Coroner warns of future deaths on River Ouse ahead of Bedford canoeists' inquests

And the Environment Agency has vowed to take action
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A coroner is calling for action to prevent future deaths after two experienced canoeists lost their lives in River Ouse at Kempston.

The moves come ahead of the inquests into 56-year-old Sarah Waller of Wendover Drive, Bedford and 52-year-old Laura Pottinger, also of Wendover Drive, Bedford. The friends lost their lives after their canoes capsized in April last year.

They regularly rented out canoes from Kempston Outdoor Centre and tragically, their bodies were found in the river – at Kempston Mill – only 10 minutes before they had been due to return them.

Laura Pottinger and Sarah WallerLaura Pottinger and Sarah Waller
Laura Pottinger and Sarah Waller

One of the women was still caught in the circulating flow at the base of the weir along with two canoes and two life jackets. They were pronounced dead at the scene.

Ahead of the inquest, Emma Whitting – senior coroner for Bedfordshire and Luton – has taken the step of writing to both the Environment Agency and secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, MP Therese Coffey.

She said: “I visited the scene yesterday which revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken. In the circumstances, it is my statutory duty to report to you.

“Although there is a physical barrier to prevent access to the top of the weir, there is no similar barrier to prevent access to the bottom which appears just as hazardous in view of the re-circulating flow (or towback), particularly during time of high water levels.

“In my opinion action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you have the power to take such action."

Following the coroner’s concerns, the Environment Agency visited the site and promise to make the following changes:

Installation of a boom downstream of the weir on a temporary basis whilst a review of all the options for the site (including the removal of the weir) is undertaken

Installation of grab lines and throw lines on the downstream banks of the watercourse adjoining the weir, to aid rescue and exit from the watercourse

Continue working with partner organisations for the delivery of a national water safety communication campaign