The first year Scott Mansker hosted the MR340, the nonstop, 340-mile Missouri River canoe and kayak race, he thought he had killed everyone.
Out of nowhere, a storm, which Mansker estimated had 60-mph winds, blew through the river, endangering those still on the water.
Mansker got a call from the ground crew of a racer from North Carolina who didn’t know where she was, but had a guess.
Mansker scanned the banks from his motorboat. The river looked like white froth.
“Her boat had been thrown 8 feet up onto the rocks,” Mansker said. “It looked like her boat had exploded.”
Mansker found the racer curled up next to a tree with her arms over her face.
After the storm, Mansker helped the racer patch up her boat and sent her on her way. She ended up beating the other two competitors to win the women’s solo division.
Eight years and as many MR340 races later, race director Mansker returns with 40 volunteers committed to the safety of the racers, to the spirit of the race and to the river that runs through it.
For this year’s race, 10 safety boats started with the 230 racers Tuesday morning, pulling out from the Kaw Point Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Although safety boats are stationed every 20 miles of the race, some will go the whole distance with the racers, ending in St. Charles, Mo.
The safety crews will spend 88 hours on the water with their eyes peeled for exhausted, injured or discouraged racers.
“I don’t want to seem like this is an elite SEAL Team 6 thing,” Mansker said, “but it does get serious.”
Mansker said he has to be careful whom he picks for the safety boats.
“Once they do it, I can’t get rid of them,” Mansker said. “I keep collecting these amazing people who love the river and the race.”
Steve Schnarr of Columbia is one such person. As the captain of the safety boat The Hildy Harliner, he’s one of the few Mansker lets “sweep” the river at its most dangerous: at night.
It’s also at its most beautiful, Schnarr said.
“It feels immense, and everything is lit up with that subtle moonlight,” he said.
His team leads the head boat to a checkpoint and then slowly weaves to the back of the pack.
The boat moves at a pace little bit above idling.
“The navigation lights (of racing boats) as they stretch around the bend look like a string of pearls,” Schnarr said.
One of his biggest assets is a familiarity with the Missouri. He’s the program manager of Missouri River Relief. Schnarr has done river cleanups from Omaha to St. Louis.
“There’s something about a huge body of water all moving one way,” Schnarr said. “It’s pushing down toward the ocean. You feel it in the bottom of the boat.”
Schnarr estimated he’ll be awake 75 of the race’s 88 hours, scanning the water and responding to emergencies.
Informally, there are three kinds of racers, said Vicki Richmond, a safety boat captain. Some racers vie for first place. They’ll often finish within 40 hours.
Another group aims to beat personal goals. They might want to top their time from last year, or get to St. Charles in 60 hours.
Finally, she said, some people just want to finish in the allotted time.
“That third race is about endurance. It’s grit,” Richmond said. “Those are my guys.”
Richmond said they are part of the reason she’s come back to be a safety boat captain for the last six years. She’s watched those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles — former drug addicts, a person with a heart transplant — finish the race.
“The human spirit is alive and well and it is proven out there over and over,” Richmond said.
Before the race started, The Cypress was stocked with zip ties, glow sticks, super glue, string and rope the racers can use to fix their boats. Though helping racers on the water prompts disqualification, Richmond said she helps them by encouraging them when she can.
Historically, about 30 percent of racers don’t finish. The race isn’t only physical — it’s mental.
“Our mission isn’t to start ragging on people,” said Dewayne Knott, a safety boat captain. “Our mission is to encourage people, to help them know they can do it.”
The night before the race, Knott eerily floated around the racers who had assembled for a safety meeting. He was dressed as the Grim Reaper, befitting his role as captain of the safety boat The Reaper.
When its “reaping” flag is up, the safety boat goes at the pace a paddler must go to reach a checkpoint at the last possible moment. If a paddler falls behind The Reaper at a checkpoint, he or she doesn’t qualify for the next round of the race.
Knott said he has been familiar with rivers since birth: his mother bathed him on the banks of Nebraska’s Platte River.
“The river runs through my veins,” said Knott, a riverine biologist who lives in Smithville. “Or muddy water.”
During one race, he found three teeth of an extinct species of bison after he spent a night on a sand bank.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind adventure,” Knott said.
But it’s mostly about watching the racers rather than the natural wonders along the river.
“We have to be ‘on’ the whole time.”