Who Picks Up the BASE Jumpers That Make a Splash Landing? A History of the Pick-Up Boats

One of the most dangerous parts about parachuting off the New River Gorge Bridge is the landing.

Jumpers may end up hung up in the trees, or a busted “something or other” from crashing into the rocks wouldn’t be very nice either. But the scariest of all landings could be the water. Well, it would be, if it weren’t for the rescue boats that pluck the unlucky jumpers out of the drink each Bridge Day. Some may recall our post last year about, the famed "Pick Up Guys".

These boats are filled with professional rescuers who have a combination of boating skills, swiftwater rescue training and advanced first aid knowledge.

Here’s a short history of how this necessary Bridge Day service came about, and here is a quick video of them in action on Bridge Day.

The Team The Dragan family is this area’s first family of whitewater.

Brother’s Jon, Tom and Chris started Wildwater Unlimited in Thurmond in 1968 and were the first to take people rafting on the New and Gauley Rivers.

Because of this extensive knowledge of the New River, they became the official rescue boaters of Bridge Day. But their first event with a boat in the water was completely different than it is today. The way the rescue boats are run now, it is a team effort between the Dragan’s company, Dragan Diversified Inc. and the National Park Service. It is still very much a family affair, with a Dragan family member in almost every boat.

The Task The very first year the Dragan’s participated as a rescue boat for jumpers was 1981 and they were approached by a jumper to have a raft down in the water as a “target” more so than for safety.

In fact there was a year where safety wasn’t provided for the jumpers. The unfortunate death of a jumper who drowned after his chute drug him down through the next rapid established the need to have a safety presence in the water.

Now they have 8 boats on the water and the boats they use are very specialized to the task at hand. The jumpers aren’t signaled they can jump until the boats are in certain staging points after cleaning up any prior issues.

The Crafts They use 2 different water craft as rescue boats and each one is used for its unique abilityOne boat they depend on is an aluminum hulled jet boat. There are two of these and they are used for their speed and maneuverability. These boats allow them to get to jumpers in the pool area of the river very quickly.

The other boat they employ is an inflatable pontoon boat with a motor called a mini-snout rig. These boats are used because they can navigate the rapid areas safely and work better around the rocky banks.

The park service also employs their snout rigs above and below the rapids on each end of the landing pool as additional safety and to alert and control any river rafting traffic in the event of an emergency. They too, have a boat designated to take medical personnel to jumpers who may need immediate medical attention.

The New River, which flows under the bridge, has two Class III+ rapids on each end of the pool where a majority of the jumpers end up landing. Swimming in the New River without a PFD is definitely not advised, but the addition of the gear a BASE jumper will have on makes it extremely dangerous. It must be rather comforting to the jumpers to know that they have rescuers with over 40 years experience ON THIS RIVER in the boats waiting below.

Have you ever seen a jumper land in a precarious spot?