On any Sunday

Matt Daly died on a kayaking trip on the Roaring Meg section of the Kawarau river on Waitangi weekend, 1998. This account was written by Sue Olaman and Carl Waddick, with help from Matt's family, in an effort to make sense of the tragedy, and so other paddlers can understand this can happen even to one of the best. This article originally appeared in NZ Canoeing 99.1 (Autumn 1999).

I remember the Sunday on Waitangi weekend, 1998, well. I was on the way to camp at Dogleg for the night when some friends asked me to join them on "The Meg." Doing the shuttle we passed near "Man-eater" and noticed the traffic slowing more than normal even for a holiday weekend. My first thought was a traffic accident, and sure enough there was an ambulance and people directing traffic. Then we spotted a car with a kayak on top. "Oh no, it's not a paddler?" The car I had seen was Matt Daly's, with his boat on top and it looked like Matt beside the car. The person appeared beside our vehicle and told me to get out "right now!" It wasn't Matt. I got out. He said, "Matt's dead."

What followed was, I suppose, the normal course of events, but the sequence of events is shocking and distressing when you are involved, the transporting of Matt's body to the morgue, dialogue with the police, the taking of statements, informing the family... except this time it was one of my best mates. Matthew Daly was only 25 years old.

For Matt to die, paddling at Roaring Meg, was a severe shock to those who knew the man and the water. However, before we can describe some of the events which happened that day, it's necessary to understand the nature of "The Meg" section of the Kawarau river in Central Otago when it's flowing at about 300 cumecs. John Snook has provided a detailed description of this section of river which is printed at the end of this article [Not online].

Matt's Sunday started out as any other Dogleg paddling weekend. In the afternoon, he entered the water at the usual put-in spot below the "Natural Bridge" with five fellow kayakers. Initially the group was relatively close together with the most downstream paddler in a large eddy on river right, approximately 10-15 metres below the put-in. Matt paddled upstream and into the 'Birdsnest eddy'. He paddled a little further upstream to a micro-eddy on river right, just below the dynamited Natural Bridge rock jumble. Matt was quite close to a side wall of the river and pushed himself away. Shortly after this he went over very quickly. Three paddlers saw him go over and realised immediately that he was not in his boat. Matt had not attempted to roll.

From this point the biggest problem was that although the rescuers could see much of the river, they could not find Matt. One paddler got out of his boat to climb over the rocks and confirm that Matt was not in the upstream eddies. Matt re-emerged 1-2 minutes after going over with just a glimpse of buoyancy aid visible and downstream from several of the paddlers who were still in the eddy at the put in. Some did not realise that Matt had floated by. The two paddlers who had already moved downstream yelled to each other, recovered Matt from the water and formed a raft with their two boats, a Perception 'Pirouette S' and a Quality Kayaks 'Bandit'.

One paddler, a doctor, removed his own helmet and face guard to administer artificial respiration under trying conditions. Matt had taken one or two breaths on his own just before the raft was torn apart by the water. The doctor lost his paddle and swam, but self-rescued above the power station. The paddler in the Bandit could not hold Matt. Seeing the swimmer was in control, he chased after Matt. The doctor ran up the road and asked a motorist to alert emergency services.

Two of the group had already got out to run along the bank to try and locate Matt. He was recovered approximately 700 metres below the Roaring Meg power station, having gone through two more rapids. The paddler in the Bandit attached his towline to the shoulder-loop of Matt's buoyancy aid and managed to struggle through the helical currents to the left bank of the river (nearest the road). CPR was re-applied , kayakers tag-teaming with motorists until the arrival of a medical team approximately one hour after Matt first got into difficulty.

It was too late.

Matt began paddling in Invercargill when he was 13 years old and joined the Southland Canoe Club when he was a gangly 15-year-old tearing around the pool trying to emulate the feats of his older brother and sister. He was a very energetic, enthusiastic, friendly youth, full of encouragement and always eager to "GO PADDLING" whether it was surfing at Oreti Beach and Porridge, "The Waiau," canoe polo, or organising and running slaloms on the Mararoa river.

Matt was at the beck and call of Boy's Brigade, school groups and anyone else who showed an interest in the sport. A highlight were the "Dog" weekends, where we would camp near Rum Currie's hut and paddler "Dogleg and the Meg," sometimes venture to the Shotover, and occasionally watch Christchurch gurus paddle Citroen and Sargoods Weir, hoping one day to reach such heights. Paddlers came and went with jobs, family, school, and other sports but Matt was always there.

During all this time Matt matured into the person most paddlers recognise. His physical prowess was envied and his opinion respected. Matt was capable, confident, aware of others, and helpful, picking out lines, showing less able paddlers how to make a certain move, and encouraging them to try. His passion for paddling was always evident. He was keen to get on the river, would "yippee" with delight at big water, grin from ear-to-ear after rolling up from 'hole-playing and yee-har' as he caught and surfed the waves.

He had a set of paddling values. He believed in the purpose of a canoe club. He believed in fostering developing paddlers, and carted them around in his trusty Subaru. He believed in putting back into the sport what he had learned. He learned to give and expect nothing in return. He must have been owed a distillery of Drambuie for the number of people he rescued. Matt was not always right; he made his share of mistakes as we all do. Tales of his thrashing in holes are legend in the Southland Canoe Club. He was the same mix of safe caution and convincing bravado as any individual in our sport. He believed the best safety was to be the best paddler, and what he didn't know he sough to learn.

Matt's funeral service was attended by family and friends, work colleagues, school mates, playmates from mountain-biking and tramping groups. Kayakers formed a guard of honour. There are so many good memories of Matt. Everyone spoke of the times they had shared with Matt and his paddling deeds that some people will not fulfil in a lifetime. He loved discovering new places, mountain-biking, climbing and tramping, as well as bacon and eggs, James Bond movies and good whisky! We all miss him. His open-hearted and caring spirit, energy, cheeky smile, and love of life and adventures will stay with us forever.

We are sure Matt would want us to learn from this tragedy. The spot where Matt was held down or trapped was the same spot another paddler had experienced difficulties and had [swum] the day before. The swimmer endured the usual amount of good-hearted banter at the Dogleg campsite that Saturday night. Did Matt go to see what had caused the problem? Maybe to prove he could handle the water, prove he could out-paddle his mate? Perhaps Matt was not as respectful of the water conditions as a person of less experience may have been, or perhaps he was casual because he had done it so many times before.

Matt was not paddling his own SuperSport - he had borrowed a friend's RPM. Although not his own boat, he had said that the padding was just about a perfect fit. Both boats are typical of the sharp-edged, tail-happy boats out there on the rivers; rewarding to paddle, but with less margin for error in difficult situations.

Not all the paddlers on the river that day had full safety equipment. Whistles were not used. Matt's buoyancy aid was a 'Danico' make. Matt had checked it at the start of summer for flotation and had been surprised to find it floating 8kg's of dive-belt. The aid was approximately five years old. By definition, a buoyancy aid is assistance for a conscious person. It is questionable whether any buoyancy aid would have been much use under such turbulent water conditions, with an unconscious body. At this particular spot on the river, whole boats and paddlers have been known to disappear from sight and reappear metres downstream.

The Maritime Safety investigator note that Matt was well-equipped, safety-conscious and had a vast experience of this section of river at similar, lower and higher flows in a variety of kayaks. A further key note was that Matt had unzipped his lifejacket and undone one of the buckles, suggesting he was perhaps pinned or snagged below the water. However, there was no direct evidence of this. The coroner also noted that Matt might have received a knock to his head. The final recommendation of the Maritime Safety investigator was to Send the report to the most appropriate representative of kayak groups with a warning that even kayakers who are experienced and well-equipped may still not escape the constant threat which the sport poses. (Refer incident 19980208).

Tragically, Matt was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We all push the limits - maybe he just pushed it one too many times. If so, he would be the first to admit it. If anything [is] to come from all of this, it should be to make us all think. The fact a good paddler has already swum out of the same spot the day before should be reason enough not to push your luck. We should all never forget basic common sense.

We also think there are further points, which we should be reminded of:

  • The boats we choose need to match the rivers we paddle. Those edges that catch so well to produce whoopies, rock-splats and cartwheels make rolling difficult and controlling the boat hard in boils and holes. When we run rivers in rodeo boats we must realise we may need to perform rescues or be rescued with these boats. Try a stern-deck rescue of a swimmer using a rodeo-boat.
  • When was the last time you attended a First Aid, CPR and/or River Rescue course? When did you last practice the skills you learnt at these courses? Robin Rutter-Baumann also noted that the NZRCA have not run any advanced river rescue courses for the past two years, due to lack of demand. Why has there been no interest?
  • Matt's accident happened beside a busy highway. Imagine if it had been a West Coast wilderness trip. Rescue services are a long way away.
  • There are questions we need to ask ourselves. What sort of paddlers are we? Who do we paddle with? Better kayakers tend to paddle in smaller groups. This means less chance of receiving assistance if you get into difficulty. If you are the best paddler in the group, who is looking out for you? The times when you're the only safe-bet in your paddling group are the times when you may be on your own. What equipment do you carry, what shape is it in, and do you know how to use it? Have you attended a River Rescue, CPR and/or First Aid course recently?

Special thanks to John Snook, Mick Hopkinson, Robin Rutter-Baumann and Matt's family.

To honour Matt's dedication to the Southland Canoe Club, the club is planning to erect a plaque near the Meg put-in. In addition, the 'Matt Daly Cup' will be awarded annually to recognise fair play in polo, an attribute promoted and demonstrated by Matt.