Accident Database

Report ID# 3681

  • Pinned in Boat Against Strainer
  • Near Drowning
  • Other

Accident Description

From: Rob Kelly

Sent: Monday, October 01, 2012 6:41 PM

Subject: Saturday Upper Nanty Incident

Here's a quick run through of the incident on Saturday, September 29th 2012 on the Upper Nantahala release. Approximately 1:15 pm while driving upstream, I saw the victim's head shift alarmingly straight under, by a tree that had been an issue for a number of people that day. My view was looking upstream while crossing the bridge, driving upstream. I grabbed my throw rope and went to the tree. Neither she nor the boat were visible, but a bystander was confirming she was under the tree. A paddler was on river right ( below the tree and was trying to traverse upstream to help.

I threw a rope from river left, upstream to try to assist his upstream travel. At this point he was within 20 feet of her. This proved futile. I looked at a boater to my side and saw he had a rescue vest on, and another person had a rope further upstream. I told them to clip on to his quick release and get ready to lower in. My mind started to do the timeline at about three plus minutes and I started to accelerate the effort. Looking upstream, they weren't quite ready yet; so I decided to wade out in the shallow water by the river left bank where I was. It seemed prudent and controlled at that point even though I was not wearing a vest or helmet. My thought was to help assist guiding the lowering and pulling from there.

Reassessing the situation, time, and options at hand, it seemed safe enough to continue. My footing was good, and the rapid below was not too aggressive if I had to swim. There were people starting to gather at the bridge, including boaters and ropes. My travel to the tree was diagonally downstream heading into deeper, swifter current. If it had been lateral, or upstream it would have been difficult to approach and maintain locomotion and footing. At the very last part of the walk my footing was going, but I had options to avoid the strainer.

Not until (I was) at the tree could I see any of her boat. The stern tip was about a foot under water and was difficult to make out. I reached along it and felt the tree contact, and continued until I felt her. I was able to swing her torso around the tree and bring her head to the surface. My position ran out of reach and leverage doing that. I let go, reset with my body against the log ( but sure to keep my hips above the water line). This time I was able to bring her up to the surface ( still in the kayak). From an initial get call based on small observations like eyes/skin etc., I thought there was little chance of a rescue. Training, instinct, and hope all made it a no question to give a few rescue breaths before going back to getting her free. 2-4 breaths sealed and were received.

At that point it seemed that upward efforts were not going to free her. The tree was like a cantilevered leaf spring and had water and her surface area pushing up, while it's resting shape was pushing down. So we had to go down to get out. With three to four shoves and torques of the kayak she drifted out, still in the boat. I looked up and saw that people were ready below and signaled and shouted to them that she was floating downstream. They quickly got here to shore.

The next part is relayed from others involved because I was running down the road to the eddy that they had her in. They began with compressions and breaths in a less than ideal position. They then carried here to the road and had better access and positioning to administer 2 person CPR. Two respondents, maybe more, were medical professionals with an IV, bag, and other equipment. I took to macro scene management and let them be primary. I made sure a paddler was driving downstream to cell coverage for an EMS call and Rangers. Traffic was a next issue and then getting space around the victim. By this point she had been gurgling, then coughing, progressing to moaning. Slowly she was regaining awareness.

With the scene stable and EMS en route, I realized that my other guests and bus were more in the way than helpful. I handed the scene over and drove my guests upstream out of the way. In summary of timeline. Roughly noted times: 4 minutes from head down to rescue breaths. 8 minutes from head down to compressions. 12 minutes from head down to radial pulse. 20-25 cycles of compressions beforebreathing. Another 5-10 cycles CPR before radial pulse. 


First person account from the rescued kayaker 

I was having a ball on the river before the incident....this was my first time down the Upper Nanty. It reminded me of a condensed version of Middle Ocoee, tighter and more technical, but not above my skill level. I have done sect 4 Chattooga, and Ocoee, and did not feel uncomfortable at all on Upper Nanty. Kim, one of my fellow paddlers was sweep, and was faithful in being sweep the entire run. If he had not been behind me to hold me up when I got pinned, I would not be here. He certainly did his part and did it well.

Anyways...we did well the entire run until this incident. It was a group of 6 experienced paddlers. It was my first run of upper Nanty, as well as, I believe, 2 others in our group. Everyone did well and looked comfortable on the river. I was paddling down, saw the log, and attempted to go river left but the current took me straight to the log. Looking back, I should have tried to go river right and into the eddy and under the log, which angled at about 45 degrees from the bank into the river. I would have had plenty of clearance to go under, had I went that route.

Kim was behind me, saw me get swept into the log and immediately was beside me, holding me up. From what I understand, we both then were pushed by the strong current, and I disappeared, he got flushed downstream. ( I talked to him on the phone but can't remember the details of his account) He immediately pulled out of his boat and went to the bank to go upstream to help me but I by then was not visible, he was not sure if I had also gotten swept down, or was under the log. I understand that Rob indicated to him that I was under the log, and Kim, though exausted, continued to make his way up to me. I recall being under, trying to push up, trying to pop out of my boat, putting my hand up for a rescue....then lost consciousness. Next thing I remember was being in the ambulance, still at the scene.

I know that once Rob freed me and my boat, I was floated downstream by Kim, to the bank, where CPR was begun. There are photos and video of the situation, so that will help piece it together. I was resuscitated, taken to a local hospital ED, then transported to Ashville via ambulance. I stayed 2 nights, released when my oxygen sats came up to an acceptable level without supplemental oxygen.

There were many involved in the rescue, from Rob to Kim, Ian, Terri, Sam, and everyone else who assisted. I'm sure there were many other involved but from what I have heard, these were the hands-on rescuers. I am overwhelmingly grateful to them and everybody who played a part in my rescue.


Dear Rob,

On behalf of AW members everywhere, I want to thank you for your quick thinking and clear action. The outcome could have been much different if you had not been on the scene.

Mark Singleton. 

Executive Director

American Whitewater

Cullowhee, NC 28723


American Whitewater is the primary advocate for the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers throughout the United States and connects the interests of human-powered recreational river users with ecological and science-based data to restore and protect rivers.


Here is Rob Kelly’s summary of his part in the rescue that occurred during the Upper Nantahala Cascades Release this past weekend. Its not often that an incident such as this one has a positive ending and Rob’s quick thinking and action are noteworthy and heroic for sure!

Cathy Kennedy

Director of Rafting

Nantahala Outdoor Center


Dear Rob,

Mark Singleton forwarded your report of the rescue you made on the Upper Nantahala. What an outstanding rescue! The few times I've been involved with something really serious I pray for a clear head to let me see opportunities and the composure to be sure that my skills match my vision. You had both!

And thank you for your report. We don't get as many of these as I would like, but I know they are inspirational to people and a great resource for those faced with similar situations. It's a strong positive contribution to the sport.

The NOC staff have made a number of outstanding rescues on the Nantahala and Cheoah over the decades and this event continues their remarkable tradition of service to the paddling public. Thank you for being there and making sure that the day ended as happily for everyone as it started.


Charlie Walbridge

American Whitewater Safety Editor

Bruceton Mills, WV

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