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Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong

by David Leach

The title of this quick read by journalist David Leach implies that Mother Nature simply behaved impetuously in the 2002 kayaking death of New Brunswicker René Arsenault. However, many people in the book believe that human error, as well as shoddy preparation and attention to safety by organizers, led to the tragedy at that year’s Fundy Multi-Sport Race. (Billed as an adventure race – as distinct from a triathlon – the event included hiking, cycling, and kayaking on the Bay of Fundy, notorious for its rocky outcroppings and tempestuous tides.)

While providing a detailed account of the events of that day, Fatal Tide also touches on everything from the personality types involved in the mostly unregulated sport of adventure racing to the science of hypothermia and Nazi experiments on the effects of extreme cold on the human body.  

There are more questions than answers on offer here. The most nagging unanswered question is what a bunch of beginners were doing kayaking on the Bay of Fundy, whatever the weather. (A squall forced many of the competitors, most of them exhausted rank amateurs, off course and into choppy open water.) After initially speaking out, organizers soon lawyered up and went mum. As one participant, himself an amateur, later said: “It was a really low-level event with a cheesy little safety boat and participants who were just a bunch of hackers. Everyone was completely ill-suited for kayaking in those conditions.”

Though it doesn’t compare to Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s 1997 account of death by misadventure on Mount Everest, Fatal Tide shares some elements in its account of the multiple small incidents of human error and arrogance that, combined with unfortunate weather, added up to disaster.