Considerations for EMS Response to Cold-Water Rowing Accidents

Two accidents on the Hudson River earlier this year illustrate important safety issues peculiar to the sport of scholastic rowing that present challenges for first responders and may affect patient outcomes in cold-water accidents.

On March 24, 2016,the Fairview Fire Department in Poughkeepsie, NY, responded to a dispatch for “a boat in distress” and called for mutual aid after arriving on scene four minutes later. The water temperature of the Hudson was in the low 40s, and approximately 60 high school rowers in racing shells–the narrow, low-profile rowboats used for competitive racing–were spread out over a mile of the river. According to the coach’s later description of events, “Within five minutes, [the water] went from dead calm to rolling white caps.”

The situation was extremely dangerous for several reasons:

  1. Racing shells are designed only for flat water only and should not be rowed in whitecaps;
  2. Sudden immersion in cold water can cause cold water shock–reflex gasping, tachycardia and hyperventilation–and lead to drowning in less than two minutes, especially in rough water; and
  3. Within minutes, cold water immersion inhibits motor control and the ability to hold on to a boat, put on a personal floatation device (PFD) or swim.

If boats were to capsize, the situation would be time-critical. Hypothermia is only a concern for those who survive the first ten minutes in cold water.

There was also another danger: Rowers rarely wear PFDs. Although New York State law requires recreational boaters to wear PFDs between Nov. 1 and May 1 because of the acute dangers of cold water, federal regulations provide an exemption for racing shells that preempts state law. U.S. Rowing, the governing body for the sport, discourages the use of PFDs.

In this case, no boats capsized. The coaches accompanying the students in motorboats turned the rowers around and headed for the boathouse as soon as they saw the cold front approaching and the water beginning to ruffle. Several shells were beached on the nearest shore as conditions grew worse and they began to take on water. The students then were shuttled by coaches to EMS crews waiting on the docks, while more than $100,000 worth of racing shells were damaged as they were beached and abandoned to be retrieved later. Once on the boathouse docks, 57 kids were evaluated by EMS; 24 were treated with warm showers and dry clothes, and five were transported to local hospitals for further evaluation. All were released the same evening.

Two weeks later, another high school rowing accident occurred in Stillwater, NY, with an important difference: A four-person shell capsized, throwing all of its rowers into the water. The coach’s motorboat–with three students aboard–then capsized while trying to rescue them. Seven high school rowers and their coach were in the river with no rescue capability remaining on the water. Abandoning their capsized boats, they started swimming for shore.

“I’m told these teams do practice regularly for situations just like this,” a news reporter on the scene stated, but the decision to abandon the boats violated one of the most basic rules of rowing safety: never leave your boat. Following the death of an Oxford University rower in 2000 and a subsequent lawsuit, floatation standards were adopted for racing shells, and rowing safety videos now emphasize the importance of hanging onto the boats to await rescue.

Considerations for EMS Response to Cold-Water Rowing Accidents

The rowers were not wearing PFDs at the time of either accident, adding to the inherent danger of the situation.

These safety protocols were ignored in the Stillwater incident. At a point where the river is a couple hundred yards wide, the boats were abandoned and six people swam for one shore while two others swam for the opposite shore. Neighbors who witnessed the accident ran along the river shouting encouragement and gradually pulled the rowers ashore as they drifted downstream. New York State Troopers, fire departments, EMS and rescue companies from surrounding jurisdictions responded, scouting the scene from a nearby bridge and launching rescue boats while initially unsure of how many people were in the water. After everyone had been accounted for, six of the eight were transported to hospitals before being released the later the same evening.

No accident statistics exist for the sport of rowing, but these two on-water MCIs illustrate important issues for first responders to keep in mind.

There are neither minimum safety standards for rowing nor minimum qualifications for rowing coaches. U.S. Rowing issues safety guidelines and advises that coaches should have first aid, CPR and boating safety certifications, but does not require or enforce any minimum safety standards. Participation in events sanctioned by U.S. Rowing and the Olympic Rowing Committee require only the payment of fees and a broad waiver of liability to protect clubs, administrators, and coaches in the event of injury or death.

Scholastic rowing begins on water temperatures in the 30s and 40s in many parts of the country, starting as soon as melting ice allows access to open water and continuing through the cold-water conditions of fall.

Racing shells are designed only for flat-water rowing and are prone to accidents caused by large wakes from other boats, misjudgment of the weather or rapidly changing conditions.

Rowers rarely wear PFDs. Today the U.S. Coast Guard advises, “There’s no excuse not to wear a lifejacket.” Yet its 1993 regulatory exemption for racing shells and preemption of state authority is used as an excuse to allow children of any age to row in racing shells under any conditions without a PFD and without qualified adult supervision. Had adults in ocean-worthy boats been training for a trans-Atlantic row next to the kids when these accidents occurred, they would have been required by law to wear PFDs; the kids, however, were not.

U.S. Rowing warns that “coaches and athletes have been unnecessarily killed or injured”¦due to lax standards or enforcement of rules.” In the absence of PFD requirements, minimum safety standards and coaching qualifications that include rescue training, first responders should be aware that scholastic rowers are at extremely high risk on the cold waters of early spring and late fall. 

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