Graham's view on the Lower Hokitika

This summary of findings from the investigation into the death of Rod Banks on the Lower Hokitika is by Graham Charles, who was appointed as Technical Expert by the Maritime Safety Authority. It appeared in NZ Canoeing 02.2, Autumn 2002. See also Tragedy on the Lower Hokitika by Vladimir Filipovic.


The following is a brief summary of findings from the investigation into the death of Rod Banks on the Hokitika River on 18 November 2001. Some of the observations have little to do with the final outcome of the incident but are the collected facts.

Rod Banks drowned on the Hokitika River when he was caught in an unknown manner in a pour-over hydraulic feature. Conjecture points to some form of foot or leg entrapment on/in a rock or tree feature under the surface in the back wash of the hydraulic.

Rod's lifejacket was removed by the force of water early in the submersion. This is not uncommon. The rest of his clothing had been pulled high up his torso which suggests at some stage he was caught in a head downstream position. This was his observed position prior to him being submerged when rescue was being attempted by the party.

General kayaking practice and expert opinion, respectfully, support a poor choice of kayak for this particular run and this paddler. Paddling this kind of water in this particular boat seemed at the upper limit of Rod's experience and skills at that point. He had never been on this section of water and it was his first trip to the West Coast. A team member had thought about mentioning something about the boat before the trip but didn't feel in a position to do so (people often feel reserved about this because it is a subjective decision on behalf of one person questioning the skills of another kayaker. There are obvious character and ego implications involved with making these requests).

Club trips rely on voluntary involvement and in general don't have clear lines of responsibility and accountability. This makes it difficult for one person to make a directive decision on behalf of someone else regarding either boat choice or decisions to paddle or not to paddle certain sections of water. No one in the rescue party had completed a recent River Rescue or Safety Course. They had adequate equipment. The sheer number of people on the river augmented the problem of not knowing where all the members of the party were at any point in time and who was looking after each person.


Club trips should have a manageable ratio of leaders/experienced people to trip members. This will take into account the type of water and the skill level of the participants; guidelines suggest 1:4 but this is not an absolute policy. If a party splits into several groups then new leaders should be appointed or the split team needs to understand they are no longer part of the 'club' trip.

Kayakers need to be totally competent in the kayak of their choice when paddling rivers or rapids above class III+, and trip leaders are encouraged to ask about and/or check competency. Members of a party should be encouraged to voice any concerns about another kayaker's ability or choice of boat to the leader.

People accepting positions of responsibility should ensure they have appropriate equipment and training. This should include the choice of kayak to effect rescue in any reasonable situation the given environment may provide.

In steeper pool/drop rivers getting the swimmer out of the water as quickly as possible is absolutely paramount. Equipment should always be jettisoned if there is any possibility of going over a steep fall/drop.

All clubs are encouraged to complete river safety or rescue courses and upgrade within 2/3 years. The leaders at least should be part of this system. People need to regularly use the skills and decision making required to make efficient and correct judgements in a crisis situation. As the level of real risk increases (over class III+) this becomes crucial.

All clubs should be aware of the changing nature of measuring amateur and club practice against professional practise and responsibility. While this is not happening in New Zealand currently, recent overseas experience points towards a movement in that direction.