John Thistleton September 12, 2012
Happy to be alive and on dry land Fil Giles after being rescued on Lake Burley Griffin by (right) Pirate Party Boat owner John Arganese. Photo: Jay Cronan
Minutes from drowning in the icy waters of Lake Burley Griffin at dusk on Saturday kayaker Fil Giles felt an explosion underneath him.
He was hallucinating. The ‘explosion’ was fireman Mark Johanson who had stripped down, dived in and hoisted him up to deck hand Mick Millard aboard the Pirate Boat.
Most remarkably was how the senior fireman was there with seconds to spare before the lake claimed another life where a kayaker drowned in 2009.
From the moment Rita Arganese hurried her husband John to work on his boat, which had its engine idling when firemen arrived, events conspired to save Mr Giles, a 68-year-old lawyer who has vowed never again to go in the water without a life jacket.
A rogue wave had thrown him into the water. The 45 km/h wind then sent his sleek, carbon fibre kayak racing away without him.
Someone on Black Mountain Peninsula saw the capsize and called 000.
Fire fighters from Ainslie were first on the scene, scanned the choppy water with binoculars before spotting the kayaker bobbing in a swell 700m east of the peninsula.
Cold shock, which can cause a heart attach or involuntary swallowing of water, is common in drownings, so the firemen knew they were against the clock.
They weren’t going to reach Mr Giles from that peninsula. A snap decision was made to drive around to Acton Peninsula, hoping to find some sort of vessel - anything - to reach him.
Because he had left earlier that afternoon Mr Arganese and his crew had only two of 17 ropes to untie when the firemen charged onto the Acton jetty.
‘‘Quick! We need your boat,’’ they yelled. ‘‘Someone’s drowning around the corner of that island.’’
The boat’s Volvo 225 horsepower engine roared into life with the skipper praying the most direct and perilously shallow route to Mr Giles didn’t rip the bottom out of his 20-tonne vessel.
Precious minutes swept by as all on board strained their eyes through the fading light, when crewman Paul Michel spotted a black paddle waving.
When the Pirate Boat’s blazing lights appeared Mr Giles thought: ‘‘I hope those bastards see me. Oh shit they’re going to run over me. I stuck my paddle up.
‘‘I just seemed to pop out of the water. It was amazing. F..k! I was so relieved.’’
Mr Johanson said after a while Mr Giles regained enough strength to hold a conversation.
‘‘Once we got him on board we started asking him a few basic questions, how long he had thought he was in the water, his name and so forth.
‘‘Once we grabbed him and got him on board he took a little while to speak, but he could hold a conversation.
‘‘We removed the gentleman’s wet clothing, put space blankets around him to try and get him warm and started basic first aid.’’
The firman said assertive decision making from station officer Brendon Cross and good local knowledge to find a boat meant they spent only 15 minutes from the time they spotted him to reaching him in the water.
Deck hand Peter Ashworth said Mr Giles was about to sink. ‘‘He had had no idea where he was.’’
Mr Giles said he coughed up a lot of water and gunk as the boat powered back to waiting paramedics. Staff at Canberra Hospital’s emergency department slowed his return to warmth because his organs were so far below capacity.
An adventure racer, he was wearing a waterproof jacket with tight rubber bands around his wrists and waist which gave him temporary buoyancy.
‘‘Mate you will never get me out anywhere without a life jacket,’’ he said.
Experienced kayaker Scott Hunter, who saved a kayaker in 2009 on the same day Peter Morrison, 30, drowned in the lake, said Mr Giles would not have lived long without a life jacket.
As well, the lake’s concrete walls reflected waves so much they turned the lake into a giant washing machine.
YMCA Canberra Sailing Club chief instructor Hamish Balfour, whose club also saved a kayaker in the middle of the lake on the same day Mr Morrison drowned, said cold shock could drown someone almost immediately as they hit the water.
‘‘It’s the cold that kills people, not the wind.’’
In 10 degree water some had between 15 and 30 minutes before they would be incapable of taking any more action.
Huddling in the foetal position was recommended, rather than swimming and losing body heat.
The lake users say August and September are notorious for strong winds. They call them bullets.