When I step off the floating dock into the dragon boat, a clammy band of anxiety cinches my chest. The boat sways precariously as my teammates hop in and adjust themselves, easing their weight to the rails. I white knuckle my paddle, focusing on drums sounding over the water. A moment later, I identify my unease.
It’s been eight years since I nearly drowned.
As someone who grew up with the ocean, this shouldn’t seem so remarkable. There’s always a brief terror as you’re dragged backwards through the trough of a wave and the crest breaks over your head, temporarily trapping you beneath a surge of water; and just when you’re sure you won’t be able to claw back to the surface, the water calms. The power passes.
The ocean requires a requisite surrender of control to enjoy.
It was one of the older shells, a wooden four-person relic at least twice as heavy to carry to the dock as its more modern, fiberglass descendant, but we bore the weight with a certain measure of curmudgeonly pride. As one, we hefted the boat up and over our heads and rested the rails on our shoulders. Furrows carved into our skin as we trudged down to the docks with our burden. No, we told our teammates, it’s really not that heavy.
Crude, lace-up shoes decorated each foot board. As we haphazardly balanced into the narrow shell, we slipped our feet into the oversized footwear and laced them tightly to avoid slippage. The shoes were nailed to the boards.
We pushed off from the dock just before six a.m., fog of our breath punctuating each stroke. We strained in unison, hyper cognizant of the person in front of us, of the feather and sweep of the oars’ blades. We knifed across the bay, bioluminescent plankton lighting our wake. Catch, check, feather, release, repeat. The rhythm stuttered only once, faltering as a teammate caught the edge of her blade in a small wave. Our momentum compounded the error. The blade jacked the shell like an emergency brake, flipping us toward her buried oar.
Time is fickle. When I replay the capsize, we should have had plenty of time to haul our asses onto the rails and right the boat before it became unrecoverable. We should have been able to reach down and unlace the shoes. In reality it happened in seconds. The shell turtled, shiny wooden hull beaming toward the dark sky, and—still laced to the boat—the water dragged us under. Bay water flooded my mouth and saturated my sweatshirt. The shock of cold water immediately deadened my limbs. I didn’t even think about the other rowers.
I floundered in mute panic, choking as I scrambled to detach myself, to juke my body into a position that would allow my head to break the surface. Wood connected with my skull just as my fingers managed to unknot the laces. Oblivious to the pain, I kicked free from the boat and my teammates, rocketing to the surface. I coughed explosively, water pouring from my mouth and nostrils, and draped my body over a floating oar. Shivering, weighed down by my sodden clothing, I tried my best not to vomit. An eternity of blankness had passed in less than thirty seconds.
The four of us bobbed in the center of the bay, gently drifting with the current. We said nothing. By the time the crash boat arrived, we were trembling, unable to pull ourselves up and over the sides into safety. Our coach hauled each of us out of the water, raking our skin over the metal gunwales. We stripped away the wet clothes and huddled in misery, willing warmth into our pale bodies.
Rowers don’t wear life jackets.
This river is a trickle compared to the Atlantic. We’re not alone. I’m bundled into a long boat with twenty people, and hundreds of spectators in colorful tents line the banks. I remind myself that a caught paddle will do little more than slow us down. I raise my arms, paddle poised above the water. Our flag catcher huddles near the head of the dragon, waiting to launch himself over the bow.
The gong sounds. For eight seconds, I fly.