Don’t like to put the paddle in the water
That would be a crazy thing to do
I don’t want to be no fishes fodder
I don’t want to tip in that canoe
Peter Mayer, “the Canoe Song”
I was pretty stoked to get the kids into our canoe for the first time. Sarah and I bought it when we lived in Reston and hadn’t taken it down off the garage ceiling since we moved to Woodbridge and Lucy was born. So we picked yesterday, Sunday, to go out on Burke Lake with them and see the ducks or geese or whatever and have a good time.
Lucy was immediately scared and wanted to get out, so we cut the first trip kind of short and put Sarah and Lucy on shore. Tess was having a nice time so we went back out. I paddled down the lake and found I was having a lot of trouble with the breeze blowing in toward shore, without Sarah in the front of the boat keeping the center of gravity in the middle and reducing the sail area of the canoe. I was still sitting in the far back, and that made the front of the canoe stick up out of the water and catch the breeze. I was getting blown toward shore, and kept trying to bring the nose of the canoe around into the wind so we could clear the long fishing pier sticking out into the lake, and get over to the landing area on the other side. I gave one especially hard push, and the canoe slid right out from under me, dumping Tess and me into the lake and flipping the canoe right over. We were about 30 yards from shore and the same from the pier, in cold water well over my head.
I can’t remember if the canoe flipped right over top of Tessie or not. Somehow I don’t think so, I don’t think I lost sight of her. But I did start calling loudly for help to the people on the pier. Tess knows how to swim and was wearing her Dora the Explorer life vest, and she did a great job swimming right next to the boat. She of course yelled at me that she didn’t like being in the water and to turn the boat back over. I reached across the canoe bottom, grabbed the rail on the other side, and pulled it back upright, full of water but not sinking since it was fiberglass and lighter than water itself. Then I washed Tessie into it and gathered the paddles and cushions into the boat too – and saw Tigger floating away about 6 feet from the boat. Tessie saw him about the same time, and that’s when she started really screaming. “Tigger! I want my Tigger!” So I grabbed the bow line and swam out to Tigger, hauled back to the canoe and gave him to Tessie.
About this time I saw someone trying to swim out to us. I hope whoever it is is OK, it slipped my mind later to mention it to the rescue crew. I called again for help and a boat several times, wondering why people were still fishing on the pier. I saw at least one person run up toward the boat shack, and I guess it only takes one. For the rest of y’all, I hope we were sufficiently entertaining. More on that later.
Tess cried and said she was cold, and I said, “So am I honey. Someone’s coming soon.” She sat shivering in the canoe holding Tigger, and I swam toward the pier, not making any headway, until the rescue boat finally came a minute or two later. The young men used a grappling hook to drag the canoe over to the boat and lifted Tessie out and wrapped her in a jacket. I swam around the boat to the other side and the young man help me out of the water, I had to hook my heel over the gunnel and he grabbed my arm and hauled me up. So I sat down and held a cold and shivering and crying Tessie as we passed shore and a very unhappy-looking Sarah and Lucy, and got to the dock. Another crew was already out taking care of our boat. I’m not sure that anyone noticed the swimmer.
I told Sarah what happened, and very soon an ambulance came – and a fire truck, and another vehicle with “people in charge”. I answered some questions and then Tessie and I got bundled into the ambulance for a checkup. Lucy came in too so Sarah could go to the car for Tessie’s change of clothes. They helped us warm Tessie up and even gave Tigger his own rescue blankie so he could warm up too. After a little while they said we were free to go, and so we left.
I packed everything up, and realized we were missing our floaty cushions. I went over to the boat shack to ask about them, and a pre-teen boy standing there saw me and got a big goofy look on his face. “Hey are you the guy who flipped the boat and fell in the lake?” “Yes”, I said. He started laughing this kind of “oh ho ho” laugh, which made me mad. I was just about to ask him if he had anything he’d like to tell me when his mom came up. The kid said, “Mom! This is the guy who fell in the lake!”, in that same inappropriate tone of voice. She gave him a look and he finally shut up. She expressed her concern for our health and I thanked her. Then the two of them moved off, and I imagine they had an uncomfortable conversation.
As far as the cushions go, during the excitement the boat crew mistook our floaty cushions as their own and put them into circulation as rentals. They called later to apologize after they figured out what had happened. Guys, it’s cool, it’s the least we can do.
Lessons learned: My big mistake was not to kneel in the middle of the canoe and center the weight. The breeze would have still caught the canoe, but it would have pushed on the back just as much as the front and I’d have had control. The tipping point came as I a gave a hard paddle on the downwind side of the canoe, shifting my weight downwind and bringing the nose out of the water a smidgen more, and the breeze picked up at the same time and pushed a smidgen harder on the sail area, which brought the canoe up a little higher, and tipped it a little further over, and it rapidly fed back on itself, became unstable, and the canoe slipped out from under me upwind. If I were centered, the nose would not have tipped up and I’d have had a lot less excitement.
I hope Sarah writes her own version of events. Apparently Lucy’s reaction after they figured out that it was our boat that capsized was “Oh no, I don’t have a sister anymore.” At least she was sad about it.