Take 5: On the Grand Canyon ‘cataraft’ with the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team
January 31, 2017
When friends and media and everyone else were fixated on a failed world record attempt, Matt Norfleet was simply grateful to be alive and well.
On Jan. 13, just an hour before midnight, the Summit County local and five fellow members of the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team pushed off from Lees Ferry — a popular put-in for rafters on the Colorado River, found near the northern mouth of the Grand Canyon — en route to their first attempt at breaking a world speed record. The goal: row and float through 277 miles of the Colorado River on a "cataraft," a custom-made raft tricked out with catamaran hulls and six oars, three on each side.
The six-man team was joined by two others, including veteran canyon guide Marty Borges, and all eight had one goal in mind: beat the previous record of 34 hours and two minutes, set in 2016 by solo kayaker Ben Orkin of Aurora, who himself was chasing a record from 1983. (Fun fact: a four-man crew broke the 1983 record one day before Orkin broke it again.) The stretch is as formidable as it is long — Class II and Class III rapids throughout, with the occasional Class IV and long stretches of flat-water rowing — but Norfleet and the U.S. team felt ready for it. They were coming off a four-man title at the 2016 U.S. Rafting Association National Championships, and a 2006 U.S. team had set a 24-hour distance record, covering more than 200 miles in one day on a northern stretch of the Colorado River.
"When it came down to it, we were training twice a day, six times per week so that all of us could show up in the best shape of our lives," said Norfleet, a 45-year-old Oklahoma native who started guiding on the Arkansas River in 1997 and moved to Summit in 2000. He's been a raft guide ever since, working summers with Performance Tours of Breckenridge and winters with Arapahoe Basin as assistant director of ski patrol.
Norfleet has traveled the nation and globe for rafting since joining the team five years ago, but he'd never tempted the full stretch of the Grand Canyon at once. It called for midnight navigating through serious rapids and hardly any sleep for up to 40 hours, not to mention all the minutiae of a multi-day float trip.
After about 20 hours, the cataraft reached Lava Falls, a notoriously tricky section of river, and the team decided to keep going. Somewhere near the start, one of the hulls snagged a rock and ripped with an enormous "pop." It took several hours to repair and derailed the team long enough to make a world record impossible. When the crew reached Mile 277 and stopped — tired, hungry, happy to be whole — they'd been on the river for 39 hours and 24 minutes, nearly five hours past the record mark.
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They didn't make it this time, but Norfleet and crew know what to expect. They've made mistakes and learned from them, and while another attempt isn't set in stone, he says chances are good they'll try again. Soon after returning from the Grand Canyon, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Norfleet to talk about the team, the attempt and why learning is much different than failing on the Colorado.
Summit Daily News: Was this your first time tempting the Grand Canyon with the full team?
Matt Norfleet: Yeah, it was my first time. It all came about because the U.S. raft team, the men's open team, is sponsored by Chaco. We'd been giving them posts from our travels and they really liked it, and at some point our captain and Chaco talked about a few other events. We joked about a Grand Canyon speed run and they loved it.
SDN: Once the trip was a go, what kind of training did you do? Was it close to what you do for championship races?
MN: The training we do for World Championships is very different. Those are sprints — the longest race might be an hour, and more are less than 10 minutes. We had to get some help for the Grand Canyon. Our captain, John Mark Seelig, owns a gym in Edwards, so we got in there for training. The other weird twist is that this past year we started a Masters team, and on that team we had a world champion crewmember from Oregon. He flew out a few times to help us with rowing and technique.
SDN: Talk about the craft — I've never seen anything like it on a river trip.
MN: We got the permit to do the trip in January, but we didn't have the boat figured out. Rafts don't usually move fast enough, and the original record-holder craft were kayaks. We basically invented this boat to move fast enough. We needed to be moving 8-9 miles per hour, and typical rafts just don't move that fast. Our team went back and forth, arguing about it for months, trying to figure out exactly how we were going to do this.
It ultimately came down to Seth (Mason) — a member of the raft team for a long time who's also a hydrological engineer — and we threw out the idea of a catamaran with rowing. We figured that was the most sustainable thing at the time. We also had to decide if we would row or scull, which is rowing with one oar, but we didn't know the difference really at the time.
SDN: What about the team's strategy for breaking the record? Any arguing there?
MN: We knew we had to maintain 8.3 miles per hour with the flow. The problem is that by the time we had the boat built, we were running out of water here (in Colorado). We needed to time how fast the boat would move in flat water. The other part is navigating at night — we didn't take any breaks. We also had the nutrition and training side of things to get ready for it.
SDN: For you, what was the most difficult part of preparing for this trip?
MN: For me, it was the stress of knowing that this had never been done before — trying to navigate a raft at night through world-class rapids with this modified craft just hadn't been done before. There were seven of us involved the entire time, but we had trouble filling that last spot. This was my 24th trip to the Grand Canyon, but we really wanted someone else a lot of experience, and that's when we found Marty (Borges), who has like 130 days on that stretch.
SDN: What did you enjoy the most about the attempt once you were actually on the water?
MN: We'd been thinking about this for so long that we were all just ready to do it, see what happens. We shoved off at 11 o'clock at night and we were all just relieved to get going. From Mile 17 to Mile 27 there are good rapids, and I knew that would be the early test. We had to get through that clean, and then you have 50 miles of relatively easy water to make up ground. As things started going, we started moving smoother.
SDN: Did you have any issues on the water before the craft broke?
MN: The big thing we had to figure out as we went was getting everyone rest. (Early in the attempt) we hit a piece of a hole in one of the bigger rapids that we really didn't want to hit, so we decided to take a different strategy and flipped the back two positions so they could see, so they could steer, and that worked really well. We weren't able to run this boat in flows that high before we got there — we had a lot of miles in easier water — but that was the first time we'd tested it in bigger rapids, on bigger flows.
SDN: And then the raft fell apart in Lava Falls. What happened there?
MN: We got to Lava Falls in 20 hours and 40 minutes, which was close to the pace we wanted. Part of the story is that people are focusing on this aspect — the craft breaking — but lining up Lava Falls at night was something we had to talk about, something we had to decide on as a group, and we did. We wanted to do it. There are two ways through there — a right line and a left line — and none of us felt comfortable going left because there are no markers on the left. We went right instead, and the problem there is that it's a big line.
We nailed the entrance, then we ran right into the Mountain Wave. We hit it as straight as we could and it just broke on the boat. The right corner of our aluminum extended bar was snapped, and a piece of the frame punctured the tube. That has three chambers, but we had to limp it into shore at Tequila Beach. By then, it was raining and we're 20-something hours into it. Part of it is that we were just ecstatic to be on the other side of the rapid, but trying to patch a boat in the rain took us a couple of hours.
SDN: Lava Falls derailed the record attempt, but you were already 20 hours into rowing when that happened. What was the team's morale like?
MN: A lot of the focus has been on that part of the adventure, but when we shoved off at 11 o'clock at night, I'd say that breaking the record wasn't the foremost thing on my mind. It was more about us getting through safe without incident, and I think the mood when we got to the bottom was bummed, but we were also pretty happy to get that far. The frame was fixable and the patch worked, so we kept moving. I think that's when we started feeling the effects of our second night without sleep.
SDN: Do you think you'll do it again?
MN: I would imagine that we will…. That was one of the first question people asked us when we got off the boat. No one wanted to talk about it right then. But for me, this trip filled in a lot of blanks and answered a lot of questions we didn't know. Now that we're tested, the boat is tested (and) the route is tested, I'd imagine that we will, but it's hard to say. I don't think the world record has ever been broken on the first try.
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to correct information about the 1983 speed record and 2006 24-hour speed record.
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