Swept over a Low Dam? What to do.

You’re headed down a swift river in a kayak and there’s a low-head dam ahead and the current is pulling you into it unavoidably. Besides pooping bricks, should you shoot the dam in the paddlecraft, or exit the craft and shoot it with body alone? How best to avoid becoming “toast” in the hydraulic?

Many thanks.

Never Get Off the Boat

– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 5:57 AM EST –

A moderately skilled boater might be able to punch the hydraulic or surf clear. Couldn't do either swimming.
But then a moderately skilled boater likely wouldn't get into that situation at all.


What’s a “low head dam” ?



– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 7:11 AM EST –

Resce boaters bite it

The theory

Kayaker 3 eats it

Classic footage here--red kayaker sucking pondwater

It might be possible to ferry
Either back ferry or turn around and front ferry to the side of the river. But most low head dams extend from shore to shore and even if you get to the side there may not be any kind of quieter water.

Don’t get into that situation
Pay attention. When you see a straight horizon line ahead, and when the water starts to slow down, get deeper and wider - it means there is a dam.

Try to boof over hydraulic

– Last Updated: Aug-31-08 9:08 AM EST –

And paddle hard when you land.



There's an example at 4:16 in this video:


Best bet is to stay the hell away from low head dams. I saw the Binghamton video during my first EMT class and I don't want to go there.

There is a class 6 on the Chatooga
that looks like the one that got the motor boat. It looks benign , but the hydraulic is wicked.

Paddle faster

– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 9:59 AM EST –

and I mean like there is no tomorrow to the dam, over it and continue until you are beyond the hydraulics...was my method. With 6 low head dams to my credit, none higher than 12 feet, and all by choice I felt that the speed and control were the only things in my favor. Thinking the speed would help get me beyond the hydraulics and having directional and stability control by paddlin' were all I had ...other than a prayer.

Paddlin' on

fill your boat with these

or these


Woodall Shoals entrance hole?
Hit the weak right side of the hole and PUNCH it or take the sneak route way river right.

Recently in Ft Worth
Wasnt this what happened recently in Ft Worth that killed the guy? Will a PFD keep you alive under one of those?


– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 12:46 PM EST –

oops: I read the OP wrong

In hydraulics, a PFD becomes your enemy.

If you ever get a chance to practice/play in a small hydraulic you'll find that the PFD will keep you in it. You cannot swim against a current with a PFD. You can try this on any river. The current is flowing upriver into the hydraulic which means you will be going against the current trying to swim out of the hydraulics.

If caught in a hydraulic and wet exit the best thing to do is remove the PFD, take a deep breath and let the water take you under. When the down flow of water releases you then you can freely and safely swim underwater away but you have to swim out far enough to surface beyond the strong back flow.

Paddlin' on

A mixed bag of advice, some very bad.

Low head dams are killing machines. No ifs, ands or buts.

If I was foolsih enough to get caught in one I would try to stay in the boat and paddle parallel to the dam and hope to exit near shore on one side or the other of the river. At least then you would be near shore and present a better opportunity for the rescue team to recover your body.

Swift water on the upstream side?
I couldn’t begin to guess how many of these dams I’ve seen in the midwest, but I’ve never seen one with water so swift on the upstream side that you couldn’t get yourself to shore quite easily. In flood conditions, you should still be able to ferry to shore. Use a back-ferry if you’ve been daydreaming and drifted too close.

I guess I would back paddle
like my life depended on it b/c it would & try to angle my boat to shore while backpaddling.

If it was hopeless, I would stay in the boat.

You are supposed to dive down if caught in the hydraulic & I met a guy who said he did it, but man!, that would be tough to even find your orientation let alone have the wits to dive out & away.

PFD off; no necessarily…

– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 3:23 PM EST –

Should read: PFD off; NOT necessarily

The current in hydraulics are often violent.

There is often debris in hydraulics; a pfd will help protect you from the debris in the water if any is present.

At the base of many low head dams there is often a lip of concrete that extends under the hydraulic and keeps the dam from being undermined by the current.
That lip often contains ragged edges of concrete, and sometimes rebar. Again, the pfd can assist in protecting you from these hazards.

Yes, one escape technique is to dive down, swim underwater/downstream as stongly as possible, and pray you clear the hydraulic.

When you dive down, or are "driven" down by the hydraulic, the pfd will have little negative effect as far as underwater swimming goes. Hydraulics are highly aerated; the water may be as much as 60%, or more air. Pfd flotation is seriously diminished by aeration, so a lot of buoyany is necessary to bring you back to the surface. It is not always necessary to remove the pfd to escape. On the contrary, a tired swimmer may need this flotation to survive after escaping the hydraulic.

Another technique for escaping hydraulics is to attempt to swim to either side of the hydraulic area where you are trapped. It is possible that the hydraulic is not river wide, or at least it is not always as strong in certain areas. A boulder upstream of a hydraulic may actually create such an area. A difference in the bottom of the river upstream may also create areas downstream where the hydraulic will not be as strong as other areas.

Another escape technique to use(if you have the presence of mind to do so); if diving & swimming strongly downstream is not working, try diving down, and relaxing your body, or rolling into a ball. Sometimes a change of body position will free you.

I wouldn't bail out of my boat upstream; you might get lucky & punch through the hydraulic.
If you don't punch through; the boat may provide a ride out; even after you've have bailed out of it.
There is a rescue technique where a tethered kayak is actually pushed/pulled into the hydraulic on purpose, in an attempt to get it to the swimmer. On the other hand, close proximity to a whitewater canoe while in a hydraulic may be hazarous to your health. These is always the danger of entanglement/entrapment created by the painters, flotation bag lace kits, and thigh straps. Hydraulics/no fun. Hydraulics while entangled with equipment in your boat/even less fun.

All hydraulics like all rivers are NOT the same.
Quickly getting free of some is possible; that is certainly not always the case no matter what technique you use.
Punching through some is possible; some are not going to be punched through.

Best bet: Know the location of the hydraulics on the river where you're paddling, and avoid them like the plague. Paddling into the wrong hydraulic will kill you. Paddling into the wrong hydraulic with a "go for it" attitude will kill you even faster.

There is no definitive answer that will gurantee that you will escape; no matter what you do, or don't do.

I personally view paddling into a hydraulic on purpose as a not very well reasoned decision.
I would never encourage anyone to try it; nor would I vocally brag about it; fearing that younger, less experienced, and impressionable paddlers having heard me might attempt it themselves. I think anyone who advocates paddling into a hydraulic for "training purposes" is full of beans. Better training would be to learn how to identify, and avoid hydraulics.

If you're an adult & feeling drown proof; go for it! Next time you do; have someone take some video. The videos of hydraulic drownings I've viewed certainly were educational to me.


P.S. If you can't identify a possible hydraulic while you are still safely upstream; a well reasoned decision would be to pull over well upstream of the "possible" hydraulic, walk downstream & scout that area before running it.

worst swim ever
that is the location of my worst swim ever. i was recirc’d in that one multiple times before i was able to get out. i puked water for awhile after that one. i found out later that nobody runs that at the water level we were there. i found out why.

The most dangerous…

…thing about a low head dam is that they do not look dangerous.

Reasons for disagreeing

– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 3:34 PM EST –

Sorry Bob but you have never tried to go underwater to any depth wearing an appropriate size USCG approved PFD much less swim parallel to a river.

Secondly the PFD offers a chance for rebar to catch and snag it. I have been snagged by branches and pulled from my kayak.

There is no perfect answer to this but I have practiced in a hydraulic of significant size wearing a USCG approved. The PFD was worn but unhooked.
I was repeadly pulled back into the hydraulics and submerged. Removing the PFD was my only chance of escape.

If you look at the third video in angstrom's post you will see the kayaker held in the water assisted by the PFD. Luckily he got out.