“One of the six sports we’ll be doing all year” –National Geographic Adventure Magazine, 2004
Riverboarding is as an extreme version of rafting, canoeing, or kayaking down whitewater rapids in a river. However, instead of sitting in a boat on top of the water a riverboarder holds onto a modified bodyboard called a "riverboard" and floats down the river, using their bodies to navigate through the rapids. This means waves and chutes that look small and simple in a boat appear much larger and menacing when on a riverboard. Most beginning to intermediate riverboarders ride through easier rapids that are rated class II and III and there are some extremists that ride very difficult rapids or even take their riverboard over waterfalls. A riverboarder has complete individual control over his board, unlike rafters who often must work together with others in the boat to paddle through rapids. However, the obvious downside of riverboarding is the potential for injury. Obstacles like rocks that are exposed or hiding under the water can cause abrasions, bruises or other serious injuries.
Three different countries claim responsibility for inventing riverboarding. The first documented event occurred in the French Alps in the 1970s. A group of raft guides decided to ride down river rapids while clinging to a pile of lifejackets. This trip was apparently so successful that they created sturdy foam boats called “hydrospeeds” to take down the river. Around the same time Robert Carlson, a surfer in California, started using a bodyboard to surf the rapids at local rivers. He later developed his own version of a board dubbed a “riverboard.” New Zealanders also claim that they were the first to try riverboarding, and have also created their own type of riverboard called a “sledge.”
In the following decades riverboarding has become somewhat popular in Europe and New Zealand, however it is not yet commonly known in North America. Various events have helped the sport gain exposure in the United States, including a trip in 2000 where a group of women rode riverboards down the entire Colorado River. Some rafting groups have also sponsored events such as “boardercrosses” where riverboarders race down a stretch of whitewater. Additional exposure for riverboarding came when Nissan Exterra and Nike commercials featured the sport. Today many rafting and kayaking tour guides now offer riverboarding excursions around the world.
The most important piece of riverboarding gear is the riverboard. The board helps keep the body high in the water, allowing a rider to move over rapids instead of becoming stuck in them, or worse, caught underneath. The board also helps protect the upper body and hips from rocks and other hard obstacles in the river. Several different objects can serve as a riverboard. One website actually states that beginners can get an idea of how a riverboard works by using a cut inner tube from a large truck tire. The tubes are very cheap, however they don’t provide much flotation or comfort. Regular foam bodyboards can also be used. A few companies have gone a step further and have made boards specifically meant for riverboarding. These boards have two grips on the top for control, soft padding on the body of the board, and a concave shape in the center to help prevent sliding around on the board. The boards also have a sleek, hydrodynamic design to make them easier to steer and turn. Riverboards sell for about $400 (US dollars).
It is also important for riverboarders to wear the proper accessories. Swimmer fins, similar to the ones used by snorkelers and SCUBA divers, are worn to give added power to the kicks that propel and steer a riverboard. Shinguards, kneepads, and helmets are also worn to provide protection against rocks and a lifejacket is an absolute necessity. Wetsuits, gloves, and booties are typically worn to keep the riverboarder warm in colder water.
Anyone who is interested in learning how to riverboard should start in calm water with no rapids. This allows one to get a feel for the board and learn how to maneuver it. People who have some experience with bodyboarding (boogieboarding) tend to have an easier time learning how to riverboard. Once the beginner is comfortable with the board they can try running simple rapids. It is important to keep the knees and feet elevated to avoid ramming them into underwater rocks. Another way to avoid collisions is to try and stay in the deeper parts of the river where the water is moving more quickly. Slower moving areas tend to signify shallow areas with plenty of uncomfortable rocks.
Riverboarders steer their boards through rapids by shifting their body on the board and by vigorously kicking with their fins. Most of the time they simply navigate through a series of rapids, get out at a landing, and return to the top of the run for repeat trips. However, some areas of rivers form large standing waves similar to the waves in an ocean. Experienced riverboarders can "surf" these waves in such a manner that they are not pulled down the river. Additionally, some riverboarders can force their board and themselves underwater by pushing the board down at an angle. This technique is called a "duck dive."
If you are insane enough to try riverboarding, I highly encourage you to read any available information, wear protective gear, and learn how to riverboard with an experienced guide. Strong river rapids can be just as deadly as undertows and currents in the ocean.