(first published in 'Playboating' Magazine)
Seven of us in a gorge on a difficult and exotic river. Clear water, big boulders, steep. We are experienced, skilled, sharp, focused. Loving it.
We stop above a horizon-line. Inspection reveals two routes, separated by a midstream rock. River left plunges off a three metre waterfall into a walled-in stopper, which can't be protected. Nearer to us on river right, a powerful current piles against a rock and forms a sticky stopper. I make my choice quickly; the river right channel. My creek boat powers through cleanly and I break out on the river left bank, twenty metres downstream. I look back and see Andy appear on the lip of the river left waterfall; he has opted for the necky line. But he's in the wrong place, above the worst towback. He grinds to a halt on the shallow lip, and can't boof. He slides off completely vertically. He vanishes.
I wait a few seconds, expecting to see him backloop up and get a working. Nothing happens. Seconds more. I am out of my boat onto a rock. I now assume that Andy will pop up swimming, and begin unbuckling my waist throwline. Nothing happens. Nothing appears. Our mate is drowning.
Simon appears on a rock on the opposite bank, nearer to the spot where Andy vanished. By frantic pointing and shouting, I indicate that Andy is underwater. Due to the river right channel and central rock, Simon can't see or get close to the spot. Only I have line of sight, and there is no way I can paddle up to it. I throw my rope, but its hopelessly out of range.
I attempt climbing along the cliffed opposite bank to the waterfall, but its not possible. Simon starts throwing his line over the centre rock; despite not being able to see where he is aiming, he lands it right on the mark first and every time. Nothing happens.
I stare harder at the point where Andy vanished, and I think I understand what has happened. There is a particularly violent boil just below the fall at this point, presumably formed by a large shallow rock. Andy will be under that rock. Time is running out. He's a strong bloke, if anyone can fight his way out it's him. But nothing happens.
By now, Simon has gathered everyone on the rock opposite. Every few seconds, throwlines are rhythmically landing on the spot where Andy vanished and are being drawn back in again. I'm the only person in a position to see the whole scene, but I'm unable to participate. I have never felt so useless in my long useless life.
I can tell that the rescue team are flagging slightly; presumably each one is privately pondering the futility of continuing what they are doing. My eyes meet Simon's across the river. We both shake our heads imperceptibly; we have paddled together long enough to understand one another instantly.
Staring at the fall, I spot something new moving behind it; it is Andy's kayak, getting dragged into the fall from behind and bobbing on end. I deduce that it has freed from whatever siphon it was trapped in, and that Andy's body may still be in it. I point and shout what I can see. The answer comes back, "Can you see Andy?"; I shake my head. However, the rescue team seem revitalised, throwing their lines with renewed vigour to where I am pointing, right into the fall this time.
Its taken me a lifetime to think of it, but I am now tying my spare throwline to the original line. I fumble the knot and can't focus; filling my mind, blotting out all rational thought, is the fact that I've just watched a mate drown.
One of the lines snags on something and goes taut. They all haul, and as if by magic, Andy's boat slowly emerges. As it swings out downstream, it begins to roll upright. I am moving towards my boat, ready to paddle out and retrieve its contents. I am trying desperately to recall the CPR sequence; was it three or four breathes first? But the cockpit is empty. I literally see everyones shoulders slump.
I am climbing into my boat. I shout my intentions across to the others; I'm going to search for about a mile downstream for the body. But they shout back for me to hold on, to wait. They are newly animated and throwing lines more frenetically than ever. They know something.
Another rope goes taut. They haul, and a very familiar red helmet pops up on the end of it. Andy is alive, clinging to the rope and swimming vigorously. My eyes cannot believe what I am seeing. As he swings into the view of the others, they cheer loudly. As soon as he is safely at the bank, I turn away and burst into uncharacteristic tears. When finally I get a grip on myself, I can see I am not alone; others have their heads in their hands, shoulders racked. Our mate is alive.
The only person not particularly fazed was Andy himself. Unlike the rest of us, he never for a moment believed he had died! He misjudged his lead-in to the waterfall and was pushed offline. He buried deep into the drop, but instead of pinning under rocks as we assumed, he popped up alongside his boat in a tiny cave hidden behind the fall. For a while he was thrashed around in this room of doom. Eventually he spotted a log jammed in the airspace above his head, and recalled that he had a sling and krab in his BA pocket. Clipping himself to the log, he was stabilised and (apparently) quite comfortable. He tried to push his paddles through the fall to attract attention, but couldn't reach. Instead, he pushed his boat into the fall repeatedly (which I saw) and in due course, ropes began to land within reach. After a few close misses he managed to grab one and clipped it onto his boat; he wanted to watch his boat and check that the route out was safe first. When the others hauled out the boat, they - realising that dead men don't use krabs - knew Andy was alive.
In all honesty? We have no idea what the lessons to be learned from this incident are. Draw your own. We simply pray that in your entire boating lives, you never ever have to experience an eight minutes as unpleasant as this. But if you do, we pray that it ends as ours did. Thats all.
"I never thought I'd say it Andy, but I'm actually quite glad to see you".