The Drowning Cyclist and the Wasp Nest

Canal paths are not bike infrastructure, with a hair raising example in the form of a cyclist who nearly drowned on a busy narrow stretch.

The Drowning Cyclist and the Wasp Nest
Photo by Andrew Hall / Unsplash

Last Sunday I was sat in the sun next to a canal having a pint, trying to relax after a wild weekend of cycling and birthday antics, when I heard “Is anyone a first aider?!” I start running down the canal to help.

A cyclist is in the water, face down, not moving, Two guys are already in the water and are struggling to pull him out. Between the three of us we get him up on the bank, and his face is more blue than I’ve ever seen anyone. I thought he was dead.

I put him in the recovery position and he starts gargling. I was moving in to give CPR when a nurse appeared and takes charge. Apparently the recovery position was enough for him to start getting water out of his lungs, instead of leaving him on his back which would have killed him.

The nurse tells us to get his clothes off, which is a struggle as he's dead weight, but we pull and rip and get him out of those wet clothes. The nurse tells us to find blankets so I run back to the bike and pull sleeping blanket over him. Then use my pocket knife to cut his backpack off as it's twisted around him.

He's still working on clearing out his lungs when somebody notices he’s laying right next to a wasps nest, an those wasps are pissed.

I had noticed I was in pain but the adrenaline was keeping it at the back oof my mind. I thought I'd just been scratched up by all the stinging nettles and brambles on the recently strimmed canal bank. People kept saying "we have to move" but I kept saying "don't worry about the wasps right now, he needs to the the water out." I put the sleeping bag over most of his body to protect him from the wasps, and we kept going until the water was all out and he was breathing properly.

As soon as we could we moved him along the bank away from the wasps, got some cushions from the pub, and made him comfortable. We had already got somebody to call an ambulance and somebody else to go stand in the nearest road to meet them, and thankfully the paramedics appeared quickly. Everyone gave them space to work, directing gawkers away.

He was back to a normal colour and smiling when the stretcher took him away.

Adrenaline is wild and I was shaking for a few hours. I calmed my nerves with some wine, waiting for it to stop, but it kept going. I still had an eight mile cycle back to the van, which is not at all far for me normally, but seemed like an epic journey in that moment. A few friends offered lifts and sofas but I just shouted "NO THANK YOU I AM A BIG BOY!" and wobbled off.

It got dark, and I didn't have any lights on my bike because it was a "daytime only" birthday ride with friends, I wasn't expecting to be out late, and my backup bike doesn't have the dynamo lights my usual ride does.

So now I'm injured, emotional, half drunk, and cycling in the dark with no lights...

I got back to the van just fine and passed out immediately. I thought I'd wake up and get back to normal buuuuuut...

My whole body hurt enough for me to scream out in pain every time I moved. Laying down hurt. Sitting up hurt. Moving hurt. My whole arm was massive.

The day before I thought I'd got about five wasp stings, but that was just because five different parts of my body hurt. Looking at the bumps my left arm got about 40 strings alone, and ballooned up to a size where I had to take my watch off, and I couldn't make a fist. I looked like a half-done popeye!

I'd had a localized allergic reaction to the wasp stings, and for the next 24 hours I was super dizzy. I mostly slept. The arm took four days to calm down and still doesn't look exactly right, but it's close enough that on day four I was back out in the field working on reforestation.

The mental aspect was hitting me differently. Seeing him that blue in the face really did a number on me. I also hadn't needed to use my first aid training before, and I felt like things could have gone very differently without the nurse being there. Once she got there I was just giving out orders like any other day on the job managing volunteers, so that was fine, but I was scared of what would have happened if I'd been entirely in charge of this man's life. Still, the recovery positiom is ace, and it all worked out.

To keep the what-ifs at bay, this time and next time, I'm going to go and get a refresher first aid course, and bump up to the Advanced Outdoor First Aid. I'll keep learning more and more, because the sorts of sites my charity is starting to work in are getting bigger and more remote, the sort of place a nurse isn't going to magically appear, and the paramedics need helicopters. I need to have confidence in doing the right thing.

Bringing this back to The War on Cars (the next post I've got sat in draft), it is wildly frustrating to me that so many cyclists are forced onto canal paths all over the country seeking safe infrastructure away from cars. This was not even this first person we pulled out of the canal that day!

Canal paths are not a safe place to cycle, but councils slap a National Cycle Route or Bike Lane logo up and Google sends folks down there. Pedestrians are annoyed with cyclists on the tow paths, boat people don't like it either, so we're all just shouting at each other and occasionally drowning, all because there is a lack of political will to make more protected cycle lanes.

Demand better from your local councillors.