No safe substitute for quality leadership

30th December 1994 at 00:00
May I comment on some issues arising out of your report concerning the tragic deaths of four young people on a canoeing journey along Lyme Bay (TES, December 16)?

I don't believe it is correct to say that the "lifejackets became waterlogged" or that failing to inflate them "rendered them useless". The BS 3595 lifejackets in use had about 60 newtons (6kg) of inherent buoyancy comprising closed cell foam. Even if water gets into the lifejacket it cannot lose this inherent buoyancy. Water can only get in if the cap is removed from the inflation tube, and only if wave action is sufficient to overcome the pressure on the valve. I am unaware of this having been the case on this occasion.

However, unless the lifejacket is topped up by oral inflation to its full potential of 150 newtons (15kg), it will not support the head of an unconscious person sufficiently to prevent minor waves from breaking over the face. Once hypothermia has taken its toll, therefore, drowning will almost inevitably follow.

There is mention in the articles of my reference to the use of an escort boat for "adventure" purposes, and I would like to clarify the British Canoe Union's position.

Where canoeing is taught in the generally accepted manner - that is, a careful introduction, a gradual working-up of skill and experience, as is the norm for all activities which involve potential risk - then we believe there is no need for a powered escort craft. Rescues can be achieved far more efficiently and safely by the instructor, and a group under competent leadership should not be committed beyond its ability in the first place.

Centres, however, usually with providing a "one-off" experience for young people, many or most of whom may never sit in a kayak in their lives again, do have the ability safely to provide them with a sea journeying experience, which, within reason, challenges them physically and mentally, and provides those essential ingredients of adventure and achievement.

The competence and quality of the staff become even more critical, however, once the exercise steps outside the parameters of the careful progression of learning. While the journey should not, in theory, place the students in real danger, there are unknown quantities, such as an undeclared medical condition which could manifest itself at an inopportune moment. Further, the individual reserves of experience and ability do not exist if the conditions deteriorate well beyond those anticipated through a careful analysis of the forecast.

In these circumstances, and where the "educational" merit of the challenge can be justified, then a well-equipped, properly cox-swained, powered escort boat can provide the necessary "belt-and-braces" support to ensure the security of the students should the unforeseeable occur.

The danger of reliance upon powered escort craft is that they would inevitably be used to obviate the need to employ instructors of sufficient ability, and would mask underlying incompetence. Students would undoubtedly be led into situations of danger, unrecognised by the staff involved - as was the case in Lyme Bay on that fateful day - and by decree of Murphy's Law, if a group was in real trouble it would be then that mechanical failure would strike, and the radio refuse to communicate with anyone.

A centre which was short-changing on the competence and quality of instructors would also be unlikely to employ a coxswain of sufficient ability and experience.

All these devices are sound as back-ups to exercises which are viable, and well managed, to start with. The risk of over-reliance upon them, as opposed to quality leadership, should be evident to all.

The whole sad and unbelievable episode of Lyme Bay would have been averted by the simple command at the time that the teacher first started to go over: "the rest of you paddle back to the shore and wait with your bows on the beach until we've sorted out the capsize". That procedure is standard practice for a group being introduced to canoeing on the sea, who would be kept within a very few feet of the edge until a good degree of directional control had been gained.

It is most unlikely that an experienced instructor would have put a middle-aged person who had never canoed before into a smaller boat than the young students. In such circumstances one looks for a larger, more stable kayak. Should there be no other choice, then the adult would at least be in the standard boat, and the smallest student in the less stable kayak.

As Antony Dore has shown in his article, the saga was created by unbelievable ineptitude, and as this became evident during the trial it must have added to the grief of the parents, the survivors, and the teacher, Norman Pointer. Our hearts continue to go out to them.


Director of coaching

British Canoe Union

West Bridgford, Nottingham

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