Scott Weinert of Dallas reached Franklin about dusk Saturday evening in his solo kayak.
There he was faced with a raft of water hyacinth stretching down Bayou Teche from Jackson Street to the Willow Street Bridge.
To those looking on warily, it seemed Weinert made a daring dash into the lilies in his long racing kayak, and when little progress was apparent through the mass of thick, fleshy vegetation, he made a quick decision and went overboard.
One hand on the bow of the kayak, he back-paddled through the lilies with the other arm, towing his boat in an agonizing surge to the finish line at the Franklin leg of the second annual Tour du Teche.
When Weinert made it through, a deafening cheer went up from the volunteers, staff and onlookers gathered along Parc sur la Teche, the finish line for the second stage of the paddle race held last weekend.
Faced with a stiff 15-mph or greater wind from the east and rafts of water lilies most of the length of Bayou Teche on the 135-mile race, Weinert and 85 other paddlers faced adversity with determination and skill.
The Franklin Police Department ran outboard-powered boats through the barges of lilies most of the afternoon and into the night at Parc sur la Teche and at the Sterling Bridge where the pesky invasive species repeatedly congregated. No sooner than a path was cleared, but it closed up again in a matter of minutes.
“Franklin did a wonderful job of accommodating the paddlers and volunteers alike,” said Nicole Patin, executive director of the Tour du Teche. “From the food, to the music, to the handfuls of volunteers, to the service men and women who came out to protect their safety. Franklin set a high bar as far as throwing a party and helping the race to run smoothly.”
On the bayou bank, volunteers in orange Tour du Teche T-shirts had to spend several boring hours killing time waiting for the first paddle racers to arrive. Originally expected around 2 p.m. Saturday, the first two boats arrived late in the afternoon.
Coming in neck and neck, boats 50 and 53, were manned by kayak racers Alan Lamb and Richard Steppe and Brad Rex and Robin Lashway, respectively. The water lilies were only separated by a trough just wide enough for a single boat. It was touch and go there, but after a bit of not-unfriendly maneuvering, boat 50 crossed the finish line just 2 seconds before boat 53.
Again, the crowds erupted in loud cheers.
And that’s how Tour du Teche II unfolded for the rest of the night and into the last hours of the morning, when the final two vessels arrived just a tad over an hour from the beginning of the third and final leg of the race at 7 a.m.
Unlike last year when the race was non-stop the entire way, paddlers stopped in St. Martinville after the start in Port Barre Friday morning. Saturday morning they headed out again on the 60-mile leg to Franklin, the longest of the three segments.
That part of the tour was called the Sugar Race. Paddlers were able to register for any of the three races that comprised the total, or for the entire race.
Out of four teams that registered for the Sugar Race, only one finished: Beaux Jones of Baton Rouge and Adam Parker of New Orleans. They were recipients of a community award from the City of Franklin for their efforts.
But perhaps the loudest cheer rose high when Charenton’s own Jeri St. Blanc arrived at the Franklin finish line Saturday evening. She had participated in and finished the Tour du Teche last year.
Like all the paddlers finishing such a long run, St. Blanc was unsteady on her wobbly legs when she finally got out of her kayak, but her family and friends and countless supporters didn’t seem to notice as they hugged and congratulated her.
“I thought it would be less challenging and it turned out to be more challenging,” she said. “The wind was huge in the race. We always had wind. At some point, around New Iberia, we had a few gusts come right behind us, and I thought, oh, wow, yes this is great. It didn’t last long, though.”
St. Blanc said she didn’t worry much about lilies, just “maneuvered around them. We’re used to that.”
But after more than 130 miles and close to the finish, St. Blanc had a significant disaster.
“I got over the lock (on the Atchafalaya River at Berwick) and started digging in,” she said. “There was a huge crosswind, and when I dug in to the right side, I guess I was too aggressive on that first paddle. I flipped. All I could really do was laugh, I was thinking, how strange is this, I could see the Morgan City bridge and the light house, and I’m in the water floating.”
Floating on her back, she got her cell phone from her dry bag and tried to call her husband but misdialed. She was also worried about a paddle she had borrowed from fellow paddler Donovan Garcia of Jeanerette.
Then the crosswind blew her to the shore. She was on the phone with emergency officials by then, dumped water out of the boat, and set out again.
“I can finish this thing,” she said she thought.
St. Blanc finished the final leg of the race to Berwick in six hours and 39 minutes.
“I have heard nothing but wonderful accolades about Franklin,” St. Blanc said. “It was wonderful, unbelievable support all across the parish, along the whole route. We got to visit with all the paddlers this year, due to the new format of the race. We made lasting friendships.”
Michael O’Niell of Broussard participated in the Sugar Race as well. He is the son of John and Lynn O’Niell of Franklin.
Christopher Gondran, of Youngsville, is an employee of Cypress Bayou Casino who also participated in the race.
Back in Franklin, the music started live at 3 p.m. and continued through 10 p.m., ending early to give weary racers a little quiet to get some sleep.
Flashback had the out-of-towners and locals alike tapping feet and dancing in the parking lot behind the former Blevins building.
Later, after the awards ceremony and addresses by local dignitaries, Johnny Chauvin and his Mojo Band took the stage.
Volunteers stayed throughout the night: From private citizens to city officials and the Boy Scouts of America, every boat and weary paddler arrived to a bevy of friendly faces and helpful hands.
The efforts here did not go unnoticed.
“As the director, I want to thank everyone who was a part of the race, from those who paddled to those who volunteered, they were truly the ones who made the event such a success,” Patin added.
Ken Grissom, Tour du Teche co-organizer and publisher of the Teche News in St. Martinville, said the new format for the race is a winner.
“Having talked to the racers, and particularly the serious, really competitive ones, I think we’re on the right track with this formula,” Grissom said. “Bayou Teche is one of the toughest race courses anywhere in the country. It was especially tough this year because of the wind and water lilies. At the same time, the hospitality, the party atmosphere, made TDT II a memorable event for everyone.”
Grissom complimented the city and the volunteers by saying, “Franklin’s finish line will serve us as a model. Everything was in walking distance, the music was available but not intrusive, and of course the waterfront made a wonderful grandstand for spectators. We heard nothing but great things about it from the paddlers.”
Co-organizer Ray Pellerin was complimentary as well. “Thanks to Franklin for helping make TDT II a success. From the parish president, sheriff’s department, mayor, chief of police, fire department, the volunteers and Boy Scouts all working together to make TDT run smoothly was just awesome to see. I look forward to working with you for TDT III. What a party you put on.”
“Tour du Teche was a great community effort, utilizing one of our greatest assets in the parish: the Bayou Teche,” said Carrie Stansbury, Cajun Coast Visitor and Convention Bureau director. “In spite of the wind, participants stated how much they enjoyed the race. We look forward to an even greater event next year.”