It was early Sunday in Mexcala, a dusty, weatherworn village in Southwest Mexico on the upper reaches of the Rio Balsas. The village stirred as the bells of its crumbling church pealed, and down by the river the first warm rays of the tropical dawn cast long shadows on men tinkering with boats that would soon be setting out on the toughest marathon in the world.
Ahead lay 370 miles of racing in seven daily stages through the rugged heart of the state of Guerrero—down fast-flowing rapids, over mean shallows, through deep, cactus-walled gorges in mountains where Mexico's gunslinging guerrillas live. Only a week earlier, insurgents led by the Communist Lucio Caba�as had shot six soldiers in an ambush not far from the river. Fearing that the guerrillas might attempt to disrupt the race by, say, kidnapping a boat's crew, the government provided armed guards at landing places.
The marathon drew 50 entries, from North America, Europe and New Zealand. Boats came in three categories—inflatables and rigid hulls with outboard motors and craft "propelled by other means." For most this meant jet propulsion, but one unusual entrant turned out to be a Canadian hovercraft.
Canada also entered four jets, sturdy aluminum craft with high-tensile steel bottoms. Britain and New Zealand joined the jet set with fiber-glass hulls, and the skipper of one of New Zealand's two 17-footers was a minor celebrity in the fleet—Jon Hamilton, whose father had developed the first commercial marine jets more than 25 years ago.
The marathon's first stage covered a particularly difficult 18-mile section of the Balsas, the swift current wreathing boulders in rapids that never seemed to end. Santa �lena, the longest and worst of the rapids, had claimed two boats in 1972. Now a crowd clustered along the banks, perhaps hoping for similar excitement again. It was not disappointed.
A Mexican outboard struck a partly submerged boulder at the head of the rapids, reducing the prop to fragmented metal. The current caught the boat side-on and swept it like a cork into the teeth of the torrent. The bow smashed first against one boulder and then another with sickening hollow thuds as the three crew members clung for their lives. Ultimately the boat capsized, but the badly shaken crew was rescued.
At the village of Balsas many boatmen dropped off to sleep on the riverbank. They were awakened early next morning by another drama. Two villagers were having a drunken argument. One stabbed the other to death only a few yards from where the crews were sleeping. Indeed, the murder was witnessed by two British boatmen, Quentin Van Marie and John Caulcutt. They rushed to the victim's aid, but he died in their arms. "The poor chap crumpled as his assailant made off into the hills," said Caulcutt.
Unfortunately for the Englishmen their day was also to end on a violent note. As they approached the finish of the 50-mile stage between Balsas and Santo Tom�s, their boat struck a rock with sufficient force to shatter the hull.
It was a bad day all around for the jets. One of the sleek Mexican boats limped into Santo Tom�s beneath a shroud of blue smoke from a very sick engine, and Hamilton ripped three layers of fiber glass from a large area of his hull after smashing through a bar at 70 miles an hour.
The New Zealanders beached the boat and spent 12 hours patching the damage, but another crisis was discovered only 20 minutes before starting time—gas had leaked into the oil sump, and the crew had to work frantically to drain it.