Green River Narrows Race proves to be rapid fun

jsimmons@charlotteobserver.comNovember 2, 2013 

If you’ve ever hopped in a kayak for a leisurely paddle on the Catawba River, you know what it takes to propel and guide the craft. Running the Green River Narrows Race is nothing like that.

Imagine tilting the river at such an angle that it drops 300 feet over the next three-quarters of a mile, creating a torrent of water rushing at 300 cubic feet per second, forming one set of Class V rapids after another. That’s what about 150 paddlers from as far away as New Zealand experienced Saturday during the Green River Narrows Race, where they battled rapids with names such as Hammer Factor, Gorilla or Go Left and Die.

“This race is going on its 18th year. We’ve had over 1,500 race runs in the 18 years through the narrows. We’ve had 500 actual racers participate and we’ve had 63 people break the five-minute barrier,” said race co-director John Grace.

Grace said winning the race is “the most prestigious trophy in the sport.” It’s held outside Hendersonville, about 90 minutes west of Charlotte. Most competitors are in kayaks, but some use canoes or hand-paddle the rapids. Paddlers – both men and women – run the rapids one at a time, and the fastest time wins.

“It’s the Super Bowl of whitewater kayaking,” he said.

The reason the race resonates with paddlers, he said, is that organizers have “a real hospitable community, run a smooth event and have one of the best courses in the world.

“It’s free for anybody who wants to hike in,” Grace said, referring to the steep one-mile hike required to reach the rapids. He expects about 1,000 spectators to cover the boulder-lined riverbank, giving the race “a stadium atmosphere.”

“Last year was a huge record-breaking year. This year the water is a little bit lower, so we may not get the record-breaking times but we have seven different countries represented,” Grace said. “It’s gonna be a shootout.”

Besides the power of the water, he said, paddlers face a course that’s loud and technically all-consuming.

“You definitely have to be 100 percent focused,” Grace said. “As much as paddling hard, the race is about not messing up at all.”

Consequences for mistakes can be harsh. “If you mess up bad you can run some of the rapids backwards or have to swim,” Grace said.

At least one paddler, Burton Greer of Atlanta, needed to be rescued.

Race safety personnel pulled him out of the base of the rapids known as “Gorilla.” He then climbed back into his kayak to finish his run.

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