An inquiry has found that a group of kayakers and their guide, who narrowly escaped a fatal accident on a trip off the coast of Donegal last year, had gone out in unsuitable weather conditions with inadequate safety equipment and protective clothing.
An investigation by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board into the incident which occurred in Mulroy Bay, Co Donegal on March 19th 2022, found the five adults on the trip had little or no experience of kayaking while the trip organiser had inadequate training and qualifications.
It revealed the incident occurred at a time a Small Craft Warning was in place to alert seafarers that winds of at least Force 6 were expected.
The MCIB said the disregard for training and qualification schemes for a sea kayak instructor was a major contributory factor.
The marine safety watchdog also expressed concern about a continuing increase in the number of very serious incidents involving paddlesports.
The MCIB said the general safety environment around paddlesports in Ireland was a systemic factor in the incident in Mulroy Bay.
No formal training
A MCIB report revealed that three other providers of kayaking trips had refused to bring the group out that day because the weather forecast indicated it would not be suitable for kayaking.
Investigators found the trip organiser only had a basic skills award in kayaking and did not hold any instructor qualification from either Canoeing Ireland or any similar body.
It found he also had no formal training in the planning or navigation of kayaking trips, despite the website of the trip organiser stating that they were “an experienced team and we are all certified kayaking instructors.”
The MCIB said he had been operating commercial trips since 2020 without any essential safety protocols including standard operation procedures.
It said his claims about finding it difficult to obtain training and qualifications from schemes operated by Canoeing Ireland were “not insurmountable.”
The report revealed only one client wore a wetsuit as thermal protection against the effects of ending up in cold water, while the rest of the group had worn clothing such as jeans and winter coats.
The group got into difficulty after the wind speed increased and sea conditions deteriorated.
Two individuals in a double kayak, which capsized, were able to right it and make their way to one side of the lough, while another two members of the group in single kayaks made their own way to the other side of the lough, with one capsizing and swimming for 20 minutes before reaching safety.
The other member of the group and the trip organiser, who both capsized and lost contact with their kayaks, drifted for around an hour in the middle of the lough before being rescued by the Coast Guard.
The individual described how he was aware that he was progressing through the stages of hypothermia and had lost feeling in his face, while he believed the trip organiser was in shock.
The man said he had started to lose consciousness just as he was rescued by the Coast Guard.
They were brought to a local hospital for treatment but were discharged later the same day.
One female who was in the water for around 45 minutes told MCIB investigators that she thought she was going to die because her hands and legs were frozen cold and she could not move her fingers.
A male member of the group said he was terrified about what was happening and being unaware if his friends were still alive.
The MCIB said the rescue would not have been possible but for the diligent action of a member of the public who saw people in the water shortly after midday and notified the emergency services.
It observed that there was “a high likelihood that the threat of death associated with this marine casualty event is likely to have escalated to the loss of life” but for such action.
The group had set off from a pier on the road between Milford and Kerrykeel for a planned 3km trip around the lough.
The trip organiser said he had been told all the members of the group could swim and had kayaked before and only found out about their lack of kayaking experience and the fact that one individual could not swim on the trip.
While his normal rule was only to take a group of adults on a trip if wind conditions were no more than 10-15km/h, he was aware that there was a forecast they would be more than 28km/h on the day but felt it would be OK for a group with kayaking experience.
The trip organiser stated he did not consider what the water temperature might be nor have an emergency plan in place.
He also admitted not telling anyone on shore about their intended destination or when they would be back on land.
The MCIB noted he had a RIB safety boat available for use, but chose not to take it on the trip.
It also revealed that the nominated operator was unable to use the RIB after being alerted to the emergency because the trip organiser had the key for it with him.
The MCIB said unsuitable weather conditions were a causal factor in the incident, while immersion in cold water and a lack of protective clothing were contributory factors.
It concluded other contributory factors were the lack of safety and emergency equipment and inadequate training and qualifications as well as inadequate trip planning and contingency planning.
It noted eight fatalities recorded in kayaking and canoeing incidents since 2007 had some common features including insufficient skills levels among instructors and incidents occurring in winter and spring with associated cold water shock and hypothermia.
The MCIB said mixed ability groups also lacked sufficiently qualified instructors, while incidents also occurred during the latter half of excursions.
The safety watchdog said it was disappointing that it continued to be advised of situations where little or no regard was paid to the safety guidelines of governing bodies.
It added: “The MCIB has observed a continuing increase in the number of very serious incidents involving paddlesports, some of which could very easily have led to fatalities.”
It called for the trip organisers to conduct an immediate review of its safety regime as part of a series of recommendations which included considerations of the establishment and promotion of a register of qualified instructors by Canoeing Ireland.
The MCIB also recommended that all providers of paddlesport activities audit their operating procedures and safety systems.