A close call at Glenwood

Claire Chappell 10 months ago safety

Editor’s note: We’re looking for your close call stories to feature on the blog! If you have a story that new river surfers could learn from, shoot them over to us! This first story is from one of our contributor’s Claire Chappell.

What Happened? (The Long Version)
It was high water last year and the river left side of Glenwood Springs was kickin’. It’s a fantastic wave for both SUP surf and short boards above 10,000cfs. The SUP drop-in is challenging and I was dying to try the new Badfish short board that BP busted out of her trailer so I set my paddle aside. The shore side of the wave glasses out every minute or so and on my two first attempts at dropping in, I flew right past. It’s a lot of swimming and hiking to do for no surfing, so I decided to finally take a gander at the tow-rope that had always intimidated me. The rope has been there for years. Boogie boarders, short boarders and kayakers use it and even some SUP surfers have started. It’s attached to the rocks just above the wave and can pendulum a person from the eddy out onto the wave pretty gracefully from what I have seen. I can still hear my raft-guide trainers from ten years ago saying “ropes don’t belong in rivers’, but it only required hanging on with your hand, to the wide water-ski style foam handle, and then letting go. This didn’t seem like a hazard.

SUP river surfing Glenwood Springs
Benjamin Smith surfing river left at low water

It was tricky the first couple of times. A considerable amount of pulling force on your arm and positioning your board just right so that it didn’t catch an edge. The sensation was pretty cool actually. Swinging in a huge arc, letting the current and the rope work together to deposit you on the glass. I was getting on successfully and feeling comfortable, right up until an odd sequence of events changed the entire situation from river surfing heaven to a few seconds of terror.

I was lying balanced on my board in the turbulent eddy, I paddled over and grabbed the rope from the shore side and slowly worked my way toward moving water, starting to float ever so slightly down the eddy as the rope gradually started loosing it’s slack and I began to float into the wide eddy line. I didn’t like the way my body was becoming angled so I tried adjusting, scootching into the perfect spot on my board. It’s wasn’t uncommon to feel you weren’t in the precise spot, on your board or in the water, and you could just drop the rope and paddle back over and start again. As my weight shifted too much, my board tipped to one side and I over compensated. I let go of the rope as I rolled off my board into the water I remember thinking no biggy, I’ll try again. Somehow, as my board and body flailed, the leash lassoed the handle of the tow-rope as it dropped beneath the water. Next thing I know, I was pulled abruptly out toward the current and couldn’t touch bottom anymore in the eddy, and then my head was under water. I kicked my legs and fought with my arms and just my face surfaced. I was aware that I was attached somehow and two strong forces at odds were going to pull me down in their battle. It wasn’t clear exactly how I was hooked and this all happened in matter of a few seconds. As I yelled for help when my face surfaced, I could see that the three friends I was surfing with were already leaping through the eddy toward me. As Erin got to me and started reaching her arms under to find the problem, I had already begun frantically feeling my waist line for that glorious little red plastic ball, the quick release. It took only another second, one quick jerk and I was free and floating.

What did you learn?
Even though I was only under water for a second, I was aquainted with a new feeling that I’d like never to meet again. I learned what it feels like to be trapped, attached, caught and not breathing. The panic was real.

The incident reinforced why I wear my Badfish Re-Leash every time. Why I had no problem paying sixty dollars for a new one earlier that week at the local shop when I couldn’t find my old one. I am a strong believer in leashes. I think hands down the most dangerous place for a person is swimming in whitewater. In my opinion, you need a leash because you need to be with your board. That being said, and as I think the majority of the community now knows, quick-release is the only safe option. As this event demonstrates and as we know from a growing number of tradgedies, regular leashes on rivers are deadly.

Badfish Re-Leash (6′ and 11′)

I learned that all those times that I sat in an eddy and tested just how quick I could find that ball were worth it. Practice everything.

It reminded me of a rule that used to be hard and fast for me but I have admittedly slacked on a couple of times. Don’t ever paddle alone. Even though that day didn’t require a rescue, I cannot tell you how important it was to me in those seconds to see people rushing towards me. If I hadn’t been able to get to my release for whatever reason, they could have. No more quick surf-lunch-breaks solo. Yes, being on the river is amazing, but one session isn’t worth the chance encounter with another odd sequence of events.

Claire Chappell SUP river surfing
Claire Chappell surfing river right


Written by | Claire Chappell

Claire is a team rider for Badfish Stand Up Paddle and Colorado Kayak Supply and is co-founder of Can I Surf That. She is a family practice PA and has a 6 month old future river surfer named Finn.

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