Kayaker recounts doomed bid to save friend from whirlpool

A KAYAKER battled through a whirlpool in a brave but doomed attempt to save a drowning teenage friend, an inquest has heard.

Jason Raper

Student Steven Rees-Clark watched in horror as 19-year-old Jason Raper was sucked into the whirlpool on the first day of their adventure holiday in Norway.

His friend, from Royal Avenue in Scarborough, ended up trapped in his canoe upside down as the raging current spun him around in circles.

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Mr Rees-Clark realised the only way to rescue his friend was to ram his overturned boat with his own in an attempt to push them both free. But his kayak skated over the hull of Mr Raper’s vessel and both young men found themselves fighting for their lives, the inquest at Scarborough Town Hall heard yesterday.

Mr Rees-Clark, from Crookham in Hampshire, was one of four friends on the trip. He said Mr Raper was first to paddle out as they negotiated a perilous leg of the River Raundalen near Voss on June 23 last year.

They had spotted the whirlpool – which kayakers call “a hole” – on the right-hand side of the 50ft-wide river and knew they had to stay left of a big rock in the middle to be safe.

But Mr Raper went too far to the right, was sucked in, and capsized. Mr Rees-Clark had entered the whirlpool at greater speed and at a better angle to escape its force.

He decided in a split second to ram the other boat, although he only achieved a glancing blow and also capsized. Seconds later, both managed to right their canoes.

Mr Rees-Clark said: “Jason tried to turn himself towards me with his paddles because I was at the exit of the hole. But I could not turn my boat around because the water was catching the side and making me roll. I capsized a couple of times. Then when I rolled up I was out of the hole.”

He was carried down river, avoiding other whirlpools, before reaching calmer water and clambered onto the bank and then saw Mr Raper for the last time. He had fallen out of his kayak which was floating down the river after him and was only being held up by his lifejacket.

“He was upright in his life vest. He looked towards me but he did not have an expression on his face,” said Mr Rees-Clark. “I could not tell how he was. I think he was conscious. But I couldn’t tell.”

Despite having injured his shoulder when his boat capsized, Mr Rees-Clark grabbed his rescue line to throw to his stricken friend. But by this time Mr Raper had drifted out of reach – being carried by the current straight towards a sheer drop beyond which lay a gorge.

Mr Rees-Clark added: “I hoped to be in a position to throw my rescue line towards him, but I was too slow.”

The two other kayaker, James Mitchell, a student from Leamington Spa, and his brother Phillip Mitchell, also a student from Hillcrest Avenue in Nether Poppleton near York, waited down river, not knowing if their friends were alive or dead.

Once they realised Mr Rees-Clark was safe they began a desperate search for Mr Raper – who they had already seen float past them.

A search involving two helicopters was launched by the Norwegian authorities but Mr Raper’s body was not recovered until September when it was found in a local lake.

He would have celebrated his 20th birthday on July 8.

The cause of death could not be established, but Mr Raper is believed to have drowned.

Coroner Michael Oakley recorded a verdict of accidental death on Mr Raper, who had become a joiner after studying at York College. More than 300 people attended his funeral.

After the hearing, his aunt, Linda Myers, said: “Jason was a determined character and it’s a tragedy.

“He had worked hard to get where he was with his kayaking and carpentry. Steve was lucky to get out of it himself. It was just really bad luck.”