The Boards of Summer

By Caroline Kettlewell
Friday, July 22, 2005

Sure, everyone else is wakeboarding, windsurfing and whitewater paddling this summer. But you want to ride the cutting edge, don't you? You want to do the thing that (almost) no one else is doing. Well, slap on the sunscreen and get ready to get wet, with three board sports just starting to make a splash in our region.

Riverboarding

When you meet Chris Washnock, he doesn't seem crazier than the average person. He has a friendly, low-key manner, a ready grin and a responsible day job with a major beverage company. You realize that Washnock, 35, is not quite like the rest of us only when you are standing with him at the very edge of churning Class IV rapids that thunder past in a froth of whitewater. The rest of us would take a cautious step back. Washnock jumps in.

He doesn't jump unprepared -- if a person can really be said to be prepared to leap into a monstrous washing machine set to "pulverize." He wears a whitewater helmet and flotation jacket. He wears a wet suit if it's cold. He wears in-line skating knee guards, soccer shinguards reinforced with duct tape and neoprene booties. He wears bodyboarding swim fins.

Should there be any bystanders to observe Washnock, poised, thus suited, standing on a rock just upriver of the maelstrom, they are likely to eye him with a mixture of apprehension and eager anticipation, as if to say, "He's not going in, is he? No way he's going in."

He goes in.

The key item that renders this plunge more "sport" than sheer madness is the object that Washnock grips firmly to his torso. It looks something like a bobsled by way of a topless whitewater freestyle kayak. But the most obvious genetic influence here is a beach toy: the boogie board.

A few years ago, Washnock says, "I went whitewater rafting for the first time, and I fell in love with it." While storming river by raft, however, Washnock noted that "people fall out of the boat all the time" and often enough, therefore, make an unplanned bodysurf down the rapids. In a moment of inspiration, Washnock decided he could go this scenario one better.

"I said, 'I'm going to get a kickboard and do a controlled swim down the rapids.' "

"My friends," he adds, perhaps unnecessarily, "thought I was crazy."

If he's crazy, he's got good company. An Internet search for an industrial-strength board suitable for steering into whitewater led Washnock to the discovery that the sport he'd dreamed up already existed. Called "riverboarding" in the United States, its origins appear to lie in France, where it's called "hydrospeed" and where several decades ago some whitewater rafters decided to take on the rapids riding tied-together life jackets. Next to take the plunge was New Zealand, where it's called "sledging," and the United States, where Robert Carlson ditched a PhD program in mathematics and invented the Carlson Riverboard in 1985.

"I was a whitewater river guy, but in California every guy who lives by the ocean has a boogie board," says Carlson, now 55. So he took a regular boogie board and jumped into the spring flood of California's South Fork American River. "All the equipment was wrong, but I had a great time. So I decided to make my own board."

Riverboarding has yet to catch on in a big way in the states, although, Washnock says, "it's picking up fast. When I first started riverboarding, nobody had any idea what it was. They thought maybe you sat on the board, maybe you stuck your feet under the bar. Now people will see me and they'll say, 'Oh, riverboarding, I saw something about that.' "


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