Shipwreck Rock is a huge piece of sandstone blocking the center half of a long Class III rapid on West Virginia’s Upper Gauley. On September 6, 1997 at 11:15 a.m. a four-boat commercial trip and a safety kayaker arrived in the pool above the rapid. After briefing their guests, they took the river left line. A guide, who was making his first commercial trip down the Gauley, hit Razor Rock, a hard-to-see obstruction behind some large waves. The impact threw James Gabba, 36, into the water.
His guide lunged for him, and fell out also. He yelled at Mr. Gabba to swim to the left, and when there was no response swam up to him, smacked him on the helmet, and screamed in his face. But Mr. Gabba, a former Captain in the Army Rangers, just laughed and pushed him away. The guide swam towards shore and was picked up by a throw bag thrown from another raft. The safety kayaker paddled up to Mr. Gabba’s now-guideless raft and directed them to safety. Mr. Gabba floated into shipwreck Rock, where he was pulled under water and pinned. His body was recovered the next day before the water release arrived.
SOURCE: WVDNR Fatality summary; Charleston, WV Daily Mail; Beckley, WV Register; Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch; conversations with local outfitters.
1. This is the second commercial fatality at Shipwreck Rock. This rapid is not difficult, but the penalty for miscalculation can be severe.
2. The guest clearly did not take the situation seriously, and should have followed the instructions of his guide. If he had begun swimming to safety immediately, he probably would have survived.