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

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Fatal Tide:When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong
By David Leach
Viking Canada, 267 pages, $32

Eighteen years later, UVic biology professor emeritus John Hayward co-published a paper, “Problems and Complications with Cold-Water Rescue,” that theorized that the second UVic rower died of post-rescue collapse—not hypothermia. When Leach met Hayward and read his study, “the light went on. I realized this was the final clue as to why René, who was conscious up until he was rescued, didn’t make it. He was a fit young man. The cold exposure model said he shouldn’t have died in such a short time.”

Several factors contribute to post-rescue collapse. Some are psychosomatic (“simply hearing the words, ‘Hold on, someone’s coming!’ might be enough to kill you,” Leach writes). Others are physiological. When a person is pulled from the water vertically, as Arseneault was, the abrupt loss of pressure exerted by the water causes a massive drop of blood pressure. People who are pulled out horizontally, in a net, don’t experience the same lethal shock.

Though the adventure racing community stands to benefit from wider awareness of research like this, they’ve remained a largely a silent group in the chorus of praise for Fatal Tide. Many of them were leery when Leach started his research. Some worried that any attention brought to the sport would invite government interference and warned other adventure racers not to talk to him.

In part, it was their reticence to talk to him that made Leach realize there was a far greater story to be told, such as the positive side of adventure racing and what these weekend warriors—largely middle-aged professionals—gained from the sport. “I wanted to get inside their heads,” he says. “I hope, if people take anything away from this book, it’s an understanding about what draws people into these activities.” To bridge the gap, as it were, between adrenaline seekers and couch surfers.

Fatal Tide doesn’t entirely bridge that gap; the motivation that drives extreme sport enthusiasts remains frustratingly difficult to define. As the kayakers on the bay that day struggled against 30-kilometre winds and a rising sea, it’s incredible that so many chose not to turn back. But a good story engages readers whether they identify with the characters or not and, in Leach’s deft retelling, this book becomes far more than a cautionary tale. It will compel even the sternest sceptics to go along for the ride.

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