After my sadistic PE teacher in high school ordered the class to swim the 50 meter length of the YMCA pool I should have realized I didn’t know how to swim. I weighed 145 pounds, was made of nothing but muscle, bone and stubbornness and I sank when placed in water.
The rest of the boys quickly made it to the other end of the pool where they climbed out to watch me struggle slowly forward. I fought like a drowning dog and with nothing but a force of will I made it the end where the teacher glibly told me that he, “Wondered if I was going to make it.”
Somehow I passed PE and graduated from high school and it was on Christmas break during my first year of college that I suddenly found myself upside down in in a world that literally takes your breath away. I had fallen into the winter water of Puget Sound. And while I may have convinced myself that I knew how to swim, the water didn’t necessarily agree.
I grew up with water. The beach was just a couple of blocks from my home and it provided my entertainment. There were three old boathouses lined up next to the ferry dock at the beach. They had little railroads sloping down that went out past the low tide line. Fishermen would rent kicker boats, roll them down on miniature flatcars out into the water. At the end of the day they would circle out in front until someone in the boathouse would send out an empty car to pick them up.
My friends and I built bonfires, made plans and explored under the old boathouses. Amidst the smell of creosote, we smoked cigarettes and explored growing up. We built rafts and would float on big boom logs in water so cold only young kids and grown ups in wet suits could stand it. We salvaged wrecked row boats, patched the leaks with tar and set out. We combed the beach and in a windrow of seaweed up to our knees, we found a burlap sack with six drowned pups in it. They were still fresh. You would have thought they were asleep after a bath except for how cold they were.
My father had always admonished me to learn how to swim, to really swim. During World War II, the ship he was on had been bombed and he spent twenty hours in the water. Nearly 800 men died in that attack and one of the few stories he ever shared of that terrible day was of his shipmates in the water with him becoming quieter and quieter until they were no more. I assured him I knew how to swim. I sold newspapers on the ferry dock and when I was offered five dollars to jump from the dock with all my clothes on, I did it, splashed my way to shore and collected the five dollars. I was confident that I knew how to swim.
So it was on that winter break that I borrowed the kayak. It was fiberglass and homemade. Before kayaks became as popular as today, most of them were homebuilt. A mold would be passed from person to person and in a stinking mess in somebody's basement, the amateur boatbuilder would craft a kayak to the best of his ability.
This one may have been the best someone could do, but it only pointed out the builder's limitations. The kayak had never been finished or painted and had a translucent mildewed gray look. It was a bare shell, with no seat, no watertight compartments and the builder had simply jammed a couple of chunks of pink styrofoam in the ends for flotation.
In late afternoon approaching dark, I carried the kayak down to the beach. I had left my life jacket at home, so I just sat down in it, grabbed the paddle and pushed off. I had used a large sea kayak in the past, so I was confident of my abilities. But this wasn't a wide flat-bottomed sea kayak, it was a makeshift river kayak, narrow and rounded, built to turn quickly.
I pulled on the paddles, first left, then right, left... right...left... right. The water was absolutely flat with just a breath of wind. I made good time; left, right, left, right. Dipping first one side, pull... dip the other, pull... smooth water. I headed straight out from shore. In a short time I was past the ends of the little railroads, soon well beyond the end of the ferry dock, and finally outside the last of the black pilings stuck in the sandy bottom. About two hundred yards off shore in absolutely flat water all of a sudden I was upside down falling out of the boat. It had just rolled over.
Salt water stung my nose, the light above told me my head was at the wrong end for air. I spun and kicked toward the surface. It had
happened so unexpectedly I hardly had enough time to hold my breath. My head finally burst through the surface, I gasped and tread water.
Maybe I had pulled too hard on one side, I didn't know, but I was out of the kayak in very cold water. The kayak was beside me. Lightened of its load, it rolled slowly over. A large bubble of air belched out of of the hatch, and one end of the kayak sank straight down. Air was trapped in the other end and it floated straight up and down, bobbing gently in the water like a single accusatory finger pointing to the sky. I spun around looking for the paddle. My first thought was that since I had borrowed the kayak I didn't want to lose anything. The water was painfully cold.
I couldn't see the paddle but a chunk of styrofoam about the size of a Bible had become free and floated lightly on the water, gently sailing out of my reach. I now knew I was beyond my swimming abilities, I could easily drown out here, I thought. So I grabbed for the foam and my splashing pushed it out of reach. More gently this time, I moved slowly, got the foam and stuffed it under my arm.
I looked towards shore, the boat houses were closed and nobody was going to send a flatcar out to pick me up. Lights had come on in several of the little cottages on the beach. Nobody was taking a stroll on this cloudy winter evening. I looked for the ferry, but it was closer to the other side and I thought about what to do.
Puget Sound is cold anytime of year, but in mid-December it is about fifty degrees. You have about half an hour in it before your body gets so cold that your mind doesn't care. I was familiar with hypothermia and debated whether to kick off my pants. Modesty influenced me and I kept them on. I knew I had to get out of the water. So holding tight to my chunk of pink salvation I started kicking and paddling toward shore. My pants slowed me down. I kept kicking, the shore seemed far away and more lights had come on.
A girl I liked had written a quote from T. S. Elliot in my high school year book, "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." I thought about that as I struggled toward shore and I wished I had followed my fathers advice. I never yelled, I was a shy kid, embarrassed, and I didn't want to trouble anyone. I didn't think anyone would have heard so I kept paddling.
The shore was slowly getting closer, the pain of the water had been replaced by numbness, almost to the point of warmth. It was dark when my dead feet thudded on the sand and I could stand up. I sloshed ashore, my wet cloths hung on me stiff and clammy, little strands of green seaweed stuck to my sweater. Still clutching the styrofoam I headed up the beach.
A middle-aged woman came out on the deck of one of the warm, lit up cottages, and shouted at me. "It's people like you, who drown... I've seen it before." I thought it was an odd comment, did she just watch them? Was she related to my PE teacher? I squished through her yard, down the parking lot to my car and drove to my house as fast as I could, shaking like a wet dog.
I stomped past my surprised parents with no explanation. In the bathroom I stripped off my clothes . I looked the color of the kayak, gray. I stood in the steaming shower, first warming only enough to shiver uncontrollably, then warming more until I could feel the pain of the hot water on thawed skin. I stayed in the shower until its water finally turned cold. Dressed and still chilled, I offered an incomplete and insufficient explanation to my parents.
My father, never one to miss making a point, didn't. This surprised me, his nature was much more like the woman in the cottage and I expected him to rail against my stupidity. I have wondered since if he was remembering himself, floating amidst the detritus of war, clinging to a seat cushion in the warm South Pacific water. The young men floating face down in their life jackets must have been about my age. This may have been one lecture he couldn't give. My mother asked me if I was hungry.
Eventually I recovered the kayak, replaced the paddle and returned it to its owner. In a heated pool I spent hours with a patient lifeguard friend until I could do the Australian crawl, the breaststroke and rest on my back indefinitely.
Now I’m as old as my PE teacher and my own children are older than I was when I took that swim in cold water. Both my son and daughter have boats of their own and I admonish them to wear life jackets and they do. My experience paled in comparison to my father’s so perhaps I talk about it more freely and perhaps that is why my own children take cold water seriously. I don’t know. I haven’t set foot in a kayak in years but my life still revolves around water on the quiet bay that I live on. And when I look at the beautiful water my heart skips when I think what might have been.