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Hero teacher in weir drama
Published 31/03/14

A TEACHER had a lucky escape when he plunged into the River Thames as he tried to help a school sculling crew.

Jon Brownley was in a motor launch helping the octuple from Shiplake College which had become stuck at Shiplake weir when his boat overturned.

He was swept through the weir before resurfacing at the other side. He then managed to climb out of the river.

Mr Brownley, 28, who teaches theology, was treated by paramedics at the scene before being taken to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading by ambulance and later discharged.

The school has launched an investigation into the incident, which happened at about 4.45pm on Monday.

Headmaster Gregg Davies said: “I am extremely grateful to my colleagues for their quick responses under duress, the emergency crews and the Shiplake lock-keeper and his wife who responded swiftly, effectively and with great professionalism.” Two crews of year 9 boys had been taking part in a training session with two launches manned by staff coaches and were turning round to return to the college when the octuple with eight scullers and a cox got into difficulties by the weir’s safety ropes.

Mr Davies said the boys were tired and this may have caused them to get caught in the current.

He said: “A couple of them stopped rowing as the current caught the bow and pushed the boat sideways on to the safety ropes. It is a long boat so it wasn’t going anywhere, it was wedged. It would have been worse if it had been facing downstream. The two coaches on the launches made the correct decision and told the scullers to sit still and they would come and get them off.”

The launches began taking the students off the boat in groups of three and ferrying them to the bank. They had done one journey each when Mr Brownley’s launch became entangled and capsized.

“We think something like a branch or stick got caught in the propeller,” said Mr Davies. “He was on one side of the launch which made it heavier so it began to slowly tip.

“He told the boys to grab on to the safety rope and they did a Tarzan walk [feet on one rope and hands on the other] towards the island.

“Unfortunately, the boat continued to tip and that’s when the teacher went into the water.”

Shiplake lock-keeper Andy Frake rushed to the scene after hearing cries for help and helped bring the pupils to safety. The member of staff in the second launch contacted the college boat club and the alarm was raised.

Meanwhile, Mr Brownley, who used to row for Henley Rowing Club and Leander, climbed on to the upturned launch and it floated under the safety ropes towards the weir.

He then grabbed on to the weir’s gantry and let the boat go though the weir to the other side.

Mr Davies said: “He wasn’t panicking too much and because he’s tall he could easily grab the gantry. He had the decision to either climb up the gantry or go through the weir himself. He chose to go through the weir — we have no idea why. For anyone going through a weir it’s very dangerous and potentially fatal.

“All the boys were on the bank and saw the teacher bob up on the other side. He swam to the side and got out under his own steam.”

By the time emergency services arrived, everyone was safely out of the water but some of the boys had returned to the college when police officers tried to hold a roll-call.

Mr Davies said: “The difficulty was that the emergency services needed to see the boys before they could go.

“Some of them had gone to their different houses to get dry and so we sent a message for them to go to the medical wing so the police could see them.”

A spokesman for Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “We sent a rescue boat, a 4x4, two fire engines and pumps. By the time we got there everyone was out of the water and fine. One person was checked over by an ambulance crew.

“A boat crew then went up and down the river to check there wasn’t anyone else in the water.”

Parents of all the boys involved were told about the incident later the same evening and specially trained staff were at the college on Tuesday to offer support.

Mr Davies added: “While thankful and relieved that all those involved are safe, I regard this as a very serious incident and have instigated a full investigation.

“We will have a full review of our safety procedures and we have also asked for a British Rowing safety officer to look at our procedures and make a comment.”

The crews were on the river despite the Environment Agency issuing a yellow warning for that stretch, recommending boats without engines stay out of the water.

Mr Davies said: “The daily risk assessment was carried out as normal, taking into account the yellow advisory warning.

“We also followed the college’s safety policy and assessment criteria of local rowing conditions, in line with guidance from British Rowing.

“Based on the prevailing conditions only certain crews and vessels were allowed out following a briefing to staff and pupils.”

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “We put out the yellow stream condition warning boards on that stretch of river, which means we recommend unpowered craft don’t go out and even powered craft should think carefully about it.

“It is only guidance — people have right of navigation and can go on the river as they want. We know of people who go out in stronger currents but it’s up to them to do their own risk assessment.

“If they do go out on the river in these conditions they need to keep away from weirs, where the current is obviously stronger. We will review this incident fully.”

Last year, a man died while kayaking near the weir with his family.

Michael Moore, 43, a property developer, of Church Street, Wargrave, drowned when his kayak capsized and he was dragged underwater.

He did not resurface for 10 minutes and despite attempts to resuscitate him was pronounced dead at the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

Mr Moore had joined Wargrave Boat Club just weeks before and was had rented a kayak for a day out on the river with his daughters Imogen, 12, and Evie, 11.

Following his death, the Environment Agency erected a sign warning boat users not to go near the weir.

In 2012, firefighters had to rescue two people from a narrow boat after it broke loose of its moorings and became wedged near the weir.

Shiplake College has a thriving boat club with more than 140 students aged 13 to 18.

Rowers at the school compete in numerous competitions throughout the year, including the National Schools’ Regatta and Henley Royal Regatta.

Four rowers from the college have gone on the represent Great Britain, including 2012 Olympic bronze medallist and 2013 world champion Will Satch.

Published 31/03/14

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