The Ruta Maya
By Skip Johnson

Last Fall (2003) a team of Texas Water Safari regulars ask if I would be interested in designing a boat for the Ruta Maya, a 170mile 4 day canoe race in Belize.

Naturally, I say yes, and we establish the parameters, primarily speed and I do the design. Since I’ve been to Belize before and have driven down Susie and I give them the info we have about driving and I make preliminary arrangements for sponsorship by New River Enterprises. I always like to follow a new boat design and cheer it on plus the Safari boys could probably use a bank runner/driver so I make plans to go down and follow the 2004 Ruta Maya in March.

It is late fall and Colin Grimshaw calls and invites me to go paddle with him in Julie and his safari doubles boat at Lake of the Woodlands. I’m still a little nervous in such a narrow boat remembering Phil Bolger's comment that he had no desire to join the short list of designers that perished in a boat of their own devising, but we have a good paddle and their doubles boat does move quickly with little effort and handles like a dream. As we are putting up the boat, Colin asks about the Ruta Maya boat and I tell him what I know about the plans of the team preparing to build the boat. Then Colin said he would really like to paddle in that race and I had a boat down there didn’t I? Told him yes and he was more than welcome to use it but Miss Lavi was a little too short and wide to be competitive in that race and he and Julie would need to find someone else to paddle with them since the rules required three paddlers. Colin said no problem, they wanted to just run the race for the experience and surely I could go with them. My participating would pretty well guarantee we wouldn’t be competitive, but if they were willing, I was and we tentatively agreed to do the deal pending the schedule working out and spousal approval.

I borrowed Julie and Colin's single blade paddling trainer

Once scheduling was OK’d and I got an OK from Susie, I got some pointers from Julie and Colin on single blade paddling and borrowed their paddling trainer to practice with and toughen up my shoulders and hands. By February it had warmed up enough that they thought it was time to practice in the water and we did, though I‘m a dedicated warm water wuss. Of note during that time was a 36mile run down the San Jacinto River from below Lake Conroe to Kingwood in two aluminum canoes with another friend of theirs. Cold and just below flood stage, the first dozen or so miles was swift and through the trees, putting a premium on trust in your partner, Colin in this case, and paying attention. Besides, there is no easy way to step out of a boat running through the trees in freezing, flood swollen waters and walk home. We make the run without incident though I suspect it has challenged us all in some respect, I know it did me. After we had put in, some kayakers had put in at the same location and turned over in the trees and had to be rescued and then lifelighted out due to hypothermia. It was on the TV news and when I got home Susie was not amused, fortunately I had called to let her know we were OK after we had gotten out of the water.

Sometime during this period, the team getting ready to build the new boat were delayed, since the lead builder of the group had his house acquired in a right of way expansion and building a new house took precedence over building a new boat. So now Julie, Colin and I are going alone.

Susie's Mom, Susie, Nancy and Bill

Susie and I left Wednesday, as did Julie and Colin though on different flights. Susies Mom and her best friend Nancy and husband Bill were to fly down on Friday. Wednesday afternoon Julie, Colin and I started working on the boat getting it ready. A fitful night and then more work getting boat ready and then Sergio and Susie took the boat and Team Dragonsong to San Ignacio (the start) Thursday afternoon, about a 2 ½ hour drive. There was supposed to be a pre-race meeting at 5:00 PM and as is somewhat typical, there’s problem with some of the equipment and the meeting doesn’t get started until after 7:00. By then we’re tired hungry, haven’t set up camp (don’t know where to) have to stick around so we can get our boat number (#313) and that doesn’t happen until after 9;00 PM. Julie always gets anxious before a race and she’s got a lot to be anxious about on this one, untried team, new country, new, un-scouted river, etc, etc, etc. Top of the list we don’t have any way of re-supplying during the race, especially water. By the time we get out of the chaos of the pre-race meeting she’s pretty well decided we are all going to die. Sergio takes us into town and we eat a really good meal at a restaurant owned and run by one of Voila’s (Sergio’s Mother-in-law) many relatives. A full stomach helps. Then we go down to the river in the dark and stumble around, unload our stuff semi-setup camp and crash. Sergio and Susie head back to Orange Walk but turn around before they get far out of town and bring me my hat and gloves that I left on the dash.

The start is under a low suspension bridge

Friday morning around 4:00 AM a very earnest but rhythmically challenged drummer greets the predawn with his best efforts. We start getting ready, Colin and Julie concentrate on getting everything set up on the boat and I take all my camp gear etc: to the supply truck, which is about a quarter mile away. Bring back more water (in bags of 25 small, 12 oz plastic bags) and bananas. After a couple of trips carrying my stuff I carry most of Julie and Colins gear to the truck. By then it’s time to get in the water and we carry the boat down to the water and paddle up to the start line. The start is under a tall suspension bridge and there is a low bridge about a half mile after the start with very shallow water and Colin is pretty sure were going to have some trouble there since he’s not had a chance to scout the area.

Probably a good time to explain the team setup and configuration. Julie takes the bow position and sets the pace assisted by a small gps unit on the bow that tells speed and distance. I sit and the middle and endeavor to put my paddle in the water at the same time Julie does, usually on the opposite side but not always. This is my only job, except not rocking the boat. Colin sits in the stern and guides the boat, calls our paddle changes (huts) and is the general strategist. Julie however is the driving force of the boat, literally and figuratively. Eventually, I take on the responsibility of refilling water jugs with water and nutritional supplement for everyone since the boat handles better with both ends being driven.

On the starts, our strategist really likes to be on the front line with the ‘big boys’ and then draft or ride the wake of the faster boats to get as good a start as possible. I’ve always been one of the little solo boats that stayed back out of the chaos and enormous wakes of the starts and all was fine as I weaved through the overturned boats, which would all pass me again later. But here we are on the front line and off we go. We make it ok to just past the low bridge and then turn over in the shallows. Hop back in quickly and on we go, I’m bailing like mad for a bit and then its back to paddle.

The first day is about 45 miles and the river is a little bit easier than I thought, but not by much. A lot of shallow riffle areas and a few places where the river splits and the best guess is to go the way the boat(s) in front of you go, but some times there’s no one to follow. About a third the way through the day we hit a submerged log in a sweeper and go swimming. Its actually a pause that refreshes except for my getting my T-shirt caught on the log for a moment and I scrape the spf 30 off my knees and shins getting off the log. I borrow Colins spray sunblock as soon as we get back in the boat, but it doesn’t work as well for me as the lotion.

We now have a private campsite in the jungle

Banana Bank is listed in the literature as a Resort Lodge. All I saw was a tape stretched across the river, some canoes and a small tent river left. A small one vehicle trail led up to clearing that was taken up with portapotties, the supply truck with our gear a couple of pavilion tents, Batsubs Bivouac, (British military) and 20-30 vehicles. Tents are scattered around helter skelter and doesn’t look like there’s much room for a couple more. I’m wandering around in a daze, but do find the all-important source for toilet paper; each team gets a few rolls from the truck. Julie spies a couple of tents cut back into the jungle where the road takes off from the clearing and asks if there’s enough room for another tent. One of the guys there asks how many tents? She says two and he gets up with a machete and clears a spot back in the jungle for two tents. So we now have a private campsite in the jungle. After setting up camp, we get lunch from the pavilion. Fried chicken, french fries and lots of very good Big H orange juice. (La Ruta Maya is sponsored by Big H orange juice). I try to find a way to call Sergio and ask for help but what cell phones there are don’t work in this area. We straighten up the boat and replenish our water supply and I buy my teammates a massage from the massage team that has set up in the clearing. A short massage for me and that’s it, I’m broke, didn’t think we would need any cash money on the river, one of several areas where my thinking was truly lacking.

Rice and beans is the national dish of Belize and the Rice and beans they served for supper (with coleslaw) was the best I’ve ever eaten, along with more very good Big H orange juice. Crash again, somehow it is very easy to get to sleep.

Saturday, no drums this morning, but plenty enough noise to wake us up. Break camp gear up the boat and carry down to water. Once again we are on the front line under the tape when the start signal given. What chaos. A combination of luck and great skill on Colin and Julies part gives us a superb start and we run clean and fast through the start and first few miles as the canoes spread out down the river. The river starts to smooth out with fewer tight spots, which is good, since it is 60 miles more or less to Bermudian Landing. A little over half way through the day is Big Falls, the only technically challenging spot of the race. Each year a fair number of teams end up swimming at bottom of the Big Falls chute including a very good Canadian team last year. The consensus is the best way to run the chute is to stay far right in the left channel. Of course I’m hot tired and confused even after the quick dip we had agreed to take. Even though its not my problem I worry whether its left in the right or right in the left. Mostly I try to concentrate on the paddle in front of me. Fortunately there is a committee boat just before Big Falls to reiterate the best way to run the chute.

We get to Big Falls and there is an enormous boulder in the middle of the river and the river splits and goes both ways. Stay right in the left channel, right next to the big rock. Forget all you ever learned about staying in the center of the V, stay right! We keep paddling steady and quick to Julies stroke and Colin guides us straight and true to the edge of the rock, I could have touched it and not rocked the boat. We are over the crest and leaned back as far as possible, paddles out horizontally to brace if necessary. What a rush. Julie tells us at the end of the day our max speed that day was almost 11 mph, guess where. We run the chute cleanly staying far right which is good because the river turns hard right at the base and anyone towards the center of the chute is going to get rolled in the maelstrom along bank left.

We make it! Past the bend and we are upright and hardly a drop of water. I scream my silly head off in exhilaration and I think Colin might have hollered a bit too. Julie told us to shut up and paddle we weren’t out of the woods yet, which was true. After the bend at the base of the chute the river is swift and roily for a half-mile or more. We have to pay attention concentrate and paddle. Out of the corner of my eye I see several boats along the bank right getting straightened up or swimming to the bank. Mainly I see Julie’s paddle.

To digress for a minute, Miss Lavi the boat is hardly ideal for this race. A foot too short and designed for a strictly flat water environment she has a least three maybe four inches too little freeboard to be running rapids like Big Falls. Apparently a lot of luck and some skill on your partners part can compensate for less than ideal design. It is easy to cherish a boat that carries you through situations you shouldn’t have put the boat in the first place.

The rest of the day is pretty straight forward, paddle and paddle some more. A couple of times we come up on a boat in distance in front of us and Julie shows her true nature and we up the intensity to pass the boat in front of us during the next thirty to forty five minutes. After the first of these I silently pray, “please dear God don’t let there be another boat in front of us that she can see”. I usually know better that to ask for specifics and go back to asking for the strength to put my paddle in the water at the right time and pull. We pass another boat and that is enough we have reached Bermudian Landing.

Sixty miles more or less with a good start, a clean run through Big Falls and we didn’t turn over once. It was a good days run and we came in 27th that day, the best we would do in a day.

Miss Lavi (my boat's namesake) and Sergio

Bermudian Landing is a small village in the river valley. This means among other things that it is a long way up from the water to level ground. After soaking in the cool water for a bit we leave the boat down by the river with Colin while Julie and I climb the hill to find what awaits us. Chaos and noise. With more room to spread out than Banana Bank, things are spread out more. The Supply truck is several blocks away and the portapottis and camping area is about midway between putin area and supply truck mess pavilion. Added to the mix is a couple of bands and a karioke bar. Julie rustles up some food and I try to find Sergio, who I thought would be there. Look, look some more, no Sergio. Once again cell phones won’t work but there is a pay phone by the karioke bar. Pay phone doesn’t work.

We shuffle around and get partially setup before campsites are completely gone. We get most of the stuff carried up from the boat and I take another shot at getting hold of Sergio. I ask around and someone thinks there is another pay phone at the Post Office which is just a few more blocks up the road. On the way up the hill to the Post Office there is a small Police station and the door is open. I walk in and there are two policemen, one is talking on the telephone. I ask if I can use the phone to call a friend in Orange Walk Town and they say surely, help yourself. Call the Loskots residence, talk to Susie for a minute to see if her Mom and others arrived OK, told her we were alive but exhausted. Then talked to Joe and found out Sergio had been taking care of some problems at the factory, but he would be on the way to help us in just a short while. I asked him to send along some zinc oxide ointment since the scrapes on my legs were pretty raw and I wanted to keep them completely out of the sun If I could.

Sergio arrived a couple of hours later just before dusk and brought some zinc oxide powder, since there was no ointment available. We took a look at the boat and decided to try to fix Julie’s seat in the morning before the race started, so Sergio would bring some assorted screws, nails and hammer so we could refasten the back of her seat riser where the screws had come loose while trying to adjust the seat. Also decided to go back to Orange Walk and spend the night after we get to Burrel Boom tomorrow, Sunday, since it is only about a 45 minute drive and we could have showers, real beds, meals etc, etc. Borrowed some money from Sergio for another massage, but the massage ladies had already closed up shop for the night. Last night to sleep in the tent, still easy to fall asleep.

Sunday morning, get up break camp, pack up stuff so Sergio can pick it up, we don’t have to carry stuff to supply truck. Eggs and biscuits for breakfast with some more very good Big H orange juice and very bad lukewarm instant coffee, last time. Sergio gets there with Bill Merritt tagging along for moral support and we gear up for another albeit shorter thirty five mile more or less day.

I fixed Julie's seat with a nail and hammer

I throw away my old water-ski gloves which have pretty well disintegrated and pull out the new short fingered cloves I got as a replacement, but hadn’t used yet except to wear a bit each day to break in. Speaking of breaking, I fixed Julie’s seat with nail and hammer and managed to beat the living **** out of my left thumb with the hammer. Fortunately thumbs are not absolutely necessary to paddle, all the blisters I’d gotten up to that point had been on the fingers, pretty well evenly distributed.

Once again we start on the front line

Once again we start on the front line, probably not quite as good a start as the previous day and part of the problem might be fatigue on my part, my mind says pull but there’s not quite as much there. I do have an old dirty T-shirt draped across my legs and miss part of a stroke on occasion to keep it over my knees.

I do have an old dirty T-shirt draped across my legs

Today’s run is thirty five miles more or less and I concentrate putting my paddle in the water at the right time and almost make it the whole way without being reminded to concentrate. I don’t remember or know much about this section of the river, moderately wide, a few more sections of fairly fast water than I had expected, but no problems. Paddle and then paddle some more. I am glad to see the tape stretched across the river at Burrell Boom.

it seems that a significant portion of Belize’s population is here

The take out at Burrell Boom is at a small boat ramp and there is a lot of mud at the end of the ramp when I go out to cool off and I almost lose my Teva’s, but finally mange to float out a bit and cool off. We are back close to the Northern Highway now and it seems that a significant portion of Belize’s population is here. It’s a festival with Carnival overtones, not much to do with canoes, just party. I really don’t care, I’m going to have a shower and sleep in a bed tonight. More importantly, I’m not trying to find gear, campsite and setup tent.

We find a spot for the boat under some trees and just relax

We find a spot for the boat under some trees and just relax, with some more very good Big H orange juice (Although I pass on the hot dogs, I’ll eat what Voila and Susie fix this evening). Sergio arrives and we load the stuff from the boat to the vehicle and stash the boat out of the way. One of the lead boats had been set upside down across the road at the campsite area and apparently some fairly substantial lady thought it would be a good place to sit and rest for a minute and almost split the boat in two. Fortunately the miracle of modern chemistry was available from one of the other teams and the boat was repaired in time for Monday’s start.

To Orange Walk. Get to hug and talk to Susie’s Mom and sit down on the Veranda and relax. Julie and Colin immediately start doing laundry and cleaning gear. From their clean laundry they offer me the use of some white tights to keep the sun off my battered red legs. Supper was good and I think everybody was surprised at how well we were doing and that we were still in the race. Had there been any bets laid down, money would have changed hands for sure.

Up fairly early and I have fresh cut Papaya for breakfast, I love Papaya. We gather up our gear and Sergio takes us to Burrell Boom in the little pickup truck, I get to ride in the back. The balance of the spectator crowd will follow later to see the (last) start. We load Miss Lavi and get out on the water and wait upstream along the bank for start time.

Last start, it is twenty-five miles more or less to the finish in Belize City

Last start, it is twenty-five miles more or less to the finish in Belize City, a mere sprint, and rested with a fresh Papaya breakfast, I'm determined to put all I've got into this last day. Of course two hundred forty plus other paddlers are equally determined and only two of them are in the boat with me. We start. We run clean and true and everybody is pulling hard.

we string out with the other boats down the river

I put all that I can into paddling and we string out with the other boats down the river. Today the river is what I expected, fairly wide and deep flatwater, the water becomes an azure blue that’s so pretty it almost hurts. We concentrate and paddle, the river runs parallel to the Northern Highway and there are a lot of spectators, It is a national Holiday, Baron Von Bliss day. Wide open flat-water it seems like everything happens in slow motion. Just before the Northern Highway turns and crosses a bridge before the river runs out into the sea, there is a channel right to Belize City.

Into the channel and a different world. It is a mangrove swamp and it has an almost mystical cathedral presence at first. But, the mangrove swamp quickly becomes just a mangrove swamp. Muddy shallow water, the boat does not do well in these circumstances. The pressure of our passing reflects back up from the bottom to the relatively wide flat hull and drags us down. We hunker down and paddle but the boats in front of us slowly pull away. It is particularly hard on Colin since the boat is now different and harder to control. Slog on.

We are passed for the first time late in a day. The only dugout in the race, Koop Sheet Metal, passes us part way through the swamp. The dugout’s narrow beam is hampered less by the shallows. Carved from a single tree, the dugout is very narrow and deep, the three local paddlers, small in stature, sit right on the bottom. In years past, there have been several dugouts in the race but today there is only this one, it takes an extraordinary amount of skill and endurance to take such a boat so far.

We paddle hard and finish! 22 Hours, 56 minutes and 26 seconds

Finally out into open water of the canal. We are at the edge of the city and almost done. Colin asks me where the finish line is and I tell him I don’t know, but try to remember landmarks and loose concentration. Julie reminds me one last time to shut up and paddle. I shut up and paddle. Presently the finish comes into view, a bridge and the rest of Belize is on the bridge. We paddle hard and finish! 22 Hours, 56 minutes and 26 seconds, some eighty thousand plus paddle strokes, more or less.

we are done except for loading up

I had told Julie and Colin that it wouldn’t be prudent to take a dip in the water at Belize City because of possible pollution, though the water did look nice, that same beautiful blue. I cool off a bit pouring a half-gallon or so of water over my head, washing some of the salt out of my eyes and we are done except for loading up. We leave the boat at the Loskots furniture store just a few blocks from the finish and decide to head back to Orange Walk and bypass the awards ceremony. We don’t know exactly where or when it is and Colin and Julie have to get ready to go back to Houston the next day. I however have time to reflect and revel in what we’ve done.

For an old solo paddler that rarely goes more than 15 miles at a pop, this has been a magnificent, once in a lifetime adventure. Truly once in a lifetime. When I told my partners the third day that I was enjoying myself immensely but that I would never do it again, they were amused, but the words had a ring of truth. I believe on further reflection, it has to do with my mindset more than anything else. There is a certain spiritual element to paddling that has kept me going down to the water for years. That spiritual element is present in the Ruta Maya also, but it has a militant rather than meditative overtone. I was a ready and willing participant but don’t have the competitive fire in my belly to repeat the event again, even though I got an enormous rush from having completed the challenge, both physically and mentally.

Overall things went very well, due in large part to the preparation of my partners. Also the event was well run even with all the chaos, it takes a big group of dedicated volunteers to make such an event possible.

Even though I’m not going to do it again, it’s good to look back and see what I’d do different. First and foremost, I’d make provision beforehand to have a support team and camp less. It would have been really nice to have some pictures of our run at Big Falls. I would have considerably less arrogance about the sun and would wear more clothes, sunblock and lipbalm. I would have carried more money and a better light. Technically, you can’t change the basic boat but Miss Lavi should have had a bailer and the front bulkhead should have been slanted forward. Somehow I would find better ways to express my appreciation to all the people who made the adventure possible, particularly my paddling partners, my wife and our host/sponsors, the Loskots and the Barrazas.