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Accident Description


NEAR MISS ON THE SAVAGE RIVER
Memorial Rock Rapid upstream of Bloomington, Md: July 4, 1990
Gradient: 100 fpm; Volume 1000 cfs; Class IV

SUMMARY: On July 2, 1990 during a practice run for the Savage River International Downriver race a group of American racers encountered a downed tree at Memorial Rock Rapids which partially blocked the runnout of the center chute. Although most of the group got by without incident one of their number, Kathy Bolyn, became entrapped when her kayak broached and wrapped around a limb. Her group responded quickly with a textbook rescue which probably saved her life.

DESCRIPTION: The Savage River is one of America's premier wildwater race courses. From Bloomington Dam to the Potomac River the rapids are fast and continuous, bouncing between a class III and IV rating. Memorial Rock, the last drop of the steepest section, is also the most technical move on the river. Because of the stream's small size and intermittent flow, downed trees have always been a concern for race organizers. The water, released from the bottom of a lake, is extremely cold. Time is of the essence when making rescues here.

The tree which caused the accident was a large one, with an 18" diameter trunk a few feet above the water and a 5" diameter limb sticking down into the river itself. This tree had been spotted and trimmed by race organizers the day before the event, but the water level was low and the tree was not cut back far enough. By blocking the right side of the river in the swift water below Memorial Rock. it made the drop extremely hazardous to wildwater racers practicing the next day.

Bolyn, a nationally-known racer, river runner, and instructor, was training with a group of elete wildwater racers when the accident occurred. On their first run the group missed the tree. The danger frightened them, but the group felt they were "here to do a job" and elected to continue practicing. But they also decided to travel as a close-knit group, and several of their number picked up lightweight rescue gear. On the second run the first part of the group came through fine. Bolyn, leading the second wave, broached as she tried to turn in the drop. She was able to duck under the trunk, but her boat, which was equipped with vertical and lateral walls, was pushed against a subsidiary branch protruding down into the river. The kayak quickly wrapped, crushing Cathy's legs together so that she could not escape. She was left with her body facing upstream, holding onto the same branch which held her boat.

The group reacted immediately to her predicament. Jeff Huey and Paul Grabow climbed onto the tree trunk and approached Cathy from river right. As they got closer the tree sagged, deterring them from advancing further. On river Left, others in the group threw Kathy a rope. By tying it to a nearby tree branch, she was able to lean back against it and gain support. This stabilized her position for the time being.

Although well-dressed in a shorty wetsuit and drytop, Kathy was in considerable pain. Her position was stable, but she was completely helpless. She kept her cool by concentrating on other things: what still felt good, and the beauty of the surrounding river. Her greatest fear was that she might pass out.

Unable to help further with the tools available to them, Mary Hipsher approached a local landowner for the loan of a saw. The saw was ferried to Paul Grabow, who began to work first on the bow of her boat, then on the tree limb on which she was pinned. As he did this, Jeff Huey passed a second rope to Cathy from river right. Cathy untied the first rope, so that when the limb gave way she could grab that second rope and swing to safety. From there she was eased into a kayak; she then made the ferry across the fast choppy river to the left shore. Here a waiting ambulance transferred her to a helicopter in Bloomington and later to a hospital in Cumberland. There she was discovered to have torn two ligaments in her right knee, as well as minor crush and puncture wounds on both legs. She faces an extended recovery time of at least one year.

ANALYSIS: This accident raised a number of issues of importance to the racing community. As the sport has become increasingly competitive, pressures on the top performers have increased. Some of these competitive pressures undoubtedly contributed to the accident.

Some racers felt that the course should have been thoroughly checked and patrolled prior to practice. The tree was clearly in the way; those who had cut it back earlier apparently did not realize just how far the water was going to come up. But whitewater paddling is a risk sport; part of it's allure is the challenge of performing difficult moves in the face of danger. Competitors must assume responsibility for assessing these dangers, since there is no way that a championship-level course can be made risk-free. Since safety personnel cannot cover the entire run as in slalom, they must be prepared to rescue themselves and assist others. They must be prepared to back off when they encounter conditions which they consider unsafe, reporting the problem to race organizers.

Memorial Rock Rapid has an obscure, rocky left-hand sneak route. It has been used in the past, and was available for those uncomfortable with the tree's dangers. The main chute, although risky, was also negotiable. I suspect the best approach would have been to run the rapid, sneak the drop, and report the problem to race organizers.

The rescue, however, was a textbook example of effective organization and execution. The group reacted quickly, stabilizing the victim, then extricating her from the pin. The entire group must be commended for their teamwork, ingenuity, and courage. It also shows the usefulness of a saw in pinning situations.

CONCLUSIONS: Whitewater racing, like all river sports, contains an element of uncontrolled risk. Racer must not be so distracted by the competition that they can't assess the risks and respond to mishaps.