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RECORD FALLS – The mixed tandem kayak team of Ian Huntsman and Wendy Riach from Christchurch, New Zealand, was the first Yukon River Quest team in six years to break a record in their class. Photo by HARRY KEARN

Paddlers from down under set new River Quest record in tandem kayak

Yukon River Quest records don’t often fall.

By Chuck Tobin on July 6, 2018

Yukon River Quest records don’t often fall.

One did last week during the 20th anniversary of the 715-kilometre race from Whitehorse to Dawson City, but just barely.

The Kiwis – Ian Huntsman and Wendy Riach of Christchurch, New Zealand – established the new benchmark in the mixed kayak class despite the low water conditions in some sections of the river, particularly below Lake Laberge.

Huntsman and Riach finished in a total time of 44 hours, 57 minutes and 56 seconds – not including the 10 hours at mandatory rest stops.

Their time was 24 minutes and 13 seconds faster than the old record of 45:22:09 set in 2005 by Brandon and Heather Nelson of Bellingham, Washington.

It’s been six years since a record was broken. In the 2012 race, a women’s tandem kayak team established the new winning of 47 hours and four minutes while a women’s voyageur boat in the same year set the benchmark in that class, in a time of 42:50.

The overall record of 39:32:43 was established in 2008 by the men’s voyageur team Kisseynew.

Of the 103 boats who launched in Whitehorse June 27, 76 finished and 27 scratched.

In addition to low water this year, paddlers faced head winds in the first third of Lake Laberge. They encountered thunderstorms and lighting in spots from Coffee Creek to Dawson, and another bout of very strong winds.

Whitehorse captain Thomas de Jager of the winning voyageur canoe for the second consecutive year – Yukon Wide Adventures – remembers the wind well.

When the thunderstorm came up in mid-afternoon last Friday, along with the perilous lightning, it brought enormous tail winds of gusts between 60 and 70 kilometres an hour, de Jager recalled in an interview Thursday.

He said the boat was drifting at 20-kilometres an hour just with the wind, which was pushing up waves on the river that were two to three feet high.

De Jager said his team of experienced paddlers agreed it was best to stop and let the storm pass before they attempted to make the kilometre-wide crossing from the left bank to Bill Vay’s Rock on the right bank, in the final stretch into Dawson.

Number one, he said, their boat is made of carbon fibre, just like metal, and you don’t want to be in a metal boat in the middle of the river tangling with lightning.

He said their boat is also built for speed, not waves. Knowing they had a lead of well over an hour, they felt there was no point risking the victory by attempting the river crossing in such conditions, de Jager explained.

They went ashore on the left bank, and waited for about 30 minutes for the storm to pass and the wind to die down.

“We saw it coming and we made a smart decision,” he said. “Sometimes I think that is the experience.”

Yukon Wide Adventure arrived in Dawson at 6:21 p.m. with a total time on the river of 44 hours, 21 minutes and 53 seconds, or just under 23 minutes ahead of the second place team from the U.K. in a voyageur canoe.

Yukon Wide Adventures was 34 minutes off their winning time in 2017.

Maybe next year, the captain hints.

“We have a strong team that seems to be working out well,” de Jager said of the three Whitehorse paddlers, two paddlers from Inuvik and one from Salt Spring Island, B.C. “Maybe we will try to get three victories in a row. Nobody has done it.

“If you like the call of the Yukon River Quest, you may come again.”

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