This month marks the sixth anniversary of the deaths of Clay McKemie and Sean Wilkinson from Rome, Georgia. Clay and Sean were my son's age at the time, and I connected with their smiling, school-picture faces on CNN. There were so many things that went wrong that day, all results of poor preparation and judgment of one man, the school's trip leader, Steve Hall. The final blow was dealt when Hall, due to bad weather, changed the trip's course to include the use of canoes and kayaks in the choppy ~50-degree ocean waters. Hall's only means of communication on this trip was his personal cellphone, and in this part of the ocean, there was no service. Clay and Sean were doomed when they got separated from the group. Yet, Hall supposedly had 20+ years of "expert" experience. (Though he was solely responsible for their deaths, not only did Hall not have his license revoked, but he has gone on to work for Wasatch Academy, a private boarding school in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, in an official capacity as Outdoor Recreation Coordinator.)
We, as parents, often let and encourage our children to take part in school and extracurricular activities that are character building. Sometimes, we even sign disclaimers acknowledging our acceptance of certain risks. And, we're rarely experts. The parents of the children on this trip didn't even get the opportunity to approve of Mr. Hall's egomaniacal plan. I also think that, because this was a private school situation, certain assumptions were made about the caliber of equipment and employee in charge, and rightfully so. But what if a parent at Hall's current school wanted to find out about his experience and past? Don't they have a right to know about Clay and Sean?
Every year around this time, I am convinced that the boys reach out to me. Over the weekend, Nick Crowhurst, who was camped about 30 miles from Suwanee when the tragedy occurred, posted here. He and his wife have written a guide book to sea-kayaking on the part of the ocean where Clay and Sean were killed called "Florida's Hidden Coast". It can be found here: http://www.hiddencoast.blogspot.com/. I want to repost here, with his permission, some of what Mr. Crowhurst wrote (his original comment is here). He has given me courage to keep the information here about Hall and new inspiration to learn what can be done in this country to provide resources for parents so we don't have to put so much trust into school leaders about whom there is no formal place for public information. Thank you, Mr. Crowhurst. And thank you, Clay and Sean.
"I have been haunted by this dreadful incident throughout the period since it occurred. To explain why I am posting this, and my qualifications for so doing, I need to explain some of my history....have spent the last thirteen winters exploring this region by sea kayak, and the past fifty years paddling, offshore sailing, rock climbing and mountaineering whenever work permitted. Our book details 16 sea-kayak day paddles, one of which details the trip the boys were attempting to make, from Suwannee to Coon Island. I have British Canoe Union qualifications in sea kayaks (4*) and canoes (2*). I retired after a career in the British Police Service, latterly as a Chief Superintendent.
Risk cannot be eliminated from our lives, but it can be managed. We accept the risk of allowing our children to travel in motor vehicles, even though this is a major cause of child deaths. Children need to learn to deal with risk, and to balance these risks with the rewards gained. Some risk-taking is thus beneficial, within limits. My son, when a young teenager, followed me on many multi-pitch high grade rock climbs in circumstances which would horrify most parents who lacked specialist knowledge. I will happily take a granddaughter through the early stages of kayak training, and then introduce her to waves and rocks on the sea, when, of course, she is wearing a wetsuit, a crash helmet, a PFD and a sprayskirt, and has a ratio of two supervisors to the one child. Incidents of danger still occur. I give these details to indicate that I seek the adrenaline of risk, but only when the "dumb risks" have been eliminated. These can be eliminated by gradual training, good and appropriate equipment, increasing experience, and, above all, humility in the face of the immense power of nature.
Parents of children offered the chance to partake in such "adventure activities" are in a very difficult position, as they will probably lack the specialist knowledge required to assess the risk of the activity. I, for instance, could not assess the risk involved in a school trip involving horse-riding. In the case of a suggested trip from Suwannee to Coon Island for my young son, I do have the necessary knowledge, so I would seek answers to these questions:
1. What are the qualifications and experience of the trip leaders? (I would require advanced and appropriate qualifications from the ACA (American Canoe Association) or BCU and for first aid from a minimum of two supervisors for this trip)
2. How many support craft will there be, and, if powered, do they have auxiliary means of propulsion in case of breakdown, as well as anchors, flares,smoke signals,lights, strobes, compasses, GPS? (Two support craft would be a minimum in this case)
3. Are there several fall-back plans to deal with bad weather, illness, exhaustion or lack of emotional control? In strong offshore winds, which appear safe but are a greater danger than onshore winds, alternative campsites could be pre-arranged at Suwannee, Munden Camp or Cat Island, very close to the mouth of the Suwannee.
3. Are the boats supplied fit for purpose? Canoes are out of the question on this coast. They are too much affected by wind, and would be uncontrollable by young inexperienced children. Are the kayaks fitted with watertight buoyancy, reflective tape, sprayskirt, towing facility, deck-lines, and are they of suitable design and condition?
4. Have the children received prior training to fit them for the purpose? ACA and BCU approved training will provide whatever levels of skill are required. At a minimum, capsize and escape and rescue procedures, and basic stroke-making need to be trained.
5. Will the children be properly clothed and equipped for the worst case scenario of immersion in the anticipated water temperature after capsize? Wetsuits would be a minimum, with wind-proof outer garments, skull-caps and gloves and well-designed specialist PFDs. Each child should wear a strobe, and carry a waterproof torch, and have proven ability to swim 50 yards in the clothing. Spare dry clothing in drybags and emergency food and water should be carried.
6. What are the communication arrangements, either routinely or in emergency? Each supervisor should have a waterproof hand-held VHF set with an agreed boat to boat working channel on dual watch with channel 16. A spare VHF set and batteries should be carried within the leaders.Cellphones should be carried, in waterproof containers, but cellphone coverage in this area is the exception, rather than the rule.VHF communication, which is line-of-sight, with a range of perhaps 4 miles from a small boat, is problematic in this remote area. In case of emergency, an EPIRB or PLB is vital in each support craft. My current PLB cost about $250. At the touch of a button, the international marine rescue organisation is alerted by satellite of my identity, my accurate GPS position, and that I am in distress. It also sends out a VHF signal for homing-in on my position. This is an incredible facility, particularly at the price.It is the ultimate "get out of jail" card.
7. Who is the shore contact in possession of the float plan and details of the party, to act as an information point for parents or the Coastguard, and how is that person contactable?
I could go on with a list of further questions, but I think I've made my point. The non-specialist parent cannot hope to know all this detail. So, what's to be done? A very similar tragedy occurred in England in 1993, near where we live. It is known as the Lyme Bay Canoe Tragedy, and Googling will find many references. One excellent one is here: http://www.aals.org.uk/lymebay01.html This describes the prosecution of the adults involved, and the eventual setting up of a national statutory body to regulate such activities, and help prevent such disasters. This may give food for thought to those considering these issues in the USA.
In the absence of such controls, I would advocate that parents should obtain as much information as possible about a possible trip, and submit these details to an independent qualified source for comment. For example, a well-qualified ACA or BCU instructor would look to be satisfied that all the above questions, and more, were satisfactorily covered. As to the future, extra political control and public expense via legislation is not likely to be popular, I guess. A website could contain recommendations for each sport for parents making such decisions. Each entry would need to be created by someone with particular experience in each activity, of course. I am deeply grateful for your original posts. I could not believe I was alone in my incredulity at this incident, nor could I understand the lack of judicial inquiry."