In June of 2002, an adventure race in New Brunswick went terribly awry during its kayaking segment and one of the racers died.
David Leach's account of the ill-fated race, Fatal Tide, is a straight forward but engrossing account of the tragedy. He examines the events of the day, of how many of the racers, tired and exhausted from the running and cycling portion of the race, were at best novice kayakers. Many, including the victim, had only kayaked once or twice before they took to the stormy waves of the Bay of Fundy for the kayaking segment without immersion gear or any idea of the windy weather forecast. Dozens of single kayakers hit the water that day; only three completed the course. The rest either turned around, beached themselves before the end, or had to be rescued.
One amateur athlete named René, who had kayaked only once or twice before, was in fourth place when he launched in his borrowed racing kayak. He flipped over 100 feet from shore, righted himself with help from the rescue Zodiac and insisted on continuing, and paddled out into 20 knot winds and two-metre waves. 90 minutes later he was in the water, his head held above water by another kayaker using both hands as they drifted backwards past the starting point and towards towering cliffs. They were rescued by a passing fishing boat, but too late to save René.
Leach also describes a litany of failures by the organizers. Race volunteers had no list of competitors, or any way to communicate with each other. The organizers had failed to notify local law enforcement and emergency services about the race, nor had they informed any the racers of the weather forecast. They had only one rescue boat that soon proved no match for the waves they were facing. The organizers did supply some kayak training, but it was only a five-minute on-land demonstration of how to use the pump, the paddle float and a description of a paddle-float re-entry.
Local kayakers were aghast at the lack of preperation and the number of novice kayakers who were venturing out under such stormy conditions.
But Leach doesn't lay all the blame on the organizers. He spends a far portion of the book exploring the reasons why adventure racers want to risk their lives and the notion of "shared risk," how participants must share the blame when they proceed into dangerous conditions. Many racers continued paddling into bad conditions because of their perceived "need" to finish, even though it was obvious that the best course of action was to head for land and shelter.
The author delves into kayaking history and safety, even devoting a chunk of a chapter to Tim Ingram, the infamous Sponson Guy.
Leach also explores hypothermia. Most kayakers do not drown; they die from hypothermia or its effects, and the author offers up some surprising clues about some little-known effects of hypothermia which may killed this paddler and others.
This thoughtful and sobering book reminds us of the risk we take going on the water, and the need to be properly prepared. And that it's okay to say "No."