Accident Database

Report ID# 22

  • Pinned in Boat Against Strainer
  • Physical Trauma
  • High Water

Accident Description

The Pillsbury Run of the Eel River below Scott Dam is a popular Class III run. On November 28, 1984 it was running at 3100 cfs, a high level that bumped the rating up to Class IV. Dr. Shawn Smith, an experienced Class IV kayaker, was making the run with two less experienced friends. Making goods progress, Dr. Smith and one of his companions eddied out above Dennis's Menace. The third man paddled through, hit a big hole, flipped, rolled, and continued downstream. The second man followed, flipped in the hole, and swam.

Dr. Smith  followed, but the pair was too involved in rescuing the swimmer and his gear to see what happened.  When he failed to appear they walked back upstream and found him trapped in his boat. He was only 15' from shore, but deep, fast water separated him from his friends. His kayak had wrapped around a 3" diameter stub of a branch which jutted out of the water about 6". It was a desperate situation!

Dr. Smith was conscious and barely able to hold his head above water. He was too weak to hold a line and in great pain from what turned out to be two broken legs. Soon he lost his battle with the river and drowned. His body was recovered the next day after the water had dropped substantially. His partners hypothesized that the big hole upstream pushed him left, and that even if he didn't slip the snag would have been difficult to spot until it was too late.

SOURCE: Report by Bob Porter, Sierra Club River Touring Section

This was a desperate situation, made worse by the soft, flexible plastic of rotomoulded kayaks and the high water levels encountered that day. These boats tend to wrap rather than pivot free when theh it obstacles, and this can be a problem. In retrospect, it would have been advisable to scout this drop. The hole can be missed by strong boaters who know where they are going, and this would have prevented a lot of problems.

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