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.
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.' "
And no, you don't sit on them. Riverboard design is anything but standardized, but the general concept is arms and upper torso on the board, hips to flippered feet in the water. Unlike the familiar beach boogie board, riverboards typically have some kind of grip to hang on to. Hang on, you'll want to, although Washnock points out that on a riverboard you automatically avoid two of the scarier scenarios in rafting and kayaking: "You're already in the river. You can't fall out of the boat, and if you flip over you're not trapped." Well, that's one way of looking at it.
Washnock rides a Ripboard, from the Colorado-based company of the same name founded by Shane Bolling. It was a Ripboard that Washnock found in that Internet search, and it was a Ripboard that Washnock lost in fall 2003 when he jumped into the James River's infamous Hollywood Rapids, in the heart of Richmond, when the river was a whitewater chaos at a flood height of about 16 feet.
"I was running the main drop," Washnock recalls. "I got introduced to being 'worked in the hole.' I was pushed under so far that the board had so much flotation that it just ripped right out of my arms." Eventually, Washnock popped out, too, his board long gone, and fought his way back to shore, bypassing the dead cow floating in the eddy. And this is how Washnock became Ripboard's official southeastern sales rep. "I was the first individual to order a second board from Shane Bolling," he says. "Or maybe the first to admit losing one. That's how I got to know him."
Back on the James (Washnock lives just outside Richmond), Washnock prepares to take on Hollywood Rapids in far lower water, though you still have to speak at a shout to be heard over the roar of the river. Washnock recommends, of course, that anyone trying the sport for the first time begin on flat water to get a feel for maneuvering the board before graduating to progressively livelier challenges. And no matter how many times he returns to the same spot on the same river, he scouts his line carefully before hitting the water. "Every river is different at different levels," he says. "Reading water is the skill that's most important because once you start your line, you're committed to it -- that's the line you're taking."
Having picked his course, with a wary eye for a midstream boulder that announces itself by the vaulting green fountain spurting over its top, Washnock takes a flying lunge and lands, board and all, with a belly-down smack in the water, aims himself into the current with a few swift kicks, and within seconds he is snatched up by the river and flung into the turbulence. As he shoots the rapids, a mountain biker and three strollers on the riverside path stop and stare. In these jaded modern days when bungee-jumping from bridges and skiing off cliff-faces have become merely yawn-inducing old hat, it's nice to see there's a sport that can still elicit mouth-agape astonishment from the sidelines.
Washnock emerges 100 yards downstream, body and grin intact.
"Whitewater at face level" is what Bolling calls riverboarding, Washnock says. "All you're focused on, all you can see, is the area right in front of you," he says.
"On a riverboard it's mano a mano," Carlson says. "You're wrestling with the river. It's a great sport. I'm going again tomorrow."
Chris Washnock and Ripboard will be at the Gauley River Festival in Summersville, W.Va., Sept. 23-25. "We're trying to get 50 experienced riders to go down together at the same time," Washnock says. Call 866-311-2627 or 303-904-8367 or visit
FACELEVEL.COM -- For riverboarding history,
board reviews, links, photos and more, visit
CARLSON RIVERBOARDS -- Boards can be found at www.pacificriversupply.com, or visit the Carlson's Web site at home.comcast.net/robert.carlson4.
Several hours to the northeast, where the only whitewater pounds in from the Atlantic, a stiff breeze blows damp with the promise of rain beneath a low-hanging gray sky. On a short stretch of sand at the edge of Rehoboth Bay, just outside Dewey Beach, Del., Wayne Hill and Scott Cruise of Northern Virginia are preparing for a lesson in kiteboarding. Hill is working with a trainer kite, a bright green foil about five feet wide, making it dip and dive, his body leaning backward at a 45-degree angle against the pull of the kite. There are bloody scrapes on his legs from the night before, when the trainer kite dragged him across the parking lot.
A 31-foot-long RV is parked at the edge of the beach, its sides intermittently plastered with red stickers declaring a bit of kiteboarding attitude: "Windsurfing has been cancelled," they read. This is the mobile demo and training unit for Dewey Beach-based H2Air Kiteboarding. Its front half is standard RV, with a case of Red Bull (worldwide kiteboarding competition sponsor) on the passenger seat. From its back half, which is equipped with floor-to-ceiling shelves and wide-opening rear doors, H2Air owner Dave Loop, 38, and instructors Garry Menk (also a rep for kiteboarding gear-maker Cabrinha), 31, and Hamish MacDonald (also a professional kiteboarder), 25, are unloading an accumulating array of equipment. There are boards, lines, body harnesses, a compressed-air hose and kites -- though here you must dismiss any connection between the word "kite" and the familiar, diamond-shaped plaything of breezy days in the park. These kites are the size of sails, C-shaped, with inflated baffles, trailing 20 to 30 meters (in kiteboarding, the metric system rules) of hollow-braided, 500-pound-test line; lying on the sand, they resemble enormous, brightly colored jellyfish.
Kiteboarding, as the name suggests, involves a board (it most closely resembles a snowboard) for the feet and one of those uber-kites for propulsion. Its appeal is immediately obvious -- you harness the wind to fly across the water at exhilarating speeds. (The world record is just shy of 50 mph, but the H2Air instructors say that even ordinary mortals might reasonably expect 20 to 30 mph on a fast run.)
Orthopedic surgeon Bob Huxster of Unionville, Pa., who is gearing up on the sand with a 20-meter kite, says he used to be a windsurfer, until one day a kiteboarder shot past him on the water and a new passion was born.
"This is more fun than windsurfing," he says. "It's teeth-in-the-wind, on the edge of control. You've never mastered it -- there's always another challenge."
For experienced kiteboarders, there's the thrill of the open ocean, catching the surf, riding the waves, launching off the top of a swell. "It's like a rolling skate park," Menk says. And, he says, "you can be playing in much lighter wind than windsurfing."
Today, on the bay side, students Hill and Cruise, having digested lessons in setup, safety and kite handling, are ready to get on the water. "Everybody wants to do the water lesson," Loop says. "They want to get on the board. But the reality is that you have to be able to control the kite first. Contrary to what you hear, kiteboarding doesn't take a lot of strength; it takes finesse."
Suiting up for kiteboarding means donning a body harness, which in turn is attached to a bar, which in turn is attached to the lines of the kite. You don't simply hang on and let the wind carry you away; rather, hands on the bar, kiteboarders rev up their rides by making the kites dive and swoop. "Diving the kite and bringing it back up develops power. You create apparent wind," Loop says. Or, as his wife, Paula (aka Spunky), explains it in highly technical terms, "It's sort of like when you stick your hand out the window in a moving car." Changing the angle of the kite to the wind increases your power and therefore your speed. Conversely, let go of the bar and the kite drops docilely into the water.
In the shallow waters 50 yards off the beach, a pair of deluxe, multi-seater Sea-Doos -- veritable SUVs of personal watercraft -- bob at anchor, the particularly mobile mobile training units for H2Air that allow the instructors to remain by students' sides for aid, assistance and instruction on the fly.
While Hill and Cruise head into the water to get the hang of getting on the board, Huxster launches with the help of the H2Air crew and skims rapidly across the bay, trailing a rooster tail of sea foam.
"Learning how to launch and land safely are key pieces to the water lesson," Loop says. Though some people take to the sport with natural ease, realistically, Loop says, most students should plan for about six hours of lesson time to become familiar with techniques, including proper rigging and safe landing. You'll still be a long way from pro, but, he says, "at the end of the lesson, I make sure someone can land and launch the kite with no problems. Then I feel like they'll be okay."
Despite the testosterone-reeking aura of most kiteboarding imagery -- the video clips with the driving guitar tracks and high-flying glory shots, the "extreme" tag invariably attached to the sport in every news and magazine story -- you get the impression that though the H2Air instructors are all in favor of enjoying kiteboarding's speed and airborne excitements, they don't have much patience with hot-dogging. They stress safety first.
"We started the business because so many people wanted to learn," Loop says. "We wanted to teach to promote safety, to keep kiteboarding safe."
Kiteboarding lessons from qualified instructors don't come cheap -- H2Air's three-hour-plus "full package" is $350, roughly the going rate for Professional Air Sports Association-certified schools in the mid-Atlantic. (H2Air will, however, apply $75 of that fee toward purchase of a kiteboarding gear package.) Sound pricey? The alternative could be costlier. Tangle in the lines of a powered kite and "they'll debone you," Loop observes dryly. There's apparently enough video footage floating around of hapless kiteboarders body-dragging over dunes, through crowds and across parking lots to suggest the value of learning from the experts.
"It can be so painful, watching people trying to teach themselves on their own," Loop says.
"It's like trying to teach yourself how to sky-dive," Menk says. "Usually we can see trouble coming before they can."
H2AIR KITEBOARDING -- 1701 Hwy. 1, Dewey Beach, Del. 302-227-1105. www.h2air.com.
PROFESSIONAL AIR SPORTS ASSOCIATION -- For certified kiteboarding schools, visit www.pasakiteboarding.org.
REAL KITEBOARDING -- For kiteboarding videos (cue driving guitar track) and more, visit www.realkiteboarding.com.
Prefer powering along under your own steam? There's a board for you, too. Leaving the kiteboarders behind, travel south a half-hour to Maryland to crawl past Ocean City's steady parade of T-shirt shops, mini golf, water slides and arcades to stop at a weathered bungalow hemmed in among hotels, restaurants and a Christmas store, an architectural remnant of another, long-ago era in this beach town's life. This is Ocean Atlantic Surfing. The shop could fit whole inside the average suburban McMansion great room, and it's stacked to the ceiling with surf wear, surf gear and surfboards. A block away, the ocean is an unruly mess of chop, and Ocean Atlantic owner Dave "Doc" Dalkiewicz is having a quiet afternoon, with time to talk about the object of our visit: paddleboarding.
If you're not a follower of the surfing scene, chances are you may never have heard of paddleboarding, though it's a sport with decades of history, even older roots in native Hawaiian culture, its own pantheon of legendary heroes and some astonishing feats of athleticism and endurance to its credit. It's also, in principle, profoundly simple.
"You just paddle," Dalkiewicz says.
With your own arms, that is, lying down or kneeling on a board that is a sleek marriage of racing scull and flat-topped kayak.
"It's pretty minimalist," says Dalkiewicz, 53. "You need a body of water, maybe a wet suit, a board and some gumption."
Built for speed and distance, paddleboards range in size from the international lifeguarding standard "10-6" (10 feet, six inches) to 12, 14, 18 feet and even longer. Dalkiewicz's own 14-footer is slung from the ceiling of his shop. If you're over Ocean City way, he'll give you a lesson on it.
But why, you might ask, would you want that lesson? What's the appeal?
"It's nice because it's simple." That's the verdict of Ed Wigglesworth, 35, a surfer, paddleboarder and general manager of Chesapeake Light Craft in Annapolis, which offers 30 different boat-building kits for the home consumer, including the 16-foot-long San O' (after San Onofre Beach, Calif.) paddleboard co-designed and race-tested by Californian and competitive paddleboarder Larry Froley. "You don't have a paddle," Wigglesworth says. "You don't have a life jacket. You don't have anything. It's just you and the board and nature. And it's really fast."
And a workout, too. Don't think that simple is the same thing as easy, Wigglesworth says. "A first-timer, you are probably not going to be able to do it more than 10 minutes."
Michael O'Shaughnessy, a Florida paddleboarder, agrees. "You can watch a paddler and go, 'Wow, that looks really easy,' but when you get on the board, it's not that easy. First you have to balance on these slivers of fiberglass, and then you have to move. When you first start this sport, the burning sensation in your shoulders is almost unbearable. You could swim a half-mile, but when you first start paddleboarding you can't do that; your shoulders will hurt too much."
Sound like fun yet? Well how about this: To a serious paddleboarder, a half-mile isn't even worth getting wet for. If you're not far from sight of shore with deep-sea creatures sniffing at your toes, you're just warming up. O'Shaughnessy, 48, has organized several (and paddled in three) Cuba-to-United States team paddles (accompanied by support boats) and is hoping to pull off a solo (though still with support boats) Bimini-to-Florida transit later this month, in tribute to paddleboarding great Gene "Tarzan" Smith, who in October 1940 paddled 100 miles in 30 hours, from Oahu to Kauai, on a 14-foot-long wooden board, through darkness, sharks, Portuguese man-of-wars and hallucinations that he was paddling down Hollywood Boulevard. Paddleboarder Larry Capune traveled 4,255 miles in 319 days, from Portland, Maine, to Corpus Christi, Tex., in 1975. Two of the best-known paddleboarding races, the venerable Catalina Classic and the Molokai-to-Oahu, are 32 miles each. Last year's Catalina winner nipped that off in a neat 5 hours 9 minutes and 40 seconds. At 65, Mike Eaton, who built his first paddleboard in 1968 (that's an Eaton in Dalkiewicz's shop), did the Catalina in 10 hours; this year, at 70, he's hoping to do it again.
Clearly, minimalism plus distance is what thrills the heart of the dedicated paddleboarder.
For his Bimini bid, O'Shaughnessy cheerfully predicts "a 98 percent chance of failure" what with the threat of hurricanes, wind, waves, fierce currents, jellyfish by the acre, carnivorous fish, the dark hours before dawn and more. "I'd like to at least get to the 10-hour mark," he says. "If I've got flat water and I'm feeling good, I'd like to get to 20 hours on the board. I feel like I'm living when I'm doing these paddles. It's beautiful when you are riding an open ocean swell. You'll see stingrays, turtles, dolphins, sharks trailing you like packs of coyotes. I'm in the water, but I'm not a swimmer in the water -- I'm on top of it. There's a real beauty to it."
"The ocean is a wilderness. It's like a foreign land," Dalkiewicz says.
Though a first-timer wouldn't be advised to venture any transnational expeditions (not that you could get that far, what with your shoulders likely to start begging for mercy before you'd cleared the harbor breakwater), there's something else to be said for giving this sport a try. "You're really in an intense workout," O'Shaughnessy says. "All you have to do is paddle a few miles every day, and your body starts to look like you did in your teen years."
OCEAN ATLANTIC SURFING -- 3404 Coastal Hwy., Ocean City, Md.; 410-289-3830.
PADDLEBOARDS.COM -- Links, photos, "hall of fame," paddleboarding stories and more (check out the Cuba Paddle section's QuickTime movie to get a feel for paddleboarding in motion) at Michael O'Shaughnessy's Web site www.paddleboards.com.
EATON PADDLEBOARDS -- For stories, information, legendary paddlers and, of course, gear from Eaton Paddleboards, visit www.eatonsurf.com.
CHESAPEAKE LIGHT CRAFT -- 1805 George Ave., Annapolis. 410-267-0137. www.clcboats.com. Build your own 16-foot-long paddleboard with Chesapeake Light Craft's race-tested kit.
Caroline Kettlewell is the author, most recently, of the high-voltage true story "Electric Dreams" and can be found in cyberspace at www.carolinekettlewell.com.