Are we good enough to paddle safely on Thames?

I have spent the last two years paddling regularly onThames as a member of THCC.  I realised there are several myths widely shared between sea kayakers.

  • Paddling onThames is safe.
  • Nothing can happen to me while on river; I will not capsize/swim.
  • If I will be in trouble (swimming) other members of my group will safely deal with it.
  • If a member of our party gets in to trouble (swimming) other members of our group will deal with it.

The small exercise we undertook last Tuesday night,  a swimmer and rescue, left me unimpressed and thinking.

It’s Autumn and  we paddle mostly in the dark and will for the next six months at least.  Tides are quite strong in the autumn, therefore 4knots flow or stronger won’t  be unusual.

I don’t know how many of us regularly practise rescue but my impression is, that nobody really expects to perform a real one on the river.  I know chances are small but, as we could see last Tuesday, when it happens, everybody is caught by surprise (especially if swimmer is somebody who should roll without any problem). As a result everything then takes much longer than it should.

Does anybody remember how long it took them to do a rescue last time they done it? Two minutes or five  minutes? Was it in the safe environment of the basin or was it on moving water, in the light or  in the dark?

We all know  that at least half of the people going regularly on the river does not have a reliable, including some 4* trainees. Most of us can roll safely when ready to do so but not when capsizing unexpectedly. In that case  it is just a matter of time when there will be a swimmer in the busiest part of the river.

Here is a scenario of possible event. A group is trying to go against strong flow underneath of Blackfriars. It is quite choppy caused by wind against tide and a clipper has just pasted by a minute ago. This is a pretty normal situation and it wouldn’t be surprising if one of the kayaker capsizes.

Now, try to imagine it is you. It is dark, flow is strong, water choppy, confused and cold. Are you happy to roll? Would you even try to roll? Or would you just go straight out of your boat without trying?

I know; nobody wants to think this can happen to him/her and if they would roll. So let’s say it is me, and now I am swimming next to my kayak. Flow is just over 4 knots and it takes 10sec till somebody/you realises what is going on.  It takes another 20s to approach me. It took only half a minute but we are already swept 60m by the flow before we even have a chance to start with the rescue. As I manage to position myself on the bow of your kayak I can see Millennium Bridge passing above our heads while my boat is being emptied.  Suddenly we can hear others shouting and I can see how you are letting my kayak go while trying to grab a paddle. I quickly try to turn around and last thing I can is a big buoy only meter away. I raise my right arm to protect my head and…

If we are lucky, you will be able to tell me the rest of the story the next day during a  hospital visit.

And if we are not lucky you may try to explain to my wife what happened and why I couldn’t see that bloody buoy earlier.

Nice little story, isn’t it. Fortunately it hasn’t happen yet. The point is, the swimmer or the rescue party can be easily carried by a flow half a mile within 5 minutes. Do we have safe half a mile to swim close to Blackfriars? Actually does Thames offer half a mile of safe swim anywhere? I don’t think so.

So unless you are happy to helplessly watch how somebody is being swept under a barge we have to make our rescues more efficient. It is possible to have a swimmer back in the kayak in forty seconds.  One minute should be pretty much a standard for everyone. Also a towline, if used correctly, is very helpful to reduce the risk of being swept under something.

I am not the one who should be telling people what to do or not to do. But I find it  quite irresponsible (or naïve) from anyone to go paddle on Thames and believing one or more myths stated above.


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