SNOW HILL — Snow Hill-- Frank Havens and Don McCloughan, paddling in the high-knee position, power the light green rented canoe through the cool waters of the Pocomoke River. The strokes come smooth, the movements so fluid that men, paddles, canoe seem extensions of one being.
Four turtles, sunning on a log, slide into the water near cypress trees as the canoe glides past. Water lilies, not quite ready to explode into the pink and white blooms of late June, wave in the shallows along both banks.
Someone questions the comfort of that rowing position on the knees.
"After 50 years of this, I don't have any knees," says Mr. Havens.
Mr. Havens, joking now, won't be come noon today. That's when the Olympic gold medalist and Mr. McCloughan put their molded fiberglass canoe into the water for Pocomoke River Canoe Challenge '93, a 12-mile serious run south on the winding river from Snow Hill to Pocomoke City on the Eastern Shore.
They won't be alone. Last year, more than 50 boats entered the race, which is sanctioned by the U.S. Canoe Association. Officials expect more than 100 competitors today in divisions for novice and advanced standard canoes, advanced competition cruisers (racing canoes) and solos. Each division breaks down in men's and women's classes by age categories with a "mixed" class in the two-paddler events. (Most of the classes are for two paddlers.) Entrants race against time.
"Eighty people sent in early entries," says Louise Ash, race committee member. And, "a large number of people always enter the day of the race."
The race starts at James T. Sturgis Park,named for the mayor of Snow Hill from 1960-1974, south of the Route 12 bridge where the tidal river is only 50 feet wide. It ends at Cypress Park in old Pocomoke City just beyond the spare modern twin spans of the U.S. 13 bridge, which stand out like abstract sculptures in a Victorian garden.
In between lies a river 400 feet wide on average, with depths of 7 to 45 feet and water the color of tea, said to be characteristic of cypress swamps.
"The river is good, deep water," Mr. Havens says. "That makes the going easier."A long, watery relationship
Mr. Havens should know water. He paddled enough of it to compete in each Olympic Games from 1948 to 1960 and win a silver medal in 1948 in London and a gold in the 10,000 meters in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. He's never stopped canoe racing. In 1989 in Denmark, he and his older brother, William Havens Jr., won everything they entered in the World Masters Games, a competition for athletes over 35. While he awaits the 1994 Masters Games, to be held in Brisbane, Australia, he enters all the regional events he can fit in.
Mr. Havens, 68, of Harborton, Va., and retired from his automobile property damage appraisal firm, has won a division of the Pocomoke race each year since it started in 1989. Today is Pocomoke Race No. 3 for Mr. McCloughan, 60, of Onancock, Va., north of Harborton, and he'll be going for victory No. 3. The two won their class in last year's challenge.
"We've been paddling together off and on 20 years or more," says Mr. McCloughan, a retired telephone company employee.
They're entered in Standard Canoe, Advanced, Men, CA 101+ -- the CA standing for "cumulative age" of both paddlers as of race day.
"We're in the oldest class available," Mr. Havens says.
Now they're relaxing at a picnic table beside the Pocomoke River Canoe Co., just on the other side of the Route 12 bridge from the race's starting point.
Ms. Ash, in charge of the children's activities, and Allen D. Stallings, another committee member, who offers a novice's perspective on the race, sit across from them.
"It's a super race," says Mr. Stallings of Snow Hill, wearing a 1992 Pocomoke T-shirt with a map of the course on it. "I'm definitely a novice canoeist but I really enjoyed the two I entered."
A two-hour race
Whereas Mr. Havens and Mr. McCloughan figure their time today will be about "two hours plus," Mr. Stallings says he usually "broke four hours" in his 12-mile paddles.
"The novices start first so we get to see the pros pass," he says.
Mr. Stallings, 58, isn't paddling today because of his committee work but remembers his first race well.
"I got so pumped up I forgot to take any lip protection or sun block," he says. "There was no shade. By the end, I was a mess."
Many people worked hard on organizing the event, says Ms. Ash, 44, whose regular job is in the Worcester County Library in Snow Hill. "A big thing was to coordinate with the Department of Natural Resources to keep speedboats off the river. They wouldn't mix too well with canoes."
Keeping kids content
When the competitors start gathering at 9 a.m., Ms. Ash gets her ultimate challenge. She and helpers will have to keep the children occupied for a couple of hours before the miniature starting cannon sends novice and pro off paddling the river.
"The children don't race," she says. "You have to be 18 to enter in races. Liability insurance reasons."