An ending

A few weeks ago I was involved with a fatal kayak accident on the River Tummel. This is something that is so hard to describe across the emotional and physical spectrum that it played out across and continues to do so. This was someone I (and Suse) was paddling with as part of a club paddle, someone who I as part of a team; was providing bank safety for, live baited to attempt to get them out the water, performed CPR on for an extended period, someone whose family I would meet at his funeral. It’s caused unimaginable loss and suffering to his family, friends and business colleagues. This was one of life’s wonderful amazing and inspiring characters who lived live to the very full and gave freely of himself to help others. Someone who was an experienced kayaker, swimmer and coach. It’s reinforced psychological blockers in my head from a near drowning of my own that I had been working hard to overcome since taking up packrafting, and left me with psychological issues and panic attacks that are going to need psychiatric counselling to resolve (and I think of myself as a mentally robust and flexible person with years of outdoor experiences and a few near death experiences of my own to put this stuff in context).

Put simply, it’s an unimaginably shit and sad experience all round. I want to put down some thoughts and lessons that I learned from this experience. None of this is new, this is all known stuff in the kayak community, but as packrafters we are only just realising how important safety training and discussion are, and so I want to share.

None of this should be taken as any criticism of those who were involved. This was an experienced and knowledgeable team paddling a known grade 3 in good conditions. Everyone did the very best they could, with the knowledge and kit they had, worked as an amazingly fluid and effective team, putting their lives and minds at risk to try to produce a positive outcome. Sadly it was not a good outcome, but I still feel I should learn from that and hopefully provoke discussion that will engage us as packrafters to learn a bit more about safety. The best that can be said is that no one else was hurt and I am proud to have those who were there, and those who supported us afterwards, as my friends and paddling buddies.

Here are some of the things that I learned.

  • When stuff goes wrong it goes wrong very very fast, 1 to 2 minutes, that was all it took to go from laughs and whoops of success to someone drowned!
  • When stuff goes wrong it goes wrong with the most serious outcomes, it’s not like a climbing or biking accident where you are often dealing with broken bones with plenty time to fix stuff. It can go wrong, badly, people dying is a high probability outcome.
  • I kept expecting something anything to happen and for it to all be ok.
  • Everyone has a part to play, tiny inputs can make big differences and should be appreciated.
  • Phone for help, or go get help, as soon as things start to go wrong.
  • Having a grab bag of skills and training makes a difference, not only to the outcome at the time, but to how I felt afterwards. I was glad I had some whitewater safety training, whitewater swimming training, first aid training even though I only started paddling a year ago. I was glad I was with people who had much deeper skills in all those areas and more. Picking the right skill or technique in the first few moments, then having other things to try if the first doesn’t work, feels like it is super important to creating a good outcome.
  • Get rid of the dangly shit, it will kill you! Seriously, all that stuff hanging off you and your packraft, get rid of it. Clean bodies, clean boats, clean lines rule.
  • Never give up. Until he was pronounced dead by the hospital hours later, no one involved gave up as the slightest chance was worth trying.
  • Good communication meant everyone knew what they were doing and stayed safe.
  • We used many throw lines and used them in many different ways. I binned ours afterwards as they were so badly stretched. There was not time to restuff lines or go to boats to get more.
  • A group debrief, or debriefs, to discuss and share in a safe environment as quickly as possible after the accident made it easier for all of us to cope and express whatever feelings we felt, not all of which were easy to either say or hear. Some were excruciating to hear and they often came from an experience and viewpoint that was very different to my own.
  •  I talked about it, with as many people as possible, this wasn’t me trying to show me as a hero, it’s finding ways to express and manage something v difficult. I’m not the chatty type normally. Crying in front of my team at work as I told them what had happened might not be a social or work norm, but even that gave me support in unexpected ways.
  • I’ve not been afraid to seek help after.
  • A friend told me “don’t do ‘what ifs’, the outcome can’t be changed, imagine the way your wonderful ‘what if’ could have gone wrong instead!”.
  • We went paddling the following weekend, nothing hard, just a gentle paddle down the Spey and a steam train home to “get back in the saddle” and we (Suse and I) felt better for it making it easier to get back on more challenging water the weekend after.
  • Lastly, I don’t want to dwell on the safety aspect, but I recognise it is important and necessary, and ultimately as with rock climbing and mountaineering ropework, I enjoy all aspects of the craft of my chosen sports.

And from here? We keep paddling, keep going outside, keep living. I’m going to see a psychiatric counsellor this week. We are going on a Whitewater Safety and Rescue course at Glenmore Lodge in September to keep improving our skills. As someone recently said on fb about an experience of their own “still alive, still breathing” and I relied a lot on that simple statement to get me to a point where we can keep going out there and living our lives.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Stay safe, have fun.

6 thoughts on “An ending

  1. Chris says:

    Hi Mike,
    That must have been incredibly hard to write, and I have to say it was hard to read without getting emotional.

    First off, I wish there had been more comunication at least in EKC, but consideration of feelings for the family, those immediately involved (such as yourself), and the concern of not speculating before a fatal accident inquiry seemed to put of a shut down on that. That in itself led to worries (as a member of the club) as to who the victim was and how, given the level of supervision on all trips, how it could have happened, and if there was something we could do to stop a similar incident happening in upcoming trips.

    However, that being said, the big takeaways for me are to remove all dangly shit, learn CPR, and never give up.

    In spite of earning a bronze medallion in life saving many years ago, it is obvious my skills are outdated so I must brush up on them. However I am not sure I could perform all the required elements to pass a similar course these days, so perhaps non- certicated education as part of pool/lagoon sessions would be useful?
    It was a tragic incident, and there are lessons to be learned – can we ensure they are learned soon?

    1. Mike McFarlane says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for your words and thoughts.
      It’s difficult to speak about at the moment for the reasons you identify and I can only speak for myself not the club. Bad stuff always has the potential to happen in any environment, particularly when our chosen ways to play and have fun take place in highly dynamic environments like a river or the mountains. Have a read of Mark’s comment below.
      Sounds great to go and do some courses. Suse and I are strictly not interested in certification, we are interested in the skills both because we enjoy learning and we want to be safe and able to keep those around us safe. Suse and I often paddle as a pair in remote Scottish areas and this ups the risk and reliance on our own self rescue skills, and the skills of the other to help when it goes really wrong. We have found that a lot of modern outdoor courses are delivered in a very jargon free and use what you have and know approach. Maybe you saw the course that Neil Russell organised – whitewater safety and rescue – with Matt Haydock. This is a great course, and I know Matt by reputation which is excellent. Neil did offer to organise another course if others were interested. Go for it:-)

  2. Mark Oates says:

    I am very grateful that you have put this post out there. I think it’s an incredibly valuable piece of information for all paddlers regardless of their skill and experience level. Only 2 weeks ago friends had a similar experience here in Australia. The kayak team involved included some of the most experienced river rescue instructors and guides out there. Even they weren’t able to save their friend who was an international level whitewater pro-kayaker and ex-Olympian slalom paddler. Thank you for sharing and all the best for your recovery and that of your friends.

    1. Mike McFarlane says:

      Hi Mark
      I’m really sorry to hear about your friends. I hope that they have the wonderful support and friendships around them that we have had that have allowed us to begin to work our way through this.
      We choose to play in dangerous environments because the rewards are greater than the risks, although often the risks are not fully understood, even if we think we do. And as with your friends they can happen to anyone, even when we have the best doing their best, the river will do it’s thing.
      I’ve been around dangerous sports all my life and had 3 near misses. I have quite a Zen approach to life and death which makes me feel quite calm about death, sometimes a bit cold even to myself. But none of that prepared me for what happened, or how it feels after. None of the lessons are new either, we know these things from the experience of others, and I wish with all my heart that I hadn’t had to learn them like this and that our friend was still with us. The cost of these personal lessons is too high. There are lots of great courses out there that can help us to learn from others, and nothing to stop us practising stuff ourselves. Suse and I regularly setup rescue scenarios on easy river and dry land, and they are a lot of fun, as well as useful practise.
      My thoughts are with you and your friends and their families.

  3. Viv says:

    Thank you so much for trying, his family know how hard it must have been for you all. We miss him terribly but are so proud of his achievements helping others gain confidence in the water. Love his sister, Viv

    1. Mike McFarlane says:

      Hi Viv, thank you for your support, it means such a lot to me. I keep thinking of all the photographs of him, always going at life with his tail on fire and his tongue out, it keeps me smiling and inspired to keep working at my own fears of the water. Love to you and the rest of his family.

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