Wellington, this is Queenstown calling – you have a problem.
That’s the chorus after last week’s trial over the April 2008 death of English backpacker Emily Jordan on the Kawarau River.
Wellington’s Maritime New Zealand – the national water watchdog which prosecuted Mad Dog River Boarding – is now being urged to finish what it’s started by tightly regulating the adventure activity.
Emily’s grieving father, Chris Jordan, understandably has the loudest cry (see story below).
But he’s joined by harbourmaster Marty Black, Destination Queenstown boss Stephen Pahl – and, surprisingly, the man in the dock last week.
Despite Mad Dog having to pay $146,000 in fines and reparations, owner Brad McLeod is worried MNZ will now wash its hands of river boarding – leaving loose ends.
“The industry needs a regulator and MNZ is the logical one,” McLeod says. He wants the same “statutory enforcement” for his industry as jetboating and rafting have – and urgently.
Black sings off the same hymn sheet.
“There’s a lesson for everyone from [Emily’s] death and the way forward is by proper regulation – the same as rafting or jetboating – by MNZ.”
DQ boss Pahl will lobby via the Tourism Industry Association for MNZ regulation and enforcement of river boarding – “absolutely.”
Common criticism is that MNZ wasn’t pro-active on river boarding before Emily died and – despite last week’s court case – hasn’t done enough since.
Breaking her silence in a rare interview, MNZ director Catherine Taylor refutes this (See below “Watchdog bites back”).
But until the drowning, sources say, MNZ allegedly paid river boarding scant attention.
Originally disinterested in setting safety protocols, MNZ rapidly prioritised them after Emily died. The protocols were finally agreed with the industry in February.
And last November, MNZ spent $5000 on a four-day river rescue training course in Queenstown for 30 guides.
But that’s where it ends, say local critics.
The high-profile court case was followed by a MNZ press release trumpeting “a wakeup call” for river boarding firms – then the water sheriff shuffled off back to Wellington.
River boarding remains unregulated, neither operators nor guides having to be licensed by MNZ, critics cry – and the new safety regime is totally voluntary.
With regulation by MNZ, river boarding firms would be licensed under a “safe operating plan” and guides would have compulsory training standards.
There’d be formal audits at least annually.
“Right now MNZ is putting the police car at the bottom of the cliff,” one critic says.
Currently, river boarding’s only regulatory sanction is a new Queenstown LakesDistrict Council bylaw covering all tourism activities – fines are just $300-$500.
Mad Dog’s McLeod has two reasons for pleading with MNZ to finish what it’s started by regulating.
“First, MNZ has far greater resources to audit operators and [impose] higher standards than any individual company or small [river boarding] association is ever going to have.
“And [regulation would] change what’s happened since Emily’s incident – and what the Jordan family and myself have had to go through.”
With 10,000 thrill-seekers river boarding here yearly, many Queenstowners may feel McLeod’s argument holds water.
Don’t let my daughter’s death be for nothing
The father of Emily Jordan fears her death will be in vain if safety procedures and regulations don’t change.
Chris Jordan is calling for tougher controls over the whitewater boarding industry and wants Maritime New Zealand “to ensure that safety becomes a proactive process, not a reactive one”.
“If river boarding had been inspected and licensed and good quality safety systems had been put in place then there is a high chance my daughter would not have died,” he says.
Jordan, from Worcestershire, England, travelled to Queenstown for the harrowing trial two weeks ago of Mad Dog River Boarding – the operator responsible for his daughter’s drowning on the Kawarau River in April 2008.
Feeling “very let down” by NZ safety and legal systems, he tells Mountain Scene he’s setting up a website to lobby for change.
Jordan believes any voluntary code of practice agreed by MNZ and the river boarding operators won’t be properly policed and calls for several safety aspects of the extreme activity to be made mandatory.
Like supplying proper buoyancy aids – the one Mad Dog supplied slipped off Emily as rescuers tried desperately to free her.
Veteran North Island whitewater expert Donald Calder, called as a witness for MNZ in court, says the design of canoe-polo-style vests used by Mad Dog wasn’t safety approved – despite a MNZ legal requirement stipulating a required standard.
“They were operating outside that law,” Calder claims.
“The manufacturers have cut the buoyancy out of the front of the buoyancy aid which means there’s more buoyancy in the back of it which for a starter is quite bad because it means that somebody is going to float face-down in the water.”
This aspect wasn’t part of the court case because “there was no proof it was a contributing factor to her death”, Calder says.
New MNZ safety guidelines “recommend” that river boarders now wear a buoyancy aid like the ones used by whitewater rafters – with more straps and a head support.
“A proper lifejacket will float you on your back even if you’re unconscious. It has a pillow under your head,” Calder says.
Jordan also believes river boarding operators should make the activity a day trip – starting off in easy water – instead of just one jaunt down the river: “It cannot be right to give individuals maybe 10 minutes’ training and then expect them to go down grade 3, 4 or even 5 rivers.”
The court heard that Mad Dog guides specifically didn’t warn clients about entrapment risks in case they became scared.
The new guidelines say operators should now warn participants about “the inherent risk of drowning” in any whitewater activity.
Guides should also make their clients familiar with hazards and emergency procedures before getting on the river.
But Jordan says the guidelines “have so many holes in them it’s ridiculous”.
“These need tightening up substantially if they are going to make any difference in terms of safety.”
Watchdog bites back
In a rare interview, Wellington’s top water watchdog breaks her silence on river boarding – and rides the rapids of criticism.
Maritime New Zealand director Catherine Taylor prefers a light-handed regime – but she’ll turn the screw if river boarding firms don’t play ball.
“MNZ expects operators in this area to be responsible for the safety of people … we’ll regulate if they don’t take that responsibility seriously.”
Taylor first wants to see how new river boarding industry safety protocols pan out.
“At this stage, I’m quite happy to let the guidelines settle in and we’ll be monitoring operators against these.”
How? “More regular oversight – that’s more regular auditing – and more regular meetings with the industry to determine whether the guidelines in practice are working for them.”
Taylor admits Emily Jordan’s death spurred action – and not just of the legal variety – on river boarding.
“My concern as director immediately was ongoing continuing safe operations on the river with this type of activity.”
Was Mad Dog a cowboy in an otherwise responsible industry? “We’d say Mad Dog was the exception rather than the rule.”
The new protocols MNZ’s developed with river boarding firms are a form of regulation, Taylor believes.
She wants “voluntary, willing compliance – that’s much more powerful than sitting here in the Wellington office and dictating to somebody down in a river that this is what you’ll do. The regulator is not there every day”.
Anyhow, “this industry is not unregulated”, Taylor says. “It’s not appropriate for people to say it’s not regulated – it is.”
Health and safety laws under which Mad Dog was prosecuted “set a very, very high standard”.
Asked if it was going to take more deaths to prompt regulation, Taylor says earlier warnings from audit reports might be the catalyst.
“But again, my first step would be to work with the industry to get them to comply voluntarily.
“Until you actually get into the minds of operators that at all times they need to think of safety as being paramount, you’re not going to improve safety outcomes.”