During my visit to Singapore this week, a recent tragedy dominated coverage in the Straits Times: five members of Singapore’s national dragon boat squad, all in their early twenties, drowned last Friday when their boat overturned following a race on the Tonlé Sap river in Pnom Penh, Cambodia. A huge national outpouring of grief ensued in Singapore, understandably, but one of the outcomes was that from now on, all Singaporeans participating in watersports events either in Singapore or overseas are to be required to wear a lifejacket.
As a paddler, and somewhat inept swimmer, I have some sympathy with the emotional response, but looking at the facts, it appears that wearing a lifejacket would have done nothing to prevent the deaths and in fact would have made things worse. The paddlers were swept under a 45m by 12m pontoon. The Tonlé Sap, as I saw for myself on my last visit to Cambodia, is an extremely wide, muddy, and fast-flowing river with unpredictable and extremely strong currents. Anyone being swept underneath a pontoon would be unable to see a thing and unable to surface. A lifejacket would hamper any attempt to get out from under the pontoon and would have been worse than useless.
As usual, the official response to this sort of accident stems from a total lack of understanding of the conditions surrounding the accident and of the sport.