (from left to right): Renate Jope, Cora Herrera, Deborah Mehigan, Nancy Niemi.

Ladies training for 2014 Cayuco Race (from left to right): Renate Jope, Cora Herrera, Deborah Mehigan, Nancy Niemi.


I watched the “Dengue Fever” team train last week offshore in Vera Cruz. The team is named after their cayuco, which was built by Frank Finlason at his shop in Diablo, along the banks of the Canal.  When he built it, about 3 years ago, he was suffering the symptoms of dengue fever, which was going around at that time.  One of his friends suggested the name and it stuck.  When Frank later discovered he did not actually have dengue fever, but an ailment with similar symptoms, it was too late to change the name.

The “Dengue Fever” trains at least four times a week in the ocean or in the Los Rios paddling training center. Comprising four women ranging in age from 55 to 66, none of the team has ever competed in the race before. Cora and Renate are grandmothers, while Deborah and Nancy are mothers. Three are expats from Canada, the UK and Germany, and one is Panamanian; a truly international team.

We’re talking about lady pensioners and retirees putting their bodies to a test of endurance and embarking on a challenge that requires mental toughness and an ingrained relentlessness of purpose. They will compete against athletes less than half their age, many with the upper body strength and experience of seasoned competitors. These ladies may be new to cayuco racing, but they are all sailors and winners who have distinguished themselves with their careers and professional accomplishments in education and in business.

A cayuco is a type of dugout canoe, used mainly, but not exclusively by the indigenous people of the Republic of Panama. Today’s cayucos are often constructed of laminated wood in the same design as the original vessels carved from the trunk of a tree.

When asked what motivated her to accept the Cayuco challenge, Cora Herrera said, “I’m racing for my grandchildren. This is my opportunity to get physically stronger so I can pick them up without hurting my back. I grew up in Panama and even in high school I wanted to do this race, but I never had the chance,” she said, “so I’m doing it now before I get too old to do it.”

“I’ve been getting myself physically fit by swimming 10,000 to 15,000 meters a week,” remarked team member Deborah Mehigan, “and I’ve got everyone on the team eating chia seeds; it’s what the Aztecs and Mayans used to increase stamina and energy over long periods of time.”

Trials and Tribulations of Cayuco Racing

Cayuco races are grueling.

Cayuco races are grueling.

In order to be accepted as a race contestant by the Club de Remos de Balboa (CREBA), paddlers must prove they can swim up to 50m and be tested on their ability to swamp their cayuco offshore in deep water, right the boat, and get everyone back onboard.

This is no easy feat. The cayuco is not known for its stability, depending, as it does, largely on the skill of the paddlers to be aware of their balance at all times.

There are other inherent dangers of the Ocean to Ocean Cayuco Race that are not to be underestimated. For example, imagine paddling through crocodile infested waters; it’s a chilling reality.

Not your Casual Canoe Paddle

On January 25th, spectators will line the banks of Amador Causeway to watch an estimated 80 boats compete in the 5-mile Regata Amador, the first of three qualifying races.

February 22nd will see the second qualifying race. The Regata Veramar is a 8.5 mile-race in Vera Cruz. The boats race laps along the beach 30 to 40 feet offshore to the delight of spectators who cheer for their teams. There is a nice beach with ranchitos providing shade and refreshments.

March 22nd will be the third and final qualifying race; an exciting event at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Ecolodge on the Chagres River where the final eliminations are made to trim the total number of boat entrants to 75; 60 locals and 15 international.

“There will be many three-minute sprints throughout the day, a double elimination system to find the winner in each category,” said Henter, “The whole race takes place in clear view of the spectators. There’s always a big crowd there; a real nice setting with shade and refreshments.”

Even the financial commitment is daunting. The required Paddling Club membership alone for their team of four, plus two backup paddlers, amounted to almost $1000. Including monthly training dues, equipment costs and transportation expenses, so far the Dengue Fever team is out-of-pocket $7,000 of which $2,000 benefits the Helen Keller School For The Blind in Panama.

Many contestants defray the expense by attracting sponsors. “We’d love to fly the banner of sponsors who relate to what our team stands for; health and wellness and showing, by example, the importance of setting physical goals at any age, said team member Nancy Niemi.

“This major event has a high media profile and will be filmed internationally in addition to the local coverage,” said Mehigan, an ex-marketing professional.


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