The School Canoe Tragedy: Schoolchildren's adventure at sea that turned: Father tells of survivor's anger at delay in being rescued after wind drove canoes away from shore

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The Independent Online
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.

Leading article, page 21

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