Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Rain, The Sleet, The Cold and The Hole – The View from the Back

When we arrived at the registration tent for the 2006 Willimantic River Race, the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees and there was a steady drizzle. Not too bad for a nine-mile canoe race in Connecticut in early April. Could be worse…

Washboard was in the bow and I was in the stern. We registered in the “Canoe-Local” division, which meant that we were one of the first boats to start. The race officially began at 11:00 am, and by 11:03, we were paddling.

The rain let up a little, and we made good time for the first few miles. The Willimantic is a narrow, shallow river that moves quickly. A couple of times we bumped through some shallows, but for the most part, we were reading the river well and staying in the current. A couple of one-man canoes caught up and passed us. After a while, we were sweating and taking off our thick ski gloves. The scenery was great and we were totally enjoying ourselves, smiling and waving to spectators on the bridges.

As we were nearing the halfway point, the rain picked up considerably. The kayaks had caught up to us and we fell in behind them, running their lines. Once or twice, we bottomed out, brushing against a hidden rock in a section where the kayak had breezed through. Despite the cold and the rain, our spirits were still high.

It was around this time that I started to notice a fair amount of water in the back of the boat. I thought back to the last bridge we had gone under, where a woman had observed, “You sure got a lot of water in the back of that boat.” I had shrugged off the comment, a little embarrassed that our tie-ups in the shallow water had caused enough splashing to collect a puddle large enough to be spotted from 20 feet away. I mentioned the puddle to Washboard and suggested that the rain might be contributing to the problem. He paused mid-stroke, turned to look and the water, and said “Naw, probably not.” I agreed, a bit perturbed that my sloppy paddling and inexperienced navigation were slowing us down.

As the first of the two-man canoes came into sight behind us, the weather turned nasty. The rain had changed to sleet, and the temperature continued to drop. Washboard yelled out, “Holy shit, man, this ain’t rain, this is sleet. It’s friggin’ sleeting out here.” Sure enough, little white pellets were collecting in the folds of my North Face shell. I realized that I was definitely colder than I had been at the start of the race. The temperature had dropped significantly.

By now, it was getting hard to paddle. The canoe was no longer steady. If I reached out too far to my left, the boat would tip and lurch. I glanced down at the water at my feet. Minutes before, the water had been lapping at the heels of my shoes. Now, it was above the soles. I was struggling to get the boat through turns. Washboard and I debated whether to pull over and dump the canoe, and then agreed that it was inevitable.

After the first dump, I still harbored the illusion that it was just a combination of sloppy paddling and steady rain/sleet that was causing the boat to fill up. Washboard was dubious. Every time he looked back, more and more water was swilling around my feet. The ski gloves and Nalgenes in the bottom of the canoe began to float. The gunnels were about five inches from the surface of the water, and the slightest lean brought us perilously close to swamping. We had to dump again. We pulled to the shore flipped the boat, and I saw it. A one inch gash running along the spine of the boat. I put my arm inside the boat and pressed a finger against where I thought the crack might be. Pink flesh pushed up through the blue fiberglass hull. We were leaking…fast.

We estimated that we had about two or three miles left. We wedged an extra towel into the crack and laid our full Nalgenes on top of it. Nearly, the entire field had passed us at this point, so there was no need to rush. Our goal was to make it to the finish, a task that even Washboard was doubting. Luckily, the towel slowed the leak, and I realized that with a little determination and a few more dumps along the shore, we could make it. We weren’t going to win anything (other than the “Spirit” award), but we would finish.

After a quarter mile or so, we dumped again, tucked the soaking towel, and started back on the water. The rain, the sleet, the cold, the hole—all these were secondary. All we wanted to do was finish. As we passed under a bridge we asked, “How much further?”

“About a quarter mile,” a young girl called back. Washboard asked if I thought we should bail out of the race here and let them shuttle us back to the finish. I said I thought we could make it. So, we limped our way under the bridge and powered toward the finish.

The end of the race was Eaglesville Dam, which temporarily turned the shallow, quickwater of the Willimantic into a quarter-mile long, deep-water lake. The hills and bluffs that had enclosed us for the first eight-and-a-half miles of the trip had flattened into nubby, winter-yellow fields and wind-swept marshes. We entered the slow, flat water of the home stretch equidistant from either shore. The boat was full, and a headwind met us out of the south. We dug in as much as we could. One last team motored by us, both paddlers in perfect sync, alternating sides each time the stern man yelled “Hup!” Both paddlers wore tight-fitting polypro shorts and shirts, sweating profusely despite the cold. They were unaware of our situation, but still offered some encouragement, “Almost there, guys!”

Unfortunately, we weren’t almost there. We badly needed to pull over to the shore for one last dump. Washboard was panicked. The gunnels were less than three inches from the surface, and we were still 200 yards from shore. We both knew that if my end of the canoe swamped, our boat would be resting at the bottom of the lake in a matter of minutes. We struggled for the shore, hitting sand just as the water in the bottom of the canoe crested above my ankles. We could see the finish line less than 500 yards away. We dumped, wedged the towel and braced into the wind and rain for the final sprint home.

As we pulled up to Eaglesville Dam, no one could tell what we had been through. The canoe looked fairly sturdy and dry. Washboard’s wife Amanda and her dad stood under umbrellas waiting for us, relieved. The EMTs greeted us with a few snickers and a “Ya missed the burgers and beers, boys.” The first place boat had finished with a time of 140 minutes. We had pulled in at 197 minutes. But our pride was intact. We had brought her home – despite the rain, the sleet, the cold and the hole.

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