Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hidden dangers.

Over the years that I have been involved in teaching outdoor pursuits I have seen many incidents that could have led to serious consequences because people could not see the real danger that was very close to them.

One of these occurred some years ago when I was teaching canoeing on the River Cuckmere in Sussex. This is a great venue to introduce people to the sport as the old route of the river bed oxbows is now a flat water lake, but there is also the running part of the river close by and if the class and conditions are appropriate the beach is also close.

One this particular day, the tide was running out of the river at quite a rate, so as we approached the point where the river crossed the shingle beach and ran out to sea I made sure that my students were all able to pull in to the side before they were swept down the last 30m of channel to the sea. In this last part of the channel the combined effect of the river's flow and the outgoing tide put the current at about 5-6 knots.

As this was the middle of the summer holidays the beach was quite busy. There were hundreds of children along the beach in different groups, it appeared that several youth organisations has brought groups to the beach that day.

As we were sitting eating lunch, one of the leaders of one of these groups came up shouting that there was someone in the water and being washed out to sea. At first I could see no one, but I realised that I could see a head in the water about 300m offshore. I realised straight away what had happened, there were children paddling in the outgoing stream which was less than knee deep and one must have been swept off his feet. The current was so strong that he had been carried out to sea very rapidly.

To make things worse the current offshore was running to the west at about 1-2knots and he was being swept past the end of the beach to the area of cliffs where it would not be possible to land for several miles.

I jumped in my canoe and paddled out as fast as I could, when I arrived I discovered that there were three people in the water, the original boy of about 9 and two men who had seen what happened and had jumped in after him. None of them had been able to make any progress against the current.

We got the young boy on to the front of my canoe as he had been in the cold water for some time by then and was not in too good a condition. In fact, I was sure that if the two men had not been supporting him in the water he would already have drowned. The two in the water were trying to get me to paddle in with the boy, but I felt that if I left them with nothing buoyant to hold on to they would soon be in trouble.

With them holding on the the canoe I was able to make slow progress towards the land but could see that we may end up having to pass the cliff area and aim for the next beach some distance off.

Fortunately at that point another canoe class arrived, as soon as the instructor arrived and realised what was happening, he paddled out to us. With him towing me and me also paddling, we were able to make progress. After some time we reached the beach and were administering first aid and getting the casualties in to the dry clothes out of our emergency kit. Very soon after a Coastguard helicopter arrived, as someone on the cliff top has seen what was happening, and had run off to get to a phone (mobile phones were still in the future!). Once the casualties had been taken by the helicopter to hospital, I went back to make sure my students were all ok. I had briefed them to stay out of the water until I returned, but did not feel comfortable leaving them unsupervised.

Everything was fine when I got back to my class, but I could not believe that there were still many children paddling in the same stream that had just swept the boy out to sea. A major incident had just been avoided and a Sea King helicopter had landed only 100-200m away and people had not noticed all the fuss.

The problem was that because the Sun was out and the air was warm everything looked safe, no one could see that the real danger was the fast moving cold water. Particularly when people are on holiday they seem to switch off and loose all sense of danger.

People who are not involved in risk sports often think that sailors, climbers, canoeists and divers are taking chances. In my experience, most people taking part is sports can see the dangers and take steps to minimise them, the result is that they are far safer than they appear, many of the real dangers in life are the ones that are not so obvious and people do not see coming. When I was doing a lot of rock climbing, we use to say that the most dangerous part was all the extra driving we did at night to get to the climbing area!

My training as an instructor has made me very aware of the likely risks in what I do, and this spills over in to normal life. How many people after they have checked in to a hotel room, go to find the fire escapes and work out how to get out of the building if it is full of smoke? Maybe its a bit over the top, but that type of thinking and preparation for the simple dangers that surround us may save your life one day.

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