Here in the Gorge, as elsewhere, SUP downwinding is on fire. Everyone wants to go. On a warm, sunny day in a 15-20 mph breeze, it’s a walk in the park for most skilled paddlers. On a 25-35 mph cranker with a ton of current, huge swells and cold water, it’s a whole different ball game. We’ve had both types of experiences and everything in between in the Gorge, on Maui, and the Oregon coast and have had a pile of truly memorable runs. However, we have also had some pretty scary things happen, hence this list of guidelines to help us all get home safely.
If it's not safe don't go. It may be safe for some and not for others, or you. Remember that the conditions change fast, and vary as you travel along--particularly on the river. Your friends might look out for you, but it’s a big place. You have to know that you’ll be able to handle everything you encounter, by yourself.
Comply with Oregon Law
You must have a PFD, a whistle and an Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) permit. You may not agree with this, but the Marine Sheriff won’t care. The fines are stiff. Attach your whistle on the strap of your PFD or hydration pack so you can access it quickly and easily in case of an emergency.
Wear appropriate rubber
Assume you will break down, or someone else will and you'll be in the water for some time. You can become hypothermic in relative mild temps. ALSO - wear a BRIGHT rash guard or jersey! It's hard to see you out there!
The Viento Run can take an experienced, strong paddler almost two hours when the current is ripping. You will most assuredly become dehydrated during that time without water. Wear a hydration pack. You won’t regret it. Any outing over an hour I suggest hydration.
Wear A Leash!
When the current is strong and the wind is pushing your board upriver your board zooms away from you. You almost certainly can’t catch it by swimming after it. Make sure you have a STRONG leash! Make sure your leash tether is super strong and knotted so it will NOT come undone. Consider adding a second tether tied loosely, so if the first fails the second keeps you attached. If you fall in and your leash gets tangled, Do NOT take your leash off!! Bad things will happen. This is the voice of experience talking.
Everyone hates booties till something weird happens and you are halfway between Viento and Hood River and you have to climb up the rip rap, through the blackberries, hauling your fourteen footer onto I-84. Booties look pretty good then.
Everyone hates helmets, too. However, when it’s blowing 25 + knots, a fourteen becomes a lethal weapon in the air. I just barely missed being getting clobbered by one in the middle of Malaaea Bay on a 30-40+ day. Getting knocked out by a flying board would most certainly ruin your day. On really windy days, a brain bucket is recommended.
Look out for each other
This trumps all else. If you blast off and are a few hundred yards away, you may not see your paddling partner in distress, or be able to get there quickly to render aid. Establish a plan in advance on who's looking out for whom, and determine who's paddling sweep.
Be aware of changing conditions
Is the wind increasing or dying? Is the current ripping or mellow? Ask someone in the know if you don’t. Allow plenty of time to complete the run before darkness sets in. Someone in the group should have a waterproof cell phone. An emergency is just that. Have a bailout plan. Make sure the less skilled paddlers are aware of what to do (get to your knees) or where to go (next to the Oregon shore) if they are struggling in the swells and current. Know how to use your PFD, and if it’s inflatable, try it out. You don’t want to learn about problems in the middle of Swell City.
Speaking of Swell City and the Hatchery, on windy days these are first and foremost high performance, crowded windsurfing and kiteboarding spots. Taking your SUP through there on a Sunday afternoon with 300 people sailing at 30 mph ninety degrees to your path of travel is asking for trouble. They probably won’t even see you before they take you completely out. If you want to ride big swells at the Hatch on your SUP, get out on dawn patrol.
Have fun, and be careful.
The Columbia is an amazing resource for downwinding. Let’s keep it safe and sane. It’s challenging enough without adding unnecessary risks.