You can never be too careful with adventure sports, as last week's parasailing accident in Goa proved. Just as tales of stupendous achievement and heroism become part of folklore and legend in adventure circles, so do narratives of crucial errors and lapses of judgment that resulted in horrifying consequences. Over the years, I have heard several accounts of "mistakes" that led to deaths but two instances stand out.
One was a rafting accident in which a girl drowned. She was part of a group of tourists led by a river guide. Seated at the back of the raft, the guide steers while the passengers' paddling propels it along. The guide is responsible for the clients' safety. The raft capsized while running a large rapid. The golden rule after a capsize is to do a head count immediately. Since everyone is wearing a life jacket, they float to the surface. The guide did the head count only after a few minutes and realised one person was missing. He dove under the raft, which was floating upside down, and found the girl stuck under it. Her foot was caught in the rope running around the rim of the raft and she was struggling to free it.
Now came the river guide's second mistake: he did not have the mandatory knife in the chest pocket of his life jacket. He could have sliced through the rope in a second. As it was, he wasted precious seconds freeing her foot. By the time she was brought out, her lungs were full of water.
The second instance relates to paragliding. A tourist flying with a tandem paragliding pilot was not strapped into the harness correctly. It loosened in mid-flight and the pilot, unable to let go of the paraglider's risers (strings), watched helplessly as the tourist fell to his death.
Rules exist for a reason
In these cases, it may have been the experienced practitioner of the sport taking along a tourist for a joyride who was to blame. But there's another side to it. Staffers of adventure companies complain that Indian clients often resist safety rules. There are instances of people refusing to wear helmets, retorting, "It will be my skull that will be broken, okay?" Women in saris insist on wearing paragliding harnesses, even though adventure companies offer them salwar suits and a place to change.
The tourist who sets out to do an adventure activity is responsible for his own safety. Observing safety rules, rather than flouting them, is an obvious and primary requisite. Wearing appropriate clothes and shoes, tucking hair out of the way, and removing jewellery and watches are others. It is also wise to check the antecedents of an adventure company, if possible.
Where's the compromise?
Price is a telling factor. If a company quotes a competitive price, ask where it is cutting costs. Compromise on food, accommodation and service is acceptable but check that safety aspects are in order. An operator who observes safety procedures incurs costs, which have to be passed on to the client. For instance, there should be one safety kayaker per raft so two rafts require two safety kayakers. It is in your own interest to be wary of offers to bring down the cost by having one safety kayaker for two rafts.
In addition to rafting and paragliding, trekking and mountaineering see the most accidents. Indian trekkers and mountaineers tend to take chances. There is also an element of human nature involved. Once you have gambled and emerged safely, you will gamble a little more the next time. Ultimately, you push the margin of safety too far.
The buck stops with you.