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AW's Safety Program

Safety has been a core issue for AW since 1954, and today we are leaders in accident analysis and safety education. Formal risk management is part of all our programs. We work hard to publicize safe practices that help everyone enjoy our rivers safely and advise legislative bodies and river managers on the best ways to educate whitewater paddlers.

The reports collected in the database give AW a reliable overview of the accidents, near misses, and serious injuries occurring in whitewater sport. They come from a variety of sources from sketchy newspaper accounts and internet postings to detailed first-person observations and carefully compiled accounts. While every effort is made to insure accuracy, these are not formal investigations. Our intent is not to place “blame” for what happened, but to learn as much as possible to provide real-world focus for our safety program.

While all outdoor recreation has inherent risks, many whitewater accidents are preventable. Here are some simple things YOU can do to stay safe.

  1. Wear your Life Jacket regardless of boat type or difficulty of water. A third of all whitewater accidents could have been prevented if the victim was wearing a life vest; many deaths occur in very easy rapids!
  2. Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. Alcohol dulls reflexes and survival responses and is often linked to fatalities. Celebrate at your campsite or home.
  3. Know the river to prevent unpleasant surprises. Find out what lies downstream. Check the AW site, guidebooks, Google earth, and get advice from paddlers who have been there!
  4. Avoid extremes of weather and water: Very high flows and cold temperatures pose special challenges to paddlers. If you don't have the specialized gear and skills needed, wait until conditions improve.
  5. Avoid dams: Small low-head dams are responsible for over 8% of river fatalities. Most are much worse than they look! Know the location of dams before launching on a river, and avoid getting too close to the upstream or downstream sides of them.

For more useful advice, consult the AW Safety Code. It contains many costly lessons learned by the whitewater paddling community over the last 50+ years!

TheAccident Database is a comprehensive collection and analysis of whitewater accidents and close calls. To Report an Accident: We invite witnesses to submit personal accounts and others to submit newspaper articles and internet postings. If your material is not original, please credit the source. If you have corrections or additions to an accident report please email ccwalbridge@cs.com. If you have questions or comments about any accident please email info(at)americanwhitewater.org.

CAUTION: This database, while extensive, is not complete. A significant number of accidents are not reported to us. Confusion may result when people interpret the data without assistance from the American Whitewater Safety Committee. For example, accidents we tag as “commercial” include guided raft tours, kayak schools, and canoe liveries. They also include programs run by schools, camps, colleges, and by rangers at local, state, and national parks. Our numbers, therefore, will probably not agree with organizations which focus on one of more of these subgroups.

Scroll down for more AW Safety News

Accidents Since 1973

(reported accidents/yr)

Accident Database: 5 Results Found

Completed Safety Committee Reports

State/Country Date Name/Age River/Section Flow/Class Boat/Cause Factor/Injury Type/Private
GA United States Vin Davis Chattooga Section 4 - Route 76 Bridge to Tugaloo Lake Boat Ramp Medium IV+ Whitewater Kayak-
Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
Other/ Near Drowning Injury Private Read More
Costa Rica 2018-10-20 Kevin Thompson Reid Naranjo River High N/A Raft-
Flush Drowning
High Water/ Fatal Commericial Read More
KY United States 2018-10-08 Matthew Hughes 35 Elkhorn Creek Forks of the Elkhorn Medium III Kayak - Other-
Caught in Low Head Dam Hydraulic
One Boat Trip/ Fatal Private Read More
VA United States 2018-10-06 Brannen Proctor 67 Russell Fork (Bartlick Bridge (VA 611) to Garden Hole Road Bartlick Bridge (VA 611) to Garden Hole Road (Breaks Park) Medium III+ Kayak - Other-
Other/ Physical Trauma Injury Private Read More
AZ United States 2018-09-07 Mike Howard 67 Colorado 18. Lee's Ferry to Lake Mead III Raft-
PFD Not Worn or Present
Other/ Fatal Commericial Read More

Safety News

American Whitewater Announces Endowment

posted July 30, 2018
by Mark Singleton
article photo 2

American Whitewater is pleased to announce the creation of an endowment to promote safety education and outreach. The endowment will support “promoting  whitewater safety, responsible on-river behavior, safety education and outreach, and maintenance of the American Whitewater Safety Code and Whitewater Accident Database.’ Anyone wishing to add to the fund can simply make a donation to American Whitewater here and include safety education in the comment field of the donation.

Ohiopyle State Park Updates River Regulations

posted March 30, 2018
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 3

This past fall American Whitewater met with Ohiopyle State Park managers to discuss possible updates to their whitewater paddling regulations. The first topic was to change the rules governing raft sizes at different water levels to recognize the capabilities of self-bailing rafts. Shorter self-bailing boats will now be allowed to run the river at high water. Some small changes to the regulations will make Ohiopyle Falls more accessible to paddlers. A change in the way the gauge is interpreted should make the falls "legal" on more days. Although whitewater paddlers are only one part of the vast public that visits the park, every effort was made to accommodate them while avoiding user conflicts and safety hazards. Special thanks goes to Ken Bisbee, Ohiopyle State Park Operations Manager and John Hallas, a former Ohiopyle State Park Operations Manager who is now Director of State Parks. Click here to read the updated Ohiopyle River Regulations:

American Whitewater Announces Safety Database Upgrade

posted April 1, 2017
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 6

After over a year's work American Whitewater has released an upgraded version of their Whitewater Accident Database. It's the largest collection of its kind in the world, with over 1600 fatalities and close calls dating back to 1972. Each report has been checked for accuracy and AW Webmaster Ryan Groth greatly improved the search capacity. You can now locate accidents by a dozen different categories and characteristics. Here's how this project came about, how it evolved, why American Whitewater reports accidents and how you can help us keep this project going in the coming years.

Kayaker Pinned on White Salmon Strainer: April 12, 2015

posted April 21, 2015
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 2

On April 12, 2015 a Canadian paddler visiting the US was killed on the Farmlands section of Washington's White Salmon River. Denis Brown, 63, flipped in "triple Drop" rapid, did not roll, and washed iunto a strainer on the river right bank. Mr. Brown came our of his kayak and pinned against the strainer, and his boat washed down and lodged against him. There is an excellent report of this and the vigorous rescue attempt available now in the AW Accident Database.

Kayaker Killed Running the Potomac's Great Falls: July 11, 2013

posted October 15, 2013
by Charlie and Sandy Walbridge
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Shannon Christy, a charismatic young paddler, was killed in Great Falls of the Potomac River on July 11th, 2013. After bailing out below Grace Under Pressure, one of the center chutes, she washed over the notorious "Middle Finger" drop into the Subway, a deadly sieve. There is a full write-up of this fatality in the AW Accident Database. The photo shows Steve Fisher and Jason Beakes during the difficult body recovery.

Analysis of a Vertical Pin Fatality

posted October 15, 2013
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 2

On March 9, 2013 Dr. Jim McComb died after his kayak pinned vertically in a small ledge on Arizona's East Verde River. His friend Dr. Bill Langhoffer recently forwarded a detailed description of the pin along with several photos which may be useful to any paddler running difficult whitewater. Photo Caption:  This view is from the top of the drop as we found the boat weeks later once the water had receded from 500 to 20 cfs, and had transformed from muddy to clear water. The piton rock can be seen (#2).  This small rock at the base of the fall is what stopped his boat. The left slant in the rock at the base of the fall can be noticed (#4), with the boat still leaning in that direction. Once his boat sunk in the water it hit that slant and rotated the boat to the left.Jim was now pinned in the slot between the 2 rocks (Red/White and Black) on the river left (#5).The approximate water line at 500 cfs was drawn into the photo, water line.

AW Partners with Dam Safety Researcher

posted June 12, 2013
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 2

American Whitewater's Accident Database contains more than 1000 fatal accidents and near misses reported over the last  35 years. We sometimes give qualified water safety researchers access to this material. Our latest research partner is Ed Kern,  a Masters Degree candidate in civil engineering at Brigham Young University in Utah. Click through for more information and a link to his web site.

Detailed Report on 12/9/2012 Clear Creek Accident

posted April 16, 2013
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 4

American Whitewater just received an report on the death of Selby Arno on California's Clear Creek last December. It is very complete and well written; you can read the entire report by clicking on the link below:

Outstanding Rescue on the Upper Nantahala: Sept 30, 2012

posted March 28, 2013
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 2

A quick-thinking NOC bus driver saved a life during a scheduled September water release on North Carolina’s fast-moving Upper Nantahala River. A kayaker who pulled over above a downed tree didn’t realize that the current there was still powerful enough to cause trouble. Her boat was pushed into and under the log where both disappeared. Fortunately Rob Kelly, a whitewater guide, was driving  shuttle bus and witnessed the entrapment. He pulled his bus over and started wading across the river. The rescue was caught by photographer Rick Thompson. To read Mr. Kelly's account, click the link below:

Little River Foot Entrapment: March 11, 2013

posted March 28, 2013
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 4

The Little River near Townsend, Tennessee is one of the nicest class III-IV roadside runs in Smokey Mountain National Park. On March 11th an open canoeist flipped in the first drop of "the Meanies" just above The Sinks and washed downstream over a 6' ledge. He was swimming on his back, feet first, lined up with the current when he washed into the backwash and did not reappear. The water "planted" him vertically in rocks below the drop, catching his foot. Many paddlers who were on the river that day participated in the rescue, eventially using a complex live bait system to pull the man free. Click through for a detailed account of what happened.

Remembering O. K. Goodwin, Long-Time AW Safety Chair

posted March 16, 2012
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 7

American Whitewater recently learned that O.K. Goodwin, founder of The Coastal Canoeists (1965) and long-time AW safety chair (1970 to 1987), died on December 3, 2011. He was 90 years old. A lifelong resident of Newport News, VA, he was a designer of merchant ships (and the occasional canoe) for almost four decades. He was an instructor, Scout leader, and a whitewater competitor in C-1 and in C-2 with his wife, Glenna. They were married for 64 years and their daughter Cyndi was a top-ranked K-1W racer. He was well known on the race circuit, always there with his coiled rope at the toughest part of the course. As Safety Chair he discussed the inevitable conflicts between river-savvy paddlers and the wider, less knowledgeable society in which we all live. He pioneered outreach to state and local government and encouraged others to do the same. His work laid important foundation for today's American Whitewater. (Drawing by Les Fry in CoastalCaNews)

Pillow Rock Pinning: October 10, 2010

posted April 6, 2011
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 1

Pillow Rock Rapid on West Virginia’s Upper Gauley has been thought of as big, powerful, but relatively hazard free. That changed on October 10th when veteran paddler Mark Hanna died after pinning on a previously unknown undercut rock.His friends agree on these facts: At Pillow rock, running fourth in a group of 9, he flipped on the big pressure wave that gives the rapid its name. He attempted 3-5 rolls as he washed downstream. As he did this, he was pushed to the right just downstream of Volkswagen Rock (A,B). He came out of his kayak just above a giant rock that guards the bottom of the right-side eddy. As he bailed out, his face appeared for an instant before he was pushed under the right corner of the rock (C).

Frog Rock Drowning, Arkansas River: July 11, 2010

posted April 6, 2011
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 1
Frog Rock Rapid on Colorado’s Arkansas River is a deceptively dangerous place. At high flows it’s a straightforward Class III; at lower levels much of the water runs under a massive rock (Center). It has been the scene of at least six deaths in the last two decades; the lower the water, the worse it gets. Signs warn boaters to stay left or portage, but for those used to higher levels, its hard to shift gears. On July 11th  a group of river guides high-sided a raft here. One of them, Kimberly Appelson, 28, fell out of the raft and washed under the rock. Rescue was impossible, and it took several months to recover her body .

North Fork Feather Drowning: August 29, 2010

posted April 6, 2011
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 1

          On August 29th  Susan Marie Kaiser paddled the “Lowbin” section of the North Fork of the Feather in an inflatable kayak. According to postings in Boof.com, Ms. Kaiser, a former river guide, flipped her IK on a large breaking wave near the bottom in a long Class IV rapid below the first (Bucks Creek) power house. The current pushed her to the left where she pinned in a slot between a large boulder and a smaller submerged boulder to its left. One of the paddlers in her group managed to swim into the small pocket eddy behind the boulder and tried to pull her out, but she was wedged in too tightly.  The photo by Jeff Sailus shows a kayak pinned in the same spot.

Upper Blackwater Entrapment: October 2, 2010

posted April 6, 2011
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 1

Photo shows Flatliner Falls, the site of Carl Schneider's drowning on the Upper Blackwater River in West Virginia on October 2, 2010.This classic Class V run was running at 400 cfs, a high but commonly run level, when a group of 7 expert paddlers put in below the falls. Mr. Schneider missed a boof and washed over a 6’ ledge sideways. His bow hit rocks at the bottom, and the left side of his boat washed against an underwater rock shelf protruding from the ledge (foreground). It was an angled vertical pinning, with the current forcing him against his back deck. There was no air pocket.

Avoiding Collisions on the Gauley River

posted September 21, 2010
by Charlie Walbridge
article photo 1

River outfitters and American Whitewater joined together decades ago to protect the Gauley River from hydro development. The success of these business enterprises were one of the key reasons that the river was protected as a National Recreation Area. But with success has come new challenges. Professional guides find the number of kayakers on the Upper Gauley overwhelming at times and kayakers also find the number of rafts intimidating.  Regardless of any “right of way”, it’s everyone’s job to avoid crashes! Here’s what you can do to avoid collisions with commercial rafts. 

Guided Rafting Accident Statistics

posted September 4, 2007
by David Brown
article photo 1

A CNN story on whitewater rafting deaths published in September 2006 omits the fact that most of the fatalities cited by the article did not occur on commercial raft trips, said to David Brown, Executive Director of America Outdoors (AO).  America Outdoors is a national association of outfitters, which includes many whitewater rafting companies.  The story cites 50 whitewater deaths and infers that they were on commercial rafting trips due to lax state regulation.  Brown says his data shows 10 fatalities on guided, commercial raft trips in 2006.  None of the deaths on commercial trips were the result of a customer not wearing a life jacket.  Of the eight rafting deaths cited in Oregon by CNN, none were on a commercially guided trip.

To make corrections to information found in the Accident Database, please contact: Charlie Walbridge, Accident Database Manager, Bruceton Mills, WV email: ccwalbridge(at)cs.com.