A few months ago now I had a couple of f*ck ups on river and have been trying my ass off to up my paddling game ever since.
The first f**k up came about due to a combination of attempting a river above my capabilities and lack of communication/attention which resulted in my running a rapid I had no business running. No one else in the small group recognised I was in a seriously closed off state during discussion of the line down, having resigned myself to a stupidly long carry. I should have stayed with the group and talked it over with them, but instead I walked back to the boats and prepared to carry the whole section.
Long story short, I ended up following the wrong person down the rapid resulting in a painful swim, panic attack and complete destruction of the small three person group. I was on the bank, one went to chase the boat I had come out of and one was further upstream in an eddy with no idea what had happened to the other two. A long time was spent searching for each other in an overgrown woodland where you could not see the river for all the trees, not knowing which side to search as a short footbridge connected the two banks. Blowing whistles or shouting did nothing over the roar of the river and heavy rain batting against giant leaves. Having went over events afterwards I know the team member left in the eddy had got out the boat, ran to bottom of rapid as they were almost certain we had run it but with no idea where we were, scouring both banks before making their way slowly down river.
Eventually I was reunited with them who had feared the worst and we hugged it out, agreeing to stick together in the search. At one point the third person was right beside us, calling out. We hollered back to let them know we were right here and safe but the acoustics of the woods were against us and we lost them again. After realising we were still split we decided to make our way downstream on foot. Through paths that abruptly ended, dragging a boat (I still had no idea where mine was), scaling fences, falling through bracken and brambles, fighting our way along paths that weren’t there we eventually reached civilisation in pitch dark and pouring rain.
It was a frightening experience and I had a surreal moment on the way home where I thought I might have actually drowned in the river and was now dreaming, to wake up any moment as a ghost. I’m not joking.
The second f**k up made the first one pale into insignificance. If anyone has ever paddled the Leny near Callendar, Scotland will know about the Falls of Leny and that a large majority of paddlers will carry this section for good reason, eddying into the huge eddy at the top of the falls (river right). On this particular day the level was at 1.4, a level which I had never paddled it at before and although I was feeling a bit apprehensive about this, I smiled and kept that to myself. There had also been an update out in the Scottish White water page that there was a tree down near the falls and to take extra care. In the lead up to the ‘Last Gasp Eddy’ I was not feeling in control. I let my apprehensions take hold, was aiming straight for the stopper in the middle of the river, which I should have been no where near. Where I should have been river right, I was middle to left, doing very little to help myself get to where I needed to be.
The next few seconds were a weird mix of vivid fear and dream like haze. I had no recollection of people shouting instructions at me, trying to help me manage the situation I had put myself in, but I do remember trying (far too late) and failing to get into ‘Last Gasp’, pointing upstream, paddling like my life depended on it, dropping down into the top of the falls before the big drop, attempting to get the micro eddy there which was completely washed out and then getting pulled backwards into the unknown. Oh, and the screaming. I remember the screaming.
I slammed into the stopper at the bottom of the falls having capsized as soon as the back of my boat touched the water. As soon as I was upside down I was able to think again. Blind panic was replaced with a calm I don’t think my friends on the bank would have believed, after my terrified screams disappeared down the falls. I set up for a roll but to my dismay the paddle was violently wrenched from my hands as soon as I moved it upwards. I had no other option but to pop my deck and abandon boat, which I did without further hesitation. Now out of my boat, eyes open I grasped upwards with my arms, expecting to break through and decide what to do next, however, this is not how it went down.
(c) William Nealy
I kicked my legs and pulled with my arms (you know…swimming!) but nothing happened. I tried again, still nothing and I had a moment to realise I was suspended in the water not able to get to the surface. I remained composed, searching for something that would help me out of this situation. My mind landed on a book I had at home “Kayak: A Manual of Technique” by William Nealy, which I had bought in humour but ended up finding really useful. It’s essentially a comic strip book, showing you in cartoon form how to kayak. One image sprang to mind of a kayaker out of boat but trapped in a hole, unable to reach the surface (ring any bells?!?). The image depicted the character tucking up their legs, clutching their knees and making themselves as ball like as possible, which is exactly what I did. I popped up in about 2-3 seconds, still keeping myself as small as possible and was held in stasis getting tugged in every which direction, trying to look at where to aim for next. I was adamant I would not be dragged down the gorge, a bit of a bold statement at this stage but I had heard many a tale of terror from broken jaws to shattered limbs and besides, I was also a bit terrified of drowning.
Clinging to the rocks
As I was in a gorge my options were limited but I looked towards the rock face on the right of the river bank and decided that was my best bet. I tried to make small movements so as to not get snagged by the current, inching towards the side, but it wasn’t going to work. That is when I spied a flash of red and noticed my boat, somehow upright, recirculating round a moving eddy. I lunged for the grab handle, careful not to yank it out and let the momentum of the boat in the eddy pull me close and as soon as I was near enough I let go of the boat and pounced for the rock, attaching myself to it, keeping my legs tucked as the under current was trying to wrench me away.
I was so grateful for that hand!
Then I started to shout for help. As no one expected me to be where I was the group were hurrying towards the pool towards the bottom of the gorge, but I was heard and help came. The other half of Team King was first to reach me and was able to offer a hand to ensure I was more secure on the rock and work began on getting me out. I was shaking but thankfully I was responsive and able to help where I could, carabineer to the BA, pulled up and safely hauled onto the rock ledge.
Back on dry land…thank f**k!
This was one of the worst moments of my life. Not just because of the physical act of what had just happened, but the realisation of what this would do to the dynamics of our little paddling group. We had 3 adults and 2 under 16s who are far better paddlers than any of the adults, however, that is not the point. Although a complete accident I had been irresponsible and exposed the group to something far worse happening.
After checking me over, we managed to haul my boat out of the water, my paddle long gone. One other team member had lost a boat at the top of the falls and this was out of sight. I started to make my way back to the get in, dragging my boat along the forest dirt (mud on this occasion) track while the others headed down stream to look for lost boats and paddles. Then I cried, while walking for most of the way, sweating in my wetsuit, disbelief at what just happened.
The next day I went out on a different river in my play boat and paddled like a boss. Don’t think for one second I blanked out the experience or decided to ignore it because that’s not going to happen but I had a decision to make. Either I could continue to paddle like I had been, hiding my apprehension to the point of stupidity, working on the basis if it shows on the outside then eventually it’ll show on the inside (bullsh*t!!) or I could start paddling my own game, making decisions for myself, learning to recognise when I’m experiencing a little bit of self doubt and distinguish these from feelings of full on scared and getting the ‘No’ feeling!
The subsequent reactions when our wider paddling group learned of the episode were mixed. I don’t wish to go into details as I don’t see the benefit, but would suggest you take any reproaches on the chin and move on. What I will say though is you shouldn’t hold back in talking about it with others. I’m notoriously harsh on myself when it comes to f**king up so to hear from others who have had very similar or worse experiences, did help in restoring my confidence and I wholeheartedly thank you.
I have a huge duty of care not only to myself but to those who I paddle with too. As the whole awful experience was caught on two GoPro’s I got to see the situation through the eyes of the team. The speed at which my friends rallied to my aid set me off all over again, ripping themselves out of their boats, sprinting up the banking, listening, reacting and caring completely about my safety. I want to be a better paddler so that I never need to put anyone in that position again just because I’m having ‘an off-day’. There can be no more ‘off-days’, just making it down rapids, near misses or bad swims. There can only be dedicated paddling, strong decisions, bossing down rivers and being the very best paddler I can be.