French Broad Swim Near Drowning
On February 23, 2019 the French Broad River at Asheville was ripping at 14000 cfs (average flows are in the 2000 cfs range). The Ledges Rapids in Woodfin, NC kicks up some fantastic surfing waves at high water. I was there with a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous).
The Ledges is a quarter to half mile long set of class II-III rapids. We were surfing a glassy five foot tall wave at the top of the rapid, river right of Ship Rock. Eddy access is limited. A flurry of well-timed strokes can deliver paddlers to the eddy downstream of Ship Rock. The only other option is to paddle downstream and take out, and then walk back up to the wave.
My friend caught a long ride that lasted several minutes. He came off the wave and headed downstream. I was dropping into my surf as he was floating off the wave. I surfed for 5 minutes or longer and caught the eddy. I got a couple more rides before washing off the wave and paddling downstream.
I had not seen my friend for a while, but this is not unusual while surfing big water. I walked my boat back up to the wave expecting to find him at the put in eddy. He was not there, so I walked down the road, looking for him.
As I walked up to the Ledges Park I saw several rescue vehicles, a police car and an ambulance. My friend was laying on the grown. He was conscious and talking to rescue personnel but he looked like death warmed over. He was pale, his cheeks were flushed and he was clearly exhausted.
He told me what had occurred. After he came off the wave he was caught in a hole halfway down the rapid. He was surfed and eventually swam. The hole that got him is in the middle of the river, at least 100 yards from the shore. He was rapidly swept downstream. He was forced under for long moments and took splashes in the face as he fought to keep his head up. He swam at least ½ mile before he managed to grab ahold of a tree and work his way to shore. He thought he was going to drown. Someone saw him from the road and called 911.
He was shaken and vomiting water, but uninjured. His boat and paddle were long gone.
This accident could have been prevented.
We should have had a discussion about the risk of swimming in big water. I assumed no one would swim. I am the stronger paddler. I could have waited on shore or in the eddy until he was safely out of the water. We did not think anything bad could happen on the French Broad because, “it’s only class III.” Flood stage kayaking eclipses the classification system. Even in relatively easy whitewater the consequence of swimming is exponentially greater. Flooded out rivers are no swim zones. You cannot come out of the boat.
If we had had a talk about it, maybe my buddy would have elected to stay on shore. We were there with a third, highly skilled paddler and the two of us were making it look deceptively easy. The expert halo was in effect. It is hard not to let others performances cloud our personal decision making, but we should all strive to make our own choices.