Navigating the Big Ditch


It was a full moon, but you’d hardly know it as a steady rain pelted down on the world’s most famous boat ramp, Lee’s Ferry. It was 11:00 p.m. on a cold January night. Instead of the typical party atmosphere, there was a palpable tension in the air as eight men, wearing matching, lime green paddling suits like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, climbed aboard a custom, 48-foot cataraft and started rowing downstream. Their primary objective: break the 34-hour speed descent record for the Grand Canyon.

At mile 17, the boat’s row of LED lights barely illuminated the approaching horizon line of House Rock Rapid. Within seconds the boat was sideways and all eight men were high-siding to keep the raft from flipping. The possibility of swimming a rapid in the Grand Canyon in the middle of the night quickly became a stark reality.

A few weeks ago, I donned one of those brightly colored suits and joined the USA Men’s Whitewater Raft Team on their quest through the Grand Canyon. Fortunately for us, NRS had offered to outfit the boat and the team. When you’re planning to row a 48-foot boat through the Grand Canyon for over 30 hours non-stop in the middle of January, it’s important to choose your paddling gear wisely. The good folks at NRS opened up their catalogue to us and let us choose whatever technical gear we thought would be best. Like kids in a candy store, we weren’t sure what to pick. A few of our considerations included:

It’s cold in the Grand Canyon in January, with low temperatures that often dip below freezing.
Rowing for 30+ hours non-stop generates a lot of body heat.
Water temps hover around 46-48 degrees.
Friction and chaffing could be our worst enemies.

We chose the NRS Navigator Paddling Suit for a couple of reasons. First, it has a neoprene neck gasket that we hoped would be more comfortable than the traditional latex ones. Second, according to the NRS website, “The supple polyester microfiber shell allows friction-free paddling with superior resistance to puncture and abrasion.” We hoped for the best, selected the Navigators and knew we would put them to the ultimate test.

After barely making it through House Rock rubber side down, we adjusted our rowing configuration, turning the two rear rowers to face downstream and help with steering. We aced the Roaring 20’s. Just as the sun came up, we styled our line at Hance. After 12 hours we were on record pace and the Navigator was exceeding expectations. A couple of our favorite features included:

The Hood: When we first passed out the suits to the team, everyone had an opinion about the hood, and not all of them were positive. But, over the course of that first day and a half on the Grand, everyone had their hood up at least a few times. Sitting in the front of the boat and rowing backward through huge waves, it was especially awesome to wear the hood and keep cold water from splashing down your neck.

The Neck Gasket: For us, this was the best-selling feature of the Navigator, for sure. The neoprene kept water out, but was comfortable to wear for an extended period of time. By the time we finished, we were all ready to take it off, but it was far better than a traditional rubber gasket for our needs.

: We hammered our Navigator suits on our speed run and during several training runs that preceded it. We rowed, cooked, scrambled on rocks, patched tubes, swam, wrenched on the frame, drove shuttle, rigged, de-rigged, and slept in our suits. They’re pretty stained and dirty now, but there are absolutely no signs of wear and tear. Amazingly, they didn’t even smell that bad after hours and hours of rowing.

Breathability: Our trip started out with steady rainfall and ended with blustery, blue skies. We all wore lightweight merino layers under our Navigators and no one was ever too hot or too cold.

The sun dropped below the Canyon walls after clean lines through Bedrock and Deubendorff. As we pulled toward Lava Falls in silence, each team member contemplated what lay ahead at Lava Falls. We drifted down the bubble line on river right, and entered the rapid exactly where we needed to be. We hit the first and second features and squared up for the looming Mountain Wave. It crested and crashed just as we climbed its face and the forward 10 feet of raft disappeared. A cheer rang out as we knew we had just made it through the last big rapid on the river. Then we heard a crack and a rush of air as five psi in the forward compartment rushed out of a 4-inch gash in the tube. We pulled with everything we had to get into an eddy and avoid the second drop, Son of Lava. By the time we made it to the beach, John Mark and I in the front of the boat were nipple deep in water as the boat sank.

After patching the tube and lashing the frame back together with NRS cam-straps, we headed off again into the night, feeling dejected and demoralized. We limped our boat out over the remaining 100 miles of river and hit the beach at Pearce Ferry exhausted. After finishing the trip and reflecting on our gear, we realized that there was really only one area we could improve on with the NRS Navigator Paddling Suit: A drop seat.

Have you ever tried pooping into a wag bag on a moving raft with seven people looking on? I don’t recommend it. Like most dry suits, the Navigator is not particularly easy to get off, especially when you’re in a hurry. A zippered drop seat would be a nice addition.

Editor’s note: Read about this quest in the Denver Post and stay tuned for an upcoming film about their trip. All photos courtesy of Forest Woodward