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.