Accident Database

Report ID# 3256

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Other
  • High Water

Accident Description

Canoeist dies in rain-swollen river

Sunday, November 22, 2009, 10:00

AN EXPERIENCED kayak and canoe instructor has been killed, despite a frantic attempt to free him when he became trapped under his boat on a flooded river. Two friends battled for hours to keep Chris Wheeler alive, while others rushed from the remote River Dart location – away from any road and with no mobile phone reception – to raise the alarm on Saturday afternoon. The 46-year-old was stuck beneath a tree on the fast-flowing stretch of cold water between Dartmeet and Dartbridge, on Dartmoor near Ashburton.

The incident happened at about 3.45 pm, but the horrendous conditions and remote, inaccessible routes meant it took the friends around 45 minutes to paddle to alert the authorities, and rescuers up to two hours on foot to find the casualties. By the time they arrived, Mr Wheeler was dead. His two friends escaped uninjured, but both had hypothermia. Rescuers worked until 3am to recover the body. They had to negotiate a drop of up to 400 ft into a gorge, and wet, slippery terrain, to carry the stretcher more than a mile to Mel Tor, near Poundsgate – the nearest point from which the Chivenor RAF rescue helicopter was able to winch safely.

The group had travelled to the spot, which attracts kayakers from all over the country for its thrilling, challenging conditions, and took to the water after 30mm of rain fell on Dartmoor during a fierce storm. Yesterday, rescuers emphasised the need for caution on such dangerous waters, but said Mr Wheeler's 24 years' experience meant he was well prepared. Canoeists said the death was a "tragic accident" which had left fellow water users "grieving". A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: "Certainly it is an area where people go when the river is in flood to experience a bit of white water. Our advice to people is not to do anything it is beyond their experience to cope with."

Mr Wheeler's biography in Canoe and Kayak UK magazine – to which he contributed – said the sport had taken him around the world. He edited and wrote much of the South East regional section of the guidebook English White Water. He was a partner in a firm of chartered surveyors and was given the nickname "Magic Knees" after dislocating both joints at Conwy Fall in the 1980s.

Fire engines, police, the Dartmouth Search and Rescue Team, Dartmoor Rangers, ambulance personnel and an RAF helicopter were mobilised just after 4.30pm. Steve West, Devon and Somerset Fire Service's specialist rescue adviser, said the work was "back-breaking", but a good example of different organisations working together. He said confusion reigned in the early stages, because nobody knew exactly where the casualties were. After finding paths from Newbridge inaccessible, they moved to a rendezvous point at Beltor. "From there, it was a very steep gorge with a 300-400ft drop, and the conditions were absolutely treacherous. It took an hour-and-a-half – maybe two hours – to reach them."

Doctors with Dartmouth Search and Rescue pronounced Mr Wheeler dead, but his two friends were able to walk, despite their state of shock. Rescuers then had to renegotiate the dangerous terrain – this time with a stretcher. The operation lasted until around 3am. Yesterday, Robert Illman, of Dartmoor Search and Rescue's Ashburton team, said: "When the River Dart is in spate, it's one of the best rivers to paddle in the country. These guys were very experienced, and there were a lot of other canoeists out that day. They knew what they were doing – this is just a tragic accident."

At 3 pm on Saturday – shortly before the accident – the Exeter-based website AS Watersports posted a river levels update which read: "Over 40mm of rain so far today. Take care out there." Craig Kelly, of Teignbridge Canoe Club, said members paddled the river nearly every week. He said the sport was a "calculated risk", and that news of the death was "dreadful". "We all feel for the family and friends of the person involved. It's a great tragedy. The canoeing community always grieves."


Canoeist dies on River Dart 'mad mile'

Mr Wheeler was with a group of canoeists from Berkshire An experienced canoeist has died after becoming trapped against a tree in a swollen river on Dartmoor. Chris Wheeler, 46, from Reading, Berkshire, was in a group kayaking on the River Dart, near Poundsgate, on Saturday afternoon. Two other people were treated for mild hypothermia, following a large-scale rescue operation. The stretch of river where the accident happened is known by canoeists as the "mad mile". Fire, police, ambulance, Dartmoor Rescue and a Sea King helicopter from RMB Chivenor were involved.

'Need experience'

The river was in spate, providing challenging white-water conditions for experienced canoeists. Heavy rain and gale-force winds made the rescue operation hazardous in a remote location. Fire crews - supported by rescuers from Dartmoor Rescue - walked five miles over the difficult terrain to reach the scene. Robert Steemson, head of recreation, rangers and estates for Dartmoor National Park Authority, said the eight-strong group had been experienced canoeists. "The bit of river between Dartmeet and Newbridge is one of the best bits of river in the country," Mr Steemson told BBC News. "You have to be a very experienced canoeist to go down on that piece of river."

Mr Wheeler was a contributor to Canoe and Kayak UK magazine, which said he had 25 years' experience as a "paddler" and had canoed all over the world. He was nicknamed Magic Knees - after dislocating his knees on Conwy Falls more than 20 years ago. Robert Illman, the controller of Dartmoor Rescue, said the "notorious" stretch of river where the canoeist died is one of the most challenging in the country. He said the team had carried out at least eight or nine rescues over the past 10 years on the same stretch. Heavy rain had lashed the area on Saturday and the Environment Agency had issued a flood warning for the River Dart. There are also warnings and flood watches on a number of other rivers in the South West.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!