Cayuco Race, 1958

Frank C. Townsend

I was a BHS senior, and Balboa Explorer Post 3 had 3rd and 2nd place finishes under our belts from the previous two years. This was to be our year!  We had a great cayuco, sanded and waxed to the finest finish imaginable.  She was a piragua, her narrow, sleek form just built for speed; a river cayuco that we were to soon learn was not for the ocean. We had trained mightily and were ready. The crew from bow to stern was Ed Dolan, Steve Gorham, sophomores (BHS’60); and Frank Miller and I, both BHS’58 seniors. I had the responsibility for steering; and Ed, he of the long arms, set the pace.

Bad luck: on Friday afternoon, the 1st leg from the Cristobal yacht club to Gatun locks, disaster struck! A strong dry-season wind was blowing, kicking up waves that splashed over the breakwater.  The chop was too much for our sleek, river- going piragua. We swamped, not once but twice. By the time we finally reached Gatun, we were way behind with too much time to ever make up.  Discouraged, we slept at the Gatun yacht club; Ship 8 Cristobal, the eventual winners, went home to their beds.

Saturday morning we were ready.  We may not have a chance at 1st place, but we were determined to go out in a blaze of glory that people would talk about for ages.  Our strategy was simple; we would sprint for all we could to become the lead cayuco and then hold it. Ed set a blistering sprinting pace, and by 100 yards we were in the lead. He had a strange method of just putting his head down, looking at the bottom of the cayuco, and paddling with his long arms.  I don’t mean to imply that he was misshapen; but when Ed reached out to grab some water, his long arms reached waaaaaay out to pull us along. Once achieving the lead, we resumed our normal racing pace. Again disaster struck. Being the lead cayuco, we had no one to follow; and we didn’t know the route through the islands on Gatun Lake. Where was the escort boat to show the way?  Nowhere in sight that we could see.  We went the long way around the channel, while Ship 8 cut through a short cut.

This race we didn’t carry any lunch and very little water. We all had our own version of lucky  “quick energy” food. So while 3 paddled, one rested and took a swig of water. However, as I was in the stern and had to steer, my breaks were non-existent. I relied on butter rum lifesavers. I would bite off ½ a roll, use tongue and teeth to separate the paper and lifesavers in my mouth, and then spit out the paper. This way I never stopped steering.

We came in to Gamboa in a dead tie with Ship 8, even though they had cut across where we went the scenic route through the channel. The 2nd night we slept at the Gamboa Civic Center. The “Gamboa gals” flirted with us while serving dinner, Johnny Marzetti.  I remember the Morency sisters, Marion Howe, and Buttons Gerhart; perhaps, Jackie Dunn and Laura Dew.

Last day, final leg, all the way to Balboa Yacht Club, began with the same strategy: Ed Dolan put his head down, stared at the cayuco bottom, and set the sprint pace. Simultaneously four paddles reached forward to grab water. In perfect cadence, stroke, pull, feather, stroke, pull, feather. Within 100 yards, we were again the lead cayuco and could settle down to our normal racing pace. This time, we were 1st into Pedro Miguel. The “Gamboa gals” were on the lead escort boat, rooting for Ship 9 Gamboa; so all the way to Pedro Miguel we were taunted: “Are you tired yet?”  “You can’t catch us!”  However, I think the taunting pushed Eddie Dolan because he wore us out with his pace to Pedro Miguel.  I remember being in sprint mode the whole way!

Locking through Pedro Miguel and leaving the chamber was a real “cat fight”. As the lock gates opened, cayucos bunched up, shoving against each other as they jockeyed for the most favorable position. We got trapped in the melee and were late leaving across Miraflores Lake. Nevertheless, Eddie’s long-armed, murderous pace allowed us to overtake everyone; and we again were 1st into Miraflores Locks.

There are 2 chambers at Miraflores. As the water was drained from the chambers, the lock handlers at the top of the lock wall had ropes, which they lowered to the cayucos. One group of cayucos next to the wall held the ropes, and the next group of cayucos held onto the wall-bound cayucos and so on. We maneuvered ourselves to the center for the 2nd and last chamber, determined not to become trapped as we had been at Pedro Miguel. Finally the water stopped draining and the lock gates began to open. I shouted “muevate” or “adelante” or something like that, and Eddy began his sprint pace. We shot through the ever- widening opening of the gates, propelled by the out-rushing current. As we went through, I could have touched the gate with my paddle tip. The rest of the cayucos quickly followed after us, but we were long gone!

That year, ’58, the race ended at the Balboa Yacht Club; so on we raced out into the Pacific Ocean swells. About 20 yards from the finish line, we began to take on water and were in danger of swamping again. Steve Gorham said, “No way we’re going to stop to bail. Paddle harder, and we’ll cross the line before we swamp.”  We literally swamped and capsized as we crossed the finish line. Great race, but we just couldn’t make up the lost time from the 1st day at Cristobal and were 2nd again.


After I left for college in ’58, the “glory days” of Post 3 began with a cayuco named “Coje Me Si Puedes” (Catch me if you can). Eddie Dolan and Steve Gorham teamed with John Turner and Bobby Adams and won 1st place in 1959, and 1960 with Eddie Dolan, Steve Gorham, John Turner, and Mike Rudge.  My dad, Red Townsend, continued to be involved every year as judge, escort boat coordinator, and Advisor to Post 3. Later Post 3 evolved into Post 21, and was disbanded.