Occasionally I think I lead a charmed life. Not so much for the fame & fortune I’ve avoided, but for things that happen in my life that convince me that Karma, Guardian Angels, and River/Fish Gods are entities that you should never take lightly. Also, that safety first is a great policy to live by.
Sunday was supposed to be a relaxing day floating the upper Kenai River. Lance has a new Fish Cat Scout raft that he wanted to try out on moving water, and since the river is closed to fishing, we were anticipating a very relaxing day trip; looking for photo ops, and scouting locations for next Tuesday when the river does open for fishing.
This was not to be.
We were launching from the bridge at Cooper Landing. Our boats were light, as we were only carrying cameras and lunch. Dennis and Lance were waiting, in just enough water to float, as I pushed my pontoon boat off the bank and stepped over the foot rests. Turning around, I sat down into my seat.
Suddenly, I’m thrown to the right, my main frame drops into about 8” of water, and the right pontoon of the raft rolls up towards my face. Lance and Dennis say my expression was a mixture of shock, surprise, and confusion. The right side of my boat frame had just snapped off. This is a very bad thing!
At the best possible moment:
I was in 8” of calm water. Normally we launch in places that allow us to shove off right into current. And, normally, these places are much deeper than 8 inches. We were launching, not floating the river. Stress breaks like this can happen anytime the frame is being flexed due to weight on the center frame (gravity) trying to overcome the tube floatation (lift) on the outer frame. Now I’m not a crazy whitewater rafter, but I enjoy the bounce that standing waves can give you in one of these boats. I thought about all the places on the river where this could have happened; choppy runs, sweeping corners, or on one of the back channel – miles, and hours, from help.
I thought about the physics of this type of situation. The loose tube is still strapped to the main frame and will try to float as the frame sinks to the unsupported side; and I’m sandwiched in the middle, with my legs inside of the rowing frame, in waders, in moving water. Not a pleasant thought. I’m born and raised Alaskan; I don’t like to swim, especially in cold water while wrestling with parts and pieces.
A safety message:
Wear a PFD! Dennis and I have vests, Lance uses an SOS system. But we are religious about having them and wearing them, even if we’re just moving downstream a little ways. Now I take my vest off to fish, whereas the SOS allows Lance to keep his on. But our PFDs are always on before we get back onto the water.
I had buddies with me. Even worse case scenario (swimming in current tangled in metal and big bobbers), I had two other boats that were there for backup. I sometimes think about just going out on my own when our schedules don’t mesh; next time I’ll think about somewhere I can walk & wade.
Check the joints on your pontoon frames.
I’m including photos of the “good” side of the frame. Notice the stress fractures on the welds. I’m sure a good welder can fix, and/or reinforce these joints. But do it now, before your frame is in more pieces than it’s designed for. My boat is over seven years old, but has only seen about 4 or 5 years of use; all of which has been on moving water. (Still water probably does not create the stress loads that moving water does.)
This boat came from Costco, and is one of the earliest models available back then. Not that a boat from Costco’s (or Sam’s) is bad; but understand that you’re buying a product that may not have been manufactured under high quality standards. It’s the old “you get what you pay for” mantra.
Should you avoid these boats? Only if you want to leave me more fish; which I would seriously appreciate. I still feel that these smaller pontoon boats are a great, low cost alternative to get to fishing that you cannot get to by hiking, wading, or drop offs.
So how did this all end up?
We got back home about 2:30 in the afternoon. My wife heard the story, and with a hug, told me she was extremely happy that I was still alive; then suggested we go shopping for a new boat, and, oh by the way… I could buy dinner. (This is one of the many reasons I love her.) Later, Lance and I spent the evening changing out custom rigging to my new Outcast 9 (Sportsman Warehouse Special) with green PVC coated tubes and heavy duty bladders. (Yes, I upgraded to a higher quality boat.)
I’m going to miss my racy red tubes; but only until I launch into the current on opening day next Tuesday.