Circumstances of French lake deaths not uncommon – inquest

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The last person to see two ill-equipped Frenchmen before their Lake Wakatipu drowning says he sees similar things all summer. 

Queenstown boatie Carrick McLellan, who co-owns Paraflights, told a coroner’s inquest today (Friday) that it was a common occurrence to come across people ill-prepared for lake conditions. 

“There’s heaps of people doing silly things,” McLellan told the Queenstown District Court inquest into the deaths of Frenchman Raphael Soubrier, 21, and Yoann Firdion, 24. 

McLellan initially saw the pair at about 11.30am on December 6 near the Walter Peak side of Lake Wakatipu. 

It emerged in evidence that the pair had one paddle between them, were in an open kayak not fit for two people and appeared inexperienced in the water. They were wearing lifejackets but one was a child’s size. 

McLellan alerted Queenstown harbourmaster Marty Black who was tied up in a meeting and asked McLellan if he was okay to speak with them. McLellan advised the pair that conditions were going to get rougher and they should head back to Queenstown Bay soon. 

McLellan offered them a lift but the pair wanted to climb Cecil Peak and return in the afternoon – so McLellan gave them his company phone number if they wanted a ride back later. 

Almost 10 hours later, at 9.53pm, they placed a distress call to the number which diverted to the cellphone of McLellan’s business partner Chris Bradley. Bradley alerted authorities and high-tailed it to the lake where he and McLellan launched their Paraflights boat and started searching from 10.05pm. 

Coastguard arrived about 15 to 20 minutes later – and other commercial boat operators also joined the search.

The lifeless bodies of Soubrier and Firdion weren’t spotted until just before 1am by a helicopter pilot searching with night vision goggles. 

Coroner David Crerar quizzed McKellan during the inquest about whether his call to Black earlier in the day should have been more aggressive. 

“Something like ‘Here’s a couple of people canoeing to their doom – you better come out and do something’,” Crerar asked. 

McLellan responded that such a situation was a fairly common occurrence. 

“We do it all summer long. You see people not playing by the rules.” 

Crerar: “You weren’t more concerned about these two because of their obvious lack of preparedness?” 

McLellan: “No.” 

Crerar then asked if he’d actually seen worse. 

McKellan responded: “For sure. There’s heaps of people doing silly things.” 

Just weeks earlier, McLellan says he rescued a fully-clothed man trying to swim from one side to the other. 

“His mate came over and asked for help and we went out and plucked this guy out of the water who was gasping for air.” 

Back in December, both McLellan and Bradley criticised the Coastguard-directed search in comments to Mountain Scene

Once Coastguard arrived, the Paraflights pair were told to leave where they were searching – west of a line running from Hidden Island to One Mile – and join an official grid search between Kelvin Peninsula and Hidden Island. 

McLellan told Mountain Scene at the time that he reluctantly diverted to join the grid search, but added: “We were like ‘Nah, they’re not going to be there, that’s not how the lake works’.” 

The two bodies were later found floating near where the Paraflights crew were originally searching. 

Queenstown police called a joint meeting of commercial operators, boaties and Coastguard soon after the tragedy – as a result joint training exercises were scheduled and held, and contact lists of operators to be called in similar circumstances were updated and refined. 

McLellan repeated his criticism at the inquest during questioning by senior constable Robert Murray who asked McLellan if he accepted someone had to take charge and direct the search. 

McLellan: “I heard the police say Coastguard are in charge. I have no problem with that. But I knew the best possible place to search. I’d been there all day long and have got the local knowledge. 

“They should have listened to our advice.” 

Evidence given later by the Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers safety and publications officer Paul Caffyn supported McLellan. 

“Information from local professional boaties and/or fisherman should not only be sought but also heeded,” Caffyn told Crerar. 

Caffyn also felt both men would have died by drowning about 30 minutes after tipping out of their kayak – before severe hypothermia would have set in. 

Crerar quizzed Black about the search on the night, saying effectively three searches were going on – that of McKellan’s, the deputy harbourmaster’s and Coastguard’s. 

Crerar: “Is that ideal?” 

Black: “Queenstown is lucky. We have commercial operators who really are our first and quickest response. 

“The Coastguard is a great asset, they have great equipment etc. However the stand-down time to get the boat on the water is always going to be longer than the commercial operators. Bearing in mind, a lot of emergency calls are during working hours so [the commercial operators’] response is always going to be quicker.” 

Crerar asked Black if he felt anything was done wrong on the night, and Black replied: “No. We gave it our best shot but the odds were not stacked in favour of those two guys.” 

Crerar gave an initial verbal finding saying he accepted the result of the post-mortem that Firdion and Soubrier died by drowning. 

As for recommendations, Crerar emphasised not only must lifejackets be worn, they must be appropriate. 

It was suggested during evidence the lifejackets may have been worn inside out which hampered the ability of rescuers to see reflective tags. 

“As far as the two deceased are concerned, their errors of judgement are self-evident,” Crerar says. 

Crerar listed those errors as an inappropriate canoe and lifejackets, having just one paddle and light clothing – suitable for a walk up a hill but not for a paddle across a lake. 

“They left the safety of shore too late and left the call for help to Paraflights too late.” 

They also failed to leave a “panic time” with their flatmates if they failed to return, which could have prompted an earlier search. 

Crerar found the actions of McLellan, Bradley and Black were “entirely appropriate” and the response time by Black and Coastguard was “as good as could have been expected”. 

“While the rescue search pattern area could have been more closely defined, I’m satisfied the CoastGuard and all the other rescuers did all they could have done,” Crerar concluded. 

“My condolences to the families. It’s very sad to visitors to our country pass away in these circumstances.” 

Crerar’s full written decision, to be sent to the families of the deceased, is yet to be finalised.