River Incident Report #832111

Date of Incident: May 20, 1983
River: Colorado
Section of River: Cataract Canyon
Location on River: Big Drop Two or Big Drop Three
Relative Flow: Moderate
Gage Reading: 32,600 cubic feet per second
Difficulty: Class IV
Type of Incident: Floated through about two miles of rapids in cold water
Injuries: Drowning
Type of Trip: Private
Type of Boat: 4 Tube J-Rig

A 48 year old male was one in a party of 22 in two motorized rafts. The two boatmen were experienced, but their exposure to Cataract Canyon was limited to a previous commercial trip on which they had been passengers. The party experienced difficulty in determining its location and entered the Big Drops unexpectedly, unprepared, and with the two boats widely separated. The first boat completed its runs and waited for the second boat near the mouth of Imperial Canyon.

While being positioned for a run, the second boat struck a submerged rock or log which displaced the motor (it was never determined if this was at Big Drop Two or Big Drop Three). The boatman lost control of the boat and it hit a hole which buckled the raft. Four people were thrown into the river and others aboard sustained minor injuries from loose equipment. One of those in the water clung to the boat until it reached shore; two swam to shore; and the fourth, a non-swimmer, floated downstream about two miles. Although face up in his life jacket, the victim was lifeless when recovered 15 to 20 minutes after the accident. CPR was administered for a short time to no avail.

In Retrospect
1) Knowing your location on a dangerous river is vital, and if your experience in a canyon is limited, having maps which you can read is necessary.
2) Severe rapids should always be scouted. Boat operators who are familiar with Cataract Canyon, even commercial boatmen who make many trips annually, always scan Big Drop Two and Big Drop Three before running them.
3) Gear which is not in use should be secured wherever rough water may be expected.
4) The ability to swim should be a consideration for passengers. The two swimmers had no difficulty in reaching shore; the non-swimmer drowned.
5) Wet suits are advisable where a possibility exists for being dunked in cold water. The temperature of the air was estimated as 70 degrees, but that of the water was variously estimated as between 50 and 55 degrees. Being in water of that temperature without a wet suit for 15 to 20 minutes is conducive to hypothermia, and the latter undoubtedly contributed to the drowning.
6) When more than one boat is present, they should be positioned far enough apart so as not to interfere with each other, but close enough to render support in case of an accident. The first of two boats should pull near a bank or into an eddy as soon as possible after running a difficult rapid.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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