In which I am berated as an ‘idiot’…

I have been struggling a little with the publicity following my recent little mishap. For the most part, people have been polite and kind-  interested in the details, but perhaps a little switched on by the drama of it all.

Today however, in our local newspaper, a letter has been published that has a rather different tone.

The good thing about having a blog like this is that it gives me a chance to make a kind of response of a more thoughtful and considered nature.

Here is the letter in full, along with my response.


I write with anger as I note that a lone canoeist was rescued from the Clyde last week. Has he been sent the bill for the rescue? It was nobody’s fault but his own that he chose to go canoeing on his own in February weather. Why should the tax payer have to pay for this man’s folly?

Dear ‘name and address withheld’

I am sorry, but also a little puzzled, to have been the cause of your anger.

You are quite correct that I took decisions that ultimately led to an accident, and that any blame to be allocated is mine alone. However, I do not agree that these decisions amount to ‘folly’. This for the following reasons-

  • I am an experienced canoeist, who has been out on these waters many time before
  • I have never previously capsized my canoe, despite paddling in far more challenging conditions
  • The ‘February weather conditions’ you alluded to were in fact flat calm, with hardly a ripple of a wave, and the air temperature could have best been described as ‘mild’
  • I was indeed alone, but had taken the precaution of letting others know were I was going, and when I would return.
  • I stayed reasonably close to shore, and well within my comfort zone
  • I am fit, a reasonably good swimmer, wore a buoyancy aid and warm clothing that allowed free movement in the water. I was close to shore when rescued, having made good progress from the point I entered the water

I should perhaps also point out that I too am a tax payer.

When the search and rescue facilities are privatised, as your report two weeks ago said that they will be in 2011, do you think that people who choose to put themselves in danger will be rescued without receiving a hefty bill?

I hope so. The humanitarian ethos that puts the saving of life before the saving of money is one that many of us (particularly me!) would want to defend. I am very grateful to the people who rescued and looked after me, and humbled by their compassion and care.

You raise the point again of me choosing to place myself in danger. Clearly, canoeing (at any time of the year) has a degree of risk associated with it, even if this is a measured risk. It is also clear that after every accident, there are things we can learn that might help us reduce the risk, or cope better with mishaps as they befall. To this end, I have already uprated the floatation in my canoe, bought a wetsuit, flares and am considering purchasing a portable VHF radio. Whether or not these things would have prevented the accident is debatable.

The issue of risk is a difficult one.  There is risk in many activities- perhaps the most risky thing that I do is to drive around Argyll on our busy country roads. I do this because I have to as part of my job, but many of my colleagues have had serious accidents.

Many leisure pursuits have a measure of risk- cycling, climbing, hill walking, sailing etc. Those of us that do these things have a responsibility to make sensible preparations and precautions, but miss judgements and over confidence are common. At some point, many of us have accidents- most of them thankfully minor. There is a real danger that we start to see accidents as the result only of foolishness on the part of those involved. It makes the rest of us seem invulnerable, which of course, we are not. The blame game that you appear to be playing is likely to make this worse.

Does this mean we should avoid such activity? I and many others do not think so. Risk can also be a positive choice, as the alternative can lead to no life at all.

It is perhaps also worth noting the huge costs to the NHS of physical and mental health problems associated with our sedentary modern lifestyles- and the encouragement to get out into wild places as a way of reducing future health problems.

How many millions are wasted on sending helicopters up hills to collect people who think it appropriate to climb them in training shoes and t shirts?

I do not know. I suspect that you do not either. I do know that a number of people who volunteer for rescue based activities (RNLI, Coastguard, Mountain rescue) love being in the outdoors, and are enthusiastic participants in the sports that you appear to find questionable. Some of them have lost friends to accidents, or been rescued themselves, and want to give something back.

I have spent a lot of time in the mountains, and have met people who were poorly equipped. However, I have also been part of the rescue of a group of soldiers who were cragbound despite being very well prepared. In wild places, stuff happens.

Neither do I think that your analogy is a fair one. I was not wearing a t shirt, nor was I wilfully reckless or inexperienced.

Helicopters can only be in one place at a time and while they are engaged in the rescue of an idiot, they cannot be available to rescue people who are in difficulty through no fault of their own.

I may be an idiot- but given that (I assume) we have never met, I think your assessment of my character is presumptive. Even if you are right, do you think that we ‘idiots’ are better left to drown? My family and friends might disagree.

Are we more deserving of rescue if victims of blind chance rather than personal failure? In a car accident for example, should we first save the victim, or the person whose mistake caused the accident in the first place?  Who decides?

It might be interesting to note that the helicopter that rescued me was a Royal Navy unit, that was already on a search and rescue exercise two miles up the Clyde. In this, I was very fortunate, and am very aware that I was the centre of great expense.

Finally ‘name and address withheld’, I would like to say this. I am not sure what activities help bring meaning to your life, but it may well be that at some point in the future, you too are faced with a situation for which you were not prepared- perhaps even because of a mistake that you make. I hope that this never happens  but it is also possible that you may then require the help of emergency services.

If such a thing should befall you, I hope that you are treated with the compassion and care that you have failed to show to me.

By way of postscript, today I was in a local shop, and a woman took it upon herself to call me an idiot to my face, and to say that she very much agreed with the comments made in the local paper by ‘name and address withheld’.

I was a little stunned, but managed to ask her why she thought that saving my life was a waste of the time of emergency services, and why she thought that I had behaved like an idiot. I was able to explain a little of the circumstances of the accident, and the nature of the weather conditions (which she assumed were the cause of the accident.) She huffed and puffed a little, but conceded that there must be another side to the story. We parted smiling, albeit through clenched teeth.

Such is life in small communities.

I make the local newspaper…

Gulp- my recent little swim made front page of the Dunoon observer.

Here is a photo someone took- I am out of view behind the police launch.

Michaela and I took a trip down to the west bay this morning. We went to see David Torrance, the man who raised the alarm, and said thanks. He seems a really nice guy, and I will be forever in his debt. He was in the right place, at the right time, and did the right things.

We then went round to the Rock Cafe for breakfast, and stood watching the sun sparkling on the sea around the Gantock Rocks. It is a lovely cold sunny day today. I looked a where I entered the water and marvelled at how far I swam.

I do not plan to repeat it.

In which I discover a lot more about the ebb and flow of life…

Well friends. What a day.

It is now 12.40 am- and I am downstairs after a wee snooze, but with a mind too busy to sleep any more. So- I turn to this weblog, my old friend for getting stuff out of my head, and into- who knows where.

Some of you will know that I made the news this afternoon– I am fine now- just very sore and feeling foolish/thankful/tearful and very very loved. I am very aware of all the stick I am going to get over the next few weeks, but I am also carried by the wishes and prayers of friends and family.

What happened?

Well I went for a canoe trip this afternoon. It was calm and not too cold, and I have been hankering to be out on the water for a few days. Today I went on my own, as no-one else was daft enough to come with me. Our 16 foot open canoe is too big really for one person, but I have paddled it for years, and have never been in any major trouble before.

So I paddled along the shore past Dunoon, and out towards the Gantock rocks, just off Dunoon pier. There are usually a few seals there, and I planned a quick look, then either back up the coast, or if the tide was too tough, then in to the shore, and a walk home to return with the car for the canoe.

But off the Gantocks, the tide tipped me over.

How it happened, I am not fully sure- I turned slightly across the flow, and because my canoe was not well balanced (having only me in) it was enough to flip me, and I was in the water, and in trouble.

I was able to function quite well. I tried flipping the canoe, and bailing, but failed. I tried riding th upturned canoe towards the shore, but the tide would have made this impossible. Iconsidered swimming to the Gantocks, but the way the tide was swirling, I am not sure I would have made it. I took the decision to leave the canoe, and swim. I am still not sure this was the right thing to do.

But I set off, swimming to shore. The challenge of this can be understood from looking at this map. The Gantocks are about 400M from the pier and breakwater, but as the tide was sending me down stream, I was then level with the west bay, which put land around a kilometre away.  .

I set out, aware that cold was my enemy, needing to keep going, but getting weaker- very reliant on my buoyancy aid. I occassionaly shouted to try to let people know where I was- but was not sure that anyone had seen me. I think I was in the water between 30 mins and an hour.

I almost made shore. I was perhaps 100-200 M away- still moving, but very tired- when suddenly I was hit by the down wash from a Sea King helicopter.  That was scary. It was like trying to swim in a tornado. I turned and saw the police launch, and assumed that they would drag me in, and I would be shipped to Dunoon cold and shame faced. But the next thing was that I saw a winch man in the water next to me, strapping me into a hoist, and felt myself being lifted up in to the chopper.

They pulled me in- and I could not move. I was hyperventilating, more from the shock of finding myself the centre of so much attention. But I realised too just how tired I was, and how incredibly cold.

They told me, despite my protests, that they were taking me to hospital in Glasgow. I was just desperate to let Michaela know I was OK, but they said that was a job for later.

So I arrived at the big hospital in Glasgow, and found myself shivering uncontrollably. My core temperature had dropped to 32 degrees- which would be classed as mild hypothermia. Considering the length of time I was in the water, in February, this is remarkable.

They stripped me and struggled to find veins to pump in warm saline, and covered me in a perforated plastic sheet through which they pumped warm air. The aim was to raise my temperature by one degree an hour. I shivered like a man suffering shell shock, but it worked.

And eventually I got in touch with Michaela, and when they had flushed enough of the lactic acid out of my system, she came to fetch me, with our friend Maggy, leaving the kids with other friends Andy and Angela.

It is so good to be home.

I now need to sleep. But I have been re-reading my earlier post. It is full of irony I think!

What kept me safe? Sure, I have a good layer of insulation- and I did not panic, but did what needed to be done to get my self out of trouble. And some kind soul saw me, and phoned 999.

Michaela told me that she had a flash back to early this morning, before the kids went to school. As they crowded into the bed to wish me happy birthday, she had a sudden feeling that something bad was going to happen to me. She prayed.

Now I know- this sounds a bit fanciful. Why would God save me, but not the young boy who died falling through a snow cornice in the Cairgorm mountains today? is this just spiritualising after the event?

I do not know, all I know is that I am grateful.

And in the ebbing of tide, I felt for a while the ebbing of life. And I am grateful that now it still flows strong in me.

And wondering- what next Lord? What next? Because I am on his time. I always was.