A Family Affair: `I thought I was drowning'

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The Independent Culture
Slalom canoeist Helen Barnes, 27, from Nottingham, nearly drowned in an accident in the French Alps. Her father, Cliff Barnes, who encouraged her to take up the sport, watched helpless from the river bank. Cliff, 61, a retired bank manager, lives in Heage, Derbyshire.


I first tried canoeing on an adventure holiday when I was 15. I really loved it and persuaded my dad to join the local canoe club with me.

After about six months, the instructor suggested we had a go at slalom canoeing, which is an Olympic sport. I absolutely loved it, and my dad offered to buy me a slalom boat. He helped me train and we would go to competitions together all around the country.

When I was 21, and still at university, I got into the British intermediate team. I decided to train for a week in Bourg St Maurice in the French Alps, which has a world-famous slalom course.

I asked my dad to come with me because we get on so well. When we arrived in the evening, the water was so beautiful and exciting that I couldn't resist going in, even though I was really tired. My dad suggested a short training session, but I ignored him.

He was standing on the bank, about to time me, but after two minutes I got my paddle caught on a rock and capsized. Because the water was so powerful - it was 10 times as fast as any river in Britain - I couldn't get upright, and my head was smashing against the rocks. I got out of the canoe, but kept getting dragged under the water, even though I was wearing a buoyancy aid. The pain of hitting the rocks was terrifying. I kept thinking: "Where's my dad? Where's my dad?"

I travelled about four kilometres down the river, most of the time under water. I thought about the headlines in the paper the next day: "Canoeist Drowned". I accepted that I was going to die and relaxed. It was a lovely feeling.

After about 20 minutes, I was pulled out by some canoeists. My dad was there, looking like a ghost. I was in hospital for a week with severe internal bleeding. My dad was wonderful.

My mum, Magda [Helen's parents are divorced], thought it would stop me paddling, but my dad knew it wouldn't. It wasn't the first time he'd been at my hospital bedside because of canoeing - when I was 18, I got hepatitis A from polluted river water. The doctors told me I had 80 per cent liver failure, and I was in hospital for two weeks. He came every night to see me after work.

Two years ago, I went to the Canoe Slalom World Cup in Sweden and came 13th in the women's category. But I then got a shoulder injury and had to have an operation. I was out of action for 18 months.

Again my dad was there with his words of encouragement, and I'm now back to full fitness and trying to regain my place in the British team.

If he hadn't shown such belief in me, I don't think I would have been strong enough to do it on my own. He's a man of few words - he's not one of these pushy dads who stand on the bank shouting at their kids. He's just quietly confident.

I would like to make it to the top in canoeing, not just for me, but to reward my dad for all the time he's put in.


Training with Helen hasn't been an easy process. I've had to push myself to get up at five on a cold winter's morning. It gets very cold and wet on a river bank. My wife, Carol, sometimes thinks I'm crackers. I just see it as something a father does.

Helen got the bug for canoeing really quickly, and I supported her because of her enthusiasm and the fact that she was making such great progress.

But when she got hepatitis A, I spent a lot of time at the hospital just looking at her immobilised figure thinking: "What have I done?" I had been the one driving her to the river. I wondered whether I had put her in danger without realising what was going on. I felt very guilty.

When she recuperated, her immediate thought was about getting back into the boat. She wasn't going to let a bit of illness stand in her way of something she had got herself dedicated to, and I was happy to go along with that.

When we arrived in France, we were both really tired. I said we really ought to be putting up our tents and getting some food and sleep. But she wanted to get a taste of the water. By then she was a very competent canoeist, and more than capable of making decisions about the water. She was ranked fifth or sixth in the country.

I wasn't concerned when she capsized - it's a fairly normal event for canoeists, particularly in unfamiliar water - but she didn't come upright.

The next procedure is to get out of the boat, which she did, but then I saw her disappearing into the distance - much faster than I could move down the river bank with my old legs. She was bouncing up and down in the water, which was freezing cold as it was fed by melting snow from the Alps. I wasn't close enough to pull her out, and it would have been hopeless if I'd jumped in. I was just wondering how on earth I was going to catch up with her.

I was so relieved when I saw her on the bank, in one piece and alive. But when we got to the hospital they said there was still a risk of her drowning from the water she already had in her system.

Seeing her in hospital was devastating - it was just like when she had hepatitis. I thought: "What have I done this time?" I had taken her to the river - the fact that she would have gone without me was irrelevant. I felt responsible.

By this stage, the local gendarmerie was questioning me about what she was doing in the water in the first place, and I had to explain that she was one of the top canoeists in the country and that's what canoeists do.

I accepted her decision to continue with the sport, and I'm very proud of her success. We both saw the accident as part of the hazards of canoeing - and I think that the experience made us closer.