Offshore wind blamed for canoe deaths: Inquiries centre on delay in alerting emergency services

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A NOTORIOUSLY dangerous offshore wind is believed to have caused the deaths of four young canoeists who were swept away from the Dorset coast with their instructors and a teacher on Monday.

Investigations have started into why the party of eight pupils from Southway School, Plymouth, were allowed out with what experts said yesterday was inadequate supervision and why it took several hours to rescue them.

Graham Turner, helmsman of the Lyme Regis lifeboat, said that they were driven out to sea by an offshore wind that whips through Charmouth Gap, the break in the cliffs where the River Char runs into the sea. Windsurfers often had to be rescued from there in the summer.

One pupil died from cold in the sea and three others succumbed one by one to hypothermia in hospital as a team of 50 doctors and nurses tried to save them.

The dead, all from Plymouth, were named yesterday as Simon Dunne, Rachel Walker, and Claire Langley, all 16, and Dean Sayer, 17. Four other pupils, Joanna Willis, 16, Samantha Stansby, 17, Marie Rendle, 17, and Emma Hartley, 16, were said to be 'improving' in Weymouth General Hospital last night. Their teacher, Norman Pinter, 49, and two instructors, Karen Gardner, 21, and Anthony Mann, 23, were also making progress.

The party was part of a larger group from the school attending a week- long course at the St Albans Adventure Training Centre in Lyme Regis, owned by Active Learning and Leisure of Kingston, Surrey.

They set off shortly after 10am to paddle two miles along the coast from Lyme Regis to Charmouth and back. They should have been back by 1pm and the trip seemed so routine that the coastguard was not told.

But they were pushed steadily against the incoming tide and driven out into Lyme Bay, blowing their whistles to try to attract attention. As they reached rougher water the canoes began fill up and capsized, throwing their occupants, who were wearing wet suits, into the water.

But it was not until nearly 3pm that the coastguards were told that a canoeing party was in the area and it was almost 4pm before the first rescue helicopter took off. The flotilla was so scattered that the first canoeists were not rescued until 5.30pm, more than four hours after the teenagers went into the water.

Active Learning and Leisure admitted last night that the two instructors had only a basic certificate and not full teaching qualifications from the British Canoe Union. But the company said they were properly trained and had alternative qualifications.

The company said that it was investigating what its spokeswoman called 'a significant delay' in alerting emergency services. Dorset Police and Devon County Council have also begun inquiries.

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