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To win the world’s longest non-stop river race, you'll want a boat from this Kansas City shop

 Two men working inside a workshop lift a long, narrow object that is partially wrapped in clear plastic.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Adam Burns and John Sonderson lift a one-man canoe to wrap it in plastic before they vacuum-seal the bottom half of what will become a new racing boat.

River Hawk Boat Shop in Lee's Summit crafts sleek, state-of-the-art racing boats that are in demand for the MR340, a 340-mile river race that kicks off this week from Kansas City. Their boats have won every race for the past eight years, and the new owners are hoping to do it again.

Adam Burns and John Sonderman are wrestling with a giant plastic bag.

Inside Burns’ workshop in Pleasant Hill, they wrap the bag around a dark, elongated shape. The crinkling drowns out the sound of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” playing from a speaker hung above a workbench.

They will eventually suck the air out of the bag, squeezing together a mix of resin, Kevlar and carbon fiber around a fiberglass mold.

”It is very rare to find a boat made outta wood now,” Burns says. “So everything's a composite. It's just so much lighter.”

Burns displays a frayed piece of black and gray fabric with a shiny, sharkstooth-like woven pattern.

 A closeup image of a pair of hands holding a black- and silver-woven square of fabric.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Adam Burns handles a small piece of the kind of carbon fiber fabric that is layered with Kevlar to build River Hawk boats.

“So this is what we start with — just sheets of carbon,” Burns says. “Sheets of Kevlar, which, you know, again, you could stitch yourself a shirt out of. And then we're gonna turn those things into a boat.”

Although the frame is only 13 inches wide, the soon-to-be boat stretches 23 feet down the middle of Burns’ workshop. It’s so long that Burns had to cut a hole in one wall to accommodate it, intruding on his two-car garage.

This boat is destined for a client with a specific purpose in mind: the Missouri River 340 (MR340), billed as the longest, non-stop river race in the world.

Beginning on August 1 at Kaw Point Park, hundreds of paddlers will begin a 340 mile-journey from Kansas City to St. Charles, Missouri.

“These boats have been designed and redesigned so that they're not ocean-going boats,” Burns says. “They're not meant to take huge waves, swells — so rivers, lakes, you know, big bodies of water that are not the ocean.”

A friendship forged on the river

Two people launch a professional kayak into a river in early morning light. The skyline of Kansas City looms in the background
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Racers load a professional kayak into the Missouri River on July 2021 prior to the MR340, which launches from Kaw Point.

Burns has a lot of experience in boats like this. As part owner of River Hawk Boat Shop in Lee’s Summit, Burns and his partner Joe Mann are one of the few custom racing boat builders in the country.

River Hawk has an enviable success record: For the past eight years, each of the solo winners of the MR340 has done so in a River Hawk boat.

Burns and Mann have only owned the business since 2021, after buying it from the previous owner. But both are seasoned racers, and MR340 champions.

Mann had raced in the Texas Water Safari in the past. It’s a shorter race, at 260 miles, but it runs on the narrow Guadalupe River, full of tight turns, debris, small waterfalls and dams that racers have to navigate.

A man wearing a light green T-shirt stands inside a workshop. He has both hands on a long dark shape that is a boat in progress of being built. On the wall hanging behind him is a long, narrow red and white canoe.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Joe Mann stands in his workshop in Lee's Summit where he and Adam Burns build some of River Hawk's boats. He's leaning on a four-man racing canoe he's building for this year's MR340. On the wall above him is the River Hawk boat he used to set the course record in 2018.

Mann says the Texas Water Safari, which calls itself the "the world's toughest canoe race," is like mountain bike racing. But on the smooth and wide Missouri River, the MR340 is more like a road bike race.

“You could conceivably get in the boat at the beginning of the MR340 and never have to get out,” Mann says. “And you're not gonna go over any dams or waterfalls or rocks or portages.”

Even so, the MR340 is a real marathon: It can take 40 hours to complete for the faster boats, while others finish in twice that amount of time.

Mann and Burns became friends while racing in the MR340 in 2007. For each, it was their first year in the race and the start of a friendship.

“We ended up paddling next to each other with a couple of other guys for a pretty decent portion of the second day,” Mann says. “And we kind of got along and hung out on the water and, you know, had a good time.”

 Three men sit in a long boat paddling with their feet. The boat barely sits above the water and has metal framework on it.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
From left, Matt Walters, Adam Burns and Joe Mann paddle the Kraken to victory in the 2021 MR340.

They ended up racing together in 2021, with a boat they designed themselves, finished as the overall winners (completion time: 35 hours, 42 minutes, 14 seconds).

They arrived at the finish line in the “Kraken”— an unusual, multi-person boat that’s paddled using recumbent bicycles.

Teachers turned boat-builders

Adam Burns plugs a hose into the plastic bag, now fully encasing the epoxied boat, and sucks the last drops of air out of it.

Several plastic containers are shown on a table. They contain wooden sticks, nylon spreaders among other things used for assembling a racing boat.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The tools of a modern racing boat builder include tools that spread epoxy and to maximize speed.

It generally takes a day for epoxy to be squeezed out, then a few more days of curing before they add another layer of epoxy.

There’s not much to do at this point except for Burns and Sonderman to sip some coffee and knock off for the day. For both of them, this is only a side gig.

“We're teachers,” Sonderman says. “I'm a counselor. He (Burns) was a fourth grade teacher. We started on the same day in 2004 at (Grandview C4 School District), and we've been there ever since.”

Like a lot of teachers, they looked for something to do in the summer to keep a little cash in their pockets.

“So we started painting houses, doing minor construction for people and whatever — helping people and mostly all friends and family stuff,” Sonderman says.

Sonderman even helped Burns build his home, which stands about 20 feet away from the combined garage and workshop.

A man wearing a light red T-shirt stands in a small room between two long, narrow forms. One is a nearly completed racing boat. The other is the unfinished top half of a racing boat.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Adam Burns shows where the racing boats are brought to be coated with an additional layer of epoxy and smoothed to a sleek finish.

“But we did that for a long time,” Sonderman says. “And then he was like, ‘Well, I'm buying a boat business.’ I go, ‘All right, I can help you with that, you know, if you want it.’”

Two years ago, Burns and Mann snatched up the opportunity to buy River Hawk Boats and began building boats as fast as they could — ones that could speed down the Missouri as fast as possible. They produce around eight a year, and a basic one-person model starts at $5,400.

This is Sonderman’s first summer building the boats, although he doesn’t race himself.

“Joe and I just looked at it as an opportunity to kind of take it and move it to a different place,” Burns says. “And so I think since we've had it, we've had it about a year and a half. I think we've built 14 boats in that year and a half. So we've built quite a few boats.”

With such a niche purpose, it’s not a business that will make them rich. The men say boat-building is more like therapy.

“Working in a school is tough and to, you know, to have these couple months to just, you know, work at your own pace, work on something that you like, and to have a tangible product that you can see at the end of the day is really cool,” Sonderman says.

“You don't really get that a lot of times when you're working with kids,” he adds. “It's obviously really rewarding. But this gives you that little mental break and you're more ready to get after it in the fall at school.”

Burns and Mann will both be in the water this week for the MR340, although competing against each other.

Mann is building a boat based on the same structure of this one, which he’ll paddle as part of a team of four.

Side view of two people in a long, narrow boat paddle on a body of water.
John Radford
Gus Burns, left, and his father, Adam, get some practice time in a two-person ocean canoe that they built together at River Hawk Boat Shop in Pleasant Hill.

Burns will be riding in a tandem boat he built with his 14-year-old son, Gus. The two of them have competed in shorter races together, and this is their first time doing the MR340 as a father-son duo.

“We've done really well in a few races, you know, competing against other grown men, groups of grown men and done really well,” Burns says. “I want to do well in the 340, but I think as a 14-year-old, he doesn't really understand what it means to exercise for 40 straight hours without sleep.”

Gus says he’s looking forward to the challenge, but he’s also hesitant about the physical demand. Although his dad is an MR340 champion, the longest race Gus has completed is 63 miles.

“I think it's gonna be a good experience,” Gus says. “I’m excited and I'm also dreading it.”

Either way, Burns says it’ll be a bonding experience to remember.

“You're only five feet apart,” Burns says. “So that's been one of the best things about doing it, is just to get to spend time with a kid who's 14 and when at an age where they're typically pulling away from you, you’re kind of able to keep a little bit closer.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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