September 09, 2010


Exactly 4 weeks ago I was involved in the worst accident that I have ever been involved in throughout my entire life, either on or off the water.

It was two days before Stourport Regatta and we had already loaded two boats onto the trailer when Mike, our stroke, arrived so we put the quad on the water to go for a short paddle just to remind ourselves of what it was like to scull in the 4x. Our outing two days beforehand had been the best ever and we were all looking forward to showing our metal at the regatta.

We pushed off from the Grosvenor RC landing stage, pointing upstream as usual, and crossed over to the right hand side of the river in between two eights, one of which was arriving at the Royal Chester RC stage and the other was waiting to follow it.

From the first stroke the boat felt really good. One of the points of feedback is the steering, which as bowman is my responsibility. I steer with my foot. The toe of my right shoe is attached to the rudder by wires. When the boat is going badly and everybody is gripping their handles and hanging onto the boat through the riggers with lots of tension in their bodies then the boat becomes almost impossible to steer. But when the crew is relaxed and hanging loosely off the handles and releasing the boat at the finish so that it can run freely then the steering is very responsive and the merest twitch of my foot will illicit a slight shift in the direction of the boat. This is how it was. Fantastic. We all knew that we were in for a great paddle. No pressure on us. Just the sheer enjoyment of moving the boat well and getting a lot back without putting much in.

We were close enough to the bank on our starboard side for me to be concerned to see if there was anybody ahead of us going upstream. We're a fast crew and usually overtake every crew that has boated ahead of us. Steering does not require one to turn right around an look where one is going every stroke. Mostly a slight turn of the head and eyes and the use of peripheral vision and attention to any unexpected noise ahead is adequate and if alarm bells ring then a more judicious look round is taken. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw something that should not have been there.

It was an oar blade. Nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was that I couldn't see the oar. And I couldn't see the boat that the oar was attached to. I knew exactly what this meant but I had absolutely no time to react to the situation. Bang! Crunch! Wallop! Thwack! Crack! Scrape! All at once. The boat stopped dead, I was hit in the back by this oar. Ouch! Next I was flying through the air upside down, passing enough oars for me to realise that we'd been hit head-on by an eight, and I was unceremoniously dunked straight into the water.

I was still breathing in and took a sip of water. I consciously shut my mouth. I was still bent double and looking upwards through brown murk at the dim, grey sky. I waited till I floated to the surface. It didn't take long, as I was wearing a waterproof splash-top that held a lot of air within it.

I came up screaming in agony and swearing at the crew that had hit us on the wrong side of the river, "You've got a ******* cox!". Somehow I sprung back into our boat, propelled by adrenalin, as far as I can tell because I do not remember any time elapsing between surfacing and being in the boat again. I found myself facing the wrong way and frozen to the spot unwilling to move.

My right scull had broken in two! I've never seen that before.

These carbon fibre sculls are really, really strong and durable. The rigger was badly bent and we felt sure that the boat was probably de-laminated with a shock like this. The right scull of our 3 man was also broken. This meant that we were very vulnerable to a capsize as my scull was dragging in the water and I was powerless to do anything about it and Jeremy's broken scull was floppy and he could not provide any support with it. So John, at 2, left his blades on the water to sit the boat level whilst Mike turned the boat around on his own and paddled us back to the Grosvenor stage from whence we had just come. I remained welded in the position that I had found myself in when I had re-embarked.

They helped me out of the boat and I hobbled back into the club, peeled off my clothes with some difficulty and got into the shower. I was very unsteady on my feet and after my shower was completely unable to get dressed without help. I had taken a big blow in the lower back where there was a slight graze but we were all worried that I might have damaged my right kidney.

Fortunately one of the crew that had rowed into us was a GP and another was a urologist! They came over to see me and were quite reassuring. I was not to bother going into Accident and Emergency because I would only be referred to a urologist anyway. They said I would be very sore the next few days and to watch out for any blood in my urine. If I saw any then I should get myself into hospital.

But there was no blood. Just bloody pain! I lay in bed for the next 24 hours. Getting up was the hardest thing.

It was a week before I could put my shoes and socks on without pain and could get my knees up against my chest, a fundamental requirement for rowing.

Anyway for the last ten days, every other day or so I have been easing myself back into my sculling and today I was not really protecting myself any more although I do feel I have lost some power. I think in another fortnight I'll have forgotten about the injury and in a month I'll be well on the way to my normal level of fitness again.

On reflection I think that probably what happened is that my bottom rib was fractured. But when the pain is really great at the beginning the pain receptors must be pumping out chemicals that make all the surrounding pain receptors imagine that they too are the source of the pain. So the actual source is somewhat vague and almost any movement that required the contraction of muscles in the damaged core produced huge amounts of pain that indicated to me not to do whatever I had just done. Standing up was OK and lying down too. But sitting was uncomfortable to say the least. Now, however, I can put my finger on the exact point of the injury without a spread of pain all over the affected area and I can feel that it is the rib that is the only part of my body remaining that is sore.

But hey, I'm still alive to tell the tale. And this is a safe sport. Accidents as bad as this are extremely rare. A friend of mine whose father is a cyclist says that about ten of his cycling mates have been killed over the years!

So why was this eight that crashed into us in the wrong place? Basically they had a young inexperienced girl coxing them and she had pulled out from the correct side of the river to pass a large gaggle of board paddlers (a new and slow phenomenon on the river). But before proceeding to the wrong side of the river she should have taken extra care to be sure that there was nobody coming and clearly she hadn't. She was very apologetic. I think she learned a valuable lesson.

Posted by Stephen Walker at September 9, 2010 10:48 PM