The State’s Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) has been unable to identify the precise circumstances which led to the death of an experienced canoeist on the river Suir in Cahir, Co Tipperary in November, 2017 writes Lorna Siggins.
However, next of kin and a witness to the incident have taken issue with several key aspects of the MCIB report, published on Wednesday.
The canoeist, who was a medal-winning slalom competitor, drowned after he capsized below a weir close to Cahir Castle while leading a group of paddlers.
The 185km-long river Suir rises just north of Templemore, Co Tipperary passes through Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick on Suir, Co Waterford.
After he capsized, the canoeist was initially seen not to be in any difficulty but disappeared out of sight around a bend.
The MCIB report concludes that was unable to rescue himself and floated over 4 km downriver before he was recovered by emergency services.
The canoeist had been equipped with a buoyancy aid during the expedition, but was not wearing it when recovered from the water, and did not respond to first aid.
The incident occurred after a group of 12 kayakers, varying in age from nine years to 67 years and of different skill qualifications, left the town mall slip in Cahir at about 10.30 am on November 11th, 2017.
“Some of the group had their own kayaks and safety equipment and others had kayaks and safety equipment provided by the adventure organisation set up by the casualty and a partner,” the report states.
The group split in two, and one group of four planned to navigate a weir on the western side of the Suir’s main channel, and then join the others.
“As the group of four approached the weir the casualty, the most experienced member of the group, gave verbal instructions as to how best to navigate the weir. He stated he would go first and be followed by the two teenagers and the man following last,” the report states.
The canoeist, described by the MCIB as a level 2 trainee kayak instructor, capsized and surfaced on the right-hand side of the river.
“ He was seen standing facing against the wall on the western downriver side of the weir and making his way downstream,” the report states.
“ He did not appear to be in any difficulty. He did not acknowledge or communicate in any way with the three remaining kayakers. He quickly went out of sight of remaining kayakers due to a bend in the tributary,”it states.
“The person was unable to rescue himself and get to safety and floated approximately 4.18 km down the River Suir where rescue services recovered him from the water. He did not respond to first aid,” it says.
The canoeist had been wearing his buoyancy aid prior to shooting the weir, and the MCIB concludes it was either “removed by the casualty or lost between the time of the incident and the time of the recovery”.
It notes that the buoyancy aids “ may be suitable in instances where the wearers remain capable of helping themselves” but “ should not be used in rough conditions or when there is wave splash”.
The report does note that this is “the standard buoyancy aid used for kayaking in Ireland”.
The canoeist was spotted at 11.30am by a passerby, and the Irish Coast Guard Waterford-based helicopter was tasked at 11.33am and Garda at Cahir was informed.
However, due to poor visibility, the helicopter had to request permission to stand down at 12.31
A local fire brigade unit tried to reach the casualty without success, and he was recovered at 12.38 from a location near Garnavilla House with the help of Suir River Rescue.
Next of kin of the canoeist, along with a witness, have taken issue with several aspects of the MCIB report, as outlined in correspondence published with the document.
The report states that there was “no documented record of a risk analysis of the potential dangers prior to setting out on the course over the weir” as per the code of practice for the safe operation of recreational craft.
The MCIB report also concludes that the canoeist’s adventure organisation was not affiliated to Canoeing Ireland – which, it acknowledges, is not a legal requirement.
Canoeing Ireland oversees training and qualification standards for the sport. Canoeing Clubs are affiliated to and regulated by the Irish Canoe Union.
“This is misleading as the members of the organisation were members of Canoe Ireland and were trained through Canoeing Ireland,” next of kin correspondence, which is included in the report’s appendices, states.
“ The members of the adventure club abided by the rules of Canoeing Ireland, so it is misleading and hinting that the association was less than official. They had applied for membership and were waiting for reply,” the correspondence says.
A witness also attests to the canoeist’s experience and to his membership of Canoeing Ireland and notes that the canoeist and other members of the club ran the sluice weir regularly and were very familiar with it in a variety of conditions.
In relation to a documented risk analysis, the next of kin correspondence also states that “the course had been studied for hidden dangers, snags, currents, etc before the boat was put on the water” and there was “also a plan of action on who would go in which order and how to go down”.
“ I do wonder where it says this risk analysis needs to be documented in writing and how many different passages and waterways are risk assessed in this way if it actually is required,”the next of kin correspondence says.
“This passage and river were well travelled by this group and this group was quite experienced. The risks had been assessed previously,”it says, and observes the MCIB seems to be “picking on a documentation issue”.
The next of kin correspondence says that the report “draws a strange and problematic conclusion”.
“I honestly cannot identify anything from this report that is useful or sheds some light on the situation or what would have helped avoid the situation,” the correspondence states.
The MCIB report, which did include amendments, “notes” the points raised in the correspondence.
It recommends that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport issue a marine notice reminding kayakers, kayaking and canoeing organisations of obligations to comply with the code of practice for safe operation recreational craft and the relevant chapter dealing with canoeing/kayaking.
The full report can be downloaded here