Eugene (Gene) Jensen has been involved with professional marathon canoe racing for almost 30 years. As a competitor he has forged an impressive record with more victories than he care to remember. He has won the Shawinigan International Classic four times, and has never placed lower than 12th. This is truly a remarkable record considering that Gene is still an active competitor at age 47.
In addition to his competitive accomplishments, Gene has also been in the forefront of the sport with regards to equipment. He started building canoes in 1949, and is now a self-employed designer and builder of quality marathon racing canoes which bear his name. Gene was also the architect of the angle canoe paddle which is now so popular in the marathon canoe racing world.
In 1976 Gene branched out into other areas of canoeing and competed in the Olympic flatwater trials in C-2 this past summer. He also attended the open canoe whitewater nationals in Jackson, Wyo. on Labor Day and many of the top places were won in canoes of his design.
DR: It is well-known that marathon canoe racing is very popular in the Midwest. How did you become involved in the sport?
Jensen: I grew up in Minneapolis, and we lived near the Mississippi River. My dad was a fisherman, and I always had a fascination for the water and for boats. When I was around 12 years old some friends of mine and I built a wood-canvas kayak and started paddling on a small pond near my home. When I was 19 years old, in 1948, I entered my first race which was a small race outside of Little Falls, Minn. My partner, Tom Estes, and I won and later that year we won the 500-mile Minneapolis Aquatennial Canoe Derby that went from Bemidji to Minneapolis.
DR: Most readers of Down River are familiar with amateur marathon canoe racing under the auspices of the United States Canoe Association (USCA) and the American Canoe Association (ACA). How did you get involved in the professional side of the sport?
Jensen: At that time in the late 1940’s there was no distinction between amateurs and professionals. All of the races that we know about awarded some kind of prize money. You must remember that there was no communication between regions of the country at that time. We never heard of the Charles River Marathon in Boston, or the race on the Delaware River that finished in Philadelphia. These were big races, yet in our area they were unknown. We grew up thinking that all canoe races gave out prize money.
DR: How is professional marathon racing organized?
Jensen: In marathon racing there is just one class that is contested, and that is the open C-2 class. Any two people can enter, and the only restrictions are those dealing with the boats. The marathon pro canoe has a maximum length of 18 ½ feet, and a required width of 33 inches at the gunwales sloping at 45 degrees to a 27-inch water line beam at a three inch depth. This hull is too tippy for general recreational use, and is made strictly for speed. Entry fees range from $5 to $25, and at most races there are at least 50 teams entered and it can get pretty wild at the start.
DR: How much prize money is available in pro racing?
Jensen: It varies from race to race. First place in a small race can be $50, while first place in the International Classic is $1600, with the total prize money reaching $12,000.
DR: Who puts up the prize money for these races?
Jensen: For the major races in Canada, the money comes from breweries or cigarette manufacturers. In this country, large businesses or local Chambers of Commerce raise the money. The good part of pro racing is that even if you finish down the line you can get a nice check. In the International Classic ninth place will receive about $400.
A bad aspect of the sport is that the whole sport is a bit disorganized. There is no national championship race, and there is little thought put into the scheduling of the races. As it stands now there might be a race in British Columbia, and then a race the next weekend in Quebec, and then the next weekend in Quebec, and then the next week way back in Alberta, resulting in a lot of criss-crossing of the continent.
DR: At most of the pro races one sees canoes decorated with advertising for a particular company. Why is this done?
Jensen: Race organizers will usually contact local business and try to get them to sponsor people coming to participate. If you do get a sponsor you are liable to get about $50 to $100 for traveling expenses, and then that business will put their name on your canoe. It is good advertising for them because a lot of people are watching these events. If you win the race then you might get a bonus from the company over and above the official prize money. However, I doubt if anybody really comes out too far ahead financially. After equipment expenses, travel time, and training time, you might break even.
DR: How is a marathon race contested?
Jensen: Most pro races are at least a couple days in duration. Each day begins with a mass start, and the finish is usually in a town at the end of the day. At the finish of each day your time is recorded, and the team with the lowest total elapsed time for the whole event is the winner. Every race includes long stretches of paddling, interspersed with portages and these portages are up to a mile in length. Then, to make things interesting, there are time trials during the course of the race. If you pass through a town they may have some buoys set up, and the fastest team around the buoys picks up some extra prize money put up by that particular town. I remember one race where we placed third overall yet won as much prize money as the winners because we won all the time trials along the way.
DR: How many times a year do you compete?
Jensen: I usually race about five to ten times a year. These long races take a lot out of you, and there is usually a lot of traveling involved with racing, so it is not something that you do on a weekend, and then return home Sunday night.
DR: How do you train for such a grueling event?
Jensen: We do a lot of distance paddling, and some interval work. I paddle about nine months a year, and really hit the training hard in preparation for a big race. We would get up early in the morning to paddle and then do some paddling after work. On weekends we would do a 70-mile shot on Saturday, and do it again on Sunday. I find that overall body fatigue is the worst enemy. You just want to lie down and rest. Some people get dizzy, and fall down on the portages. Even if you prepare well, the race itself is always tough.
DR: I would think that after paddling hard for three to four hours that a portage would be a welcome relief, a chance to stretch your legs.
Jensen: Yeah, for about seven feet. Those portages are really murder. It seems like that when you get older it doesn’t bother you so much to paddle, but you really lose your legs for those portages. Every time I portage I swear that it will be the last time.
DR: What do you drink during those long races?
Jensen: Usually Gatorade or iced tea. Of course we drink through a tube that is attached to a bottle on the floor of the boat. In this way you don’t have to stop paddling in order to drink.
DR: Turning to equipment, what materials are used in making your canoes?
Jensen: All of the best pro racing canoes are made out of wood, cedar-strip. Fiberglass is entering the picture, but it tends to flex, and this destroys the lines of the boat. It really wastes your energy to have that hull flex while you are paddling.
DR: A lot of paddlers are now using the bent shaft or angle paddle. Has this surprised you?
Jensen: Yes, as a matter of fact I am surprised at how popular is has become. I began using it around 1970, and it has really caught on. A lot of marathon racers are now using it.
DR: How big is your canoe business?
Jensen: It is very small. I design and build racing canoes for the pros and the USCA class, and I just finished building my first C-1 racing canoe. My family and I are the only workers in the business. I used to work in construction, but I turned to full-time canoe building last year.
DR: Who has been your toughest competitor through the years?
Jensen: It would have to be Buzz Peterson. He is six years older than I am, and we have even raced together upon occasion. He, Ralph Sawyer and I have won a lot of races through the years. It really is getting more competitive now. In the old days you might lose one place in a race due to a mistake. Now, you would lose five places.
DR: Is it unusual for people to stay in the sport as long as you have?
Jensen: Well, you know, I have retired many times, and made many comebacks. I think that if people have a bit of success every now and again, then they will tend to stay involved in the sport. A good healthy attitude in any sport is not necessarily using winning, per se, as the goal for doing the sport. You’ve got to have fun. You always beat somebody in a race and you have got to be realistic when you get to be my age.