18.4 | Winch Heaven: The Great Cincinnati Flood
Words: Guenther Oka Photos: Jeff Mathis
Growing up wakeboarding in Ohio, the general assumption is that since there are few lakes I learned to ride on the Ohio River, which runs right through downtown Cincinnati. This would be false, though; my roots take me back to a small lake called Lake Williamstown. It’s an hour south of Cincinnati, and the drive takes you right over the Ohio and past downtown. It’s where my family and extended family lived the lake life every weekend of the summer. Here I learned how to double ski, slalom, trick, barefoot and, of course, wakeboard. My parents, who have had a love for the water since the 1980’s, were always down to go out and take a set, even if it was prime time for the weekend warriors. Their passion for water sports and the fun that came with it is something that still drives me today.
But back to the chase here; in late February my parents took a visit down to Orlando to say hello and see me in action. One evening at dinner, they mentioned how the Ohio River was beginning to rise higher than usual and that there was only rain forecasted for the next couple of days. After picking their brains for a couple minutes more, I hopped on Google and searched for “Cincinnati Floods 2018”. I pulled up pictures that showed the Serpentine Wall, Sawyer Point, Smale Park, and many other Cincinnati landmarks completely submerged by this flood. As I looked at the images, the gears started turning in my head and I could not get my mind off of thinking how this could turn into one perfect winch playground.
So throughout the next couple of days, I was torn on whether I should pick up my phone and try to make this thing happen. My trip to Australia was coming up soon, and going on a winch mission right before it could be risky business. On the other hand, the water continued to rise in Cincinnati and the opportunities for unique spots just kept on opening up. I did more research on the flood and, looking at the numbers, the water was supposed to stay well above flood level for the next 4-5 days. I couldn’t wait around any longer and let this opportunity slip through the cracks so I went ahead and started calling up a crew. I called my parents who were staying just down the road and immediately offered to help drive the winch and chauffeur us around. Next, I contacted Jeff Mathis and Cole Vanthof because I knew I was going to need the right people around to make this trip look awesome. It took little to no convincing to get the green light from the boys and before I knew it, we were on a flight to Cincinnati the very next day.
We touched down the next morning to overcast skies and temperatures in the low 50’s … not ideal wakeboarding conditions, but we were so eager to start scoping spots that we didn’t let it phase us. Our first couple hours were spent driving around to spots I had seen during my Google research, but upon our arrival these spots were either completely underwater or just not feasible with a winch. We continued our search and found two spots that we decided would be good warm-up hits and something to set the tone for the trip. I must admit though, as we drove home to get the gear, we were all feeling a bit skeptical due to the lack of spots jumping out at us.
Our first spot led us to a flooded park where joggers and families were walking above the floods on top of the flood walls. We set up the kicker and winch while getting strange looks from all the bystanders. I think they were all utterly confused but didn’t say anything until we fired up the winch for the first time. As I hit the water, they put two and two together and all began to film it and watch it happen in amazement. This first spot went so well and really got us stoked for what the next few days had in store. We moved onto the second spot that was much more secluded and knocked out a low-lying handrail after a couple of attempts. Our first day was off to a mellow start but we knew that there was more to come in the following days.
The next morning came and we rocked into downtown with high hopes. On the drive home after yesterday’s spot, we found a handrail that looked too good to be true under the Cincinnati Reds Baseball stadium. We pulled in past the “road closed” sign with the truck and trailer and were immediately asked to leave. So we rounded the block, parked the car and took on the spot by foot. It was a little weird walking through downtown in a full wetsuit and wakeboard as I passed businessmen going to work in suits. But we walked into the spot with no hassle and set up the winch. I walked the line out into the flooded intersection of Broadway St. and E. Mehring Way before getting pulled back in. After a couple hits, the security guards came out to say hello. It was absolutely incredible that they only had words of encouragement and they had no problem with us having a session on their street. We nailed some shots and moved on to the next one.
We drove about half a mile down the road before we stumbled upon the Serpentine Wall and Yeatman’s Cove Park, which was completely underwater. Sticking out of the floods was an aluminum sculpture that lined up as a perfect pole jammer. After Cole and I scaled the 20 -foot concrete pillar where we put the pulley, I waded out through the icy waters to get my first hit in. Once again, spectators lined the bridge in the background to cheer me on as I sessioned the spot! It went nice and smooth, minus the rope snapping a couple times, but we got the shot and kept on moving! We ended the day at Sawyer Point Park, a famous outdoor theatre in downtown that was flooded up and over the stage. There wasn’t much to jib around it, but I thought it would be fitting to take the opportunity and lay down a huge carve directly on center stage. We ended the day on a fun one and it left us feeling stoked and ready to take on the third and final day.
On the third morning, we pulled into a spot that we had looked at the day prior but upon arriving, the water had receded so much that only a puddle was left. Luckily enough for us, we walked a couple hundred feet in the other direction and found a C-rail that was right on the river’s edge. The current was ripping down the river and the ollie was about chest high but I decided it was doable. After numerous attempts of me smashing into the side of the rail, I decided that we had to drop the kicker in to make it more doable. As soon as we got the kicker in place and I rolled over it once, the weight of me pushing down the front combined with the heavy current caused the jump to turn sideways and get sucked to the side of the rail. This spot was becoming dangerous and a hassle so I hit it a couple more times before calling it quits. It was pretty discouraging to walk away with a B clip but we just so happened to stumble upon a spot that was, no joke, 500 feet down the street. We walked the winch over, set it up and within 25 minutes we were riding a completely different spot. At the same time, lunch break had just kicked in and I was again getting some weird looks as I waded through the murky waters. This spot was a small, inclined hand rail that had a closeout on the shore side. After a ride-by and one attempt of me running into the closeout, I got the feel for it and was able to nail a shot for the camera. We were in and out of the spot in under an hour and it was an awesome redemption from the previous spot.
From there, we took a lunch break back home and took a trip by my family’s candy store for a quick visit. We didn’t waste much time getting back downtown to scope out our last spot before the sun went down. Adjacent to the sculpture pole jam from the previous day were three brick tunnels that ran underneath a bridge. We figured a wall ride would be a nice touch and the water was just deep enough to wade out into. We got the kicker and winch situated and were out and sessioning in no time! This spot went incredibly smooth and was such a good way to end our adventures in Cincinnati.
Getting the opportunity to come back to my home and tackle these spots that I have been dreaming of hitting since I was a kid was second to none. The timing and crew could not have been any better and the results turned out amazing. It feels really special to have been able to ride a wakeboard where probably no one will ever again. I think we also educated a ton of people about what winching on a wakeboard is all about, and showed them you can ride anywhere there is water.