Kayaking on the Hudson

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How a Life Vest Saved My Friend's Life

If you read “Whitewater Fever” you might remember my friend Justin.  Well Justin and I decided to go down the Delaware again a few weeks after a major storm.  When I say major storm, I mean– wiped out several houses, carried off cars with people still in them—kind of major.  Anyway, I thought the water level would be way down after a few weeks and it was.  It was down from flood levels, but it was still higher than I had ever seen it.  We flew down the river at nearly 5mph while observing canoes, sheds and picnic tables wrapped around trees some 20 feet in the air.  The rapids were crazy, class II+, maybe class III where there weren’t even supposed to be rapids.  We had to stop six times to empty the water out of our recreational kayaks but we were having a blast.

We weren’t worried because we were wearing our pfds.  A few years earlier, I had purchased a new pfd just for Justin to use because he is much taller than me and none of mine fit him.  He was very appreciative that I would go through so much trouble just for him.  It would prove to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

We were just about to our takeout and Justin was 20 yards ahead of me when I watched as a wave literally picked up his kayak, and dumped him out.  When he surfaced, his kayak was gone.  I paddled up to him, picked him up and we got through the rapids.  When the water was calmer, I went to get his kayak (big mistake).  I got Justin’s kayak, and clipped a rope onto it, then turned around to go back and get Justin.  But I had made two huge mistakes.  First, I left Justin to get his boat.  (A mistake I will never make again.) 

Second, I thought that the rapids we went through were the ones on my chart.  They weren’t.  Justin’s boat was filled with water and must have weighed 500 pounds if it weighed an ounce.  It was all I could do just to stay in place, but soon we hit the next set of rapids.  My best guess is that they were class III.  Justin’s boat had become a torpedo and it literally dragged my boat down through the rapids.  I was desperately trying to stay upright with Justin’s boat pulling on mine.  I couldn’t even take my hands off my paddle long enough to get my knife and cut his boat loose.  Justin was on his own.

When I came through the rapids, I turned around and started paddling up river.  I watched Justin go through the rapids with no kayak and heard him yell “Donny, HELP!”   Justin is a strong swimmer, but the words he said to me when I finally fished him out said it all: “Donny, if I wasn’t wearing this life vest, I wouldn’t have made it.”

That life vest was the best money I ever spent.  Justin and I will be going down the Delaware again this season and we will be wearing our life vests as usual.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston
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