ENTRAPMENT ON THE OCOEE - MY TALE OF WHITEWATER TERROR
Friday, June 16, 1993: It’s 1:30 PM on the Ocoee River . After what seemed like an eternity, rescuers finally freed me and my boat of the broach and got me to the riverbank. More time would pass before I could be removed from the boat. The pain in my legs was excruciating. My left leg was broken in two places and my right leg was badly bruised. When one of my rescuers asked if I had a throw line my cynical response was: “Hell no! No one gets seriously hurt on the Ocoee!” Boy was I wrong!
I was transported up the embankment, down the road to an EMS center, and finally to Piedmont Hospital . During those seven hours I was in continuous pain. When asked by a nurse how I felt, I responded that I was lucky to be alive.
I’ve been paddling for about a year and have worked hard to increase my skills. During the past year I logged eighty paddling days, many of them on water equal to or more difficult than the Ocoee. I had been paddling the Ocoee every weekend for over a month. Due to the consistent water levels on the river, I began to rely more on memory, less on river-reading skills. I developed a sense of invulnerability as I constantly tried more difficult moves to push my limits. I forgot the risks, and this got me into trouble.
I was paddling with two people, an experienced friend and a first timer. At the put-in, I noticed that the Ocoee seemed to be running higher than usual. My friend planned to show the newcomer the preferred first-timer routes, and I planned to play the river as I usually do. We were all enjoying the day until the incident occurred at Double Suck.
As my two friends went left to scout, I went right, planning to set up in a staging eddy and ferry between two holes. I was eddy hopping from left to right across this fast, shallow section of river. I was just above my usual staging eddy when I looked over my shoulder and set my eye on a gnarly little micro-eddy. Things happened very quickly. As I peeled out, I struck a submerged rock on my downstream side. My bow wedged between this and an upstream rock, and my boat wrapped around the downstream boulder. Just as I realized I was broached, my bow collapsed and agonizing pain shot through both my legs.
“Oh, God,” I thought, “my legs are breaking.” The pressure was so intense it seemed like flesh and bone would explode all over the inside of the hull. Fortunately the center wall offered some protection, and the bulkhead kept my feet from being crushed. Reacting to the intense pain, I decided to exit the boat. Bad mistake! I popped my sprayskirt but I couldn’t get out. The boat quickly filled with water and the pressure on my legs intensified. The cockpit and stern began sinking, and the current began pillowing up on my chest. Five seconds after impact I was trapped in a submerged boat with a broken leg and my head sinking underwater. I was absolutely, positively convinced that I was going to die.
I worked my arms to my side and pushed against the stern deck, raising my head above the surface. It all happened so fast that I doubt anyone noticed I was in trouble. I looked downstream and saw a paddler in an eddy looking at me strangely. I sucked in a mix of air and water and screamed for help. My arms weakened and slipped off the stern, and I fell back underwater. Again I raised my arms to my side and pushed against the stern deck to raise my head.
Seconds later my partner appeared behind me and shouted for me to grab his bow. I was amazed that he’d made the ferry so quickly. With my strength waning I sputtered, “No. Out of boat!”
As he was getting out of his boat, my strength failed and I went under for the third time. Knowing Mike was near, I reached up and waited. Seconds later I felt his hand take mine. He slowly pulled my chest out of the water, working his way to my downstream side so he could support my head by holding my lifejacket.
We talked about what had to be done. The bow of my boat was hideously twisted around a rock with my legs inside. The midsection and stern were completely hidden from view under two to three feet of water. I told Mike my legs were breaking and that he needed to pull the stern upstream. He said the boat was stuck in concrete, and the water was too fast to reach the stern. In a remote situation, it would have been hopeless, since he could not hold my head above water and also free the boat.
But other paddlers began to arrive. A leader emerged, and they tied a rope to the bow grab loop. Another paddler joined my partner and helped him hold my head above water. After five or ten minutes they had a Z-drag set up and began to pull. As this happened, my partner was able to lift the bow over the rock. He actually pulled so hard that he developed a hernia! Using the ropes to stabilize the boat, the rescuers pulled it into the bank, I knew I was going to live. To everyone who helped with the rescue and evacuation, God bless each of you!
SOURCE: David Cox, the Georgia Canoe Association’s The Eddyline
EDITOR’S NOTE: I have reports of numerous other problems at this same spot.