Paddling Since: 2004
Join Date: Apr 2004
Interesting safety discussion. I'm a big proponent of safety and learning, so deconstructing events and learning from them is good in my mind. Since a couple folks say that they would do things differerntly than I did, I'll explain my thoughts on safety and where my logic comes from in detail.
Throwing a rope from the rock I was on is the best spot for safety at first falls. You are set up to pull people sideways out of the pockets if they are still in the hole, and you are set up to rope people out who need assistance anywhere below the drop, and you have the best view of the drop. Your vector of pull is always out of the hole sideways, or diagonally away from the hole when I roped Jake. All the other rocks are further away, with poorer anchor spots, and poorer angles for where the swimmers can need ropes. Check it out next time you are there. Maybe you guys are too busy running clean lines at first falls instead of setting safety, but I've seen many swims there, and rescued multiple people there, and I am confident that rope safety on the big rock next to first falls is the best spot. It also gives you great position to signal oncoming paddlers, see the hole and swimmers etc.
So both Joe and David think that ropes are not needed at first falls for swimmers who pop out of the hole where I roped out Jake along the wall but out of the hole. The logic seems to be 1) a boat will probably get them, or 2) they will swim into the eddy on thier own or at worst go around the corner into class II and be able to scramble out on thier own. I disagree, but I think its perhaps that I look at safety a little differently than others?
Advanced / Expert paddlers typically have a pretty good handle on assessing risk, but I've learned a lot about safety in my job as an engineer working on industrial projects that have the potential to blow up and kill lots of people. I approach river safety in a similar way that I approach engineering safety... from the perspective of risk... which is the combination of probability or likelihood that something will occur, and the consequence if it does occur. My approach to safety is to always try to take positive action (vs. passive and let things go on thier own) that results in the overall minimization of risk. What does that mean???
I think most kayakers look at the primary outcome. So two friends who are better boaters than I am, and both more experienced than I am would say... don't throw a rope to someone along the wall in first falls who is out of the hole. You are in a pool with either and eddy or a class II. 9 times out of 10 someone would probably scramble out of the water on thier own. BUT. Is thier shoulder dislocated? Did they aspirate water into the lungs? How much air have the gotten in the beatdown? Did they hit their head? Can they actively self rescue? You don't know the answer to any of those questions when you are sitting there with a rope and they pop up. You have a window of several seconds where you can either 1) take positive action , throw a rope, and have a very high probability that the swimmer is rescued and secure in your sight and in your control with in my mind minimal risk to other paddlers or 2) you don't throw a rope and then what? Either they float around the corner, and then you don't have eyes on them, and no one below is watching for a swimmer, so now you need to haul ass around the corner to make sure they are ok. If they are not OK, have a dislocated shoulder, or are unable to self rescue, they could possibly swim all of four falls. Another possibility is that they try for the eddy, and get plastered on the rock wall at the back of the eddy. While probably not fatal, it could be uncomfortable. The final option, which may be the most likely, is that the swimmer makes it into the eddy. So Joe and David, I think, are assuming that something else positive will happen (ie swimmer makes it to eddy) and they don't throw a rope. My perspective is the exact opposite... I throw a rope because I want to take positive action to eliminate the low probability but high consequence event that could happen if the paddler is hurt and cannot self rescue. Someone else might get him, but I know 100% that I WILL get him immediately. So 9 times out of 10, or even 999 times out of 1000 David might be right in the end, but that 1 time in 1000 where a paddler dislocates his shoulder, can't swim to shore, tries to get out of the water with his legs, foot entraps in the class II, and goes head down where no one is looking... thats what I want to prevent. The theory here is whats called the swiss cheese theory of accidents.... meaning that there are barriers (layers like slices of cheese) to accidents like safety, PFDs, training etc, but there are holes in each barrier (thus swiss cheese analogy). When multiple holes in multiple barriers line up, you get the low probability events that can become disasters. Thats how space shuttles blow up, nuclear reactors blow up, and also one way paddlers can die.
A few years back, I was at the gore race, and two rafters swam gore. One swimmer did not agressively self rescue, and ended up swimming into scissors. No sweat, safety is set downstream and someone will get him. Well safety as scissors missed him, but assumed downstream would get him. Safety at pyrite was already gone, and a lone kayaker found a swimmer face down in the water below pyrite, and managed to get him to shore seconds before he would have likely floated into the next rapid and would have likely died. That day I, and numerous other people, watched a swimmer in a serious rapid go on by without taking action. In hindsight, it was reported that the swimmer took a big rock hit to the torso which knocked his breath away, and he was unable to self rescue. After that day, I vowed to never let a safety incident pass me without taking positive action to try and help until I was sure that the person was safe. I realized that in that incident I was the hole in the swiss cheese, and I let it go right by me.
So I head I to gore this weekend. I eddy out on river left at the large bottom eddy below gore and above scissors, which is the best spot for safety in my book. A little while later, a friend flips in gore, misses multiple rolls through the rapid, and finally pulls at the bottom of gore. He comes up looking downstream. I am in good position to throw a rope, but have no eye contact. I scream rope several times, and can't get his attention. He will pass pretty close to the eddy on the left, and if he starts to swim aggressively he will make it, but if he continues to float he will swim into scissors. I have a couple of seconds to make the call. I know if he goes into scissors tired after a gore beatdown that things can go very bad (after near death rafter experience), so I make the decision to actively rescue, hit him right in the hands with a rope when he is not looking and pull him right into the eddy. The textbook rope throw is to get attention and eye contact first, but if you don't have that and your window to throw is closing, what do you do? Of course it depends, but I chose to throw, and it was the right decision in my mind. Every time you throw a rope, get someone on your stern in a rapid, or try to aid in a rescue you add potential risk to the situation, but it is calculated risk to try and eliminate the possibility of a serious incident. It seems like some folks take the attitude that ropes should be avoided at all costs and used only as a last resort... while this has some merit, its not the single most important factor. The most important factor in my mind is that swimmers or paddlers in need of help get rescued as soon as possible while you still have a window.
So back to first falls. My take is that my throw to Jake has a high probability of success with minimal downsides, so I throw, and thereby take control of the event to ensure that I drive it to the lowest possible risk. A rope is a safety tool, which when used properly can be a lifesaver. Ropes can also be one of the worst hazards on the river when things go wrong. I'd encourage folks to think deeply about these topics. Things are typically not black or white, but shades of grey on the river with precious few seconds to take action.
So, its a lengthy reply, but I thought it would be good to shed some light on the subject and not just scratch the surface. I'm not going to say that I am right, and someone else is wrong, but I would encourage folks to think very seriously about the range of possibilities and outcomes of events like these. I think that paddlers tend to suffer from a positive outcome bias, which means that because its worked OK before, I think it will again. Just because one guy swims and makes it, or just because there wasn't wood last time etc. doesn't mean that it will always be that way. I think of kayaking as a chess game... what move do I make 4 steps from now if this and that happens? Don't just focus on the next move in front of you... focus on the big picture of multiple potential outcomes and try to take action to minimize the overall risk.
Whew... Good discussion for next time we are running Bailey shuttle...