Close Call on the Guadalupe, November 12, 2015
Type of incident: Near Miss - Short Duration Incident
Location: Guadalupe River, Texas; Gruene Rapid, river left
Flow: 1,360 cfs
There was still significant man-made debris around from recent floods, both in and out of the water (trash, building materials, trees, cables, ropes, metal objects.) It was anything but a clean, natural streambed. Trip members: Jim Stuart, Gary Studwell, and Clark Stanger. Jim had not run the river before. Both Gary and Clark had. Jim and Gary were highly experienced. Clark had five years of experience but was recovering from a recent health challenge, and his left leg's motility was compromised. He had some difficulty walking and became somewhat fatigued after heavy exertion.
The trip was from First Crossing to Common St. Bridge, a distance of 5.9 miles. The group did have a throw rope, but it was in Gary's boat.
Write-up: The trip had gone well up to this point. We had proceeded slowly and carefully, making sure Clark understood exactly what was coming up at each rapid. Clark had successfully negotiated all of the main rapids without flipping, but he was getting tired. Gruene Rapid at mile 3.7 - 3.9 has three parts. The first is a Class II+ drop with a few 2' waves. Then you have to navigate under a somewhat low bridge (not a problem at our level.) Below the bridge, the river is populated by mid-stream cypress trees that you slalom through a bit. River right is easier, but the current drives you toward river left, which is a bit harder. Jim led the way down, showing us a line down the center of the first drop, angling right, then to the eddy on the right. The plan was to go river right under the bridge and then right of the trees below the bridge. This plan was discussed before running the rapid.
Clark successfully negotiated the first Gruene Rapid drop but then flipped in the run-out. A roll attempt nearly succeeded, but then Clark had to wet exit. Jim was on-scene immediately and got Clark partially up on my deck. The current was driving us river left, where we really did not want to be. Clark's boat went left of the bridge pier. Gary went after the boat. Jim and Clark went right (no problem.) After the bridge, the water was driving us toward a thicket of ugly-looking bank-side cypress trees and roots. Jim did not want us to go there, so (instinctively and without thinking) Jim instructed Clark to help me "swim" us to the right.
This was the main incident causative error: a bad communication. Clark could *not* swim-assist by kicking, as his legs were in recovery, and he was at this point pretty exhausted. Clark took Jim's instruction to mean, "Get off the boat and use your arms to swim right," and obediently this is what Clark attempted to do. Thus he slipped into the water at the worst possible location, which was exactly what Jim did not want to happen. Despite trying, Jim could not get Clark back up onto my deck before we arrived at the cypress tree root ball. Clark swam into the upstream pillow and then dropped straight down and out of sight into what Jim had to assume was a strainer.
Jim started counting seconds, and within five seconds he had driven my boat up onto shore behind the first tree and started to exit the boat. It was Jim's intent to climb up and enter the water on the upstream side of the tree-- as appropriate-- to attempt to extricate Clark. At that moment, Gary arrived in the eddy upstream of the root ball. Jim was getting out of the boat and exclaimed to Gary, "We've got a crisis! He's down!" At that moment, Jim was massively relieved to hear Gary respond, "No, he's not!" Then Jim turned around to see that Clark had surfaced well downstream, where we fished him out, took some recovery time, then finished the trip without further incident.
Clark indicated that, when he submerged, he was able to see underwater clearly and that the root system strainer was indeed terrible, but he was able to guide himself around it to green water on the right, where he flushed out. The dangerous part of this entire affair lasted less than a minute. This had a good ending and was almost a non-incident, but it easily could have gone the other way. If it had, Gary and Jim, even with all of our experience, IMHO stood only a fair chance of rescuing Clark if he had been pinned against cypress roots deep underwater in that strong current.
- Know the river
- Know what current river conditions mean
- Know the paddlers
- Don't push it
- Practice communication
- Keeping a swimmer's weight on top of a boat usually is better than in the water
- Have experience
- Practice rescues
- Everyone should carry a throw bag
- Always be ready
- Act immediately