On Friday, August 22, Andres Pombo was in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon with three friends competing in a paddelboarding competition. They were on a practice run, standup paddling in gusty downwind conditions. Three miles short of the finish line, the group stopped for photos amid the swells. That's when the Miami resident peeled away to explore the Washington side of the river.
It was the last time he was seen alive. Now paddleboarders are calling for a new focus on safety in their burgeoning sport as they mourn the death of a talented young boarder. A silent paddle will be held in his honor on Virginia Key this weekend.
“To see someone as strong and capable as Andres go down, it scared me a lot,” Darrel Kirk, a Seattle-based paddleboarder, tells New Times. “I have a 7-year-old boy. I have to take these precautions, but you don't understand until something like this happens.”
Pombo was a sponsored, accomplished paddleboarder who was married and lived in Miami. The day he disappeared, heavy winds were whipping up serious swells along the course, but Pombo wasn't tied to his board. In the hours after fellow racers scrambled to find him, they recovered his board, hydration pack, and GoPro camera. Video from the GoPro shows the 29-year-old falling off his board, swimming after it, and then disappearing. The Hood River County Sheriff's Office and friends began the search on foot and by boat and plane.
Six days later, Pombo's body was found downriver. Now his friends and colleagues are trying to raise awareness about safety in the sport.
According to Kirk, most people do not wear leashes or flotation when they paddleboard. He says Pombo's death is a turning point for the sport.
“It's really shaken our community, and not one of us can go out without thinking about him. It could've happened to any of us. But this tragedy has opened a huge dialogue, people are speaking out, and it's changed our community,” he says.
Following Pombo's death, Warren Curie and Dave Kallama — two of the biggest names in standup paddleboarding — penned an open letter calling for better awareness and proposing a “Leashes Save Lives” campaign:
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We believe that we, as a collective industry, must take a vehement stand in the education and encouragement of the use of leashes on all types of SUPs, on all types of water, and in all conditions.
With the exponential growth of SUP, there are a great deal of boards being sold with very little safety education accompanying the sale. Like seat belts in cars, leashes save lives on SUPs. If it is far enough to paddle, it is far enough to wear a leash.
In the days that followed Pombo's disappearance, friends and family started a GoFundMe page to help with travel expenses. In ten days, $18,000 was raised. Excess funds will go toward water safety outreach and education in Pombo's honor. This Saturday afternoon, friends and family will hold a memorial and silent paddle in Pombo's honor on Virginia Key.
“Only God knows how my heart trembles sending this post. I hope most of you can come to share this moment together, as the big family that we are. Millions of THANKS again for all your love and support,” Pombo's widow, Luz Jimenez, wrote on Facebook.