Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ochlockonee Swimmers, an Incident and Analysis

Today I had my first real rescue situation. We underestimated current in an S bend in the lower Ochlockonee (which is an Indian word for "wet white woman from Colorado") River and a guest got shoved into some brush. She stiffened up and turned right over. A guide was right on her and directed most of the other guests out of the current river right. The swimmer's boyfriend was still in the middle of the river and went over to help. I hung back where I could see both the guide/swimmer and the rest of the group, and upstream where I could help as needed. The swimmer was jammed into the brush, against a boat (mostly submerged), with a guide and her boyfriend immediately upstream. After some struggling with the brush and current they managed to get her to the bank and pull her boat up. She's cold and rattled but OK. Boyfriend tries to shove off into the current but also gets shoved into the brush and rolls right over. I'm still upstream and move to him. I asked him if he's OK, he is, and if he can float/swim the boat to the opposite bank, which is more or less out of the current, which he says he can. We get there and get him back in his boat fairly quickly. Meanwhile the other swimmer and guide get her boat out and they portage upstream a ways so that she can re-enter far enough above the bend to make the turn correctly. She accomplishes this and no-one is much worse off aside from a lost hat and sunglasses.

Could we have prevented the situation to begin with? Maybe, but probably not. We had scouted the trip four days ago and there was no cause for alarm, though the water had dropped a little since then and the Venturi was amplified in the corners and around strainers, which definitely contributed to this situation and complicated dealing with it. Everything was fine and then there was one, then another person in the water. In a perfect world we would have recognized that bend as a problem and given clear commands for exactly how to maneuver, though whether these commands would have been properly executed....who can say? All guests had paddled before and seemed competent enough, but when the conditions got a little more complicated they stiffened up and didn't really know how to deal with it, but that's not their fault.

OK, so once she was in the water then what? The guide that helped her was there immediately, and that was good. She directed the other folks out of the current and out of danger; also good. I hung back with a clear line of sight and ready to assist as directed. The boyfriend of the first swimmer sort of hung in the middle and then ended up piled into them. This was both good and bad. It was good in that he was reassuring to the swimmer and helped get her to the bank. But the current there was stiff and difficult to do anything in, and three people/three boats is more complicated than two people/two boats. Once swimmer #1 was on dry ground he tried to paddle straight from the corner across the current to the rest of the group, and he more or less immediately found himself in the same situation she had been in and fell out of his boat. Luckily rather than being wedged against the brush, we was swept out into the middle of the river and it was easy to get him over to the bank where we could dump his boat and get him in it. Had he gone with the rest of the group we could have avoided his involvement all-together and had one less cold wet person.

So, lessons learned:

1. Anticipate problems where possible and direct less experienced guests through them.
2. Do not assume that guests understand basic hydrodynamic principles or how to maneuver their boat, especially if they are a little freaked out.
3. Direct those not already involved firmly out of the way. "Helpers" quickly become victims and more often than not will complicate, not placate, the situation. We went from happy and dry to cold and wet in an instant.
4. A dry bag full of dry clothes was absolutely necessary. Swimmer #1 spent more than a few minutes in the water and it was fairly cold. Luckily we had this, but a cheap fleece jacket and some sort of tights or leggings would have been helpful.

In the end everyone was fine and they had a memorable trip. We dealt with it the best we could given the situation. It all happened in a few minutes and once we were in the situation, all we could do was react appropriately. I definitely need to brush up on my rescue and recovery skills. I feel pretty confidant about myself, but less so about a freaked out tourist from Colorado. We did a good job projecting confidence and remaining calm, and that helped a lot, but I want to feel like I can handle it on my own if that sort of thing pops up again. After we got back to the shop we had a good conversation about it and my boss was super positive and supportive of my judgment and actions, which was reassuring. All told it was a good experience, though I wasn't the one who got wet...