UVic Torch -- Autumn 2008
Autumn 2008,
Volume 29, Number 2

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By Lindsey Norris, BA ’07
Photography byJerry Galea

Examining the first death of an adventure racer in North America and the culture of extreme sports.

David Leach knows that in the first moments when a kayak capsizes, intellect vanishes and instinct takes over. The first time he experienced a “wet exit,” off the coast of Pender Island, he didn’t pull the spray skirt’s pull tab. He didn’t try to roll his boat. The moment his head was submerged, he panicked and knew he would “chew a hole through the plastic hull if that’s what it took to reach the surface.”

Leach, BA ’93, is no armchair adventurer. The UVic journalism professor has mountain biked through the remote regions of the Andes and climbed mountains on Baffin Island. He’s watched the development of pop culture’s obsession with extreme sports—from Fear Factor to Canadian Death Race—with a sceptical eye, wondering, why must you be in danger to experience the thrills of the outdoors?

Then René Arseneault, a 22-year-old New Brunswicker, died in the Fundy Multi-Sport Race (an eight-hour adventure triathlon), in June 2002. During the last leg of the race, a storm hit and Arseneault’s kayak capsized. He spent more than an hour in the frigid waters of the Bay of Fundy, clinging to another participant’s boat. By the time the crew of a lobster boat pulled the two men from the water, it was too late to save young Arseneault.

At the time, Leach was an editor at explore, Canada’s outdoor magazine. Since the magazine had promoted the race, Leach felt compelled to report what had gone wrong and, if possible, who was to blame. That 2003 article grew into a five-year feat of investigative journalism, culminating with this spring’s publication of Leach’s first non-fiction novel, Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong.

He discovered that the race was riddled with errors. The racers had no flares. The coast guard wasn’t told about the race. The rescue zodiac wasn’t operating. The participants, largely inexperienced kayakers, could have turned around when they realized a storm was brewing, but only a few did.

Leach’s writing is at its best in his description of the actions, thoughts and emotions of people—organizers, competitors, family members—dealing with the events and fallout of the race. He interviewed race competitors and retraced their steps: running the 15-kilometre trail, cycling the 40-kilometre bike route and paddling the 12-kilometre stretch of the bay with Boon Kek, the fellow competitor who had held on to Arseneault after his boat capsized.

fatal tide examines everything from the physics of a whirlpool, to the origins of reality television, to research conducted by a UVic professor that has changed the way hypothermia is treated. In fact, it was this research that was the key to solving the puzzle of Arseneault’s death.

In 1988, two members of the UVic rowing team died after their skull capsized on Elk Lake. Nine people clung to the hull, shivering in the 4ºC water, for over 30 minutes. One rower tired, let go of the boat and drowned. The other was alive up until the moment he was pulled from the water, when his heart stopped.

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