Accident Database

Report ID# 1058

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • High Water
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

Charlie: I wanted to send you an update on the Robert Fetzer drowning.

According to law enforcement sources, Fetzer and three others put in at the Black Butte Ranger Station at about 9:00 AM that morning. The section of the Middle Fork of the Eel that they were running is rated at Class II at normal flows, but was extremely high due to snow melt. All four were fully equipped with wetsuits, PFD?s, helmets, and rescue equipment. The outfitter who recently sold Fetzer the raft, told me that it was a 12  foot self-bailing raft. There was no oar frame, so I am assuming that they were running as a paddle raft, newspaper reports of oars notwithstanding.

Within 10 to 20 minutes, they hit an object or water feature, that threw the raft forward and ejected all four occupants into the water. All four were shouting to each other in the water after the flip. Three of the occupants reached the shore, and that was the last they saw of Fetzer. The body was recovered seven miles downstream. Apparently Fetzer was relatively new to rafting and had done the ?Outlet Creek to Dos Rios? segment of the Main Stem Eel River the week before as a warm-up.

An addendum on the Robert Fetzer Drowning. I contacted the Mendocino Sheriff?s Department this morning to review the Coroner's Report. Cause of death was listed as a freshwater drowning with a lot of water in the stomach, tracheal spasm, and pulmonary edema. Without any witnesses, it is not clear whether this was a flush drowning in a hole or what, but the body was found with the PFD and protective gear in place. There is no indication that alcohol or drugs are involved at all.

I am also attaching two articles from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on the accident. There was another article from the local Ukiah Journal, but for some reason, that is not on their web site. Ill have to scan that and send it to you as an image, along with the OCRd text. Jade Tippett Ukiah, CA

Winemaker Fetzer dies in rafting accident

Patrick Hoge, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, May 1, 2006

A well-known Mendocino County winemaker and cattle rancher died Sunday in a rafting accident that whitewater experts say highlights the dangers of navigating Northern California's swollen waterways this spring. Robert "Bobby" Fetzer, 50, was thrown into the strong current of the Middle Fork of the Eel River shortly after embarking on the trip with one of his sons and two friends. No one else was injured.

One of 11 siblings, Fetzer previously was the chief grape buyer of the Redwood Valley winery bearing the family name that was founded by his parents, Kathleen and Bernard "Barney'' Fetzer, said his sister Mary Fetzer-Skade. The family sold the business in 1992 to Brown-Forman Corp., the Louisville, Ky., company that makes Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. In recent years Fetzer had been raising cattle on a 7,000-acre ranch in Covelo, although he still grew wine grapes on about 40 acres in Redwood Valley, his sister said.

Fetzer got interested in rafting a year ago and this winter purchased top-of-the-line equipment, including helmets, life vests and wetsuits, which he and everyone in the raft were wearing Sunday, said one of his two sons, Jacob "Jake'' Fetzer, who was not on the raft. "It was the first thing other than work he really enjoyed,'' Fetzer said of his father. Typical of his personality, Bobby Fetzer took rafting seriously and sought to learn as much as he could about the sport, family members said. "He was pretty full-throttle on everything he did,'' said Jake Fetzer, 24. "He wasn't afraid to live -- that's for sure.'' Just last week, Fetzer went rafting and had a great time, his son said.

On Sunday, however, the river was running high with melting snow from the Yolla-Bolly Mountains, said Mendocino County sheriff's Lt. Don "D.J.'' Miller. Such conditions can be treacherous for inexperienced rafters, said Daniel Buckley, owner of Tributary Whitewater Tours of Grass Valley (Nevada County). "This is the time of year and the type of year that is going to be very, very dangerous for all boaters, especially the inexperienced,'' said Buckley, referring to the unusually wet winter. Buckley said he has rafted the same stretch of the Eel River where Fetzer was killed. Within 10 minutes of setting off at 9:15 a.m. from just outside Covelo, Fetzer's raft spun sideways and hit a rock, throwing Fetzer, his son Benjamin and two family friends into the swirling water, Miller said. "All of them got sucked underneath,'' Jake Fetzer said. "It was lucky no one else got hurt in the whole ordeal.'' Ben Fetzer, 26, was underwater for about 30 seconds, his brother said.

The three survivors managed to swim to shore, but Bobby Fetzer was swept downriver, apparently still conscious, because he could be heard yelling, Miller said. Fetzer's body, which showed no obvious signs of major trauma, was recovered 7 miles downriver after being spotted by a helicopter crew, he said. "He wasn't all beat up. I saw him pulled off the helicopter,'' Jake Fetzer said. "I don't know if he was that great of a swimmer.''

"He was just so happy to be rafting, because he worked all the time,'' his wife said. "It was really nice to see him try to slow down and enjoy the fruits of his labor.''

E-mail Patrick Hoge at

According to Dreamflows, the river level for the Middle Fork of the Eel on Sunday was around 16,000 cfs. This is extremely high for the river. Honestly, I've been boating for over 13 years and would not make the run at that level.

The Middle Fork of the Eel is a 30 mile run that starts with around 20 miles of class II leading to 10 miles of class III (one class IV and one class V: Coal mine falls). I have never run the MF Eel, but was on the Main branch above Dos Rios (Outlet ck to Dos Rios) on Sunday, where we too had high water. I have run the outlet section many times and at many levels. The contrast between 5000 cfs and 10,000 cfs is amazing; the rapids are much bigger and more turbulent.

My understanding is that after Bobby Fetzer's crew put on, they encountered large waves and hydraulics. On the Outlet creek section the boil lines and eddy fences are high and hard to cross at levels above 5000 cfs; wave height can easilly reach 8-10 ft. Add to it the fact that the MF Eel is snow melt this time of year, and you have fridid waters. While all rafters wereequiped with wetsuits, helmets and PFDs, it is my understanding that Bobby had only about a years experience guiding a raft. Hope this helps.

Tobias Gautsch My company has over 50 trips on the MF Eel since 1972. We ran commercially on a regular basis until 8 years ago at all levels from 700-15k. According to dream flows the middle fork was at 9700 the day of the fatality. My partner was on the Main Eel that day when the fatality happened. Skinny Chutes is a wash and if one was not familiar with the river they would never know they were there. At Coal Mine Rapid a portage would be almost impossible.

Feltzer's group said they planned to portage Coal Mine and Skinny Chutes. These guys unfortunately were going by guide books and not experience. My friend and partner Greg Isreal knows the fetzers and Bobby Fetzer was not an experienced rafter. According to the article they flipped with in 10 minutes of put in.They didn't ever hit rapids--just high water currents. The press wasn't interested in follow ups on this story and the Chronicle article was more informative than the Santa Rosa press democrat.

Bill Mashek rubicon whitewater adventures

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