Accident Database

Report ID# 995

  • Pinned in Boat against Rock or Sieve
  • Near Drowning
  • Other

Accident Description

On May 18, 1980, during a routine run on the Kern River in California , Louis Niklas, an experienced kayaker making his first run of the season, broached on a rock in a class II rapid. The boat folded suddenly behind the cockpit, trapping the victim. Two and one half hour later he was pulled from the river by a Navy helicopter.

The Kern River above Bakersfield, California , is a powerful stream containing rapids of varying difficulty from class I-VI. That day the river was flowing at 3000 cfs, a medium-high, but safe level. Both the victim and his companion were experienced, well-trained kayakers who had run more difficult sections of the river before. The raid in question is a long “S-Turn” known as Mourner’s Corner, a Class II on the six-point international scale with many submerged rocks and small, choppy, waves.

The victim and his partner were proceeding down the rapid, when, about a third of the way down, the victim broached unexpectedly on a rock. His previous experience indicated that he could brace into the rock and pivot off, but his boat instead stuck fast and folded without warning. There was no time to exit, and he was essentially sitting sideways on the rock with his head upstream. He was able to keep his head above water with great difficulty by leaning towards the surface and holding on to the side of his kayak.

The victim screamed for help. A bystander heard him, grabbed a rope, and with her husband, attempted to assist. The rope, about 75’ long, came up short. She called the sheriff’s office. His friend, waiting “patiently” at the bottom of the drop, assumed his partner had capsized and was dumping his boat. It wasn’t until the sirens were heard that he realized his friend might be in danger. This “waiting time” was about 30-40 minutes.

 A deputy sheriff arrived promptly on the scene. He decided that rescue from shore was “too dangerous” and requested a helicopter from the Naval Weapons Station at China Lake at 4:25 PM. He thought that it would take “about 15 minutes” to get the chopper. What he did not know was that it would take 25 minutes to get the necessary clearances and 35 minutes to scramble the crew before the 15 minute flight could commence. Since the chopper’s radio was on a military frequency, it could not contact the sheriff directly, so the deputy had no way of knowing about this delay.

A few minutes after the request had been put in a commercial rafting party under the leadership of Gary Peebles arrived at the scene. Seeing that many rescuers were on the scene with ropes, yet not attempting the rescue, he sought out the deputy in charge and offered his services. He was warned that he would be held legally responsible if he attempted to help and the rescue failed. He also told him that thte helicopter was due “at any minute”. Realizing that the victim was in serious trouble due to cold and fatigue (not to mention the frustration of seeing dozens of people on the bank kdoing nothing) he began to organize a rescue. The deputy then threatened him with the loss of his commercial rafting permit if he “interfered with the rescue”.

Gary , threatened with the loss of his livelihood, fired one of his employees, who, acting as a private citizen, swam out to the victim to hold his head out of the water and to give him hope. Soon after another kayaker joined him, and told how he had been pinned for over an hour the previous year on a tree. These actions saved the victim’s life, since he had nearly given up hope and considered drowning himself to end the agony.

Another group of private rafts arrived. As they were debating how to organize a rescue, the helicopter arrived. The time was 6 PM, two and one half hours after the accident and an hour and a half after the request for the chopper was first put in. They lowered a rescue collar to the victim, who, assisted by the two men helping him, put it on. The people in the helicopter had no idea how much  water was in the kayak, or if they had enough lift to do the job, much less if this could be done without injuring the victim. The helicopter lifted both the victim and his boat clear of the rock, lost lift, and dropped the kayak back into the river. For one awful minute a crash seemed imminent as the current started to pull on the chopper. Fortunately, the helicopter regained its lift and brought the victim to shore where he was removed from his kayak.

On shore the incompetence continued. The victim was placed in the back of an open pickup and transported to the helicopter landing area. No attempt was made to cover, much less warm him despite the efforts of the boaters on the scene to do so. Transportation to the hospital was via the helicopter, where the victim was rewarmed and “found” to have no broken bones, only bruises. Amazingly, no X-rays were taken. The attitude of the hospital staff seemed to be “anyone who is crazy enough to be on that river deserves what they get.”


  1. The second member of the party was not prepared to assist the victim. Anyone who “waits patiently” for over a half an hour at the bottom of a drop simply isn’t keeping the kind of close tabs on his partner required in whitewater. In a two man party, you should not let your partner out of your sight for more than a few seconds at a time. Had he been more alert, and ready to assist the passer-by who sounded the alarm, the victim would have been a lot more comfortable, and, with this assistance, the rescue might well have been made.
  2. No mention is made of whether the party was carrying ropes. Many Western boaters do not, and this incident underscores the importance of doing so. If the other members of your party are not alert or trained, ropes do no good. But in this case, combined with the assistance from bystanders, two ropes and three people under competent leadership should have been enough.
  3. The action of the deputy is understandable. He felt that the helicopter’s arrival was imminent, and was too unfamiliar with the river to organize a shore-based rescue. This does not, however, excuse him. River rescues are not like other kinds. Time works against you and a helicopter is, at best, a back-up. The sheriff was not trained, did not know where competent help (like former Olympic Coach Tom Johnson of K4ernville, who has worked as a fire fighter) could be reached, and yet felt competent to discourage professional river guides from assisting him. This kind of ignorance is both unprofessional in inexcusable.
  4. The problems of jurisdiction, communication, and others relating to the cooperation of several groups on a rescue site is not unique to whitewater accidents. This accident points out the need for preplanning, as well as for the passage of Good Samaritan Laws to protect the rescuers from the threat of lawsuits. Tom Johnson of Kernville immediately began work on this, and his efforts appear later in the newsletter. River rescues can be made from shore by non –kayakers if they know how; and the training process will eliminate much of the hostility shown towards boaters by the sheriff’s department and the locals throughout this operation.
  5. The boat folded behind the seat, ahead of the rear foam wall, compressing the cockpit area and causing the entrapment. From all accounts the boat was properly braced, and the trouble was not due to a slippage or failure of the walls.
  6. With the increasing number of roto-molded kayaks being made and used in whitewater, it is becoming evident that entrapment is a real problem. A fiberglass boat would probably have either been able to pivot free because of its rigidity or broken in half; roto-molded plastic boats are much more flexible and almost unbreakable. Manufacturers must do the research and development needed to minimize this danger to avoid further accidents.
  1. When rescuing a pinned victim, you free him by pulling on the boat. Ropes to the body are used only in the most desperate situations when they are needed to keep his head above water and even then, the force of the pull should be on the boat. A rescuer should be stationed with the victim both to coordinate activities on shore and to go into the water with him and free him from the boat once it is pulled free. The shore party can assist by pulling in the boat quickly. Because of potential entanglement problems, the rescuer must have a knife available to cut the rope if needed.
  2. the best approach to this accident is to extricate the victim from the kayak by cutting it open. This avoids the danger to the victim if, once the boat is pulled free, he is so badly injured that he cannot get out. In this case, the back of the kayak could have been cut off with an axe, which was certainly available since firefighters were on the scene. Once this is done, the boat will come free, and the victim can be pulled to shore.
  3. The best way to do this is to have a rescuer tied into a rope (with a quick-release harness) standing by. As the boat comes free, he grabs the victim and protects him while those on shore belay the line and help work both the rescuer and victim to shore. Extra flotation, in the form of inner tubes placed around the victim, will make this procedure work more smoothly. A rescue squad can get people and equipment to the victim using the two-line technique described in the Ohio Rescue Manual and previous newsletters. Briefly, a large inner tube or ring buoy is attached to two lines, one for each shore. It can then be moved to whatever position is needed.


Paddlers who travel with people using roto-molded boats should keep a heavy-duty knife sharp and accessible. While slower than an axe, it is more practical for extended trips. The TECNA diving/survival knife is an excellent choice, but any one-piece knife will do.

This incident points out the sorry state of readiness among units throughout the country which are charged with river rescue. Nothing is more important than getting the needed training to them; otherwise, tragic deaths of courageous men and continued hostility towards boaters are sure to follow. It also underscores the need of every boating party to be ready and able to perform its own rescues, since competent help in many areas simply does not exist.


Following the above accident, Tom Johnson, former Olympic whitewater coach and well known boat designer from nearby Kernville, CA , pulled together a meeting between the US Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the local fire department, and other agencies with interests on the Kern. He then prepared a demonstration for these agencies by four out of the five outfitters on the river as well as a group of local kayakers. The intentions were twofold: first, to convince them that organized paddlers are a safety conscious lot, and second, to demonstrate the effectiveness of their skills and equipment in making rescues. The steps in the demonstration were as follows:

  1. 5 swimmers started in the pool above and landed on a mid-stream boulder.
  2. A throw line (80’) was heaved to the “stranded victims” and a PFD was fastened to the line by a carabiner and slid out to them.
  3. One of the victims showed how to “swim for shore”, making it in 200 yards.
  4. One swimmer was pulled in by the throwing line, swinging into an eddy.
  5. A rowing raft came down to the rock and picked up a victim, followed by a paddle raft which picked up the last two.
  6. A demonstration was given of taking a line across the river by kayak.


The demonstration favorably impressed those present. The Kern is a dangerous river, close to Los Angeles , and has an average of 5 drownings each year. The rescue squads already possess considerable land-based expertise. This, combined with new skills and a spirit of cooperation with the paddling community, should lead to more effective rescues in the future. A newspaper clipping from the Kern Valley Sun from Thursday, July 24, follows:

Personnel from more than 11 agencies and companies cooperated last Thursday to show that they can cooperate in time of emergency on the Kern River , as commercial river rafters demonstrated their abilities to help out with ground-based rescues of persons trapped by the river.

Robert Addison, district ranger with the Cannell Meadows District of the US Forest Service said that greater communication was needed among the agencies involved and with the raters. He cited a conflict earlier this year involving the rescue of a stranded kayaker who was finally lifted from the river, kayak and all, by a Navy helicopter. He described the Forest Service as the “middleman” in the rescue operations.

Rafters from four of the five commercial outfits were involved in the demonstration. Whitewater Voyages, Chuck Richards, Kern River Tours and West Waters had rafters participating.

Gary People, of West Waters, said that the point of the exercise was to increase mutual trust, and install faith in the rafters’ ability among the governmental agencies who would be in charge during a rescue. Sheriff’s search and rescue personnel went down the river with some of the rafters and various ways of getting rescue lines to stranded victims were demonstrated and practiced.

Reportedly the first fruit of the exercise has already been gained: a crew from Whitewater Voyages assisted sheriff’s deputies Saturday in a successful river rescue just south of Kernville.

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