The common phrase heard among kayakers daring the Nantahala’s new wave: “It’s getting there.”
The Wave in the Nantahala Gorge received an overall lukewarm response from paddlers during a formal unveiling Friday. Most kayakers said they liked the apparatus, which creates waves and holes for doing tricks and stunts, but definitely think it could improve.
“Every time they tweak it, it keeps getting continually better,” said Jared Smith, a 29-year-old who has been kayaking for three years. “They still got a little bit of work to do before it’s world class, but it’s definitely getting there.”
The Wave needs to be “fluffier and smoother,” he said, adding that the experts need to adjust dams on either side of the wave or adjust how the water flows from upstream.
“When they get it done, it’s going to be a lot more user friendly to intermediate paddlers,” Smith said, adding that once they perfect The Wave he will be on the Nantahala all the time. Though, he said, it is hard to imagine kayaking more than he already does.
Daniel Dutton, 34, said his first experience on the new wave was “OK” compared to what he expected. The debut of the new wave on the Nantahala has been highly anticipated for months.
In the past, the water sport enthusiasts created waves and holes by stacking up rocks underwater by hand. These different features set the stage for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport characterized by technical tricks and highly stylized moves such as spins, turns, cartwheels and flips.
Dutton is one of the many kayakers who used to help move rocks in the riverbed to create the wave near the Nantahala Outdoors Center before the new mechanical element was installed at a cost of $300,000, mostly paid for with a Golden Leaf Foundation Grant.
“It’s progress,” said Dutton, who has kayaked for nearly 20 years. “It needs to be tuned a little bit more. Right at this time, it’s a really short and fast in the middle.”
Pro paddlers descended on the river last week to test it out and offer their feedback. That feedback is exactly what organizers were looking for.
The Wave will serve as the site of two world championships in the next two years — the 2012 World Cup of Freestyle Kayaking and the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship. Honing The Wave is a top priority before the events.
“This thing is going to be fantastic, but it’s going to take some time,” said Lee Leibfarth, head of the world’s organizing committee and NOC’s chief operating officer.
They will not tune The Wave again for another couple of weeks as they process the paddlers’ input and wait for lower water levels. The tuning will involve, among other things, changing the configuration of concrete blocks — a sort of cross between giant stairsteps and piano keys bolted to the main foundation of The Wave, Leibfarth said.
Although it’s still a work in progress, The Wave is getting closer and closer to professional quality.
“From all the steps we’ve gone through in the last month, this is the best we’ve had so far,” Dutton said.
The team of experts from McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, who masterminded the contraption’s creation, and area water sport enthusiasts will keep working on The Wave this week, he said, guaranteeing that they will get it to produce the effects that kayakers want.
“These guys don’t quit. They’ve all been very dedicated to it. So yeah, they won’t stop until we’re real happy,” Dutton said.
Several kayakers complained that they hit The Wave’s concrete ledge when attempting to perform tricks, making it more difficult for freestyle kayakers to use it for its intended purpose.
“It seems like if you plug to do a loop … I tend to hit the bottom level of concrete blocks,” said Rowan Staurt.
At 15, Staurt was by far the youngest kayaker testing The Wave Friday but not the least experienced. Stuart, whose parents kayaked, began liking the sport about five years ago.
“It’s hard not to, growing up around here,” Stuart said.
She was one of the few who said she currently preferred the old man-made wave.
“I don’t love it,” Stuart said. “I think it’s kind of hard to stay in it, and it’s not retentive.”
Stuart said the old wave allowed kayakers to stay in it longer and was easier to learn tricks on. She also suggested that the makers add some wing dams to the eddies, where people wait for their turn to show their chops, so that the kayakers are not hitting each other.
A positive of the new wave, however, is that high water will not affect it. With the old hand-built wave, the force of the water during high flows would shift the rocks, forcing them to start the process of making a wave again. Once The Wave is adjusted, it will stay in place.
Ryan Baudrand, 37, said Friday’s version of The Wave is a “big improvement from what it was on day one.”
The first day kayakers were allowed to test the waters, the river was sticky, meaning it was easy to ride for a longer period of time, but it was also aggressive. By Friday, The Wave was “more friendly” but had a smaller pocket for performing tricks, said Baudrand, who works for Endless River Adventures and has ridden on the Nantahala for 14 years.
Baudrand said he would like to see a bigger eddy, or waiting wing for riders, and more wave.
“I think probably they will have to get a little bit more water into it, to widen it — maybe widen the actual pocket of the hole,” Baudrand said.
Friday’s wave took on more of a smiley face shape and forced kayakers into one spot rather than giving them several places to perform their tricks.
“This is the only way it’s going to get better is people coming out here, practicing, trying, giving their input,” Baudrand said.