Kentucky paddler Kevin O’Brien was sitting in an eddy above a low-head dam when, up ahead, he noticed another kayaker drop over the horizon line.

A low-head hydro dam (or “weir”) is a barrier across the width of the river that alters both the flow and the characteristics of the water. These weirs—defined as being less than 5 meters in height—are used as a means of controlling the flow of water for outlets of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs.

For kayakers, they are generally bad news. At the base of these dams, there is often a strong recirculating current that is near impossible to escape. For those who find themselves at the mercy of the powerful hydraulic, it can often mean fatal or near-fatal consequences.

For the unnamed paddler up in front, things were about to get ugly.

[ See all Safety & Rescue equipment in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]

Kevin and another nearby paddler sprung into action upon noticing things hadn’t gone to plan. Kevin was able to jump out of his kayak and quickly throw the distressed swimmer a throw bag. Thankfully, after a bit of verbal coaching and clear instruction to “grab it”, the swimmer was able to grab the bag the first time around and was pulled out of the hydraulic.

We exhale a sigh of relief as we see the paddler return safely to the side of the river.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision this situation playing out differently. This kayaker was saved through the quick action from nearby trained paddlers and having the appropriate safety equipment available. A PFD and a throw bag were paramount to his rescue.

Even with the correct equipment at hand, some aren’t as lucky. The best way to avoid the dangerous hydraulics of hydro-dams is to steer clear of them to begin with. If you plan on paddling a river with a low-head dam, be sure to check water levels before you set out, know your portage routes and take out, and take all the necessary precautions.


  1. These guys were just stupid to attempt what led to this accident.
    It is this type of action that gives a bad name to anyone in a kayak.

  2. If your going to show this video please emphasize the complete stupidity of this entire group of kayakers at the beginning of the article. Any entry level kayak class warns paddlers to never go over low head dams. Rather then praise the rescue condemn the action.


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