Bad equipment (a boat not suited for running white water rivers) turned a Class I float trip into a nightmare!
I am 71 years old, in good shape, and a second year kayaker living in East TN. After 60 years of canoeing, including Boundary Waters, expeditions, and some TN Class II-III whitewater in a canoe, I decided to become a whitewater kayaker. I sold my canoe, a guitar, and bought a Dagger Katana. I belong to AW, and to three affiliate clubs in my region. I took instruction at NOC on the Little TN, read a great deal about safety and was scheduled for three days on the Cumberland Plateau next week with Kirk Eddlemon, which brings me to the reason for this email.
Last weekend I participated in an AW affiliate Club event on the Hiwassee middle section as a safety boat for a Girl Scout raft race. The Club safety coordinator randomly assigned me to a home made raft with four pre-teen girls, after we were in the water. I found out later that one of the girls was not only overweight, but walks with a walker, and had two inhalers with her. My group ended up being the last in the "race" and I was the only safety boat with them when everyone else, rafters and safety boaters, went ahead.
There was no one behind us.
After going over one Class II+ ledge, and another section of strong whitewater shoals, the girls' raft began to sink due to punctures because the flotation was made up of only six tubes, three of which were pool toys.
As the raft began to submerge, I tried to follow the advice given by the safety coordinator, which was to cut the tubes loose and let each kid go individually on a tube. Problem because I had four kids, and only three good tubes. As the raft sank more, the girls could no longer paddle, and they headed for a strainer. I saw it coming, tried to get them to steer/paddle clear, but the current was too strong, and took them right into the strainer. I was just ahead. The current was strong because the river was narrowing a bit, and the banks were heavy with brambles and overhangs.
No one in sight, no value in blowing my rescue whistle, and no phone reception. Just me and four kids, in strong current. The kids did have on PFD's and I had checked their fit on the water, but I had no confidence that they could survive the current with only a PFD. I made a decision to exit my boat but before I could tether it one of the four was swept away in the current outside of me. I grabbed my throw line, had to let my boat go, and made a good throw to her as she went by me about ten yards out. I miscalculated the force of the current and even though my throw was right where I wanted it in front of her, she could not grab it because the current kept it just out of her reach. No time to try another throw. I had to swim to her, and thank God, I got her about twenty five yards downriver. Bad on me, no helmet, because I had to swim under an overhang less than 1' off the surface due to no time to swim around it, and I could have been knocked out, but was lucky.
I took this girl to the bank, but it was steep and heavy with brambles. I got her out of the current, told her to hang on to a branch, and I started making my way wading against the current in over waist high depth toward the other three kids. As I got to an eddy, but before I could get to them, all three of the kids let go of the strainer and came toward me. The overweight kid was first and she barely had her face out of the water, coming head first. I got outside them, thankfully, and was able to grab, push, pull all three into the eddy, but we were still in water nearly up to their heads. After I got them to the bank and in a sheltered spot they were still in the water because the first climb up to ground was 4' above the water, and then a nearly vertical 30' embankment.
Then I had to go back for the first girl, who was still downriver. I could not swim or pull her through the current upriver so I had to cut brambles and move her through outgrowth to get back to the other three. When they were all together I checked the embankment and it was possible to climb to a level trail. Three of the kids were able to do this by themselves. The overweight girl announced, while still standing in the water, that she could not do it. I had to pull her up, out of the water, then stay behind her as she climbed the wet muddy embankment to the top. If she had slipped and fallen we both would have gone all the way down because I had no back up rope or carabiners. Everything went downriver with my boat except my river knife on my PFD. We made it to the top. Then I had to support the last girl as we followed the trail to a campground where we eventually reunited them with their leader and a parent. Everybody came through without injury and no one panicked. Great blessing, and lots of lessons to learn. My boat was recovered, but a thief saw the confusion and said he knew me, then loaded my boat in his truck and drove off. Still has not been recovered. The club is working to get me a deal on a used replacement boat. No insurance, $1000 deductible, and I had to cancel three one on one days with Kirk Eddlemon on the Cumberland Plateau and Big South Fork because I now have no boat, but I will take that outcome any day over an injury or loss of life.
Always have sufficient safety personnel. Always have more than sufficient safety personnel.
Inspect everything for basic safety, and for redundant flotation in addition to PFDs.
Make sure safety boaters can do a water rescue, and are properly equipped. I had barely enough safety gear, and no backup plan or equipment on my person when I had to let the boat go. Also, I was fit enough to do this rescue, but a couple of the other safety boaters, one a wife who was in a sit on, and had a knee replacement, could not have done what was necessary if she had been assigned to the kids I had, and that was purely random.
Know who you are with on the water, and more importantly, know who you are responsible for. What is their fitness level, mental attitude, overall health, etc.
Take nothing for granted concerning your fellow boaters or the classification of the river. If you don't know them, as I did not, ask what their level of fitness is, what safety training they have had, what equipment they carry. Paddle school is not enough if you are responsible for someone else's life. Even a lovely Class I "family outing" river with only two whitewater sections can be life threatening due to many factors.
Wear your helmet. This may have been Class I-II, but overhangs as well as rocks can still get you. Enough said. I didn't wear my helmet, and got really lucky.
Have a quick access web/carabiner line in a nylon pouch on your person if you need to make a quick tether. I did not have a tether and not only had to let my boat go, but I lost my boat from theft after it was recovered way downriver. I could have avoided this with a tether line.
Have as a minimum, in addition to a tether line, extra rope and carabiners with quick access. Getting out of the water in this situation was the main task, but serious injury could still have happened. Having a belay line to assist someone in climbing may be absolutely required. I took a big risk getting one overweight kid who was already exhausted up a tough embankment climb, with no safety line.
Factor in strength of current as well as distance out, and distance in front, when judging how to make your only throw. If you have a homemade throw line in a liter bottle, fill it up with water ahead of time to assist in making a good throw, and practice it that way as well as empty.
Get some good river shoes with traction that won't come off in the water. I lost one of my cheap slip ons in current.
I had my boat's MFR hull number from my original purchase documents, but the only ID was in my PFD, nothing on or in the boat. Write your name and number somewhere in magic marker on or in your boat.
William L. Whitacre, Knoxville, TN