Accident Database

Report ID# 21835

  • Pinned in Boat against Rock or Sieve
  • Near Drowning
  • Cold Water

Accident Description

We had a group of 9 with a mix of those who had run the Cheat to people who had never. The level was 11ft at the Albright USGS gauge (1ft for those who don’t use USGS), and air and water temperatures in the low 40s. The trip had been going well and we were having a good time. As we approached Three Amigo (the rapid before Cue Ball where there are three slots) Nancy and I were discussing if there was a boof or splat there. We decided to go down the middle channel and try to boof on the left hand side. When Nancy got the the rock, she went off it awkwardly and started to go down backwards and towards the left. I couldn’t see where she was and when I got closer saw that she had been sucked backwards into a sieve and was heads down.

I quickly ran the drop and caught the eddy behind the boulder and blew my whistle three times. Nancy was pinned between her boat and one of the boulders that divides the slots. Her head was upstream and her body was being pushed down towards the deck of her boat. There was a small rock next to the downstream side of the sieve and a shelf about a foot deep. I decided to get out and abandon my boat. Another member of our group Ken Durr was there, I told him what I was doing and to watch the gear. Luckily Nancy’s head was still partially above water and she had air and she seemed mostly stable. Though it did not look like it would last for long. From the rock I could reach both Nancy and the boulder. However, my footing was not good and there was moving water from the downstream side of the sieve preventing me from getting close.

I retrieved my paddle to use to help me get to the boulder. Back on the rock I put my arm on the boulder to bridge it and was getting situated to climb onto of it. While doing the Nancy reached out to me and I took her hand and proceeded to start to try to pull her out. I then lost my footing and slipped down the rock. Nancy fell to her right side (river left) and was still on the downstream outflow of the sieve. However, she was still pinned and now her head was completely underwater. I ask for assistance, Ken came over and we were both able to pull her out. Luckily Nancy was still conscious and breathing, though almost out of air and very drained. The eddy was only about 2-3 feet deep so we were able to pull her to shore. It took about 2.5 minutes to get Nancy out.


Things that went well:
Got Nancy out
Multiple members of group had SWR training, including victim and rescuer
Acted relatively quickly
Group had warm drinks

What could have been done differently:
Should have blown whistle again, not all group members heard it.
I should have asked Ken to get out and assist when I abandoned my boat
I should have gotten assistance when I determined the rock was slippery

Lesson learned:
Even when levels are low and the river seems benign hazards can still lurk. A week earlier we had been on the Cheat with .75-1 ft more water and the sieve may not have been in play.

From Nancy Kell - I would like to add some thoughts regarding the incident.  This run was low, well known by a number of the paddlers on the trip, and everyone on the trip had been vetted and deemed to have the proper skills and equipment to complete a cold weather run on Cheat Canyon.  Many had taken one or more swiftwater rescue classes.  The attached photos and video provide a very accurate view of the incident. The line I intended to take at Three Amigos is a common option.  At low water, several rocks were above the waterline on the river left side of the chute.  My bow bounced off one.  That spun me backwards into a chute to the left which, though tight, is normally a flush through if you are not sideways in the chute.  At low water, the shelf to the left at the bottom of this chute can push you river right, into an undercut rock.  This feature is not an issue at higher levels.

Things that went well - Our crew was paddling close together and responded quickly.  Bill immediately blew his whistle and the rescue began within about 1 minute of my pin.  From the time I was pinned until I was extracted, it was 3 ½ minutes.  I heard the whistle and could see that efforts were being made to get me out.  Because I knew this, and with the help of my swiftwater training, I did not panic.  I knew that it could have made rescue attempts more difficult to accomplish. 

Don't underestimate the benefit of reassuring the victim.  In one of my classes, we did not make a visual contact with the victim.  She said that made it very difficult for her to remain calm.  In another class, a person being used to stablize the victim made continual contact with the victim, and reassured him that he was being helped.  He said that this aspect was enormously helpful in keeping him calm and not give into panic. 

Could have gone better points - I did get some water in my drysuit and was cold.  My crew had extra clothing and was encouraging me to stop and put those items on.  I did not do that.  Listen to your crew when you've had a close call.  They are probably thinking more rationally than you are.  Bill was going to climb up on the rock I was under.  And likely look for options such as putting a stablizing line on me to keep me from slipping further into the undercut.  When I reached my hand out, he decided he might be able to get me out that way.  Anyone would have likely tried that.  It was unclear how long I would be stable.  A quick extraction seemed sensible. However, a stablizing line, if feasible, might have been a good idea.

Summary - Things can happen at any moment.  Make sure you and your crew are equiped for the unexpected.  Take swiftwater classes as often as you can.  Always have essential safety items with you, regardless of where you are paddling.

Edit: After further conversations with those on the trip, a couple more lessons / take aways. Because we were tired and pressed for daylight, we did not talk through the incident or have a debrief. This would have been beneficial. Learned that equipment played a factor as well. The other boater in the eddy was attempting to get his rope to assist. However, due to the design and cold was unable to operate it. Make sure you are able to successfully use your rescue gear in the conditions of the run.

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