A view atop one of the islands that dot Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam. (Patrick Davies photo)

A view atop one of the islands that dot Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam. (Patrick Davies photo)

COLUMN: Scars serve as a reminder to practise water safety

Near tragedy could have been prevented with life jacket

The weather is warming up and with the unofficial summer season now upon us, we in the media will soon begin to receive press releases from first-responders asking us to remind the public about the importance of wearing a life jacket and water safety in general.

It’s something I’m happy to do, because I know firsthand how quickly a fun day-trip on the water can turn into a life-threatening one.

In summer 2016, I was on a “party cruise” in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

As part of the adventure, guests were given a kayak and allowed to leave the boat to search the nearby islands for caves.

I was last to join the group of kayakers and paddled hard to catch up. Gradually, my kayak started to take on water to the point where it became a concern.

Foolishly, I lifted myself out of the kayak seat to scoop out water. I lost my balance and fell out.

My left ankle got caught in the cockpit. The kayak remained upright while my entire body was submerged in the water, tightening the grip the kayak had on my ankle.

I struggled to free myself, bobbing up for gasps of air between waves. I was fighting for my life for what seemed like an eternity.

As a last ditch effort, I took one deep breath and threw my entire weight deep into the sea as hard as I could, freeing my ankle. I swam with the kayak to the rocky shore where I scooped out some of the water.

Pumping with adrenaline, I felt no pain as I jumped back into kayak. A dozen strokes in, the kayak filled with water again, but this time it was bright red.

EDITORIAL: Water safety always in season

I stopped to calm myself.

As the adrenaline started to fade, I began to feel lightheaded. I decided to ditch the caves and head back to the main boat to examine my cut.

I climbed the ladder to the deck and when I put weight on my ankle, I realized how bad it was.

Four Vietnamese men looked in horror as they watched blood squirt out of the top of my ankle with every heartbeat.

One of the men pulled out loose-leaf tobacco and packed the wound before wrapping it in a towel.

Turns out, that was the only first aid kit on board.

Soon after, a speed boat came and transported me to shore, where I was taken to a “hospital.”

The one-bed army clinic tucked behind a garage door offered something quite different than what I’m use to in terms of cleanliness, but I didn’t care then, nor do I care now.

I trusted them as they handed me pills and stitched me up. I can’t remember if they gave me anesthesia – I do remember the pain – and they didn’t tell me what the pills were, but, again, I didn’t care.

This entire event could have been avoided had I been wearing some sort of personal flotation device. When my ankle was caught, my response could have been more calculated – instead, I reacted out of fear for my life.

Had I drowned that day, I would have become another rather grim statistic.

According to BC Coroners Service data between 2008 and 2016, there were 666 deaths related to drowning.

Of those deaths, 21.8 per cent were related to boating, 16.8 per cent were related to swimming, and 16.5 per cent were related to falls into water.

About 80 per cent of the deceased were men.

I was one of the lucky ones, but my scars – both physical and emotional – remain as a constant reminder to wear a life jacket.

Aaron Hinks is a reporter with the Peace Arch News.

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