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Water Power

Close encounter with a near death experience

May 17th, 2020

wooden boat
Grandfather, father, boat, and me practicing for the gallows.

I'm aware some people are "afraid of water". I've never really understood it.

My father used to tell a story of taking me to the ocean near Myrtle Beach. I was still an inexperienced toddler. He would tell the story with a mix of fear and pride. He walked into the ocean with me on his shoulders. My small arms were probably reaching around his head and at times covering his eyes. The waves would come and roughly push him back and forth. He turned toward the shore, his back against the waves. Then it happened. An unexpectedly large wave smashed into us. In a moment he was thrown off his feet and I was launched free of his grasp. While going under he quickly stretched out his hand and blindly grabbed one of my ankles. He regained his footing and pulled me above the water into his arms. If he hadn't grabbed my ankle, I might have grown up afraid of water.

For over 25 years, my mother's father worked for Alcoa Badin Works. Much of his free time was spent hunting and fishing.

When I was just a child, 6 or 7, my grandfather along with my uncle took me fishing "between the dams". I know it today as Falls Reservoir. This trip took his small homemade wooden boat straight to the side of Narrows Dam powerhouse. We may have been there to catch bait. Sticking out of the wall was a short piece of rebar. With a rope they tied the side of the boat to the rebar. The boat rocked gently against the wall of the powerhouse.

There beside the powerhouse I was a silent observer. I was unaware of any danger. I'm sure my grandfather had been there many times and knew the danger. He also knew a horn would blow to give warning and time to move to safety. I don't remember my grandfather ever using life jackets. We sat on square cushions intended to be thrown to anyone that fell out of the boat.

Narrows Powerhouse
Powerhouse at Narrows Dam, relatively calm water. November 2007.

Without warning the boat was lifted upward on a turbulent mound of water. Water had been released and it flowed downward from Badin Lake. It passed through the turbines and entered the river underneath our boat, lifting it several feet. The water was mixed with air. It was whitewater and no longer provided the expected buoyancy. In that instant, water spilled over the sides and into the boat. I would guess there were at least three inches of water in the bottom of the boat. With one pull my uncle started the motor, my grandfather began to bail and we quickly moved off the mound of water and into calmer water. They didn't panic. I was too young to be afraid. I remained a silent but wet observer.

They didn't panic, but that was the end of that day's fishing trip. They went straight home. Later they commented that the only thing preventing the boat from flipping had been the old rotten rope. The rope snapped as the boat was lifted up. If it had not snapped there would have been three lives in the water without life jackets.

copyright Phil W. Lowder