Accident Database

Report ID# 74

  • Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • Other
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description


Niagara River near Buffalo, N.Y.: June 17, 1990

Volume 250,000 cfs; Classification: Unrunnable

DESCRIPTION On June 7, 1990 Jesse Sharp, 28, arrived in Buffalo, N.Y. with the intention of running Niagara Falls. He was a highly skilled paddler who lived in a tent along the banks of the Ocoee River in the summer. He had trained by running various falls in the Smokey Mountain region, and felt he was ready. He brought several friends with him to record his descent on video.

Niagara Falls needs no introduction. It's 181 feet high, a full 100 feet higher than the highest successful falls run that I'm aware of. The river flows at 250,000 cfs, and its huge volume adds to the difficulty. While it is clearly unrunnable, people have survived the plunge in barrels and, in one instance, wearing only a life vest.

Running the falls had apparently been Sharp's life ambition. He told many local paddlers of his goal, and had tried ten years earlier but was stopped when his parents tipped off local police. This time he planned to run the falls, navigate the whirlpool and rapids below, then take out at a boat ramp in Lewiston, N.Y. The rapids themselves are very serious business, runnable only by teams of experts. He wore no life vest or helmet. After making plans to meet his friends for dinner, he launched. Bear-chested in the huge water above the falls, twirled his paddle confidently at the lip of the drop.

Below here his run fell apart. His bow was tucked under by the falling water and he started to tumble. Those who have seen his boat believe that he hit rocks at the base of the falls. His plunge was witnessed by hundreds of tourists on both sides of the river, and the video made the evening news throughout the country.  

SOURCE: Local Tennessee paddlers, Newspaper clippings, news reports.


Advances in boating made during the past three decades have made most paddlers uncomfortable when saying that something can't be run. I'll make an exception here. Someone of Sharp's experience should have developed a better appreciation for the nature of his undertaking. His friends, when interviewed by police, said that,"Until someone's tried it, you don't know it can't be done." It's true that we're running rapids considered impossible a decade ago, but progress came in small, carefully reasoned steps. Some people take larger steps than others, but knowledge and skill, not blind courage, is the basis for their success.


The ACA and AWA have long championed the right of boaters to take calculated risks in pursuit of their sport. I personally feel that people should be allowed to try any damnfool stretch of river they care to as long as no one else is endangered. But this fiasco went beyond the bounds of prudent risk-taking. It was on par with playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded weapon and hoping for a misfire. Sure, he might have made it. A little girl wearing only a life jacket was swept over the falls after a canoe she was paddling with her father capsized upstream. She lived; the only unprotected soul to survive the plunge. Her father, not wearing a life vest, perished.

This makes Sharp's refusal to wear protective gear that much harder to understand. Although he had run a 60' drop on a small volume stream, the Niagara was three times as high with 500 times the volume. It was like training in Pop Warner football to go against the pro's!


The behavior of his friends is hard to understand. Clearly he drew them into his dream. They could have given him a better "reality check", perhaps even physically restrained him. I suspect it would have made no difference. Sharp was clearly committed his obsession, and would have returned to make the run alone.


CONCLUSIONS: The media got a lot of mileage out of Sharp's foolishness. His crazy stunt made all the big city papers and was featured on the evening news. I've always been astonished that the performance of our world class slalom athletes and expert river runners are of no interest, while this sort of lunacy draws headlines. I suspect the public thinks we're all little more than crazy thrill seekers, not participants in a physically and mentally challenging sport. This stunt reinforces all the worst stereotypes, and makes it harder for paddlers to gain access to more sensible sections of river.

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