If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That was the paddling premise behind the U.S Rafting Team, which, despite a new raft design and team, fell short to try and set a new speed descent record down the Grand Canyon.
The team finished in 38 hours, 5 minutes, nearly four hours behind the previous of 34-hours, two-minute record set in 2016 by solo kayaker Ben Orkin.
As reported by Jason Blevins in the Colorado Sun, rowing special 40-foot-long pontoons designed by Hala Gear with a six-person rowing frame, the eight-person Colorado-based team put in on Jan. 9 to row 277 miles in less than 34 hours. Augmenting their former team with three veteran Grand Canyon raft guides, they rowed six at a time (with two people taking breaks) constantly from Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs.
“Everything is going to have to be perfect,” Edwards-based team captain John Mark Seelig told the Colorado Sun before the attempt. “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.”
In January 2017, a similar team, minus the three veteran Grand Canyon guides, tried to set the record, but their attempt collapsed with their raft in Lava Falls after rowing for 20 hours. After repairs, they finished five hours past the 34-hour, two-minute record set in 2016 by solo kayaker Ben Orkin.
This year’s team — consisting of U.S. Rafting Team members Seelig, Robbie Prechtl, Jeremiah Williams, Matt Norfleet and Kurt Kincel as well as Grand Canyon raft guides Lyndsay Hupp, Omar Eli Martinez and Justin Salamon — was more focused than ever, self-funding their mission while raising money for Grand Canyon Youth.
The original speed record in Grand Canyon was set in 1983 during a historic flood by wooden dory rowers Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds in 36 hours and 38 minutes, sparking the must-read Kevin Fedarko book “The Emerald Mile.” That record stood until January 2016 when Colorado accountant Ben Orkin solo kayaked the stretch in 34 hours 2 minutes, despite a harrowing swim in Lava Falls.
The new team departed around midnight to take best advantage of flows and hit the biggest rapids in the daylight — except for Lava, which Seelig estimated they might hit around 9 p.m. But the flows didn’t cooperate. They quickly outpaced the initial 14,000-cfs release from the Glen Canyon Dam and caught the slower waters of the customary 10,000-cfs release. That slowed them enough that they were off pace even by the time they hit Phantom Ranch.
“It’s just totally a crapshoot,” Seelig told Men’s Journal reporter Scott Willoughby afterwards (on the drive home from Flagstaff after shuttling a teammate to the hospital with frostbitten feet). “So many things are out of your control and you’re hoping they all fall in line, but something always happens. Last time it was the boat; this time it was water and weather. It’s safe to say this is the coldest we’ve ever been.”
The team tested their new boat design, built with Hala’s patented carbon construction to increase rigidity, on two training runs this fall on the Colorado River, one of which was through Cataract Canyon.