Gusty day on Omaha lake becomes perilous for paddleboarder

Nearby first responders, fisherman in canoe help woman on Lake Cunningham
A woman was rescued after paddleboarding during a windy day at Cunningham Lake in Omaha.
Published: Sep. 1, 2023 at 10:21 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - It was mid-afternoon when a call came into Douglas County dispatch.

A 23-year-old woman found herself exhausted and stranded, hanging on to her paddleboard on the northern section of Lake Cunningham.

The woman apparently had her mobile phone and called her mother, who relayed the urgency to 911.

“Ironically, the fire department was here a good portion of the day doing training today, and it looked like a half hour after they left, it got put to use when they were called back,” Lake Cunningham official Brook Bench said. “We had a paddleboarder that looked like they got into some trouble out on the lake in these high winds, and they came out and picked her up and brought her back in, and, thank God, it’s a happy ending.”

Omaha’s Brian Claus was rowing his canoe on Lake Cunningham for the first time, doing some fishing, when he heard helicopters above and saw the woman clinging to her board.

“It got a little choppy out there, a little windy out there today, so as I was coming back I could see somebody on the other side of the lake that I couldn’t tell if they were just kind of hanging there or if they were in trouble or something,” Claus said. “I started heading over that way and there was a young lady on a paddleboard that I don’t think she had a life jacket. I’m sure the waves kind of got a little bit too much out there.”

First responders put a life jacket on the paddleboarder and brought her back to shore, where the unidentified woman checked out fine, just exhausted.

South winds were blowing 15 miles an hour, with gusts up to 20 on lakes like Cunningham.

“Yeah, right around the shore it calms down but when you have these south winds like that, once you get out in the lake, that’s why people love to sail here,” Bench said. “And when it blows like this you can lose track of where you’re at in a hurry.”

The lake’s outfitter, Neighborhood Offshore, had even closed up shop shortly before the rescue.

Bench said they didn’t expect any customers in the windy Friday conditions, so they packed it in to prepare for a busy Labor Day weekend.

Omaha’s Geri Horton and her family are regulars at once become known as The C, and she had hoped to get a good workout in on her paddleboard before the busy weekend.

Experienced paddleboarders have to recognize the conditions, and in her case, Horton gave it a try but immediately realized the wind and chop was just too much.

“It was pretty brutal, you know it kind of creeps up on you, The water looks smooth but it was pretty windy and I had to use all my might to turn and make it back to the shore,” Horton said. “I should have known better, I was like ‘Oh, look all to myself’, but, not so much.”

We did take time to have Geri show us how she prepares for a safe adventure on the lake.

“I have a life jacket, and then my board has a leash, so I hook this to my leg, my oar and I have a waterproof bag that actually clips to the board where I can put my phone and keys and some water and a book,” she laughs. “That’s what I wanted to do today, but it didn’t work out.”

Outfitter Neighborhood Offshore rents paddleboards and kayaks at Cunningham and Flanagan Lake, while also offering lessons and advice. Bench said if they’re closed early like Friday, it might be a good indication of bad conditions.