TIM CHITWOOD: Squeeze into that vest so you're not in over your head

November 17, 2013 

Another river dunking, another near drowning.

No big deal to me. It happens every time I go in,

The last time was Nov. 2, while I was on a work-related Whitewater Express run down the Chattahoochee River, where at a rapid once called Wilson's Run, now Pemberton Falls, the guide tried to get my rafting crew to surf.

Surfing a rapid is like surfing an ocean wave, except you're pointed upstream into the wave, not riding its crest the other way. Paddling hard, head-on into a rapid, you can reach an equilibrium so the raft will hang there.

We did hang there, briefly, until the current caused the raft to pivot right, like a basketball player passing the ball that way. That turned the raft's left edge into the wave, which made it flip like a coin, with me on the far edge.

No big deal. It happens.

Except a heavy coworker was behind me on that side, and he landed atop me, and his weight prolonged my submersion.

I came up coughing and gasping, and realized my life vest was not keeping my head at the surface.

"Swim back to the raft!" our guide yelled.

The raft still was upside-down. I swam back to it and grabbed a line on the western side.

That was the far side from the guide, who flipped the raft upright east to west. The bottom of the raft landed on me.

Again I went down gulping 'Hooch, and again came up coughing.

Now I was out in the current, floating downstream toward the notorious Cut Bait rapid.

By the time the guide yelled for me to swim to the rocks, I already was backstroking that way as fast as I could.

Climbing out under the 13th Street bridge, I considered dumping my rafting gear there and walking home. Instead I coughed some more, and scampered up to an eddy where the crew could pick me up.

After that no one else wanted to surf another rapid, and that's too bad, because you can get dunked down at the waveshaper below the Dillingham Street bridge and it will spit you right out.

Life is an adventure, you know, and you have to learn some things the hard way to keep living.

I learned, again, that when you're out on the river, you must make sure your life vest is really tight -- really, really tight.

If it is not, your nose and mouth will not be above water, and you will be in over your head -- even when you're not beneath a heavyweight reporter or an inflatable raft.

Tim Chitwood, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com, 706-571-8508.

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