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Tragedy on the Lower Hokitika

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The news of Rod Banks' death on the Hokitika River on 18 November 2001 spread through the kayaking community like lightning. A lot of people in Canterbury knew Rod through his various outdoor activities. He was 45 and a father of two. He was involved in sea kayaking, multisport, down river racing, and whitewater kayaking. He was well known for his free spirit and boundless energy.

A group of us from the White Water Canoe Club were kayaking the Lower Hokitika that day. Most of us had paddled this section many times before. It was a warm, gray, day with light rain; the water was low and clear. Fourteen of us flew in to just below Kawau Gorge. The tragedy occurred between Kawau Gorge and Kakariki Canyon, just after noon. I still remember the feeling when we pulled Rod from the water. People were upset and distressed - "could I have done anything more," was the question people were asking themselves. Getting the group down the rest of the river was an effort in itself, people lost confidence, paddling strokes were shaky, it took us a while to paddle the section between Kakariki Canyon and the Whitcombe confluence.

This is the first time in our club's history we have had a fatal incident. As a club we have not been in a similar situation. Probably it was the most difficult period in our club's history. This is not the first time something like this happened in New Zealand. A couple of years ago we had two fatal incidents here: an American paddler drowned on the Upper Hokitika and a German paddler drowned on the Nevis River. They were both experienced paddlers paddling very hard pieces of water. This is the first time a White Water Club paddler drowned on a river that we paddle often.

We tried to help the people that were on the trip. We organised group and individual counseling through Victim Support. This helped enormously. We feared the media and its ability to sensationalise. Media hype was the last thing Rod's family needed at that time. We prepared a media release, however the club was not contacted. The Christchurch Press published a brief news item, and an article about Rod. The Coroner and the Maritime Safety Authority launched investigations. Graham Charles was appointed by the MSA as their expert to investigate. We were in constant contact with the NZRCA and Graham during the investigation. The investigation has been finished and there will be a hearing in the Hokitika Coroner's Court in February, when the decision will be made about the future of the investigation.

We are all interested to hear the findings of Graham's investigation and to learn from them. But regardless of that, we all know that kayaking is a risky sport and that we will never completely eliminate risk associated with it. We believe we run safe club trips; we did all we thought possible to minimise risk, we carried a lot of safety gear, we teamed up. Was that enough? What, as a club, can do you do? What can you do to minimise the risk of serious injuries or death? Do you prescribe the rivers you are allowed to paddle on club trips?

Clubs can minimize the risk by raising safety standards, educating kayakers and helping them to raise their personal paddling skills. The more kayakers we get out there that can roll, the safer our trips will be. For many years our club has been offering subsidised safety, rescue and paddling courses to its members. In the last couple of years we had a disappointing response. I hope that this will change.

I have had long conversations with Graham Charles about this, and the future of kayak clubs. Three seasons ago we had a problem with participation in our club trips. We had to cancel a number of trips due to lack of interest. Graham calls it "café" paddling; you find a tight group of friends and you paddle what you like, you do not participate in a club and do not want to waste your time on club trips helping less experienced paddlers. A latte in a bowl and a cappuccino please.

Over the last two seasons the situation in our club improved enormously. We changed our trip list and the rivers we run. It is not unusual to get 15-20 people on a trip. Last December we had 34 paddlers turning up for a trip! And people are excited about the West Coast, about flying in, and doing more paddling. We are probably one of the more active clubs: our trip list is full of trips from class II - IV.

What do you do? Do you stop all this and go back to the old days of "let's paddle the Hurunui and the Waiau 1000 times this season"? Most of us started on the Hurunui or the Waiau (or in my case on the Ni... nevermind, you would never work out how to pronounce it!) We paddled those rivers weekend after weekend, year after year. They were our "home runs". We would go to the Buller or the Matakitaki if we wanted to do something more exciting. Or when we felt wild we would organise a helicopter trip to the middle Taipo, or go run the Rangitata Gorge.

Now we go to the West Coast. We paddle the Kakapotahi and the Hokitika when there is nothing else to paddle. The West Coast rivers are becoming our home runs. Do you leave those trips off the club's calendar and leave them to "private" trips? How then can a kayaker that is moving from grade III to IV be introduced to harder runs?

We kayak because we love the sport, the outdoors, and the water. We all enjoy pushing and scaring ourselves while paddling that new river. We all indulge in the sense of achievement once we finish and "conquer" another river. But how do you do this without another tragedy? I am not quite sure I have the answers at this point in time, but would like to hear what other people think about this.

The Autumn issue of NZ Canoeing will publish the findings of the MSA reports (see Graham's view on the Lower Hokitika), and suggestions for clubs on how to make club trips, and paddling safer. For more information on safety, and how you can claim your subsidy for a River Safety and Rescue course check the website rivers.org.nz.

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