Alice Beetlestone has been boating for more than 20 years and got involved in paddling at college, where she cut her teeth on the rivers of south Wales first in white water before branching out and also taking up stand up paddle boarding. She is a volunteer crew member at Aberdovey Lifeboat Station and works for the RNLI’s Water Safety team. The Paddler magazine caught up with Alice, to chat about the RNLI’s safety advice for paddlers.
What is your role with paddling safety?
The Water Safety team lead on prevention activities for the RNLI. As a part of this work I am also on the British Canoeing’s Safety Advisory Panel (SAP).
What does SAP do?
We meet several times a year to discuss all things safety related in the world of paddling. This could be anything from producing or updating guidance and safety standards of throw bags to discussing incident reports and producing safety bulletins.
You sound so passionate about keeping people safe? Where does your motivation for paddling safety come from?
Yes, it’s close to my heart. Primarily, I guess it comes from my love of paddling and I want others to enjoy it as much as I do. During my time as an outdoor instructor I must have introduced thousands of kids to their first experience in a boat and I knew that for them to enjoy the experience, they needed to be and feel safe.
As a lifeboat helm, I’ve also seen first-hand when things don’t go to plan and have dealt with mishaps and unfortunately, on rare occasions, tragedy. I think it’s so important that we all play our part in helping each other to stay safe on and around the water.
What are the current hot safety topics for paddlers?
My top five would have to be:
• To get all paddlers to carry a suitable means of calling for help and keep it on their person.
• The importance of planning.
• Encouraging everyone to use British Canoeing’s incident reporting system, which helps us to help you.
• Our joint ID scheme – label those boats up folks.
• The massive increase in people new to paddling.
Tell us more…
From the RNLI perspective, the number one across the board is to have a suitable means of calling for help and, just as importantly, keeping it on you. You can plan as much as you like but we all know that things can still go wrong and if it does and your VHF radio, personal locator beacon (PLB), or mobile phone is not on you and you get separated from your boat, or can’t reach into that hatch to get it, then things could suddenly get serious. It is one of our key messages to anyone going afloat and we don’t apologise for keeping on banging that drum.
In a recent British Canoeing safety bulletin, we have been able to share several successful rescue stories where PLBs have been used by paddlers with great effect, leading to a happy ending for all involved with nothing more serious than a bit of embarrassment, or Mickey taking from their friends and family.
Is that message having an impact?
I believe it is and the success stories would attest to that as well as the statistics. It’s sometimes hard to prove that prevention education is working but, when I started in water safety, we would see an average of seven fatalities a year in UK coastal waters. It has come down to less than half of that over the last few years. That’s still not where we want to be though, and we will always keep striving to achieve that perfect 0.
What about the other things on your list?
When it comes to planning, we could go on about it all day. I’m sure it’s not a surprise to any paddler worth their salt that good planning can prevent most misadventures. We recently published an article with Holyhead Lifeboat volunteer coxswain and sea kayaking legend, Nigel Dennis, on the subject. There is also, of course, a wealth of information on the various national governing body websites. I’ve seen some great online content being put out there during lockdown too, so thank you to all the coaches out there who have been sharing their wisdom.
When it comes to the reporting of incidents, I doubt there are many of us that will not be aware of the virtues of lessons learnt. Having a positive and open safety culture benefits us all and it is better to learn from other people’s mistakes than find out the hard way yourself.
The boat ID scheme is simple, by labelling up your craft this serves two main purposes. Firstly, you stand a much better chance of getting it back if it goes missing, remembering all rivers lead to the sea. And secondly, if a boat is found adrift, we can much more easily contact the owner which potentially saves an unnecessary search by the RNLI and Coastguard.
And last but not least, sales of paddle craft, in particularly SUPs, have increased massively. There are more people taking to the water than ever, especially on places like the River Thames, which is a busy and complex piece of water – just ask any of our station crew on the river. Please help us get advice to any friends who are starting out. There is some great advice at rnli.org/safety/choose-your-activity and for places like the Thames, there’s specific guidance for anyone venturing out onto the tidal part of the river on the Port of London’s recreational user’s website www.boatingonthe thames.co.uk and the Tideway Code.
Any final tips?
After lockdown, we might all be a little bit rusty so please ease back in and practice those self-rescue skills. Check your safety kit is all still up to date and batteries in equipment like VHFs are fully charged and always wear a PFD. Check the up-to-date local information and forecasts then stay safe and have fun!
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