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Pinned in the Whataroa River

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Firstly I want to thank all of the people who rescued me - Barry, Sue, Louis, Ellie, Stu, Diego, Yan, Ciccio, Colin and Pete - without their help I would certainly have drowned. The actions of Louis from Wellington and Pete (both of whom I only met at the put-in) were critical to my rescue and without question courageous - they risked their own safety getting out to me and I am very grateful to them.

It's the third day after the event and I don't particularly like writing this because it brings back the vivid memory of being close to losing my life - it was a very bad pin situation. However I think it is important to do so because there are lessons in every incident that may help others and hindsight observations can be helpful. Hopefully, it may also be somewhat cathartic. It happened like this...

On 29 December 2005, 11 of us flew into Barrowman Flat on the Whataroa tagging on the back of a helicopter raft shuttle. A lot of us were only recent acquaintances having only met the day before, or at the put in. We checked who had what safety gear before flying. We had throw ropes, wood saws, split paddles, first aid kits, slings and prussic loops. The incident happened on the first class III rapid downstream of the put in, at around noon.

I approached the rapid at the back of the group and being new to the river and not being able to see clearly what was involved I was about to get out and inspect it. Diego shouted to me not to bother as it was easy down the right. I took his advice and set off expecting easy water and was too relaxed. The line I chose involved a bit of an S-bend move. I looked to surf across a fold in the first chute and underestimated the downstream speed of the water which swept me onto a boulder and then backwards off this, then towards another boulder that had a short log pointing upstream just at water level. I could see it coming before I hit, and I knew what was going to happen.

I instinctively leaned onto the boulder and the log entered my cockpit. Fortunately I could reach the boulder and a rock under the water to support myself. The log was across my thigh and I knew I was in a serious situation. I tried to push myself off but the force of the water was too great. Yan had seen it happen and yelled to the others to come and assist. I knew from my safety training (thanks to NZRCA, WWCC, NZ Kayak School and Linda Wensley) that I had to keep my situation stable until others could come to the rescue.

I thought from the forces on me that I could only get out with someone on the rock downstream of me and shouted this out to Barry who was by now out of his boat and on the bank. I was wondering how they were going to do this and thinking the order of safety is "yourself, the group and victim last"! After some attempts to throw me a sling Pete jumped across to me and was able to stand in the water between me and the boulder and support me. It was a brave action on his part. Louis shortly followed him and it was great to have them both there alongside me. They clipped lines to my life jacket and the stern of the boat. Then the team tried pulling the boat upstream and me out but to no avail, even though they were using a vector pull on a fixed line.

I was now in a position where the log was across my knee and when the weight was taken off the line to the stern my knee was being bent backwards and very painful. I had thoughts my leg might break. Also when they pulled me my head was almost under water and I could now longer support myself. I could also now feel another smaller stick over my left ankle that could trap my foot when I was pulled further out.

The situation was not good and time was going by. I could see that the only way out was to be cut out. I told Pete this and when he looked hesitant, I just remember saying repeatedly "just cut the #!@*%# boat"! With support I was able to get my saw out of my lifejacket and Pete started cutting - the blade broke!! Luckily Louis also had a saw, albeit a rusty one, and took over as Pete was getting cold - the Whataroa is glacier-fed. The cutting eventually gave me a bit more room to move and I only just squeezed out with the rescue teams help - "thank God"! I found out later Pete had also cut my spray skirt off me.

Rescue scene on the Whataroa River

Barry was directing operations from the rock just upstream and hauled me onto it and told me to just stay there and rest. My right leg had been highly stressed in the extraction and could not support my weight. I was thrown another rope and I clipped my towline and it to the fixed line and was "zipped" to the shore. I am guessing but I would say the rescue had taken 20 or 30(?) minutes to that point. The rescue team then spent some time more (15 minutes?) getting the boat off the log.

My head was not in a good space thinking how close I had been to dying and I was shivering with cold. Some kind words and some supportive hugs from Ellie helped - I must have looked a bit fragile. With a little rest, my right leg improved and I found I could walk OK. Suggestions were to get a helicopter in to fly me out but I thought my leg had improved enough to walk out. There was a track alongside the river. Although the walk out would take me nearly five hours, I didn't fancy sitting waiting on the side of the river and reliving the situation.

Why a river saw is essential

The guys stripped my now cut and useless boat of its gear and left it up on the right bank just downstream of the rapid. After I took two anti-inflammatory pills and a pain killer, we set off downstream, me walking and the rest of the party paddling and to hopefully enjoy the rest of their day without further incident. Pete who got to me first on the rock was long gone by the time I got out to the car park.

The lessons in hindsight:

Don't take any West Coast rapid lightly; the Whataroa is a big volume river and was moving faster and more forcefully than the rivers I had recently paddled, even though at medium level. It is silt laden and obstacles under the water are hidden.

Make your own decisions, don't listen to others directions about a new rapid even if it is only class III - I wish I had got out like I had planned, made my own assessment and decided on my own line. That I didn't, is my fault.

Stabilise the situation. I had it in my head from a recent incident on the Otira and a river rescue course run by Linda Wensley just how important this is. Linda has a "car on the parabolic slope" analogy for river safety. This was my first thought and was fortunate to be able to "stop the door slamming" until the rescue could be organised.

Getting a person alongside the victim makes a huge difference to assessment of the situation and the rescue. It may not always be possible to do so without undue risk to the rescuers. I was so fortunate this was possible in my case, and Pete and Louis were prepared to take the personal risk involved, for my sake.

Realise that attempts to pull the "patient" out in a direction parallel to the water can submerge them and if they are still trapped, drown them. In my case Pete and Louis on the rock with me were able to prevent this.

Paddle a creek boat with lots of attachment points on the deck. My Micro 240 only had bow and stern attachment points and this limited the rescue teams pulling options. My new El Jefe has 5 strong attachment points - 2 on the front deck and 3 on the stern deck with lots of clearance to make clipping easier and faster in a difficult situation.

Wood saws are an essential part of a kayaker's personal rescue kit - without a saw to cut my boat I would not have got out alive. A knife would have not done the job. A reasonable saw only costs around $30 at Mitre 10.

Rope skills are important skills and were vital in my rescue. A lot of what I learnt on Linda's river rescue course (including vector pulls and zip lines) was employed by the team. I know Barry, who was also on that course, was directing a lot of that.

A big team with plenty of appropriate rescue gear makes a big difference. If we were only 4, rather than 11, I may not be here to write this.

My sincere thanks again to everyone in the team for successfully effecting a difficult rescue and saving me. Please be assured that none of my suggested "lessons in hindsight" are intended to be criticisms - you all did a fantastic job - I am very thankfully still here to prove it!

Bonus video: Lower Whataroa - A long day out (WMV, 2.4Mb) c/- Ciccio

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