The canoe team led by a Minnesotan that is speeding its way down the Mississippi River in pursuit of a Guinness world record is ahead of schedule and could hit the tape later this week.
As of Monday morning, Scott Miller and his crew of three were moving through the Memphis area, according to his support lead, Mike "Moose" Dougherty. He heads up a team of 19 traveling the river south by boat and road to support the paddle team, known as the Mississippi Speed Record.
"This is a really, really strong team," said Dougherty, waiting at a boat ramp early Monday morning about 25 miles south of Memphis. Miller pulled together a who's-who of long-distance canoe-racing stalwarts: Paul Cox of Atlanta; Wally Werderich of Chicago; Judson Steinback of La Crosse, Wis., fill out the team. Higher water levels and good weather also have been a boon.
The team left the river's headwaters in Itasca State Park on May 10 and is about 720 miles from the finish at mile marker zero, Head of Passes, where the river branches into the Gulf of Mexico.
Perhaps what also will be waiting for them at the journey's end are follow-up questions about the rules after help in Iowa from one of the crew's safety vessels.
On Monday, the four were about 29 hours ahead of the record set in 2021 by Minnesotan KJ Millhone of Minnetonka and his crew, which included his daughter, Casey. Their team of four traveled 2,300-plus miles of the river in 17 days, 20 hours. The previous mark was set in 2003 in 18 days, 4 hours, 51 minutes.
Coincidentally, Millhone set out days before Miller's team in 2021, when the latter and a different threesome had to abandon their canoe in a ferocious storm. They were south of Baton Rouge and within 150 miles of the gulf.
In addition to team chemistry and skill, Dougherty said the current team — paddlers and supporters — has benefited from 2021. They have improvised and problem-solved ahead of this year's attempt and during it, whether it be support boat issues or, as was the case, work on the canoe's rudder. Modifications to the canoe's electronics have such gadgetry as safety lights and Go Pros on one battery. Plus, there are more support crew members this time, meaning everyone is better rested as the miles pile up.
There are two safety boats, a 21-foot Starcraft and a 26-foot houseboat, whose crews leapfrog the paddlers by up to 200 miles at a time so they can have a constant presence and be prepared to provide food, hydration and gear on-water along the way. Otherwise, the paddlers stop for short breaks at planned intervals.
"Occasionally we do see them when they come on shore," he said, "but mostly between St. Louis and the gulf, [the support] is happening between the safety boat and the canoe."
While they continue on record pace, their need for an assist from one of the support boats at Lock and Dam No. 15 near Davenport, Iowa, has raised questions from a few people if the aid was permissible. One of them is Millhone. The guidelines for the record attempt are only available from Guinness to the applicant.
Dougherty said the paddlers had arrived at the lock at night as a tugboat was exiting, and the barge captain asked them to stay clear, forcing the paddlers away from the lock and into a channel with fast-moving water above the dam.
Dougherty said the canoe team was struggling to paddle and stay in place in the current. The safety boat came and pulled them back upriver so they could be in a good position to enter the lock.
"That's allowable. It's no problem having a [safety boat] take you back upriver, let's put it that way," said Dougherty, who also said he was confident that the support wouldn't jeopardize their record attempt.
"There is always something, and hopefully we have had our incident for this time," he said, "but you never know. The river decides."
Millhone said Monday afternoon that he respects the "extraordinary" accomplishment of the team thus far, but he questions the attempt now. He said Miller might have a different interpretation of the rules than he had in 2021, but "Guinness will decide that."
"My perspective is they used one of their support boats to save them and if that support boat hadn't been there it would have ended their attempt or they could have lost their lives [going over the dam]. I think they violated the rules."
Clark Eid, who with Bob Bradford of Michigan had their 2003 speed record broken by the Millhone team, said people might contest the Mississippi Speed Record crew but that is part of the terrain with any record attempt — or record.
Eid said safety demanded aid at the lock, and Miller's team didn't gain any advantage.
"Guinness is just Guinness," Eid said. "Does that hold a lot of merit in the sports community? Not necessarily."
Dougherty remains forward-focused. The kindness of strangers has propelled the odyssey, too. Marinas have opened early to allow the team to fuel boats, and there have been cheers and free meals from river residents. That has helped energize the paddlers, too, whose spirits and health are good.
"Big picture, everything is on track," Dougherty said.
Follow the record attempt at share.garmin.com/Mississippispeedrecord.
Check out the team's splits at Race Owl here.