The deaths of two paddlers from Jamestown, N.Y., who drowned in separate incidents in May on the Allegheny River and Allegheney Reservoir are having an impact on the forthcoming canoe and kayak events to be held in Warren County this summer.
Jacob Maynard drowned in the Allegheny River near Starbrick and Jonathan Miller drowned near Webbs Ferry on the Allegheny Reservoir. Neither was wearing a life jacket.
A host of paddlers will be plying the waters of the Allegheny River when the Pennsylvania Association of Canoe and Kayak (PACK) State Championships - the Pat Shine Canoe and Kayak Race, comes to the Allegheny on July 21 and the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Association (USCA) National Championships event comes to town on Aug. 7 through 12.
Times Observer file photo
Paddlers like these from a past USCA Nationals marathon event, will have to wear personal flotation devices for part of the 2012 races under a new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rule. The decision impacts about the first 400 yards of the marathon events that traditionally start at the boat launch below Kinzua Dam.
And they will be wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) for at least part of their races.
"We're requiring it for the point that they're on our property," Kinzua Dam Resource Manager Doug Helman said.
The races start at the boat launch below the dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the tailwaters, which extend from the dam to the upstream point of the first island - Dixon Island - downstream.
The rationale was simple - a desire not to see a repeat of the fatalities of May.
"We've had multiple drownings of kayakers on the reservoir and the river," Helman said. "Neither party was wearing life jackets."
"We understand their concern and we appreciate the notice so that we can get the information out to our paddlers," Council on Tourism Executive Director John Papalia Jr. said. "I know that some paddlers would have liked to have raced without having to put on a PFD, but ultimately safety takes first priority."
There is no argument from the USCA leadership.
"We understand the Corps' position," USCA and PACK President Susan Williams said. "We are very concerned about safety."
"It's a minor issue," she said. "There's probably a small group that isn't going to like it."
As of Monday, Williams had heard from about 12 racers on the subject. "I've heard one disgruntled comment," she said. "Every other comment... we'll deal with it."
The rules, whatever they may be, will be enforced.
"If they're required, we will be wearing them," Williams said. "Our safety inspectors will be at the start line and nobody will be in the water in violation."
All racers must have PFDs with them, in easy reach, throughout the race, she said. "You have to be able to pull it out within five seconds. It's not a big step" to wear one.
Race officials can perform spot checks for PFDs.
Also, all youth participants must wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFDs at all times during competition.
And, sometimes, the conditions on race-day prompt officials to require all racers to wear PFDs. High winds, powerboat traffic, and unusually high water can play a role in that decision. Two races have instituted race-day PFD requirements this year in Pennsylvania alone, Williams said.
Later this year, Pennsylvania will join the states that require PFDs in races during winter months.
"The difference in August is the heat," Williams said. Racers could become "hyperthermic... overheat because of how hard they race."
"The main issue is safety," she said.
If it is determined that the PFD issue is more of a concern than the potential drowning danger to racers, there are options.
"We may work around it," Williams said. "We may change the course. We don't have a set starting line."
Any work-around won't violate any Corps regulations because another concern of the USCA is "we don't want to disturb the relationship that the chamber has with the Corps of Engineers," Williams said.
"We are working very closely with our hosts in Warren, (WCCBI President and CEO) Jim Decker and John Papalia. They do a wonderful job and we love them," she said. "We like Warren and we want to be back to Warren."
The Corps is a central part of the Warren County paddling equation.
"Without the ongoing support from the Corps these races would not be nearly as successful. We are very thankful to the Corps for everything they do to make these races happen," Papalia said. "They allow this race to take place on their waters and they go above and beyond to ensure paddling conditions by increasing or decreasing the outflow."
And now the agency is trying to make sure those who enjoy their waterways do so as safely as reasonably possible.
"Anyone out there on any vessel, doing any kind of water-related activities, should be wearing a life jacket," Helman said.