When Phil Watford traded in his paddle for a tool belt, giving up his far-cooler job as a kayak instructor for more lucrative construction work, he thought his days of reporting to duty on the water were over.
But this month, Watford found himself back at his old stomping grounds as part of the carpentry crew building a wave-making apparatus on the Nantahala River.
“I was real excited to find out I would be working on this. Pretty stoked actually,” Watford said.
He admits it is pretty new territory.
“First wave shaper,” Watford said.
It’ll probably be his last as well. They’re rare beasts — the Nantahala will soon be home to one of only four custom-built wave shapers on a natural river in the U.S.
“It’s pretty tricky,” Watford said, musing over the blueprints during one of the early days on the job. “These things aren’t real standard.”
As a paddler himself, Watford can’t wait to test out the fruits of his labor when the job is done.
“It should kick up a pretty nice wave,” said Watford, a kayaker and former paddling instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
While paddlers are eager to put the new wave through the paces of their freestyle moves, the $300,000 project has a lot more riding on it than the thrills and amusement of Nantahala play boaters. The wave — to be known officially as The Wave — will provide the stage for the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship and the 2012 Freestyle World Cup.
“In another two years, there will be 10,000 people in this spot watching the best paddlers in the world compete,” said Lee Leibfarth, chairman of the Worlds organizing committee for the Nantahala venue. Leibfarth is also chief operating officer for the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The wave should be finished in another two weeks. A makeshift dam keeping water out of the work zone will be torn down and water will be turned loose over the wave on Dec. 1.
Paddlers across Western North Carolina already have the date circled on their calendars, plotting how to get off work to see the wave debut and get an answer to the big question: how good will it be?
“We are all going to be wide-eyed,” Leibfarth said.
Leibfarth has humbly volunteered to take the first spin, but it’s not guaranteed to go well. The hydraulics and energy of the wave will be totally untested and the first trip down the wave will be unchartered territory.
The melded concrete mass of the wave shaper will sit two to three feet below the surface, but if the submerged contraption works like it is supposed to, it should create a near perfect wave on top of the water — a sort of perpetual motion machine for kayakers to surf and do tricks on.
There will be plenty of paddlers queued up behind Leibfarth that first day, including some of the top names in freestyle kayaking from across the country.
“There are definitely things we will be looking for,” Leibfarth said. “Based on their feedback, we are going to fine tune it to get it the best it can be.”
The first day will be an experiment in toying with a couple dozen adjustable blocks that fit into notches of the poured concrete form.
“The blocks can dynamically and radically change how the river feature performs,” Leibfarth said. “They can be mixed and matched to find the optimum tuning.”
It’s novel, perhaps, to those who mostly watch rivers from the shore. But for those who run them, what happens on the surface is all about the topography of the river bottom down below.
Freestyle boat designers and manufacturers will also be on hand for the roll out, honing their own plans for a new boat design or two that pays homage to the new Nantahala wave.
“They are going to be front and center,” Leibfarth said. “The paddling industry is very excited about having this feature here.”
So paddlers could keep tabs on the work, NOC footed the bill for a web cam trained on the wave construction site this month.
“It is such a unique project. The Nantahala is such a big part of people’s lives, we knew people would want to be a part of it,” said Charles Connor, the marketing director of NOC. “I think it is pretty near universal excitement.”
The web cam was such a hit, however, that it couldn’t take all the traffic.
“It was bottoming out because so many people were watching it,” Connor said.
Just a few days into the project, NOC upped the bandwidth for nearly unlimited streaming capacity, so watch away at www.noc.com/live.
How to build a wave shaper
The contract to build the wave shaper went to Bill Baxter, a contractor from Swain County and a paddler himself.
“Being a paddler, he understands the nuances of the river, the challenges of the river,” said Leibfarth.
Baxter’s crew includes at least 10 other paddlers.
“There are some incredible kayakers who are part of the construction crew,” said Leibfarth. Talk about employee buy-in.
The first step of the job was building a makeshift dam to dewater the river channel around the work zone. Next was the rather unsightly job of excavating the river bottom.
They dug down about four feet and poured a big concrete slab or the waver shaper to sit on. Crews also dug out a deeper pool below the wave where paddlers end up when they are flushed out of the wave — either voluntarily when their turn is up or if they wash out.
Before, the pool was too shallow and if kayakers flipped, they could hit their head. It’ll be safer now, but it will also give the water flowing over the wave shaper more downhill momentum.
“Now we’ll have a little bit more energy from the water as it drops down,” Leibfarth said.
The wave itself will be deeper than the old one, too, which is good for the aerial acrobatics of the freestylers. To get loft, they burrow their boats below the surface then let their own buoyancy eject them from the water.
For light paddlers, they could get ample lift without burrowing too deep. But heavier boaters have to burrow deeper to get catch the same amount of air, and the wave as it used to be wasn’t deep enough.
“If you really plugged in to do a big trick and threw down on the wave, you could hit your boat on it,” Connor said.
Upstream, rock jetties on both sides of the river will angle toward the wave channel to concentrate the water’s energy right where they want it: up and over the wave shaper.
This week, the wave shaper itself is being poured.
That’s where Watford and the carpentry crew come in. Their job is building a wooden form for the wave shaper — a giant box about the size of an ambulance with irregular stair steps and blocky protrusions. Watford and the carpentry crew built the form on shore first to see how it would go together. This week they are reassembling it in the river bottom.
The contraption will be pumped full of rebar and concrete. Once dry, the wood form will be removed.
The wave shaper was a custom job, designed for the flow and particular nuances of the Nantahala by a specialized river design firm out of Colorado, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group. They’ve learned that a wave shaper created for one river can’t be plunked down in another one and expect similar results, so they built a scale model of the wave shaper and the Nantahala to test their design before finalizing the blueprints.
Here to stay
The new apparatus might seem bittersweet for paddlers who spent years improvising to make their own wave in the same spot — essentially manhandling large rocks around the riverbed to create the desire effect.
A natural rock ledge underwater that provided a decent, but was leveraged into a far-better feature by zealous paddlers.
But it was susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.
The Nantahala was a perfect venue for the world championship in every other sense: it had the reputation, guaranteed river flows thanks to the Nantahala dam, and not terribly remote — at least as far as most whitewater rivers go.
“What we lacked was a world class freestyle feature that was consistent enough to have a world championship on,” Leibfarth said.
If a rock got knocked loose, it would alter the wave above the surface — and that would be bad news for competitors. The wave has to be the same from one day to the next during the competition to make for a level playing field.
One year, a raft of tourists ran into the wave and knocked some rocks loose during the middle of a competition. Paddlers complained that the wave wasn’t as good afterward and they were at a disadvantage.
Crossing the wave off the to-do list for the championships is a relief, but the venue isn’t exactly ready to go yet.
“What we are working toward is not only having an incredible features for the paddlers, but for the spectators,” Leibfarth said.
That means transforming the shore around The Wave into an arena on the water, from a judge’s platform and media box to stands for the fans.
Risers anchored on shore will extend over the water, putting spectators a stone’ throw from the action on the wave.
While all eyes are on the worlds for now, the championship will come and go, but the wave is for keeps.
“Long after the event, this will be a draw for this area,” Leibfarth said. “This is one of the few purpose built freestyle features in the world. It will attract elite athletes who want to come here from around the world to train.”
Paddlers are lobbying the Olympic committee to add the sport to its line-up as a compliment to slalom paddling. After all, freestyle snowboarding — endeared to the masses thanks to the Flying Tomato — is an Olympic sport, so why not freestyle paddling?
Freestyle junkies will also flock here just to sample the wave — paddlers who might not have had the Nanty on their must-visit list otherwise.
And the wave will continue to be a venue for major freestyle paddling events.
“It will be used all the time,” Connor said.
Wrangling water out of the Nanty
One of the biggest logistical challenges was getting rid of the water in the river while the wave shaper is built.
A makeshift dam of concrete block and sand bags was built diagonally across the river to channel water away from the site.
Dewatering the channel wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Nantahala Dam upriver, however. The gates on the dam have been shut tight since work began, holding back a lot of the river’s flow.
There’s still some water in the river — thanks to the dozens of creeks feeding into the Nantahala as it slices through the Gorge. But the main stem was cut off by the dam at Nantahala Lake.
Duke Energy, which operates the dam, has been exceedingly helpful, said Lee Leibfarth, chief operating officer of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Duke sacrificed generating power for a month while the wave was built by holding back all the water. To make room for all that water being held back, Duke lowered the lake level leading up to the work.
Public enemy number one for the next two weeks is a catastrophic rainstorm. It would be highly unusual this time of year — more than highly unusual in fact — but the thought of one is so dire it’s enough to keep Leibfarth up at night.
The river channel has to stay dry long enough for the wave’s concrete base to dry. If water comes in contact with it, it’s ruined — tens of thousands of dollars down the drain that would be near impossible to raise again.
The makeshift dam that dewatered the channel around the wave pad can handle regular rains. What it can’t handle, however, is the torrent of water that would barrel down river if Duke Energy had to open its floodgates on Nantahala Lake.
While the lake was lowered in anticipation of holding water back during the work, its capacity could be taxed if there was a severe storm. It would have to be more than a heavy rain or two — more like something of a tropical storm caliber — before Duke would be forced to let some water go.
— By Becky Johnson
World class rapids
The Wave will provide a competition venue for the 2013 International Canoe Federation’s World Freestyle Kayaking Championships bringing 500 paddlers from 45 countries and 10,000 spectators to the Gorge.
Nearly as exciting, the Nantahala will host the Freestyle Kayaking World Cup Finals in 2012. Both events are held in early September.