Matthew Moore, a fit, 52-year-old general contractor, outpaddled a field of 190 contestants in a drought-curtailed Great Russian River Race on a sunny Saturday in Healdsburg.
"Whew," Moore said after beaching his red-and-yellow kayak, borrowed from a friend, on the sand at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach. "Made it."
The fourth annual race, a fundraiser for Russian Riverkeeper's educational programs, unfolded without a major hitch, with some paddlers — as usual — hitting tree branches and getting dumped in the water.
"Everyone made it through fine," said Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation nonprofit.
Following the North Coast's third-driest winter in history, which left the river about 30 percent narrower, McEnhill said the 15-mile race was eliminated and the 5-mile event limited to 200 entrants.
On Saturday, he estimated the flow at Rio Lindo Beach, the starting point, at 165 cubic feet per second of clear, green-tinted water.
The race website had warned that flows could be as low as 35 to 50 cfs.
"The February and March rains just saved us," McEnhill said.
In a pre-race briefing on the gravel bar at Rio Lindo, McEnhill advised the paddlers that "every part of the river is passable."
But, he said, in a few places "if you don't read the river right you're going to run aground."
Moore said he hit shallows in two spots, stowing his double-bladed paddle and propelling the kayak with his arms. "I was knuckle-dragging in a few spots," he said.
Moore, who said he finished third and then second in the first two Great Russian River Races, skipped last year and then told people he intended to win this year.
With his reputation on the line, Moore said he began practicing on the river on Sundays back in December, and only missed a few dates.
"Home field advantage," he said.
His work in construction also keeps him tuned, he said. "The young guys make me keep up."
Moore crossed the finish line nearly two minutes ahead of the second boat.
Brothers Peter and Cody Mork, both from Healdsburg, stroked a 14-foot open canoe across the finish line third overall in the two-man race.
Peter, 36, immediately blamed their fall from first place on a "water break" by Cody, 31.
The Morks were in the lead, they said, about two-thirds of the way downriver when they took a left channel and the two trailing boats went right.
"We were trying to be clever," Cody said.
The canoe hit gravel, and Peter said, "We had to (get out and) run with it."
About that time, Cody had a drink of water, and the two boats slipped by. "Couldn't catch them," Peter said.
Circe Sher and Elizabeth Candelario, friends from Healdsburg, said their first time in the race in a two-person kayak was a success. The pair finished fourth.
"We had a lot of fun," Sher said. "We didn't tip over."
They had to get out and walk the boat twice, and were a bit frustrated in failing to overtake a two-woman boat that was "always just right ahead of us," she said.
Sher said she'd like to get more of her co-workers at a Healdsburg hotel in the race next spring, and perhaps start training sooner.