PORT BARRE — On the tranquil waters of the Bayou Teche this weekend, there will be a fleet of canoes heading south.
The Tour du Teche kicked off at the Port Barre Boat Launch on Friday morning, pitting 12 canoe-racing teams against one another for $10,000 in prize money.
The race will span the length of the 135-mile bayou, crossing through four parishes and ending in Berwick on Sunday afternoon.
Tour du Teche attracts a variety of people looking to traverse the Teche, race Director-General Ray Pellerin said.
“We have all kinds of people racing, professional people, doctors,” he said. “We have an anesthesiologist this year and an assistant district attorney from Chicago. It’s such a mixed group of people.”
Gareth Stevens, a retired children’s book publisher and writer from England, and his race partner, New Iberia native Tave Lamperez, have raced as a team in the last four races on Bayou Teche. It was Stevens who caught the bug.
“I came down the first year to cover it for a magazine called Canoe News, and by the end of the race, I was just itching to do it,” Stevens said. “I’ve done it every year since.”
The two live in Illinois but travel to Port Barre to race in the tour every year.
“The bayou is beautiful,” said Lamperez, a software engineer. “It is all deep, there are no rocks and there’s minimal portages. This is a beautiful place to paddle.”
The first portage, which Pellerin defined as any rough point or blockage in a river where paddlers must get out of the water and carry their canoes on land, is at the Keystone Dam south of St. Martinville. The racers will reach it Saturday.
“I won’t necessarily say that I love portages, but they give us an opportunity to get out the boat, stretch our legs and go fast,” Lamperez said.
The teams Friday stopped in St. Martinville to rest for the next day.
Those breaks weren’t always part of the tour, Pellerin said. They used to run it all the way through.
“Some boats are fast and some are slow, so these people at the checkpoints were having to stay there for 24 hours to wait for boats to come in,” he said. “By splitting it into three days, we have shorter windows for people to have to sit out to do the checkpoints.”
Hitting the water two hours before the racers did were “voyageur teams,” 24 canoes not participating in the actual race but still paddling in different stretches of the bayou set by the Tour du Teche.
The voyageur class splits the bayou up into several races so it doesn’t have to paddle the whole way.
What sets the event on the Teche apart from other races around the country? The joie de vivre found in Louisiana, Pellerin said.
“Today, there will be people having parties in their backyards and yelling and screaming, ‘Where are you from?’ That’s the one question asked,” Pellerin said. “Some of the racers are thinking about putting on their boat ‘from Michigan,’ ‘from Illinois,’ ‘from Wisconsin,’ ‘from Washington state.’ ”
Some onlookers offer food and water as racers paddle the Teche.
“The people down here are just great,” Stevens said. “You’ll come down, you’ll have a great race, but you’ll also have a lot of fun with everyone. I’m just happy to be here.”
Tour du Teche holds other races throughout the year, but this weekend is the main event. The group will put on its next race, the Top of the Teche race from Leonville to Arnaudville, in April.