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Wildlife board referees paddlers vs. motorboaters on the Catawba

Leo Dominguez, left, splashes Kryisa Bryant while kayaking on the Catawba River on Thursday in Charlotte. A clash on the Catawba River between the rights of power boaters and the safety of paddlers – lots and lots of paddlers – has prompted action in Raleigh. The focus is the narrow, river-like portion of Lake Wylie near the U.S. National Whitewater Center northwest of Charlotte.
Leo Dominguez, left, splashes Kryisa Bryant while kayaking on the Catawba River on Thursday in Charlotte. A clash on the Catawba River between the rights of power boaters and the safety of paddlers – lots and lots of paddlers – has prompted action in Raleigh. The focus is the narrow, river-like portion of Lake Wylie near the U.S. National Whitewater Center northwest of Charlotte. jkomer@charlotteobserver.com

A clash on the Catawba River between the rights of power boaters and the safety of paddlers – lots and lots of paddlers – has prompted action in Raleigh.

The focus is the narrow, river-like portion of Lake Wylie near the U.S. National Whitewater Center northwest of Charlotte.

The center rents kayaks and paddleboards, for river use, to as many as 1,200 to 1,500 people a weekend. Many paddlers also launch from Tailrace Marina on the Gaston County side of the river.

That can make for dicey navigation as motorboats cruise up and down the river.

“Especially during the warmer months there is a tremendous amount of canoe and kayak activity there, literally hundreds at one time,” said Lt. Jeremy Harrill of the state Wildlife Resources Commission. “We definitely saw a water safety hazard there and looked for a solution.”

But the one the commission approved last month doesn’t please some river lovers: No-wake zones that will force power boats to creep through the area.

“It’s a whole new world for river people around here to have to deal with these paddleboards and kayaks,” said Tom Davis of the Catawba River Group, which includes more than 200 property owners. “You’ve got people who have been on this river 40 years and ... they think this river is theirs.”

The group advocates dividing the river into three zones, with the middle section open to powerboats with a 20 mph speed limit.

The Lake Wylie Marine Commission recommended last summer that a no-wake zone be created on the west side of 37-acre Saddler Island, which sits in the middle of the river and is an area that most motorboats use.

The wildlife commission, after investigating, decided a zone was also needed on the east channel used by the Whitewater Center.

Buoys will be in place on May 1 under temporary rules the commission approved. A public hearing on permanent rules will be held May 7.

The whitewater center says the zones are needed, in part because many of its renters are novices whose crafts can easily be capsized by boat wakes.

“We’ve had a couple of reports where paddlers felt that motorboaters came too close intentionally,” said whitewater center brand manager Eric Osterhus.

At Tailrace Marina, a pontoon boat cruising down the river slowed Friday as it passed kayakers. Most boaters are cordial, Michael Farb, 22, said after beaching his kayak.

“We just wave our paddles to let them know we’re there,” said Farb, a UNC Charlotte student who paddles the river most weekends. “I’ve been pretty satisfied with it.”

Still, Farb says no-wake zones are a great idea.

No recent collisions have been reported in the area between paddlers and motorboats. But public meetings on the issue grew heated.

Brad Thomas, chairman of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission, called the site “the perfect storm” of difficult conditions and congestion.

The mid-channel island, he said, “creates two perfectly blind points there where you have paddlers coming out blind into the path of motorboats.”

The commission erected 4-by-8-foot signs on both ends of Saddler Island cautioning boaters to watch for paddlers. Members soon realized that wasn’t enough and last summer recommended the state create a no-wake zone.

The zones are no panacea, warns Tom Davis of the Catawba River Group.

“Our biggest dilemma is that once you draw a line across Saddler Island from Tailrace Marina to the whitewater center, those kayaks are outside those (no-wake zones) and nobody can control them,” he said.

The group argues that it’s unfair for private vendors to make money at the public’s expense. The whitewater center plans to expand its dock space for paddlers, but has told the marine commission that the expansion won’t put more people on the water at the same time.

Both the group and the marine commission say paddlers need more education about water safety. Paddlers sometimes raft up in the middle of the channel, Thomas said, appearing oblivious to motorboats.

Boating “rules of the road” say the least maneuverable craft – kayaks and paddleboards, in this case – have the right of way.

“If a motorboat was to hit one, they would be at fault,” said Harrill of the wildlife commission.

Osterhus said whitewater center paddlers get a five- to 10-minute safety briefing, including marine rules of the road, before they’re allowed to take craft out.

In recent months, he said, “we just reinforced that we want to be sending the right message before they go out there.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051;

Twitter: @bhender

No-wake zones

A public hearing on permanent rules creating two no-wake zones on the Catawba River near the U.S. National Whitewater Center will be held at 7 p.m. on May 7 at Cook’s Memorial Presbyterian Church, 3413 Mt Holly-Huntersville Road, Charlotte. Comments may also be emailed through June 1 to regulations@ncwildlife.org. The Wildlife Resources Commission is expected to vote on the permanent rules in July.

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