INTERVIEW: Bart De Zwart, winner of the Yukon River Quest
Last week, Starboard‘s Bart de Zwart won the 2016 Yukon River Quest (YRQ), a 715km endurance race through the Canadian wilderness. This year, for the first time, Stand Up Paddlers were allowed to compete among canoeists and kayakers. After such an incredible performance we decided to ask Bart a couple of questions about the race.
How do you feel being the first SUP winner of the Yukon River Quest?
It feels great to have won this one. And a good start of my list of longest races in the world for 2016. This one was special because it is the longest annual race in the world. I always had a love for theses kind of races where endurance, adventure and strategy all play an important role.
How does it compare with all the other Extreme / Endurance races you have done?
This race is longer and further, by lot, compared to anything I have raced before. I have done longer expeditions but that is different because this is a race and there was competition. In a race, you never make longer breaks, just quick food breaks where you sit on the board for a minute organize your water or food and off you go again. Also here you have to eat and drink non stop during the whole race.
What has been your strategy? Did you know what to expect? What was new to you during the race?
My strategy was to start with a good pace, to see who is strong and to fight for 1st place. Then paddle together with those paddlers for a big part of the race. Because this is such a long race it makes sense to stick together for a big part. It is nicer to paddle together and not look over your shoulder for 55 hours. It is better to race together and decide at some point to go your own way. After the last 3hr compulsory break (there were two compulsory breaks), I felt that Norm Hann and Jason Bennett both didn’t paddle as strong as before so I decided that that would be a good moment to paddle away and go for the win. I felt strong but knew I had to paddle for another 12 hours to get to finish line. I tried to get as much distance between me and them as possible because I needed some buffer for any route mistakes I could make. This proved a good strategy because I did make some mistakes and lost time with some of the choice I made.
So my strategy worked out as planned. I think I was also the most experienced with this kind of racing and knew what my body could endure. Finding the fastest route on the rover was harder than I expected. You have to make a lot of choices in the second half of the race. There are lot of island and left or right could make a huge different in current and sometime scold make a difference of 5 to 20 minutes if you make the wrong choice. So that was new to me. The currents make the race extra interesting and although you are paddling for 55 hrs it is never boring, you are always looking for the fastest water and then the nature in magnificent.
This year was a test race for paddlers. As one of the first guinea pigs with a handful of other paddlers, do you think the YRQ should now open to SUP racers? And which types?
After this trail year. I am very sure the YRQ will be open for SUP next year. The organizers didn’t expect much of the sup paddlers but saw in the course of the race that we did belong there. With 9 out of 11 arriving and think we all did a good job showing what SUP is capable of. At the awards we got a standing ovation by a crowd of 500 or so, very impressive. Next year they will probably limit it to a certain amount of SUP and you need to give them a bio which is the same for all solo paddlers, just to make sure racers have enough experience to finish this race. I think we will use the same boards stock 14′ boards min width 24″ that is about all the requirements.
What is your favorite memory of the race?
There are so many positive things to say about the Yukon River Quest. The organization was incredible, the nature was impressive and it was full of nice people who also happen to be experienced paddler. For me the best moment was when I got around the last river bend and saw the finish with my support team standing there. When you go deep it is incredibly rewarding to get out on top. And make no mistake you have to go deep paddling for 55 hrs in race form is tough, eating constantly for 55 hrs is also tough, not sleeping for 3 nights (just 4 hr and 1.5 hr ) in 3 days is tough too. It is a word class experience but know what you get yourself into. Between the 2 towns (start and finish) there is almost no civilization just fast wilderness, no people and I haven’t seen any trash, not even a little piece of paper or so.
Any anecdotes? fears? problems to report?
I had no fears, just unknowns. The difference is that for me an unknown is something I don’t know but I am sure I can deal with at the time.The biggest unknown was the lake, a 55km lake with strong head wind would be very difficult especially because the cut off times at the checkpoint were pretty tight. Other unknowns were the currents and the islands.
You learn a lot in this first race. You learn about the rover and how the currents work.
What were the conditions of the race and how did you adapt to them?
We had great conditions, the weather changes pretty quickly and we had everything, sun, rain, cloudy, foggy. The temperature go every day between 5 and 25 degrees. The nights are short, light and colder. It is fine as long as you keep paddling. We had aa lot of compulsory gear with us in case the weather would turn really bad, because after all we are almost at that arctic circle. The river water is cold so don’t fall in. because you have to change cloth or put on a dry-suit. At times we had some strong winds which was hard at the lake but on the river you are still moving with the current which makes it very bearable. The currents make this race more interesting and if you are close to the shore you feel like you are flying.
What similar race do you recommend?
If happen to be interested in this kind of racing there is an easier version in September called the Muskoka X which I have done twice. It’s a one or 2 days race where you can learn a lot about this kind of racing. I also recommend the MR340, another river race with less distance but with about the same paddle time. This one is in Missouri, it’s less remote and warmer but it’s still a long paddle.
Will you come back next year?
Well, it was a major adventure and a new mile stone in SUP racing. I am glad I was a part of this and I will be back for sure next year.