Accident Database

Report ID# 49317

  • Equipment Trap
  • Does not Apply
  • Inadequate Equipment
  • Inexperience
  • Other
  • Solo Paddling

Accident Description

Eyewitness report from AW Texas stream team member: 

The incident occurred at around 4-4:30 PM.  Our group, which mostly consisted of experienced and proficient whitewater kayakers and rafters, had taken out at Gruene Bridge about 30 minutes prior.  We had already unwound our shuttle, loaded our gear, dried off, and dressed in street clothes to go into Gruene.  We were walking across the bridge toward Gruene when one of our group noted that a "yard sale" (a recreational boater-- paddling a sit-on-top kayak in this case-- who had flipped, swum, and lost gear in Gruene Rapid) was about to pass under the bridge.   

We went to the downstream side of the bridge to observe the carnage, expecting that the rec. boater would (as is typical for those paddling sit-on-tops) right his sit-on-top, climb back on board, and continue paddling.  Instead, the rec. boater became pinned on a submerged log on the upstream side of the centermost tree growing in the river approximately 50 feet downstream of the bridge.  The rec. boater had a tether that attached him to his boat, and that tether had snagged on the log and wrapped around his ankle.  The rec. boater pinned in a sitting position facing downstream, with his boat downstream of him creating enough force that the tether could not be detached from the log.  He was fortunate to have become pinned in a position whereby his head was facing downstream and was far enough above water that the current cascaded around and over it, creating a pocket of air in which he could breathe.  Otherwise, there is a good chance that he would have drowned.  Another sit-on-top boater, who was paddling with the pinned rec. boater, had successfully run the rapid first and was sitting in an eddy downstream watching and doing nothing to help.

When it became apparent that the pinned rec. boater was not going to be able to unpin himself, one of our group-- who is one of the most experienced and proficient whitewater paddlers in Texas, who probably had the most swiftwater rescue training among us, and who undoubtedly had the most experience with the Guad-- immediately stripped to his shorts, ran down to the bank, and swam across (via eddy hopping) to the pinned rec. boater.  (NOTE: this was a Class II and relatively low-gradient rapid, and the rescuer had extensive experience swimming in swift current, thus making such a rescue feasible.)   

The pinned rec. boater was apparently alert but not responding to questions and commands.  The rescuer attempted to detach the tether but was unable to, due to the force of the boat pulling on it.  Our own boats had already been loaded and were in the parking lot 75-100 yards away, and it would have taken precious time to unload those boats, put on spray skirts and other gear necessary to paddle them, and launch them.  Two other people in our group, also very experienced and proficient whitewater boaters, borrowed a ducky sitting against the fence at Rockin' R.  They paddled it out into the current but were unable to attain up to the location of the incident.  They made it across the river and attempted to assist from an eddy near the river left bank, which was a bit closer to the pinned rec. boater than the river right bank. 

The rescuer who had swum out to the pinned rec. boater was taking steps to keep the pinned rec. boater's head above water.  The rescuer made several failed attempts to detach the tether and eventually called for a knife.  If memory serves, the ducky rescuers were trying to get a knife to him.  If memory also serves, one of the ducky rescuers had a throw rope, but given the pinned rec. boater's lack of responsiveness to verbal questions and commands, it was unlikely that he would have been able to grab the rope had it been thrown. 

After several failed attempts on the part of the ducky rescuers to get a knife to the initial rescuer, apparently the rec. boater finally clued in to the situation enough that he reached for a knife that he had had all along.  The rescuer used that knife to cut the tether, and the pinned rec. boater and his boat flushed into the calmer water downstream.  The three rescuers, as well as another kayaker on scene, offered to help the formerly pinned rec. boater get his boat to shore, but the rec. boater who had been sitting in an eddy downstream the whole time reportedly said something to the effect of, "This is just another adventure for us."  Both boaters refused further assistance and continued downstream to Common St.

Additional report from a kayaker on scene (not affiliated with the rec. boater who was involved in the incident):

We passed by them on our paddle.  The guy that ended up being rescued was shouting something ridiculous at us, calling us "cheaters" (probably because we were in whitewater gear.)  The more sober one said they had been on the river since 8 AM from Horseshoe [the R.M. 306 crossings, approximately 15-16 miles above Gruene Bridge] and to just ignore the other guy.  Then he passed by me and went down Gruene [Rapid].  I remember thinking, "That dude is crazy going down this rapid in a rec boat with a big green Coleman ice chest."  He made it through, and I went next.  The guy that flipped was still above the rapid at that point.  We had just got off the river at the bridge, and everything happened so fast.  People were running and shouting.

I also spoke to them downriver while the guy was still floating toward shore (he would not grab the rope that was thrown to him and still floating within 2-3 feet of his arms), encouraging them to get off and let us get them back to their takeout or home safely.  He [the rec. boater who had waited downstream during the incident] said it was "just another adventure," and they had an hour to go.  He told his buddy to get in his boat and prepare for the next rapid.  It was infuriating knowing that the rescuers risked their own safety and those guys seemed unfazed by what had just happened.


Texans unfamiliar with whitewater paddling frequently accuse experienced whitewater boaters of "putting first responders' lives in danger" when we paddle whitewater rivers in this state, but this is a great example of the fact that experienced whitewater boaters frequently *are* the first responders on a whitewater river. The police and fire department were nowhere to be seen, not that they could have done anything more than what the rescuers did (since most first responders, frankly, have much less swiftwater rescue experience than the whitewater boaters who effected the rescue, and first responders certainly have much less experience with pins.) This entire incident played out over only a few minutes.

Don’t use a boat tether or a paddle tether on a moving river.  Ever.

Inexperienced rec. boaters should stay off of the Guad at any level above 750 cfs (the limit for "recreational" river use, including commercial tubing.) The Guad from 1st Crossing to Common St. at 1700 cfs is not difficult for an experienced whitewater boater with appropriate whitewater gear and training, but the river at that level should be regarded as advanced for a sit-on-top boater, and thigh straps are strongly recommended for any sit-on-top boater on any whitewater river at any level.

Alcohol was apparently a factor.

Fatigue may have been a factor, given the fact that the paddlers had paddled 15-16 miles prior to the incident.  That is an aggressive day trip length for the river at 1700 cfs, since much of it between 4th Crossing and 1st Crossing is flat.

To underscore how lucky the rec. boater was, had the rescuers crossed the bridge a minute earlier, there's a good chance that he would have drowned. It would have taken a while for any passers-by to figure out what was going on and to call 911, and it would have taken even longer for first responders to arrive, set up, and effect a rescue. Had the tether wrapped in a different way, pinning him such that he faced upstream, there's a good chance that he would have drowned before rescuers were able to cut his tether. Had he pinned in Gruene Rapid just upstream, there's also a good chance that he would have drowned, since a mid-river rescue would have been much more difficult in that rapid. Had he pinned in Clutter or one of the other rapids that are far from a major road or public access, there's an even greater chance that he would have drowned.

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