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Boating Fatality on the River Wear - 24th February 1911

We, the undersigned, were appointed by the Durham University Boat Club Committee to enquire into And report on the boating accident of 24th February, and to make such recommendations as seemed likely to prevent the recurrence of such a disaster.

We have fully examined all the crew of the St. Chad's Graduate Boat, to which the accident occurred, the crew of the St. John's Graduate Boat, and the coaches of the St. Chad's, St. John's and Hatfield Graduate crews and two other witnesses.

On nearly every point there was substantial agreement on the evidence and we believe that we have, as far as is possible, ascertained exactly what occurred.

On the day of the accident, Friday, 24th February, the river was in the afternoon about six inches above its normal level, a strong west wind was blowing straight upstream at the point where the accident occurred, some fifty yards above the Bandstand.

The waves were fairly high, but not dangerously so, being if anything, higher than one foot. We are unanimously of the opinion that the weather conditions did not render it injudicious for a coach to take out his crew; and three other crews were on the river above Baths Bridge that afternoon.

The St. Chad's Graduate crew left their boathouse about 2.20 p.m., composed as follows:- B.R.H. Tudor (bow), R. Clayton (2) L. L Michelsen (3) J. A. Price (stroke) J. Parsons (cox), with G.B.H. Bishop as coach on the bank. During the journey upstream nothing of an unusual nature happened and little water, if any, was shipped.

The crew turned a few yards below the Ash Tree. On starting to row down the Crew appear to have got into trouble, partly through uncertainty as to orders; partly through the roughness of the water.

It is not clear whether the cox gave the order to paddle, or whether the crew started without the word. Before ten strokes had been taken a large quantity of water had come over both sides of the boat, mainly in the centre, and she filled in the stem and became submerged about the middle of the river, some 15 yards above the entrance to the wood. The oars, however prevented her from sinking far.

Number 3 was the first to attempt to get to the shore on the Pelaw Wood side, but not being a strong swimmer got into difficulties, and was saved by the exertions of Mr. Lee, and Mr. Bishop, the coaches of the Hatfield and St. Chad's Graduate crews.

While these three were still struggling in the water in the centre of the river, St. John's Graduate crew, whose cox had caught sight of them from higher up the river, rowed down to them. One or two of these three men in the water grasped the side of the boat which finally grounded in fairly shallow water near the gate at the entrance of the wood, and was upset, the whole crew being precipitated into the water near the bank where they all got ashore.

No, 2 of the St. Chads crew, after going overboard to try the depth of the water, got back into boat which drifted downstream, only partially underwater. He was subsequently taken ashore by the St. John's Senate Crew, bow and stroke swam to the Pelaw Wood side without difficulty.

The cox, who lost his life, was last seen at the stern, quite clear of the rudder lines, and after that no-one seems to have observed what became of him, for the attention of those who soon collected on the banks was entirely taken up with the rescue of number 3, and the upsetting of the St. John's boat. Parsons was supposed to have reached the Racecourse bank, and eight or ten minutes had passed before it was ascertained that he was missing. There is no doubt that he was unable to swim, and it is possible that, being chilled from sitting in the boat on the journey up stream, he may have been seized with cramp. Two boats were soon on the spot dragging for him, but his body was not recovered till over two hours after the accident

It is difficult to say that anyone in particular is to blame for what occurred, but there seems undoubtedly to have been some want of presence of mind amongst the crews themselves, which is in a measure accounted for by the fact that only three of the five members were able to swim, and one of these three only imperfectly.

It is much to be regretted that any of the crew who could not swim left the boat. The oars are held fast by strings over the rowlocks, which prevent their getting loose, and thus give sufficient buoyancy to keep a boat afloat even with a crew holding on. We have to commend highly the action of Mr. Bishop and Mr. Lee, two of the coaches on the bank, to whose efforts the saving of one life is undoubtedly due. It is unfortunate that the attentions of both appears to have been drawn away from the coxswain, Mr. Parsons, by what seemed to them the more dangerous position of number 3.

Our endeavour in holding the enquiry has been to arrive at a correct appreciation of the facts, with a view, if possible, of gathering from this painful experience some hints for the prevention of similar accidents in the future.

We strongly recommend:-

(1) THAT men who boat should be urged if not compelled, to learn to swim, if they are not already able to do so.

(2) THAT at least SIX life-lacks should be kept easily accessible on die riverbanks in known places, such as (inter alia) the Baths and Browns Boathouse.

(3) THAT proper draggin irons should be kept at the Baths and in at least one other place always ready for immediate use.

(4) A copy of the Life Saving Society’s Handbook should be in the Boathouse of each College Club, from which boating men might 1earn the best methods of rescue, release, and resuscitation.

J.A. ORMSBY, (President DARC) (Chairman)
M.A.O. MAYNE – Hon. Sec DUBC

18 March, 1911. Durham University Chronical

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