Though it may be considered the lunatic fringe of the sport, waterfall running has become a favorite pastime of a segment of the decked boat (and even open boat) paddling community, and this is not necessarily bad. However, it involves calculated risk, and much of the knowledge that goes into calculating that risk comes from other people’s experiences, in addition to a boater’s own knowledge. The following is a report of an accident resulting from running waterfall. It is hoped that sharing this experience will provide some of that knowledge, and some insight into a previously unexpected consequence of waterfall jumping.
On a Saturday in April, a group of four expert boaters met to attempt a run of a 40 to 50 foot high waterfall, which had been run about 5 to 6 years earlier, with no evident serious problems. There were a few spectacular photos of the prior runs, and the new group wanted to get more photos and movies of this second attempt, so as to document the limits of vertical kayaking. As it turned out, these movies were very helpful in determining the factors which contributed to the accident. Perhaps it should also be noted that this group had substantial experience in running waterfalls up to 30 vertical feet.
This waterfall is part of a stream that is too small and steep itself to be run, but the waterfall is just wide enough and the hike-in to the waterfall itself was necessary. The waterfall is a 30 foot (approximately) slide of about 45 to 60 degrees followed by a strait drop of about 20 feet. The boats used were Perception Mirages, ideal for the conditions. There was very little water flowing over falls, creating a still pool at the bottom, which proved to be a major negative factor.
After the cameras were set up, the first paddler (Danny Tipton of Georgia) ran over the falls, hitting the pool on a right brace, learning to the right about 45 degrees, and tilting down about 45 degrees, a long way from the almost vertical nose-down position that they expected. His nose penetrated the surface of the water about 2 feet, just enough to soak up the impact, and then skipped back out of the water. It is very likely that the leaning of the boat to the right is what allowed it to penetrate the pool, by presenting a small surface area of the boat to the water’s surface upon impact. As it was, the impact slammed Danny back on the rear deck of the boat.
The second paddler, not seeing the landing, but knowing that it went without mishap, then ran the falls. The movies showed him tilting down at 45 degrees or even a little flatter, perhaps because he vigorously hoisted his paddle over his head, so as not to eat the paddle on impact. However, the movies also showed the second paddler to be perfectly upright, rather than leaning over to the right or left. Normally this would seem desirable or even ideal, but this resulted in the kayak presenting a larger surface area to the almost still surface of the pool, and the kayak did not even slightly penetrate the pool’s surface. The kayak stopped abruptly and violently, as if it hit concrete, crumpling the second paddler down in his boat like an accordion. The result was extremely painful: 3 crushed vertebrae (compression fractures of T-11, T-12, and L-1), a painful one mile walk-out, six weeks missed at work, and eight weeks of no paddling. After 10 weeks, it is reported that several of his back muscles are still quite painful. Needless to say, a scary situation, but well handled by the other three paddlers who took great care in checking out the victim for more serious injuries and assisting him out of the area.
Three points can be made about this accident:
Drops of around 25 feet and higher reach the point where skill is no longer a factor, and gravity calls all the shots. Both paddlers had the feeling of being almost totally out of control. As it was, the victim received a painful, but not life threatening, injury. It could have easily been fatal with just a few degrees or inches difference in the impact. (The victim attributes this difference to the grace of God.)
Higher water could have made this safer by presenting a more turbulent, aerated (fluffy?) pool which would better absorb the impact, although it may be difficult to determine the ideal level.
A kayak doing a belly flop was the last thing expected. The worries at the time of the accident were more conventional: hitting bottom, eating your paddle, not hitting the pool in a straight line with the boat’s momentum, having your face scrubbed off by the splash down, etc. We all need to expect the unexpected, even if someone has never even thought of it!
Waterfall running is fun, scary, somewhat risky, and exhilarating; in other words, has the same qualities that make all other whitewater paddling fun! But be sure that the risks are completely acceptable to those of you who wish to pursue this area. A broken back is not generally acceptable!
Robin D. Saylor