Tragedy mystified sea expert

16th December 1994 at 00:00
Anthony Dore investigates the implications for schools of the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy court verdict, the first conviction for corporate manslaughter in the UK, which has provoked widespread calls for tighter regulation.

When Geoff Good heard that four teenagers had drowned trying to canoe across Lyme Bay, he was mystified. As director of coaching for the British Canoe Union who had taught the sport at sea for 11 years, he knew that the activity was safe if handled well.

He was even more perplexed on learning that the coastguard's weather report was of "moderate" sea, and winds of no more than force four. "It was only when I began to listen the abysmal lack of competence of the instructors, that I understood," he said.

The faults were fundamental and numerous: the youngsters were so inexperienced they could not even paddle the kayaks in a straight line. Instructors Tony Mann and Karen Gardner carried no flares or radios, they did not understand how off-shore winds affected the canoes, or the best way to right a capsized craft or when an emergency was taking place. Crucially, they didn't tell the children to inflate their life- jackets, rendering them useless.

Both Mr Mann, now unemployed, and Miss Gardner, now working in a petrol station, had passed only a one-star grade British Canoe Union test, which an eight-year-old could pass with basic training. Before such a trip with novices, they should have been BCU senior instructors (sea), which takes 70 hours of teaching experience, several days of intensive training and a three-day assessment.

The effect of the killings had a profound influence on Britain's 3,000 adventure holiday centres, according to Mr Good. Because there is no regulatory body, it is impossible to say how many others were of the same appalling standards revealed in the trial.

But, he points out: "Since Lyme Bay we have been aware of centres that have been using unqualified staff who have got staff qualified." The number of the union's trainee instructors rose by 25 per cent from 1,500 to 2,000, and many instructors whose British Canoe Union membership had lapsed rejoined in order to make their qualification valid, partly as a result of the court case.

Mr Good has also seen a fall in the number of novice groups who are taken sea canoeing, particularly in Devon - a natural reaction, although not based on the actual risk of the activity.

He believes a journey across Lyme Bay like the one planned for the Plymouth schoolchildren is safe if done properly. "If you have the right equipment, the right level of staff and can justify that it is a good, positive thing to do then it can be done. The quality of the staff is vital."

Extra care should be taken when the activity is a "challenge or adventure", he says, rather than teaching a skill. In the case of sea canoeing, this means taking a radio or having an escort boat, although the latter should not be used as an excuse for sloppy practice on the water. It also means ensuring the canoeists can propel their craft in a straight line, and assessing them for strength and ability before setting off.

Other outdoor education experts agree that canoeing is less dangerous than other activities. Alan Cottle, Surrey County Council's outdoor education training and safety manager, says: "It is unfortunate because canoeing has been a safe activity compared to others. The one that worries me most is pony trekking; that is much more unpredictable."

Mr Good says: "My 13-year-old son plays rugby and goes white-water canoeing. I'm more concerned about the rugby."

* A trade union for the estimated 20,000 instructors in outdoor activity centres is being set up in the wake of the Lyme Bay disaster.

The British Outdoor Professionals' Association aims to set up a database of members' qualifications for use by employers, and to arrange training in the use of assault courses and aerial ropeways, and other activities which are not fully covered by national governing bodies.

Founder Tony Beswick, who has spent 15 years in the activity holiday business, said the association would also seek better conditions for instructors, who earn as little as Pounds 30 a week on top of board and lodging. "At the moment, everyone in the field is represented except those at the sharp end," he said.

Contact: BOPA, Water Street, New Radnor, Powys, LD8 2SN.

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