Index of Pictures and Explanation
On March 23rd, 2002 a crew was involved in an accident on the upper Potomac. A local high school crew made up of 4th-year rowers and an experienced coxswain, collided with a large buoy, swamped, and split the hull. Although the current was moving at a swifter pace than normal and the wind was steady with slightly higher gusts, the conditions were not unusual for high school crews to be rowing under and were not considered treacherous. A high school regatta was underway less than a mile farther downstream. What caused the accident is merely a chain reaction of events that put nine young women into 45-degree water in mere minutes. As the event is described below and you look at the pictures, there are several important points to be made: 1) even with proper precautions and safety procedures being followed, accidents can still occur and, 2) being prepared both in terms of equipment and education is crucial to the successful resolution and the safety of those involved. The quick actions taken by the coaches at hand, and the preparedness and knowledge of those assisting after the fact saved the day. Furthermore, proper education of both rowers and coxswains in how to handle an emergency situation is critical.
A brief Explanation of What happened
Two crews were headed upstream to Fletchers Cove during a regular workout. Rain and steady wind had the current moving swifter than normal but not at a level that would be considered dangerous. The crews were all experienced rowers, as were the coxswains. The water temp was 45 degrees and the air temp was approximately 50 degrees. The crews were followed by two coaches in a 16ft CarolinaSkiff equipped with a 25hp engine, electric megaphones, lifejackets, paddles, and throw rope. As the crews rowed upstream they encountered another group of HS’s scrimmaging using the standard 1500m course. The coaches communicated with the coaches involved in the scrimmage and altered them to their presences and that they’d be upstream and out of the way. The scrimmage coaches acknowledged. The two crews in question proceeded upstream. The crews approached the entrance to the cove and proceeded to begin their turn to head downstream. A large can “No Wake- PFDs Required”
buoy that usually marks the entrance to Fletches Cove had shifted in previous weeks to a position 250-300 meters from its usual station. Its current placement had it sitting in the main flow of the river current about 1.5 boat widths from the shore.
The lead shell completed its turn with a position and point that would carry it to the outside of the buoy and into the center of the river. As the crew sat awaiting further directions the current began moving the shell downstream. The current pulled and repositioned the shell so that it was no longer parallel to the shore and into the path of the buoy just downstream. As the coaches advised the crew to alter their course and row out and away from the buoy a gust of wind picked up and began moving the shell faster downstream. The crew, as it realized its predicament, did not have time to react and properly avoid the buoy. The shell swiftly contacted this large buoy (drawn almost magnetically) and began to tip. The force of the water pushing the shell into the buoy caused the buoy to start to sink and push back against the hull. The gunnel opposite the buoy went below the water line and the shell began to swamp. The shell then buckled and snapped in half, and the young women were in the water. This whole situation developed and executed in not more than 2 minutes time from the point of turning.
As it became apparent that the shell was in danger, the coaches began radioing coaches involved in the scrimmage downstream for help. Since marine radios were in standard use at the time, and channels used by different crews shared between teams, the coaches were able to make quick contact with those involved with the scrimmage. They were notified that help was on its way in the form of multiple safety launches and coaches. After the shell swamped the coaches immediately moved in and began reassuring the crew and pulling them from the water. Equipment was ignored. The young women of the crew followed procedure and stayed with the boat, pulling themselves onto the overturned hull. Several members kept ahold of the coxswain (bundled up in many layers) and assisted each other into the launch as it became their turn. By the time the crew was out of the water and the launch had been turned to head for the nearest boathouse, other coaching launches had arrived and begun helping. Time in the water at outside was approximately 2 minutes.
In retrospect, there are several things that helped this situation turn out as well as it did:
- marine band radios and a knowledge of what channel coaches monitored (can be found on the PRSC web site http://www.w-lcrew.org/safety/safety.html)
- 16ft launches with strong engines. (Those low gunnels on the CarolinaSkiffs made getting wet and cold kids out of the water and into the launch quickly a much easier thing!)
- A launch unburdened by extra people.
- rowers and coxswains well educated on what to do in an emergency situation on the water.
- safety gear: life jackets, space blankets, tow/throw rope, and NOT the least of things: Well educated and experienced coaches!
In conclusion, one must ask themselves how prepared and educated they are in the event such a situation impacts them. Coxswains must be aware of their surroundings, the ability of their crew to maneuver a boat and follow directions and then act accordingly. This points out why a coxswain must always be aware of their point and keep the shell parallel to the shore. It is a phenomenon that on rivers with swift currents, shells will be pulled into objects as the current passes them. This includes bridge abutments. rocks, logs, buoys, other shells, etc. Remember that your job as the coxswain is as the leader of the shell and that leadership is most important in a time of emergency (whether before or after you go into the water).
Response from Bryan Tylander- PRSC Member
“This may sound crazy, but I would look at this morning as a triumph of the safety planning of the local high schools rowing programs and the work of the PSRC. Because of the high level of safety planning of both the schools running the Independent meet and W-L coaches, we had a situation where 9 girls went into the river when the air and water temperature were both around 40 degrees, several miles from the boathouse and no one was seriously injured. A similar situation happened several years ago involving a local college crew and several athletes had to be hospitalized and the incident wound up on the evening news. This time when the EMTs arrived no one required medical attention, they declared everyone fine, and left.”
‘Because there is a good deal of misinformation floating around in a few of these e-mails I would like to write a brief summary of what happened. At around 10:00 AM the W-L Crew’s women’s varsity squad went out for a practice. To be one the safe side George called the regatta on the VHF marine band radio he had in his launch as part of his safety equipment to check the traffic pattern the Independent Meet was using. We told him that we were using the normal race day pattern except that were not going above the 3 sisters. George informed us he would practice above the 3 sisters and wished us good racing. At 10:45 as we were running the last event we received a call from George saying there was an emergency situation and that he requested assistance. The W-L Women’s Varsity 8 had collided with the large buoy marking the entrance to Fletcher’s Cove, was damaged, and was swamping. There were 3 fully equipped launched about to follow the 3 boat race down the course. The USRowing JRs and coaches behind the race decided to have one launch start and follow the race to get the boats home as quickly as possible, and the other 2 launches went upriver to offer assistance. At TBC the other 5 safety launches were just landing with the crews. 2 launches went upriver to offer further assistance while the remaining ones made sure all crews involved in the Independent meet(IM) landed safely. When the 1st 2 launches from the IM arrived they found a W-L eight had swamped, but all the girls had on life jackets and were out of the water and in the W-L launch. They gave the girls safety blankets from the safety kits in the launches, split up the girls, and proceeded back to PBC. At this time the additional leaches arrived, saw the situation was under control, and towed the damaged shell back to PBC.’
‘Accidents will happen, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t concerned with safety. On the contrary, I would say that the way the situation was handled shows that safety was at the front of everyone’s minds. I would also like to express my personal opinion that George Kirschbaum did an extraordinary job of keeping his girls safe in a bad situation.’