A Turn for the Worse
Last year was the deadliest in a quarter-century for boating accidents. What happened, and how can such tragedies be prevented?
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July–August 2009
In just seconds, Lanny O’Leary’s float trip down the Dearborn River in May 2008 turned from an enjoyable outing into a harrowing nightmare. Though the river was high, O’Leary and six friends in three rafts thought they could handle the Dearborn. After all, Jeff Rayman, who was manning O’Leary’s boat, was an experienced oarsman. But Bryan Golie, a game warden with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, says the group misjudged both the river and their abilities. “The biggest mistake was going down the river in the first place,” says Golie, part of the crew responding to the fatal boating accident. “They had a false sense of security because some of them had gone down the Dearborn a few days earlier and didn’t think it would be too bad. But it had rained hard afterward for three days, and the Dearborn was at its peak flow, probably the most dangerous that river can be.”
The Dearborn, which rises from the Rocky Mountain Front, flows east through rolling foothills prairie, and then drops into twisting, steep-sided canyons before meeting the Missouri River downstream of Craig. Boaters and anglers generally run the river when flows range from 200 to 600 cubic feet per second (cfs). Anything over 750 cfs is considered dangerous. The flow that day was over 5,000 cfs, the greatest volume recorded in eight years.
The trip began at the U.S. Highway 287 bridge, where the water was brown with runoff and overflowing both banks. The group launched anyway and bounced through one turn after another before reaching a cauldron of rapids known as the Lunch Box. There, O’Leary said afterward, a “wall of water” knocked him, Rayman, and their friend Melody Alvestad into the torrent. The current pushed O’Leary’s body into one boulder after another before he could reach the surface, swim to an eddy, and pull himself onto shore. The 56-year-old Helena resident survived and was finally brought to safety seven hours later by a hovercraft that came up from the Missouri after a rescue helicopter failed to reach him.
His friends were not so lucky. Alvestad’s body was recovered the next day. She was still wearing her life jacket. Rayman’s body was recovered a month later after the river had receded, in a patch of willows on the banks of the Dearborn, about a mile downstream from the accident. He had not been wearing his life jacket. According to O’Leary, Rayman had removed the safety vest early in the trip because he said it made rowing difficult.
Golie, who lives in nearby Cascade, had never seen the Dearborn raging as wildly as that day. “It was out of control,” he says. “You could actually hear boulders rolling down the river. I don’t know of a time when the force of nature has scared me that much.”
The Dearborn deaths were 2 of 14 boating fatalities in 2008, the worst year since 1983, when 19 people died, and double the average of seven per year during the previous decade.
Liz Lodman, FWP boating education coordinator, can’t explain last year’s steep fatality increase. Much of Montana had above-average mountain snowpack that produced heavy spring runoff on the Dearborn and several other rivers where accidents occurred. But in most incidents, river conditions were no different in 2008 than in previous years. Boaters simply—and tragically—overlooked basic safety rules that could have prevented accidents or at least reduced the number of fatalities. “More than anything else, it’s life jackets,” says Lodman. “If people would wear their life jackets, they’d have a much better chance of staying alive.”
How did other boaters die last year? On Flathead Lake, a man age 65 drowned after falling from his sailboat. A 53-year-old man fishing the East Fork of the Bitterroot River fell into the water and drowned after his raft hit a logjam. On the Stillwater River, a 50-year-old woman drowned when the raft she was in wrapped around a bridge pillar, tossing all occupants into the water. A 36-year-old kayaker was found dead on the Madison River after his craft flipped and he was pinned against a downed log.
Some boating fatalities are unpreventable. “Sometimes people drown and there is nothing they could have done,” says Lodman. But in other instances, floaters disregard a river’s unsafe conditions and put themselves at great risk. That’s especially true during spring runoff, when melting mountain snows swell streams and rivers into raging torrents.
Lodman says all boaters need to recognize the limits of their craft as well as know their abilities to read water and steer their boat in hazardous conditions. Another mistake boaters commonly make is overestimating their ability to swim—especially in rivers. “Even strong, experienced swimmers can be pulled by the current and held against a submerged log,” Lodman says. “The force of moving water
Water is also unpredictable. River flows can double overnight from heavy rains or snowmelt. New hazards constantly emerge. “Just because you floated it yesterday doesn’t mean there won’t be dangers there today,” says Ron Jendro, Recreation Program manager for FWP Enforcement. “You should always be looking up ahead for new obstacles.” Many rivers contain logjams and downed trees that can knock boaters from their craft and pin them underwater. Submerged trees called “strainers” sit just under the water surface and can tip a boat.
Lakes and reservoirs also can change quickly, especially big ones like Flathead, Canyon Ferry, and Fort Peck. “You’ve got big expanses of water, long distances to shore, and open areas with big waves when winds come up,” says Mike Korn, assistant chief of FWP Enforcement. “You’re approaching conditions like those on the open ocean, and many people get out on our big lakes and reservoirs and are not familiar with those conditions. When something goes wrong, they often find themselves grossly unprepared.”
Hypothermia is as big a threat to boaters as drowning. The condition is caused when internal body temperature drops so low that bodily functions slow and eventually stop. According to the International Life Saving Federation, cold water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than cold air. Boaters have died of hypothermia even in midsummer, says Lodman. Because many Montana rivers and lakes stay cold throughout the year, early summer is especially dangerous. Air temperatures can reach the 80s while river water fed by melting snowpack stays down in the 40s.
Hypothermia can take hold even if boaters don’t capsize. Golie recalls one mild, late-spring day when two people became hypothermic while canoeing. Though the air was warm, the water was frigid, and the canoeists became wet as waves splashed into the craft. They began to suffer hypothermia and could no longer paddle. Another floater passed the stricken pair and called for help. When Golie arrived, the two canoeists were frozen nearly stiff. “They couldn’t move their hands, they couldn’t move their feet—they couldn’t even talk,” he says.
Boating officials have recently recognized a phenomenon called “cold water immersion” that also contributes to boating deaths. When suddenly immersed in cold water, people often hyperventilate and inhale water. The cold water can also rob muscles of their function, causing even strong swimmers to drown within minutes.
Life jackets save lives
Montana safety experts say most boating accidents share common elements. The biggest two are operator inexperience and inattention. “Either people didn’t know what they were doing or they were distracted by something else and didn’t see the danger,” says Jendro. Alcohol also contributes to fatalities. Montana law prohibits anyone from operating a motorboat while intoxicated, but Jendro says drinking while boating is common. “People don’t realize that alcohol on the water is like alcohol on the road,” he says. “It impairs your balance and judgment, blurs your vision, and slows down your reaction time.”
Should Montana do more to protect boaters from accidents and death? Lodman says many states require mandatory motorboat operator education, while Montana law limits education requirements to 13- and 14-year-olds (kids age 12 and younger may not operate powerboats alone). She says the Montana legislature could require that everyone in a boat wear a life jacket. (Currently there must be a U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket in the boat for each occupant, but only children age 11 and younger are required to wear one.) Lawmakers could also require FWP to close rivers to public access during high water. Lodman doubts any of these measures will happen soon. “The overall attitude in Montana has been that boating involves risks, just like with many other outdoor activities, and people need to understand those risks and take responsibility for their actions,” she says. “As for mandatory motorboat education, more than half our fatalities are from rafts, kayaks, and other nonmotorized boats, so it would miss a large share of Montana boaters.”
Is there anything boaters can do to reduce the chance of becoming a fatality statistic? “Know the water you’re going to be on, know your abilities, and wear your life jacket,” Jendro says. “Those things could prevent 75 percent of our fatalities.” According to Virgil Chambers, director of the National Safe Boating Council, most of the roughly 700 people who die throughout the United States in boating accidents would likely survive if they wore a life jacket. “When people fall in a lake or river unexpectedly—I don’t care if they can swim well or not—it’s the element of surprise, and they often go into shock,” Chambers says. “With a life jacket on, you can stay on top of the water, right yourself, and get out of the water or get rescued faster.”
The tragedy of a man who fell into Deadman’s Basin last August near Harlowton is an example. The 54-year-old had been drinking heavily, with a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit, when he fell from his boat into the lake. By the time someone watching the incident reached the victim to help, he had drowned.
“The intoxication was likely a huge factor, but I think if he’d been wearing his life jacket, he would have floated long enough for the other guy to save him,” Lodman says.
Life jackets also insulate against cold water. The U.S. Coast Guard now promotes what it calls the “50/50/50 Rule”: A person in 50-degree water for 50 minutes has a 50 percent better chance of surviving with a life jacket than without one.
Life jackets are especially important on moving water, Golie adds. When someone in a raft or canoe is thrown into the water, a life jacket can help the person get to the surface and swim toward calm water along the edge, where they can at least keep from getting sucked under or pulled downstream. “A life jacket is the seat belt of a boat,” says the game warden. “It at least gives you a chance to survive.”
Nick Gevock is a freelance writer and a reporter for The Montana Standard in Butte.
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New life jackets are sleek and comfortable
A new generation of inflatable life vests is replacing the traditional bulky pillowlike models many boaters have used for decades. The new life vests are thin, comfortable, and don’t restrict arm movement. The old orange puffy vests can be cumbersome and, unless fitted properly, rise up over the head of wearers in the water.
“These new models aren’t your grandpa’s life jacket,” says Liz Lodman, FWP boating education coordinator. “People don’t want to wear those uncomfortable traditional bulky life jackets. That’s why the new ones are thin and sleek. You hardly know you have one on.”
Most new models inflate when the wearer pulls a tab that opens a CO2 cartridge. Some vests inflate automatically when hydrostatic water pressure engages the cartridge, which can save lives if the wearer is knocked unconscious. “Because the inflation happens after you enter the water, most of these new models are so light and slim you don’t even know you’re wearing them,” says Lodman.
Prices for new vests, in styles and types customized for boaters, anglers, hunters, and paddlers, range from roughly $100 to $300.
In Way Over Our Heads
Last year when I read of the tragic rafting accident on the Dearborn River, I looked over at my wife, Lisa, and thought, “That was almost us.”
In 2006, I’d made a similar error on the Dearborn that could have cost us our lives. Like the rafters last year, I’d underestimated the river’s danger and overestimated my boating ability.
When we reached the Dearborn River put-in, the water was high, cold, and muddy, though not at flood stage. It had rained for about 24 hours straight, so that morning I’d checked the flow on the Internet: 944 cfs, more than three times normal. I had only limited experience canoeing rivers, but I’d paddled large wilderness lakes for years.
I figured we’d be fine.
By the third bend in the river, I could tell the Dearborn was wilder than anything I’d canoed previously. On the seventh turn we shot through 3-foot-high standing waves, took water over the bow, and had to bail the canoe. Lisa, who also had never paddled a river so rough, asked, “Are we okay?” By then we were several miles into the 17-mile trip. I figured we had no other choice but to continue. I lied and said everything was fine.
With each turn it got harder to keep the canoe from slamming into the limestone cliffs or swamping in rapids. After managing to get us through a particularly turbulent turn, I knew that if conditions worsened I’d be unable to keep the canoe afloat. Then we heard a dull roar ahead and rounded a bend to see 200 yards of boiling river known as the Boulder Garden. I had no time to pull to shore before the canoe plunged into 5-foot-tall waves that crashed into Lisa’s chest, knocking her into the river then upending the canoe. Gasping from the cold water, I tumbled downstream, bouncing from one boulder to another before surfacing in an eddy. I pulled myself ashore and watched the canoe wrap around a boulder and the wooden thwarts and gunnels snap like pencils.
I called out for my wife, whom I’d seen only as a wet blur while I’d been swept down the rapids. No response. I crawled up a cliff, wincing from a softball-sized bruise in my right thigh, and called again. I heard her faint reply upstream. She was shaken but fine, as was our dog. We climbed out of the canyon, found a dirt road, and limped back several miles to the car. We’d lost our canoe, a camera, and all my fly-fishing gear but considered ourselves lucky. Despite our poor judgment that day, we’d at least been smart enough to wear our life vests. —Tom Dickson, Editor
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