The dark side.

The dark side of adventure training and the outdoors industry : the Lyme bay and lake Timiskaming tragedies.

I have lived most of my life doing things aside from work that might be considered as adventurous outdoor sports, from solo rock-climbing and mountaineering to canoeing , sea kayaking and long distance ocean racing and lived to tell the tale. Yet even i have to admit that such ‘adventure’ has its dark side even though thousands of other people do or have done the same things through school or club activities.  Mostly outdoor activities are seen and remembered as positive experiences and up until recently at least the greatest risk involved was travelling in the group minibus.    I have been either very lucky or just fortunate to have had generally good experiences of outdoors activities training in the UK but i also realise that sometimes things just do go wrong.   Generally speaking the outdoors industry , outdoors activity centres and the like have a very low level of  accidents and incidents.   In this post i am not so much going to explore what happens when things go wrong but when things are designed in such a way as to make disaster a strong possibility..

This post belongs in the series that i am writing about risk and some familiar themes will appear again, notably accidents in cold water such  as in the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise and the sailing accidents i have already covered.  In these 2 incidents though some new themes emerge beyond ‘simple’ human error and incompetence although incompetence did play the major part in the Lyme bay tragedy.    Not everyone will be familiar with both incidents either so at the beginning i will give a brief account of each one.

  1. Timiskaming . The lake and the tragedy.

The incident is named for the lake on which it occurred IE  lake Timiskaming which is a large freshwater lake on the Ontario/Quebec border and is part of the Ottawa river. The lake is some 68 miles long and in places around 700 feet deep. It is formed from a rift valley.  In the native language the name ‘Temikaming’ simply means ‘deep waters’. It is said to be notorious for bad weather notably strong wind that cause very high wave action.

“On the morning of June 12, 1978, 27 boys and 4 leaders from St. John’s School in Ontario, set out on a canoeing expedition from the wharf at Timiskaming, Quebec, headed for James Bay along an old voyageurs’ route.    By evening the same day, all four canoes were overturned and floating aimlessly in the wind — 12 boys and one leader were dead. The rest huddled over a weak fire at the base of a cliff, waiting for the light of morning, and rescue.

The coroners report :

What happened?
On the morning of Sunday, June 11, 1978, 27 boys aged 11-13 and four leaders set out from the public wharf at Timiskaming, Quebec and headed North for James Bay. This trip was part of three weeks of privation and hard work intended to transform the ‘boys into men’. The students/leaders were using 22 foot ‘selkirk’ model canoes made by Chestnut Canoe Company. Each canoe on the day had 6/7 people in it, with one adult at the stern of each craft. The day started with a light tailwind, but by dark all canoes were swamped and adrift in wind. 12 boys and 1 leader died from drowning/hypothermia related circumstances. Eighteen survivors were rescued from the west side of the lake, which straddles the Ontario-Quebec border. The temperature of the lake at the time was about 6 degrees.

Coroners Report Findings
– No route maps, nor had the teachers made this trip before
– One teacher had no canoeing experience
– Group had no rescue equipment and no emergency contingency plans
– Some students could not swim
– Teachers were unaware of which boys could swim and those that could not
– One teacher also could not swim
– No one had done any canoeing since the previous autumn
What went wrong?
– Cold Water
– Inexperienced Leaders
– Inexperienced Crew
– Improper Boats
– Overcrowded Crafts
– Poor Planning and Knowledge of Area
– The group apparently was unaware of a severe storm advisory that had been issued for the area only hours earlier
– Winds estimated by weather officials to have gusted between 60 and 100 kilometres per hour at the time

2. St Johns school.

The tragedy involved a group from St Johns school, according to author and canoeist James Raffan :

“St. John’s was an Anglican prep school for boys designed as a rugged antidote to the perceived sloth and permissiveness of the Ontario public school system of the 1970s. The founders and staff fervently believed that adversity and hardship built character, that corporal punishment taught respect for authority, and that it was “better to die in the woods than in front of a television.”

“Through extensive research of the school’s annual reports and interviews with survivors and parents of the boys who died, Raffan demonstrates that the staff were unable to differentiate between well-designed challenges and impossible goals that routinely ran along the knife-edge of disaster. When the full extent of the horror was made known to the parents of the boys and to the world – the tragedy made international headlines – the parents rallied around the school to protect it from the media. After all, the parents had deliberately taken their children out of the public system and enrolled them in St. John’s: blaming the school would have called their own judgment into question.”



Lyme bay and the 1993 kayaking tragedy.


I expect that more of my readers at least in the UK will have some knowledge and/or experience of crossing Lyme bay on the south coast usually as part of an east-west channel voyage.   The usual problem for sailors of small keel yachts is how to deal with the bill of Portland and its infamous race and then at least for small and slow boats the long haul often to windward across Lyme bay itself.  Right now i am based in the last point of real shelter at the western edge of Lyme bay and my next coastal passage will be to cross the bay and get around the Bill into Weymouth.

Today it is surprisingly difficult (at least online) to gain a true picture of even what happened on the day when 2 inexperienced instructors, 1 teacher and a group of students from a Plymouth college got into difficulty and then disaster on what should have been a ‘simple’ and short trip in kayaks from an outdoor centre at Lyme Regis to Charmouth .

The wiki page is remarkably thin on detail for example :

The following are taken from an article in the Independent (newspaper)

AT FIRST the trip from Lyme Regis to Charmouth seemed perfectly safe to the young canoeists. Then, as they drifted away from land, it became utterly terrifying and finally it was like a nightmare.

At Lyme Regis, the resort which calls itself the Pearl of Dorset, the journey by water to Charmouth two miles down the coast looks easy.

From the sandy harbour, where the two instructors, the teacher and eight pupils launched their canoes shortly after 10am on Monday, the inshore route past the baroque cottages, beach cottages and wooded hills of Lyme’s waterfront, skirts an outcrop of rock called Broad Ledge and passes along the Spittles to the village of Charmouth – a return journey of no more than two hours on a fine day.

Robert Daly and his wife, Marian, on holiday from north London, watched the cheerful party lift its boats into the water. ‘It was a day like this, a beautiful day,’ Mr Daly said.

They all had wet suits, and life- jackets and helmets and we said ‘Look at those kids. They’re going to have such a nice day’ . . . At least they were properly equipped.’

According to Graham Turner, Lyme’s lifeboat helmsman, what drove the children out to sea when they reached Charmouth was the offshore wind whipping through Charmouth Gap, the break in the cliffs where the river Char empties into the sea. At this point small craft lose the protection of the high cliffs.

Mr Turner, 43, an electronics engineer with 24 years’ service with Lyme’s inshore lifeboat, said it is a notorious spot for rescuing wind surfers during the summer.

Pushed steadily away from land and the protective shoulders of Golden Cap, a beauty spot up the coast, the flotilla was driven against the incoming tide, the paddlers’ bodies acting like sails, into the broader reaches of Lyme Bay, scattering slowly over an area of five miles.

‘The morning wind was northerly,’ Mr Turner said yesterday. ‘While we were out there it had changed to south-west, by which time they were in rough water, tipped up. One and a half miles out conditions were very severe, certainly much too rough for any canoes to stay upright.’

So far the only account of what happened next came from Trevor Hartley, father of one of the survivors, and his friend Pamela Willcox. After visiting his daughter Emma, 16, in hospital, they described how the canoes had filled with water and drifted out to sea.

Ms Willcox said that the canoeists blew whistles to try to attract attention from passing boats but no one went to their rescue. ‘Emma was angry the rescue boat didn’t come out. It should have been out by midday and she wondered why the boat didn’t come out to pick them up. She remembers going into the water about 1.15pm,’ she added.

Mr Hartley, a boatbuilder, said: ‘All she can tell you is she’s been in the water for a long time. She vaguely recollects helicopters flying around and then she passed out. Her body temperature was low when they brought her in.’

Mr Turner said the inshore lifeboat was called out at 4.20pm by Portland Coastguard and was afloat within 10 minutes. ‘We went towards Golden Cap and found five canoes about five miles south of here.’

By the time the inshore lifeboat reached the area helicopters were picking survivors out of the water. Mr Turner and his crew rescued two others, an instructor and a male student, paddling desperately three-quarters of a mile off West Bay, Bridport’s small harbour, seven miles from Lyme.

Mr Turner was critical of the coastguard’s decision to delay calling out the lifeboat for one and a half hours. The first upturned canoe had been spotted by Paul Wason, 36, while hauling sole nets three miles south- west of Lyme aboard his fishing boat Spanish Eyes. Mr Wason, a senior helmsman with the Lyme inshore lifeboat, radioed the coastguard at 2.45 pm.

‘Probably the coastguards thought some silly bugger had left it on the beach and there was no real reason to think anyone was in trouble because nothing had been reported from the shore,’ he said.

Mr Turner said: ‘I’ve no idea why we weren’t called out earlier. We’d like to think they’d do this as a rule when an empty boat is found but in many cases they haven’t. We’d never feel that we’d wasted our time and wouldn’t have minded at all being called out immediately on this occasion. As far as we’re concerned, probably if we’d got out there earlier, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.’

Peter Atkinson, staff officer on duty at Portland Coastguard, said: ‘If we responded like that to every small craft found in the summer the lifeboat would never be in harbour.’

He said the coastguard acted on being alerted: ‘We got our mobile rescue Land Rover to go along the cliff tops between Lyme Regis and Charmouth after the call from Spanish Eyes. They were there about 3.30pm and reported nothing sighted. Spanish Eyes had also reported speaking to other fishermen in the bay and they’d seen nothing untoward either.’

The St Albans Centre, where the school party was based, refused to discuss its role in the rescue operation yesterday. The centre’s manager, Joe Stottart, issued a brief written statement saying: ‘A thorough investigation of all aspects of the accident is being undertaken. Whilst this accident is being investigated and until all the facts become known, we are unable to provide any further information’.

Meanwhile, the Southway Comprehensive school bus remained in the centre’s parking area. A staff car in a driveway near by had a sticker in its window saying ‘Children should be seen and not hurt’. The centre is well- regarded in Lyme, as are the two instructors who were with the canoeists.”

Although a defining moment in the UK outdoor ‘industry’ and the one that most forced the pace on legislation of the industry it has been very hard to find a single cohesive report about the incident itself.  Having worked at UK outdoor centres and discussed the Lyme bay tragedy with some of the most senior instructors and heads of outdoor centres i have only ever been able to gain snippetts and fragments of what actually happened with for example most of the UK press just playing the ‘blame’ game.

Years later when i started to write about this incident i had to work mainly from presentations that other ‘learner’ instructors have given to help me see the incident from the ‘inside’ : if you will,  from the perspective of people that train to run such adventures and events.   For a while i hadn’t even grasped that this wasn’t a ‘canoeing’ tragedy at all but one involving kayaks with potentially covered/sealed cockpits.  Many people in the Uk don’t for example know the difference between an open (canadian) canoe and a closed kayak and certainly wouldn’t be familiar with the limitations and capabilities of either boat.

On the day the boats and specifically the way they were set up was a major factor in the eventual tragedy in that these were kayaks thus low to the water but would normally have their cockpit covered with a spray-skirt that keeps most spray and waves out of the boat.  On the day it seems that because the students were new to kayaking spray-skirts weren’t used because the students hadn’t been trained in and practiced doing wet ‘escapes’ from the boat with a spray skirt attached.     The end result is that the boat goes from being potentially extremely seaworthy in waves (dependent on driver skill) to one where the cockpit will flood in relatively small waves and then the boat will swamp and capsize.    Today in outdoor centres one of the first skills learned in kayaks is to capsize the boat, then ‘hang’ upside down and be righted by an instructor and then to complete a wet escape by ‘popping’ the spray-deck off and sliding out of the boat.  In the outdoor centres that i have been involved with there is then a high emphasis on rescue and assistance drills for both students and instructors and at each level taught there is an increasing difficulty and complexity level expected of both students and instructors. I for example am a pretty basic level sea-kayaker in that i can capsize a boat and either do a wet escape or in some circumstances do an assisted righting manouevre but cannot do an eskimo-roll (my back just won’t do that).  In open canoes and being a mid-level instructor i am expected to be able to perform a total ‘all-in’ rescue in deep and cold water with the whole party in the water….in fact have done entire courses just based on rescue techniques.

Well set up and demonstrating high-end skills : a sea-kayaker bracing on a wave and note how low the boat is but that it is also sealed by the spray skirt.


The next problem seems to be that if a boat did swamp and/or then capsize then neither the 2 instructors or the students had the equipment to pump/bail them out or to then perform difficult rescues or assists.  By ‘difficult’ what i am referring to is that by the time many of the boats did swamp and capsize they were not only scattered across a wide area but were in a wind against tide situation which would have increased the wave height.   The reports that i have read do all refer to one early capsize (the teacher) being assisted by one instructor while the rest of the group ‘rafted-up’ but were then pushed out to sea by the northerly wind blowing through a gap in the cliffs behind them.  After that it is much more difficult to piece together the sequence of events boat by boat except that the group did then get separated by wind and wave action and did then swamp and capsize one by one.

Most reports and presentations that i have seen then focus on the skill level and experience of the instructors.  I am loathe to fall into the same camp and describe them as incompetent in that they may well have been competent to handle a simple flat-water kayak trip but that the situation they then found themselves in out in open water with a rapidly deteriorating situation was certainly well above their experience, their equipment set up and their skill-set .


The human outcome is well known ie that 4 of the students died of hypothermia/drowning before the rescue was completed.  There was considerable criticism of the delay in starting the rescue.  The manager of the outdoors centre involved was then charged and found guilty of gross negligence/corporate manslaughter, to my knowledge the only time that has occurred .  It is strange to think that a successful charge was brought on that basis when for example it didn’t happen after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise or in later incidents that will be the subject of further essays in this topic.

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