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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Staying Alive!

Part 1: Dressing to Dis' Mr. Death

By Farwell Forrest

May 25, 1999

Many years ago, when I was just learning to paddle a solo canoe and trying to make the best use of every minute of my limited free time, I set up a slalom gate in the pond across the road from my house. It was a very small pond, no more than 100 feet wide at its widest point, and only eight feet deep at its deepest place.

Apart from size, the pond had everything. It was convenient, familiar, and completely safe. Or so I thought. I'd run Class III-IV water in tandem canoes, after all. I'd paddled big, storm-tossed lakes, and survived the lumpy, confused seas of tidal rivers. What could happen in a farm pond?

A lot, as it turned out. I could die, for one thing.

And I very nearly did. We like to think that tragedy strikes only in dramatic surroundings. A lone canoe races a towering thunderhead across a big northern lake—and doesn't make it. A couple of hot-shots in a hot boat take on a Class VI drop, fall back off a mountainous standing wave into an Oh-My-God hole and are never seen again. A solo paddler, taking a nap after lunch somewhere in the high Arctic, doesn't hear a polar bear approaching. Suddenly, it's lunchtime again, but this time the paddler's on the menu.

These are all tragedies, of course, but they're somehow—What? Redeemed? Explained? Made more acceptable?—by the romance and the grandeur of their settings. A big, storm-tossed lake. Impossible whitewater. The endless Arctic plain. We hear of such deaths and we say to ourselves, "Well, at least they died doing something they wanted to do." And some of us, at least, will imagine ourselves in the headlines. "Lone canoeist lost on Ellesmere Island; remains eaten by wolves." Not so bad, we think. If your time is up, it's up, right? Why not go out in style?

There's no romance in drowning in a farm pond, though. I know. It nearly happened to me. Here's how.

It was the end of a long day. I was tired, but I wanted to "work the gate" for half an hour before supper. It was a beautiful, warm April day. The boat and my paddle were already down by the pond. I was wearing jeans and a light cotton shirt. I didn't stop to change. My life jacket wasn't where I expected to find it. "Must be in the boat," I thought, and I literally ran across the road and down to the pond.

Well, my life jacket wasn't in the boat, but that wasn't a problem. I could swim, couldn't I? And, hell, the pond was only 100 feet across. So I grabbed my paddle, put the boat in the water, and started to work the gate.

It was a good workout, too. I had my heavy little 14-footer right up on its gunwales, carving tight turns, surging forward and back. I didn't miss a move, and I didn't touch a pole.

And then, suddenly and without any warning at all, I went over. I don't know how. Maybe I dropped an edge in a low brace. Maybe it was something else. I can remember the shock of hitting the freezing-cold water, though, and I can remember the shuddering, involuntary gasp that filled my mouth and windpipe. I can remember thinking, "Swim, damn it! Swim for the shore!" And I can remember my horror when my arms didn't respond, and I sank, flailing mindlessly, heaving and gagging and already dying—sank down to the clinging, muddy bottom of that tiny pond.

The next minute or so is completely lost to me. Somehow I made my way to shore. I think I must have followed the bottom, half crawling and half swimming. All I can remember with certainty is the growing horror that accompanied my gradual return to consciousness on the stinking, mucky margin of the pond. I can remember thinking, "I nearly died here!" And I was right.

OK. You're a paddler. I don't have to tell you that life is worth living. And you don't want to die in some stupid boating accident, do you? I thought not. First things first, then. If you can't swim, learn how. It's not hard. The Marine Corps of my youth made passable swimmers out of recruits who couldn't swim a stroke, and they did it in a single morning. I don't necessarily recommend their methods, but however you learn, learn. As your skill grows, so too will your confidence on (and in) the water. You'll soon find that you enjoy paddling more, and that you're becoming a better paddler as a result. This is a good thing.

No matter how strong a swimmer you are, though, don't rely on swimming to save your life. There are plenty of rapids where even an Olympic qualifier would be hard-pressed to swim a single stroke. And there are times when swimming can actually kill you. If you ever find yourself in cold water a long way from shore, with every prospect that you'll have to wait a bit to be rescued, swimming is the last thing you want to do. What should you do, then? Simple. Draw you knees up to your chin and float, moving as little as possible. In cold water, heat and life are one. You want to conserve heat, not expend it. Swimming increases convective loss and cools your body core. Not a good idea. Deadly, in fact.

Of course, floating quietly is much easier if something is holding you up, and that something ought to be a good life jacket. Once called "life preservers," these essential garments have been re-christened "Personal Flotation Devices," or PFDs, by the U.S. Coast Guard. You can call them whatever you want, but buy a good one and wear it whenever you're on the water. They're the watersport equivalent of seat belts and shoulder harnesses.

What's a "good" life jacket, you ask? That's a fair question. Not too long ago, it was surprisingly hard to find a life jacket which was comfortable to wear for more than ten minutes, or one which permitted the freedom of movement so important to paddlers. In consequence, many otherwise sensible people didn't wear one, and quite a few died as a result. Nowadays, happily, there's much more to choose from, and the choices are better. It's easy for anybody to buy a comfortable, functional life jacket. Need some help making your choice? Just pick up the May 1999 issue of Consumer Reports and turn to page 30. You'll find an article entitled "Life Jackets: Keeping Your Head Above Water." It's a good piece, well worth reading even if you already own a life jacket. I'd recommend it to all paddlers.

Stay alive! The first steps are easy. Learn to swim, if you don't already know how. Then buy a good life jacket, and wear it whenever you're on the water. As my misadventure in the farm pond shows, Death doesn't phone ahead every time he comes calling. Sometimes he rings the bell without warning. So it's always a good idea to be dressed to answer the door. For canoeists and kayakers, this means wearing a life jacket. It's advice we can all live with, isn't it?

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

If learning to swim and buying and wearing a life jacket are the first steps in Staying Alive, what's next? A good many things, in fact. Farwell will be back next week to talk about them. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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