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RFID Navigates South African Rivers in Kayak Marathon

The event's organizers could identify where participants were located throughout the 120-kilometer course, based on RFID technology that read the tags of kayaks passing checkpoints, thereby allowing friends and family to meet paddlers along the river and provide food and water.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 11, 2015

The organizers of South Africa's 120-kilometer (75-mile) Dusi Canoe Marathon were able to assess the safety and speed of racers during a rigorous race by using RFID tags affixed to their watercraft (either kayaks or stand-up paddle boards), as well as readers positioned along the course. The system not only ensured that the organizers, the Natal Canoe Club, would know when someone fell behind and might require assistance, but also provided information to each participant's friends and family members so that they could plan to meet him or her along the course, in order to bring much-needed food and water. Finally, the solution monitored the exact time at which each racer crossed the finish line.

The system, provided for the Dusi Marathon by Finish Time Event Management, employs passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags from Tadbik and readers supplied by RFID Race Timing Systems.

A pole-mounted RFID reader antenna (shown on left) was installed at various checkpoints along the racecourse. Photographer: Anthony Grote.
The Dusi Canoe Marathon, which took place on Feb. 19-21 between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, is among the world's most challenging such events. It takes three days to complete, and participants must paddle and hike the distance along the Msunduzi and Mgeni rivers, which include various sections of rapids and obstructions, as well as the presence of poisonous snakes. When the marathon was first held in 1951, the only paddler who completed the race (Ian Player, the event's founder) reached the finish line in six days, eight hours and 15 minutes—despite his having been bitten by a night adder. Now, with lighter watercraft, paddlers are expected to finish the course in only three days, and are responsible for carrying and replenishing all of the supplies they will need along the way.

Carrying sufficient water to stay hydrated for the duration of the entire race, however, can prove difficult for a racer who must also lug a kayak or paddle board as many as 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) over mountainous terrain. In addition, with temperatures in some areas reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), running out of water prematurely can be lethal. Therefore, most participants receive water and other supplies along the route, distributed by friends. Even with the proper supplies, however, the marathon can be treacherous. Thus, says Craig Eldridge, Finish Time's technical director, the event is not advertised on a worldwide scale, in large part because the club only wants very serious paddlers who have familiarity with the area to attempt the journey. One individual drowned during this year's race, he says, and accidents have been fairly commonplace.

While tens of thousands of spectators arrive for the event, only approximately 1,500 participate in a total of 1,000 boats—some using doubles, others singles. The first day, they are required to complete 45 kilometers (28 miles) of the course, and a third of that distance involves portaging (carrying the kayak or board on land). Day two covers about the same distance, ending in the flat waters of the Inanda Dam. Day three is the shortest, at 35 kilometers (21.8 miles), and involves several very large sections of rapid water. If anyone fails to complete each day's leg, he or she is disqualified from the competition.

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