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Accident Description

By Jim Brooks Smith, Tennessee Valley Canoe Club

 Our group put in Tennessee's Piney River on February 2, 1991. This is a technical run falling off of the Cumberland Plateau south of Knoxville. Air temperature was to get into the fifties; water temperature was probably fifty. The gauge at the takeout read 2.2 feet during the shuttle run. We put on between 10 and 11 A.M. The incident occurred at the rapid before the surprise ledge that accelerates the paddler across the diagonal ledge.

I was following the group when I came upon the rapid. I chose a slot to the left of a rock just left of center. I was not paddling hard enough to launch the boat and was I not leaning back while going through the slot. I felt the bow catch, then the stern immediately dropped into a slot just past the lip of the drop. The water was flowing over my back and head; My boat was at a steep angle and well pinned. My first move was to wiggle my boat with my hips but there was no change. Breathing was OK, but the water was flowing across my face. I tried to stand straighter on my footpegs, but the water coming down on me made me feel as if I was being driven against the boat harder. Breathing was much more difficult in this position causing me to swallow more water. I was surprised, scared, and wondering what would work to get me out of the boat. I began testing putting weight on one foot and trying to lift one knee up above the rim of the cockpit.

About that time Victor and Andy were on the left bank, and Jim Conerly had made it to the right bank. They quickly got a rope across and in front of my lifejacket, against my chest. Shortly afterwards, the other Jim got to the right bank and they got the rope secured. Looking to my left I could see Victor and Andy. They looked confident and that reassured me. I could not turn to the right because the water was immersing me more that way. I yelled to Victor and Andy "what could I do next", but they couldn't hear me. I knew they had done all they could to give me the opportunity to help myself. By pushing off my toes and leaning onto the rope, I could lift my left knee a little. The rope against my shorty lifejacket constricted my breathing. I had thrown my paddle away because I needed both hands to push against the cockpit. The boat felt rigid and was not turning at all in spite of my twisting movements in the boat. I swallowed more water doing this, and I would cup my hands over my mouth to keep water out of my mouth and nose. However, then I could not use my hands to push up out of the boat.

I think after a few unsuccessful tries, I began to quit, and panic. I remember walks with my wife and wanting to see my daughter in the science fair. I think I teared up a little bit even with all the water rushing over my face. After a few seconds, I returned with renewed efforts, determined to free myself. Somehow, I got my left knee above the rim of the cockpit. I could hear a cheer from everybody. That helped. Again I tried, slightly twisting to the right, and I got my left knee upon the cockpit rim; quickly I pushed upright bringing my right leg up. I had to get out of there or I knew muscle cramps would occur. I wanted to go faster and just wrench myself over the side but I was unsure of my balance. I had been in the water awhile, my hands were numb and I had swallowed as much water as air. Finally, I was crouched on the cockpit rim with my feet under me. Someone threw me a line and the line on my chest was loosened. I looked, wrapped the line under my elbow and jumped. The water was frothy but shallow where I landed. I just held on as Jim pulled me into the eddy. He got me on a rock with my head lower than my feet and I immediately belched out water.

The Jim, Victor and Andy were looking for my boat, which had disappeared. At that moment I knew I would be OK, but I wondered how I would get out of there and what it would mean to all of us. They tried moving a throw rope over the place where my boat was. Later, Andy told me they could see my boat under the water.

Andy found a large flat rock with which he and Victor weighted down the throw rope and sunk it above the boat. After throwing the ropes across the river to loop the boat and pulling on them, the boat came free. Andy caught the boat which had its stern bent up toward the sky. He jumped up and down on the boat which seemed to help straighten it and ferried it across the river to me. Victor hung it between 2 rocks and we sat on the boat's bottom. This straightened it enough to paddle.

My sprayskirt had washed off along with an airbag, throwrope, water bottle and paddle. Jim had a breakdown paddle and Andy found my sprayskirt. We estimated that I had been in the water 12-15 minutes and we used another hour getting the boat out, so it was about 2 pm. We got moving.

My paddle and throw rope were around the next bend. I was very apprehensive and paddled conservatively the rest of the way to the takeout. However, I had a heightened sense of beauty of this river gorge. We took out about 5:30 PM.

In retrospect, I thought of other things I might have done. I had been clumsy starting out; I should have paddled hard and leaned back going over the ledge. I might have used my paddle as a pole to help pry myself out of the boat. My throw bag should have been tied in more securely and near my grasp; then I could have used a carabiner hooked it to the broach loop in front of my cockpit. At one point near the end of the ordeal, I thought I had swallowed too much water and I was weakening. I'd read it was better to use all your strength for one great attempt to free yourself. I guess that's a judgement call.

That morning I had taped a weak ankle, and decided to leave my tennis shoes and breakdown paddle in Chattanooga. I had driven 340 miles and had 4 hours sleep. At my age I cannot rebound as quickly as I used to. I let too many details slide by. I am glad I have the opportunity to paddle another day.

The other paddlers acted immediately and stabilized me. There was no wasted energy and confusion in their efforts to rescue me. They were poised and encouraging. If you get in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had better be with right people.

I hope this report will help warn and instruct others in some way, I am thankful I was with some competent, well-trained paddlers from TVCC and elsewhere to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.