Getting On Board

Riverboarder Kevin Yount.

Riverboarder Kevin Yount.

Adrenaline junkies take note: you may be missing an opportunity to feel the rush and push the limits. Have you ever heard of riverboarding?

“I describe it as bodyboarding meets whitewater with a beefed up, more buoyant board,” says Kevin Yount of WNC’s only riverboarding company, Appalachian Riverboarding. In other words, your body is on the rapids at “face level” — exactly what most paddlers and rafters try to avoid. But when you’ve got the right equipment, training, and most importantly, the right part of the right river, riverboarding is the most direct way you get in touch with white water.

Riverboarding is thought to have developed in France during the 1970s when river guides threw some life jackets in a burlap sack and rode the rapids. It’s still more popular in Europe than in the US (although New Zealand is now the sport’s biggest stronghold). Most riverboarders cross over from other water sports such as surfing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting, says Yount. Some just want a more personal connection with the water, while others might have injuries that prevent them from continuing with paddle sports. Yount discovered the sport through his love of “anything involving speed,” he says. It took a few years to locate the right gear to give it a try, but once he did, he was hooked.

When meeting paddlers on the river, Yount says a common first reaction is concern. The first question isn’t “What are you doing?” but “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” or “Are you sure you’re not going to die?” But riverboarding isn’t as dangerous as it looks, he says. When paddlers fall into the water, it’s unintentional, and the shock is part of what makes it risky. “We’re prepared to be in the water for the duration,” he says. “And we’re wearing gear to allow us to do that.”

That gear includes flippers, a PFD (personal flotation devise), a full wet suit in the winter, and a helmet, preferably with a visor to keep the face protected. Leg pads are a good idea, too, especially for the novice. The board itself is the key piece of equipment, and while there are several riverboard manufacturers in the US (Yount represents Face Level, one of the biggest ones), some people just make their own. It’s the same way that the first snowboards were developed ad hoc by skateboarders and skiers.

Does the same establishment versus upstart relationship exist in riverboarding the way it does with skiers and snowboarders? Yount says raft guides may occasionally get annoyed with riverboarders when they come upon them on the river since it may affect the route they take with their groups. But in general, “they support anything that gets people on the water,” he says.

Yount estimates that the number of those participating in riverboarding events across the country is probably in the hundreds, not thousands, but he continues to come upon people who have been trying it on their own, non-competitively. While there is a national riverboarding organization, most events are held regionally. There are speed races (the first one down the river wins) and skills-based and freestyle competitions. Yount placed first in the Southeast regional bordercross event (a sprint) this past April 1st and 2nd at the US Riverboard championships bordercross event in the summer of 2009.

In the South, Yount says riverboarding is biggest in Atlanta and Knoxville, but locally the rivers on the North Carolina-Tennessee border are the best places to do it. He boards on the French Broad, Pigeon, and Ocoee, and takes advantage of the local recreational dam releases the same way that paddlers do. But he wouldn’t recommend it for the inexperienced.

Beginners should always start out with someone who knows the sport and knows the river, no more than a Class 2 or 3 (on the International Scale of River Difficulty). A river with “fluffy” waves, not too many rocks, and more depth, is ideal, Yount says. “You don’t want giant waves.” Having enough height and weight to get a kick off is important, so he doesn’t teach kids younger than 11 or 12, although he says that in Europe, kids often start much earlier. The best advice he can give to those who get in trouble is to let go of the board.

Yount teaches riverboarding through Appalachian Riverboarding and with a friend is working on designing and making riverboards. And while being a professional riverboarder isn’t a reality at the moment (he’s also a substitute teacher, musician, fitness trainer), he’s got the passion and commitment to ride it out until the sport’s big wave comes along.

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