For those of us who make the Potomac River our afternoon playground we often forget the potential danger, especially to those unprepared. An event on Friday provided an example of how quickly things can turn potentially deadly. While at a play wave (the Virginia chute) I noticed a solitary boater attempting to attain but having great difficulty. The boater was wearing a Go Pro camera on the helmet which made him noticeable. Finding the wave washed out I returned to another wave (the Maryland chute) where I met two others and practiced attainments (which were difficult because of the pushy nature of the river).
I attained to an eddy used for surfing and was getting ready to return when I noticed a Go Pro floating in the water - it was periodically being recirculated. I waited for it to float to me and went to retrieve it when a face came to the surface and weakly asked for help. I was able to get the swimmer on my boat and take them to a nearby beach. The swimmer said they had been recirculated 10- 12 times and they were too weak to swim.
After seeing the swimmer was safe, the other boaters went after the boat which was found almost 1/2 mile downstream. The swimmer eventually was transported in an inflatable to the takeout. The swimmer had no injuries and left on their own power. At the time of the swim, the three of us were the only boaters on that portion of the river and we were preparing to leave. When first sighted only the Go Pro of the swimmer was visible, and it took many seconds to a minute for it to float to me where it was discovered as a swimmer. During this entire time the swimmer was vertical in the water with the top of their helmet submerged. The swimmer was clearly exhausted and in a second recirculation. Had we not been there, it certainly was a possibility this could have become a fatality.
A number of factors contributed to this. First a boater without sufficient strength and without a good roll was attempting to attain alone. They were lucky to have been washed into the MD chute - had they begun swimming. above Center Chute they may have gone up to a quarter mile before coming near a shore, and they certainly would have been unrecognizable to the very few other boaters on the river that day. The river was running at 4.2+, certainly not a bad level for some, but a very pushy level for someone with little experience. The swimmer was very large (appx 250#) with a small and worn out PFD, in addition the PFD had ridden up to the chin, thus the swimmer was vertical in water with very little flotation - allowing for recirculation. Finally the swimmer did not attempt to aggressively swim for shore, resulting in multiple recirculations. The Potomac River has killed many people and anyone venturing onto it, especially alone, should be very aware of their limitations.
DON’T BOAT ALONE!!!!