Pinned Kayaker Rescued at Little Falls
Early on the evening of August 2, 1988, Stephen Smith and his son, Sean began a short trip on the Lower Potomac through Little Falls. After a successful initial run, they carried up to do it again. On that run, the father’s boat was pinned on a cone-shaped rock at the top of the drop on the Virginia side. The boat and most of his body was under water and had partly collapsed, trapping his legs. Smith, fortunately, was facing downstream and was able to breathe in the air pocket which formed around his face. A strong, fit man in his 30s and a skilled racer and cruiser, he credits his strength and experience with saving his life.
Smith’s son, unaware that other kayakers were in the vicinity, ran for help, notifying park service and rescue squads. During this time, boaters arrived from downstream and went to Smith’s aid. Their initial effort to pull his head above water actually made breathing more difficult. Smith requested that they lift one end of the boat; this done, the boat pivoted free. The kayak was badly cracked, and Smith had a slight scrape on his abdomen from the cockpit rim. He was rescued before the rescue boats and helicopter arrived.
SOURCE: Chris Lea, National Park Service; C & O Canal NHP
ANALYSIS: Smith, a trained athlete in his 30s with ten years’ experience as racer and cruiser, believes that his survival depended on his strength and expertise. He states that a short lapse of attention (he was watching his son run down ahead of him) led to the pin. He did not panic, and took the correct actions needed to remain alive.
Smith’s boat, a robust low-volume design, did not break up. The use of a thin (1-1/2”) insertable minicell wall may have contributed to the entrapment, as it apparently folded over under pressure. The water pressure alone, however, may have been sufficient to prevent his escape.
It was fortunate that there were other paddlers in the area, since his son lacked the skills needed for this rescue. They beat the rescue squads by a considerable length of time. Unfortunately, none of the paddlers (including the victim’s part) were carrying throw ropes; fortunately, the situation did not require them.