A matter of time

One definition of a renegade is somebody who chooses to live outside the laws or conventions of a group. Patrick Cunningham, owner of Hudson River Rafting Co., chose to operate his business outside the Hudson River Professional Outfitters Association, allegedly because of the safety guidelines under which the 10 member outfitters agreed to operate, including a guide in every raft.

It is also apparent Cunningham has little use for the minimal regulations the state has imposed on the whitewater industry: guides must be licensed; at least 18 years old; skilled in the use of whitewater craft; physically capable; pass a written examination; and be certified in First Aid, CPR and Basic Water Safety or its “documented equivalent” whitewater guide training. This includes at least five whitewater trips down the river on which he or she wishes to work. At least two of the trips must have been in the type of craft for which the license is being sought. On these trips, the applicant must have been either the person in charge of the craft or enrolled in a whitewater guide-training program approved by the state  Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite these minimal requirements (five training trips, and they don’t even have to be piloting the raft?) whitewater rafting on the Indian / Hudson rivers has been remarkably safe. Four customers have drowned since whitewater rafting began on them 33 years ago, despite an estimated 25,000 customers going down the river each year. Do the math.

In recent years, however — at least since 2007 — Cunningham has been careless. The lawsuit filed against him by the Attorney General’s Office last week includes as exhibits copies of 11 tickets issued to 10 people for guiding without a license, all employed by Cunningham’s Hudson River Rafting Co.; as well as affidavits by customers attesting to rafts being overcrowded, customers being abandoned on the river by their guide, getting little or no safety or emergency instruction and being sent downriver alone in inflatable kayaks despite lack of experience. Other outfitters and guides, including some he trained, say Cunningham’s disregard for safety goes back 10 years or more, and includes unlicensed and unsupervised trainees piloting rafts.

Guide Rory K. Fay may be most directly responsible for Tamara Blake’s death last month, as he was allegedly intoxicated, but Cunningham set the stage. The tragic accident was really no accident at all. The circumstances of that trip and the sad outcome have been building for some time.