CORVALLIS, Ore. – Nine crew members on the Oregon State University men’s rowing team are safe after one of their boats collided with a bridge pillar and snapped in half.
The Benton County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol was dispatched to the Willamette River just before 5 pm Monday evening near the Harrison Street Bridge after the crew boat struck the pier.
“It hit a tree limb, an obstacle in the water way, which kind of turned the boat and it broadsided one of the pillars,” said Sheriff Scott Jackson with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.
Jackson says the team had a safety boat that was able to immediately rescue all nine of the crew members from the water.
“Somebody was following along with them with a boat in case something like this happened,” he said. “So they were prepared for this. And again they’re on the river just about every day so they’re very experienced.”
Jackson says everyone is safe and uninjured, but the crew lost a $35,000 boat.
“Because the crew boats are so long, they don’t have a lot of maneuverability,” said Oregon State Marine Board spokesperson Ashley Massey. “They go great in a straight line but can’t turn on a dime. And they’re also low freeboard, meaning they can swamp easily.”
Massey says right now, the river levels are higher than usual because of snow melt. Along with the extra snow melt comes debris that poses extra dangers for anyone in the water – even to some of the most experienced boaters.
“If you haven’t navigated this water before, now’s probably not a great time to do it.”
Head Coach Steve Todd says nobody is to blame for the crash.
“Nobody was at fault,” he said. “The river was just moving faster than it usually is. Losing a boat is disappointing, but the number one thing is that everyone got out safely.”
The Sheriff’s Office says nobody on board was wearing a life jacket – but racing crews are exempt from normal requirements from recreational boats, including personal flotation devices.
Massey says she could understand why parents would be concerned about students rowing and not having life jackets on board.
“Being a parent myself and also having experience in cold water – knowing what’s going to happen I think is key,” she said. “Luckily they train for that kind of thing and I hope some parents can rest easy with that.”
Massey says the state advocates for everyone to wear a life jacket, but she understands why rowers would not want to wear them.
“It restricts in many cases their ability to maneuver,” she said. “It’s directly related to how they function and gain the most speed with that vessel. So it’s all part of the sport itself.”
Not to mention – crew members on the rowing team are more trained than the average recreational boater for emergency situations.
“We don’t have statistics to show that this is a regular occurrence,” she said. “They don’t pose a threat or a danger. And because they train for cold water immersion and falls overboard, that’s way more education and skill than your average boater.”
But at the same time, Massey says she would like to see more of a fight for life jackets on board.
“I do think it would be great if they wore a fanny-pack style or something, but it would be a lot of momentum that would be needed by the crew community and support by that community for any regulation to make it past the legislature.”
But both Massey and Jackson say they don’t hear of crew boat wrecks often.
“We get a lot of private boaters and a lot of missing boaters that aren’t back yet and family members are worried about them,” Jackson said. “But nothing from the crew team. And again these people are out on the river quite a bit and they’re very familiar with it and very good at what they do.”
Coach Todd says the crew team was set to practice Tuesday afternoon as usual, and will still compete this weekend at Dexter Lake.