SQUIRT BOATER PINS IN UPPER GAULEY
Conestoga Rapid near Summersville, West Va.
Date: September 23, 1990
Volume: 2500 cfs; Classification: IV
SUMMARY: On September 23, 1990 Brian Brodin, an experienced paddler from Northern Virginia, became bow pinned in a steep side chute in the right side of Conestoga Rapid on West Virginia's Upper Gauley River. Despite the vigorous efforts of professional guides and private boaters on the scene rescue came too late; he was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
DESCRIPTION: The Upper Gauley River is one of the East's classic expert runs. The regular fall releases draw paddlers from all over the country to test their skills in the sublime beauty of the canyon. Conestoga rapid, one drop upstream from "Ship Rock", is not considered a major drop. But like most of the so-called minor drops, it has passages and side chutes which are narrow, obstructed, and dangerous.
The victim, Brian Brodin, had been paddling for many years in conventional craft but had only been squirt boating on the Lower Potomac. The Gauley was a major step up in difficulty. Paddlers who were with him said that he ran the major drops cleanly and under control. They also stated that he was aggressively seeking out tight passages in the intervening minor rapids to test his skills.
In Conestoga Rapid, Brian's squirt boat became pinned in a narrow (6-8' wide), steep (4-5' vertical) slot in the last drop on the extreme right side. Below the slot is an underwater rock which complicates the line. The victim's boat pitoned just upstream of this rock; the low-volume stern was carried underwater and flattened against the ledge. Several feet of fast-moving water pounded against the victim's back with considerable force.
Immediately after the pin commercial guides and private paddlers swarmed on the rocks which formed the sides of the slot. At about 1:25 pm Brodin had his hands on rescue bags thrown from both sides, but was unable to use them to fight his way out. He was sitting upright, with an air pocket forming around his head. After considerable effort, the victim let go of the ropes. His upper body was pushed forward by the current, collapsing the air pocket and washing off his helmet.
A raft was maneuvered to the base of the slot, using ropes thrown from the rocks upstream. Brodin's life jacket and paddle jacket were grabbed by rescuers, but pulled off. In the meantime, another group of guides were working to swamp a raft on the upstream side. During this latter procedure a Class VI Whitewater guide, Jerry Drennen, slipped while setting a belay and broke his ankle. The raft was eventually maneuvered across the slot, and air released from the upstream tube while a number of people sat on it. When the broached raft had blocked a good portion of the flow, the downstream
raft was able to attach a rope to the victim's left hand. The rope was passed to the upstream raft, and Brodin was pulled free.
CPR was started at 1:45, twenty minutes from the start of the rescue. The victim was rafted downstream to Ship Rock and transferred to a helicopter. His heart continued to beat until 1 am the following morning, when he was pronounced dead.
Source: Steve Taylor
1) This pinning is inexorably linked to the victim's decision to run a steep, obstructed drop in a low-volume squirt design. Many people had been through it in high-volume craft over the years; indeed, several boaters had run down earlier in the day. There is also a report of a paddler in a Mirage kayak pinning in the drop some years ago; the paddler was not forced as deep and was able to climb out of his boat without difficulty.
2) The combination of low-volume designs and small cockpits continues to be a dangerous one. Squirt boats are designed to travel underwater, and the potential for pinning there is significant. Small cockpits and tight outfitting make bailing out extremely slow. In a true keyhole cockpit, a victim can bring his foot up to the cockpit rim without leaving his seat, letting him fight the current with the full strength of his legs if needed. There is currently a movement in surface boats towards large cockpits, one that both buyers and manufacturers of squirt boats should encourage.
3) Although Brian Brodin was a very experienced paddler, his experience in squirt kayaks in technical class IV+ water was extremely limited. Many of the fatalities in these boats have been linked to inadequate practice time. For most people, the transition from surface boats to squirt boats is a period of intense challenge. There should be no rush to get onto more difficult rivers.
4) A bow pinning with the victim struggling for air against the current is one of the most serious situations a rescuer can encounter. The response of commercial and private boaters was quick, and the idea of diverting water from the chute by swamping a raft was truly outstanding. In the earlier going, however, the group got two rescue bags in the hands of the victim. Hindsight suggests that a tag line, while a bit more time consuming to install, might have offered more support to the trapped kayaker. This could have been accomplished by linking the two throw lines together, setting them downstream, then pulling them snug across the victim's chest just below the arms. Properly adjusted and belayed, this would have kept Brodin's head above water until more help could arrive.
Matching one's skill in a given boat to the challenge of the river is the essence of whitewater sport. One can never let this judgement be altered by peer pressure or ego. Rivers have much to offer even the most conservative paddlers. (CW)