Bren Orton – Some personal reflections on his loss

The last 10 days have been hard for the kayaking world. The news of Bren Orton going missing on Thursday 16th May whilst kayaking has left a huge hole in the heart of the kayaking community. He was one of the world’s best white water kayakers but he was also one of the most genuine and lovely men you could possibly meet. I have had too many thoughts and feelings in recent days to convey in a single post and so I’m writing this blog for two reasons. Firstly to help me process what I am feeling right now and maybe in doing so that will help others to process what they are feeling too. Secondly Bren was a really good person. I did not know Bren well but I got to see a glimpse of what a truly lovely man he was and I wanted to share that.

Before I start – I just want to say how sorry I am to everyone who is hurting right now. I am sorry for Bren’s family and close friends. I am sorry for everyone who ever met him in person or followed him through his social media and felt connected to and inspired by him. I am sorry for anyone who is feeling the magnitude of his loss right now.

A lovely man and a phenomenal paddler – Bren. Photo: Tom Clare

‘We lost Bren’. Reading those words over a week ago, I felt physically sick. I had just got into work and was about to lead a warm up revision session for a year 11 group before their exam that morning. (I am a teacher). I felt completely shocked and had to force myself to detach from reality for the next few hours as I had back to back lessons and student mentoring and revision sessions to run. I sent a quick message to the only other kayaking teacher in the school asking if he was free at lunch time whilst I sat hidden in a corner of the staffroom looking like I was working through lunch and in reality trying very hard not to cry.

I taught my afternoon lessons and then, as I was leaving at the end of the day, I bumped into the friend I had messaged earlier. He asked me if I was okay and I immediately burst into tears and tried to explain through my sobbing what was wrong. The news wasn’t yet public but at this point Bren’s family and friends had been told as well as many people in the kayaking community. We spoke a little before I went home. My friend remarked on what a lovely man he was and how encouraging he had been every time he had seen him. He was as stunned as I was at the news and neither of us really knew what to say.

Sharing a wave and a smile with other paddlers. Photo: Tom Clare

I got home and immediately went for a long walk with my husband Tom. Both of us were very shocked and needed the opportunity to share that with each other. I cried repeatedly as we walked through open fields and spoke about Bren. It just felt so unreal and I could not get my head around it at all.

By the time we had gotten home, the news had been shared publicly via the Pyranha and Palm social media channels. I opened my socials and was greeted with a sea of orange stories. Hundreds of kayakers shared the post and every story I opened was the post with Bren’s smiling face in his bright orange kayak. I felt numb for the entire evening and fell asleep that night with a strong feeling of disbelief.

I have included the update post from Palm and Pyranha below. Sadly Bren’s body has now been recovered.

As the next couple of days passed, there was a eery silence on social media as the kayaking world briefly stopped posting about kayaking. Everyone was waiting for further news and I think a lot of people felt very numb with shock. I spent the next week (my last week of term) trying to focus on getting my students through their exams and not think too much about the situation. The issue was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I would cry at random moments in the day and the feeling of shock wasn’t wearing off.

As we got to Thursday and a week had passed since Bren went missing, the tribute posts really began to flood my social media. Reading the heartfelt words from his closest friends around the world, it began to hit home.

I did not know Bren well but I had met him quite a few times before and been part of a few events alongside him. It always amazed me how genuine and thoughtful he was. He would always ask how I was and ask after Tom. Tom and Bren were the same age and had both started kayaking as kids. As kids they shared a fear of the same stopper at the Nene which I’m told was very scary for a little kid! As adults Bren would occasionally ask Tom about camera advice (it was Tom’s job for a long time) and they would always chat like old friends when they saw each other.

A freestyle kid at heart. Photo: Tom Clare

I remember being confused about why Bren was always so friendly to me as well and saying to Tom a few years ago that I didn’t understand how he remembered my name. He was famous and I was not part of his elite paddling circle. Yet he was always just so friendly and as kind to me as he was to Tom. I used to be nervous when I met him (which Tom found hilarious) as I felt that he was too good at kayaking to be having a conversation with me! But that was one of Bren’s talents.

He was so incredibly genuine, humble and just really good with people. I think I am good at talking to strangers but Bren’s talent with people was like nothing I’ve ever seen. He had the ability to make people feel included and special. Strangers would talk to him and he would make them feel like a friend. He had the ability to make people incredibly comfortable around him and so people would leave the encounter feeling really good afterwards.

Always keen to help others work on their paddling. Photo: Tom Clare

One thing we had in common was our passion for supporting young people. Bren was amazing with people but his enthusiasm about helping kids was on another level. Being a teacher in Nottingham, quite a few of my students are paddlers and I love it! I love to talk with them about kayaking. If I ask students who they find inspirational in kayaking, Bren’s name would always come up. He was the role model for every young kayaker for the last decade. The kids would talk about him with such warmth and admiration. That feeling was shared with adult paddlers too.

So excited to paddle with the Nottingham freestyle kids! Photo: Tom Clare

I had 2 students (brothers) a couple of years ago who were keen paddlers. They were very dedicated about their paddling and would train hard on the water. They were less keen about school if I’m honest. I would talk with them about paddling and the older one spoke about Bren one day. They had bumped into Bren on the Dee a year earlier and it had left quite an impression on them. I was thinking about this for a while and decided to message Bren and tell him about these 2 students and if he had any words of wisdom for them.

I heard nothing back at first which is to be honest what I expected. Then a week later I got a message from Bren asking for my number to send something across because it was too big to send on messenger. I was extremely intrigued and when a notification came through on Whatsapp, I was blown away. He had made a 5 minute video chatting to the boys about kayaking, school, life and future plans. I had hoped for a ‘tell them to keep on paddling!’ type message at best and instead Bren had sent something so thoughtful and kind and totally unexpected. I gave the video to the boys and they were over the moon. This video was for just for them and it is something I hope they will cherish forever. I watched it again 3 times on that first Friday evening and cried throughout.

People don’t do things like that if they don’t genuinely care. Bren cared.

Making a splash. Photo: Tom Clare

This year I was involved with some of the Bren’s Park Jam dates to support Pyranha kayaks. Watching Bren in action with the kids was remarkable. As a teacher, I understand the chaos that working with a huge number of people can lead to. Sometimes it feels like everyone is asking you a million things and trying to find solutions for everyone is overwhelming. Bren just took everything in his stride and I didn’t see his energy or enthusiasm falter once.

Sharing his adventures at the Nene as part of Bren’s Park Jam Tour. Photo: Tom Clare

Being the star of the show, it was natural that everyone wanted to paddle with him or talk to him. Usually at events there will be moments of respite and a chance to recharge but Bren was involved constantly. He was on the water for the entire time encouraging everyone in whatever they were trying. He then gave his talk about his latest adventures. Bren was a great public speaker and someone who definitely knew how to capture an audience! This was followed by the opportunity for meet and greet where he gave everyone his undivided attention. It was remarkable that his energy seemed unending and he could keep that up for the whole tour!

It was wonderful to see so many kids meeting their hero. Photo: Tom Clare

One thing that really struck me was his ability to remember details and names. As a teacher, I know how hard is it to remember names, particularly for kids who change so quickly. Bren would be calling out encouragement to kids by their name, which he had remembered from meeting them one year ago at the last park jam. He would greet paddlers at the meet and greet by name and it would be a similar thing – they had met him a year ago in an eddy on the Dee. How he kept so much information in his head I have no idea! But I would think his genuine interest in people in every interaction he had would be part of it. To still be able to do this after a tiring weekend of paddling and travelling is quite something.

Genuinely happy to see kids out kayaking! Photo: Tom Clare

Living in Nottingham, a hub of freestyle kayaking, I can tell you that the pain here is very raw. We have a huge number of kids involved in freestyle and also slalom who absolutely idolise Bren. Bren was a freestyle kid to start with and so many of the kids here (and everywhere) identify with him. I had several conversations with young people in the last week who are desperately upset about Bren’s loss. I think this is reflective of how the entire kayaking community here in the UK (and globally) are feeling. No one knows quite what to say or how to feel. I think it is okay to feel sad even if you don’t know him or know him well – it just shows how much of an impact Bren had and what an incredible influence he was.

He always took the time for those who looked up to him. Photo: Tom Clare

The last time I saw Bren was at Dee Fest this year in April. He saw me on the Friday night and came up to give me a massive hug and wish me congratulations. Me and Tom had got secretly married by the river Etive in Scotland the weekend before and he seemed so genuinely thrilled for us. He was asking about the day and laughed when I told him how wild it had been getting married in a storm and about getting to go kayaking on our wedding day. He approved of that!

I saw him again the next day just as I was about to paddle down to Town Falls for the mass start Boater-X. I was nervous and he was so nice. We spoke briefly and he shouted encouragement at me as I left him to paddle down the river. I have thought about that moment a lot in the last week. Bren being full of encouragement and seeming to really believe in me (more than I did myself). I remember thinking as I paddled down ‘Bren’s just so nice all the time’.

Even having half the Pyranha and Palm team paddlers trying to make him swim – he was still laughing! Photo: Tom Clare

I did not know Bren well but he made me feel like a friend. A feeling I think was common amongst anyone who had ever interacted with him. I know he was an insanely talented and committed kayaker but I think I will remember him for being a really lovely man. He was one of the best and the deep pain that is being felt across the world is a reflection of that. What a wonderful human being – we were lucky to have you Bren. Thank you for everything you gave to those around you.

Bren 💔  Photo: Tom Clare

13 replies on “Bren Orton – Some personal reflections on his loss”

This is so well said! It perfectly captures all the emotions I’ve been going through over the last days and I had all the same thoughts on how he made everyone around him feel so much appreciated. Thank you for writing this.

You speak for many and we appreciate your words. Bren supported our projects in Uganda and when we met along the way his energy was genuine and huge like his smile! I’m yet to find my words I guess I was waiting. Thankyou

Thank you Tommy for commenting and sharing your experience with me and others who are reading this blog. He was a very genuine person and every story about Bren supports that statement. I am sorry for your own loss and hope you can cherish your memories you shared with him.

This is a beautiful tribute. I relate to the sentiments too. My son George used to kayak with Bren for quite a lot of years and they’ve travelled all over the globe kayaking. They are the same age too.
Being the mum of a large brood, including George, only a few of my friends would remember the names of all my children. I too was taken by surprise when Bren would call out my name and greet me with a huge grin. Such a gorgeous lovable lad.
Like you, the news reached George within a few hours of his disappearance and the shock and pain it has caused is debilitating.
The only entity left is ‘hope.’
We know Bren is powerful, he’s been in far worse waters than this. We’ve been living on the hope that he got thrown downstream and miles down he was able to get out. We’re still praying for a miracle, as it is a possibility.
We’re praying for his family, all his loved friends and the kayaking community.

Thank you Angelica for commenting and sharing your own and George’s story too. Bren was so good with names – I was in awe of it! I am sure many people share your hope.

thank you so much for this beautiful post, im one of the many that never actually met him, i really wish i had, but he was my hero and an inspiration to me and my kids, we watched all the senders videos and even though i never met him, it has always been obvious the guy you saw on camera was exactly the same if you met him that was Bren he wasnt pretending he genuinely seemed like a wonderful man who first and foremost wanted to spread his love of kayaking and his love for connecting with people. I only heard the news yesterday through a facebook kayaking group and it tore me down. Its strange when you feel so emotionally connected to someone you havent met, you feel like a fraud and like you shouldnt feel that way, so its been so good hearing people say thats its ok. one of my other heroes was the singer Chris Cornell and the feeling was similar then. You just cant believe they are gone. my heart goes out to his family and friends and to all that his infectious beautiful personality has had an impact on. and next time im out on the river he will be in my mind…

Thank you for sharing on here David. Absolutely – I think that is a testament to what a special person Bren was that the impact of his loss is being felt so deeply in the community far beyond the people who knew him personally. I hope you and your children are doing okay!

Thank you for sharing you story I shed a few tears I don’t mind saying, I met Bren at Park Jam Cardiff the last 2 years we travel over from Ireland purposely for that wkend I’ve also met him here in Ireland with Adrian it was unreal craic,I can’t believe he’s just gone,I’m searching for news about him every day,I hope he is found for the sake of his family his Nan must be heart broken 😢.
R.I.P Bren

I never met Bren, or even came close to his circle in any sense. However him and Dane were the main two inspirations for me to get into outdoor education, and hearing he went missing through social media when I was out in town absolutely destroyed me. What a testament to the man he was, someone I’d never met yet someone I considered a friend just by the way he carried himself through his YouTube channel.

Thank you Reuben for sharing your own experience. He certainly was an inspiration and like you say – someone who felt like a friend just from how he carried himself. A really lovely man.

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