BY CRISTIN ZIMMER
“Draw right, Draw right!” I screamed as we hit the wall of water. Our 14-foot inflatable raft and six-woman team was completely submerged in the Arkansas River for what felt like minutes but in reality was probably just a few seconds.
Expertly executing a huge draw stroke and straightening the boat at the last minute, Jen, our front right paddler had saved our race boat from a near flip. That wall of water, known as a hydraulic hole, is just one of many formidable river obstacles that the Red Ladies have to successfully navigate in any given training run or competition.
Whitewater raft racing is not for the faint of heart and definitely attracts a certain type of strong, independent and sometimes even hardheaded woman. In a sport that is dominated by men, many female river guides have had grow a thick skin, work twice as hard,and be twice as good as their male counterparts to get any respect on the river.
When I worked as a full time river guide, it was rare for me to ever work with another female guide on hard river sections, let alone five other competent, strong, whitewater savvy women. That is exactly what the Red Lady Raft Racing team is all about – sharing a passion for the river and whitewater with other like minded women.
So what happens when you get six of these types of ladies together in a small, specially designed race raft? Magic? Disaster? Some times a little of both!
What many folks don’t understand about raft racing is that the boat is not guided and maneuvered like a commercial raft trip with one guide in the back who steers and calls commands to the rest of the paddlers who are essentially the “engine.”
In a racing boat, all six team member must paddle forward as hard as they possibly can for the duration of the race, which, in the down river discipline, can last as long as an hour and a half. The more “guiding” strokes that the back or front paddlers throw in, the fewer strokes propel the raft forward.
On a team that wins, everyone is perfectly honed, controlling the power of their own stroke as well as the power on their side of the raft. These moves have to happen more quickly if the rapids are harder. In class IV and V rapids, this gets super-intense as the speed at which decisions, communication and execution has to happen becomes critically fast because of the speed of the river and also the speed of a rafting raft.
It is like sprinting on a high speed moving walkway of water around boulders and over big drops using six arms, all of which are attached to a different brain!
This is where the harmony and magic comes in or complete and utter disaster as the carrying out of significant lines breaks down. Planning, training and knowledge of the section of river is essential, as well as knowing the women on your team, their strengths and weaknesses to a tee.
Failure in many cases doesn’t just mean losing a race; it also means swimming through class V whitewater. When “Plan A” doesn’t work out, the entire team must work together in a matter of seconds to come up with “Plan B.” Sometimes “Plan B” seems to get communicated and executed telepathically, and other times, as much as we hate to admit it, the high pitched frantic screaming of commands can be heard – just like in the situation described at the beginning of this post.
Ultimately, we strive for that state of flow achieved when all six of us are totally dialed and synchronized, and the boat feels like it floats effortlessly off drops like Tunnel Falls in Gore Canyon and charges through the huge holes of Sledgehammer rapid in the Royal Gorge.
There isn’t much better feeling in the world than cleaning these lines and doing it with five other amazing women. Thank you Girls4sport for supporting Red Lady Raft Racing and our mission to promote paddle sports and whitewater enthusiasm among women and girls.
Cristin Zimmer and her the rest of her team competed in a national race and won, making them Team USA. They will head to the World Rafting Championships in New Zealand this November.