Paddleboarder’s Bold Rescue Saves Kayaker’s Life (Video)

A move a kayak likely couldn't pull avoids tragedy on a familiar river

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A day down a familiar class III-IV creek took a nearly fatal turn for a group of three paddlers in North Carolina. When kayaker Baker Martin became pinned underneath a strainer, a bold rescue by paddleboarder Hank Cheatham saved his life.

A Day On The Big Laurel Gets Scary

The Big Laurel is a classic creek run in the mountains of Western North Carolina, with mostly class III rapids, spiced up with some class IV.

Standup paddleboarders Hank Cheatham and Will Saylor and whitewater kayaker Baker Martin were through the majority of the four-mile run. Martin was out in front of the group at what is known as a relatively straightforward stretch.

As Martin entered a rapid, he noticed a log was blocking most of the river, but by then, it was too late. His boat was sideways to the log. He was flipped, and his stern became pinned to the river bed. With the kayak pinned vertically, Martin was on the downstream side of the tree and held underwater, unable to breathe.

Kayaker pinned beneath a strainer on the Big Laurel. Image: SUPPaul // YouTube
Kayaker pinned beneath a strainer on the Big Laurel. Image: SUPPaul // YouTube

A Paddleboarder’s Bold Rescue Saves Kayaker’s Life

In the video, we see the paddleboarders Cheatham and Saylor approach the rapid and notice Baker’s kayak. In an interview on the SUPPaul Podcast, Cheatham and Saylor say at first they thought Baker had been surfing or splatting. Once they realize he is pinned beneath the strainer, the pair immediately take action.

Cheatham makes a bold maneuver, driving the nose of his SUP over the log.

Approaching a strainer from the upstream side is risky. If the rescuer were to flip or not clear the log, they could be pulled beneath the strainer themself. But reaching a paddler in distress from an eddy or the shoreline eats precious time that could turn a rescue into a resuscitation. In the words of Marshall Mathers, sometimes “you only get one shot.”

Cheatham’s board goes up and over the log, bringing him right alongside Martin. His position with the board allows Martin to grab hold. At this point, Martin has been underwater for about a minute. Cheatham pulls his arms, stabilizing the distressed kayaker and allowing him to breathe. Cheatham then grabs the loop on Martin’s sprayskirt. Once the sprayskirt pops, he’s able to free Baker from the log, and the pair float downstream. It’s a rescue that plays out within a matter of moments.

“The whole thing worked out about as perfectly as you could work out,” Cheatham shared in the interview with SUPPaul.

Afterward, Martin was brought to the shoreline. He was disoriented and throwing up water. He would go on to paddle out of the run and hike a mile back to his truck. Later, at an urgent care, he was diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia.

The Danger Of Familiarity

The group mentioned the Big Laurel is a run they are all familiar with. It’s a reminder that no matter how well you know the stretch of river, unknown hazards can appear, especially following major weather events.

Martin was ahead of the group, but fortunately they were close enough together to make the rescue when it was needed.

Successful Rescues—An Indispensable Resource

The consensus in the podcast was that it was a rescue a kayak would be unlikely to make in timely fashion. Because of Cheatham’s paddleboard, he was able to land directly on the strainer and be in a position to pull Martin’s skirt.

When we watch an incident after the fact, we have the benefit of reviewing in hindsight. Ultimately, Cheatham’s remarkable rescue took less time to pull off than reading this article. Because of it, Martin is here and able to talk about the experience.

We want to hear from readers. How would you react if you encountered a similar circumstance on the river, especially with various types of paddlecraft?

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  1. Insane…the reason I paddle board now. Got my a$$ saved by a partner as I was about to drown. Skirts are for the birds


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