As a retired Firefighter on a regional technical rescue team, as well as a swiftwater instructor, I appreciate your efforts in helping keep people safe. This is the story of a simple trip that could have had tragic results. It is an example of how most accidents occur not because of one major issue, but an accumulation of seemingly innocuous events and circumstances. This is sometimes referred to as the “accident chain.”
On April 28, 2017 during the spring runoff, four kayaking buddies paddled down Big Chico Creek, a small Class II- creek flowing at 475 cfs. It is a beautiful creek that runs through the middle of Chico, CA. Two of the kayakers had run the same trip four days earlier at 550 cfs with no problems.
The most experienced was a Class IV boater, Dayton, who was using a 4-meter fiberglass slalom boat. He was accompanied by three friends: John, an experienced Class II boater and a Swiftwater Rescue Instructor in a whitewater boat; Dave, an ER Doctor and experienced Class II boater just returning from a kayaking hiatus in a 4-meter fiberglass slalom boat: and Jan, a Class I boater in an 8’ boat that was more designed for flat water.
Dayton was keeping an eye on Dave, who was doing fine, while John was helping Jan, suggesting the best lines, etc.
Dayton had forgotten his sprayskirt. His kayak had a very small cockpit and the lightweight fiberglass boat is quick, but fragile. He used to surf in the ocean and has an implosion bar in his skirt, so that the waves don’t collapse the skirt. That might have assisted in the situation, but it was not with us. Everybody else had a sprayskirt and helmet, except Jan who had neither.
Since Dayton and John had done the trip three days earlier, they took turns leading and showing Jan the best lines. Things were going fine. However, toward the end of the run, there is an “S” turn beginning with a sharp turn to the right, and then a sweeping left turn that has a lot of brush river-right. The entry is tricky because there is brush on river left. You almost have to paddle upstream to make the initial right turn. Before the group entered the area, John told Jan to stay right when entering, but then to go river-left to avoid being swept into the bank. All she remembers hearing was, “stay right.”
John proceeded first to show Jan the correct line. She navigated the awkward right turn to enter the rapid, but then started getting pushed river-right into the brush. At that point, she either flipped or did an emergency exit on purpose to keep from getting pushed into the brush. John was watching and immediately grounded his boat river-left on a conveniently-placed gravel bar, grabbed his throw bag and started giving Jan commands. Her boat was pinned against the bank, river-right, and she was attempting to stand in the 2’ – 4’ deep water.
Since there were branches and roots in the area, John kept telling her to sit down and float toward him. Meanwhile, Dayton was following Jan as a safety person. With Jan attempting to stand up in the middle of the rapid, Dayton was forced off his line. The tip of his pointed kayak got stuck in the brush and his kayak pirouetted, getting pinned river-right in the same exact spot where Jan’s kayak had been temporarily pinned. By then, Jan had been able to get to shore. John started running upstream river-left with his throw bag to get above Dayton to assist. Suddenly a thundering “crack” emanated from Dayton’s kayak. Without a sprayskirt, it had filled with water. Since the bow was stuck, the kayak bent and cracked under the force of the water. Now, not only was Dayton’s kayak pinned, Dayton’s knee was pinned inside the crushed kayak.
Dayton and John had a quick conversation and decided that the assistance must come from river-left. At that point, John asked Jan to call 911, but she stated that her cell phone was in her kayak, which was downriver by now. John and Dave swam across the bottom of the rapid. Dave reached Dayton first and asked him if he wanted him to try and free his boat. They were both thinking (all of about 2 seconds) what will the boat do once freed? They weren't sure if it might submerge taking Dayton with it still trapped, or if it would pop loose freeing Dayton. It was quickly decided that freeing the boat was the best option. As soon as the bow of the kayak was free, it unbuckled and Dayton immediately performed a wet exit. Despite his hurt knee, he was able to scramble to the beach.
It was a warm, beautiful day, floating with friends on a local small creek. Nevertheless, trivial issues added up: no spray skirt, small cockpit, older fiberglass boat, boating companion not suitable for the class of water, lack of safety gear, miscommunications, small creek in the middle of town giving a false sense of security, etc. This story has a happy ending, but it could have easily turned out to be a fatality. There is something that we all can learn from this experience.