In the Summer of 2007, I had just finished my first year as an assistant principal in a high school in the State of Washington. It was a challenging year as all years are as a high school administrator. My roles included: supervisión of instructors in science, math, social studies and physical education; overseeing the student body budget and athletics programs, producing the school newsletter and lots of student discipline….drugs, weapons, fights, gangs and so on.
We had a fun administrative team. Wanda was the principal and Susan and Debbie were the two other assistant principals. I thought it would be fun for us to all go up to my parents´property on Lopez Island in the San Juans and celebrate the year and the one to come. The setting is beautiful on Lopez Sound. Wanda and I brought our children and spouses and Debbie and Susan came alone.
One of the common activities when going to the island is to set traps to catch Dungeoness crabs that are delicious. Typically you put clams you have caught or dead fish in the cage to use as bait for the crabs. You then take the cages out in the canoe and drop them in the water with a bouy to mark their location. On this day, somebody had set them very far off shore.
As dusk set in, I asked Susan if she would like to go in the canoe with me. She was a little apprehensive as she was not a swimmer, but I assured her it would be fine as I had been doing this for about 40 years without mishap. We did not have on life preservers, which was my fault. It was a beautiful summer night as we paddled out to the bouy. When you take the crab pots in, you paddle up to the side of the bouy, grab it and then pull in the crab trap. I told Susan to let me do that. She did. As I reached over to grab the bouy, she must have been startled to feel the boat tip to the side. She overreacted in the other direction and I probably did the same. It happened so fast, but before I knew what had happened I was completely under wáter. The waters in the San Juans are known for being very cold and you simply can’t stay in the wáter for a long time without getting hypothermia and dying. I knew this. I am a decent swimmer and was in marathon running shape, so I wasn’t worried about me, but in this short moment of being underwater I had already processed that we were in deep trouble.
I happened to communicate with Susan about this while writing. Without prompting she spoke about how much time seemed to slow down when going underwater and coming up. It was the same for me. Maybe when in near death experiences your brain has the capacity to slow things down to give you a chance to process the event? She also mentioned that she can’t swim. Terrifying for her. She indicated that she listened to me very carefully because her life depended on it. We also spoke of how cold we were. I was pleased that our recollections are similar. Very scary to revisit.
When I came up, Susan was clinging to the overturned Canoe which had one end visible and the other submerged. She had sheer panic on her face and she was grabbing the rope that held the bouy and the crab pot. Unfortunately the rope went over my shoulder and the weight of the crab trap had me pinned against the boat. I tried to make light of it as Susan and I had always been able to laugh a lot together. I told her not to worry, that we would be ok. I also told her that she needed to relax her grip on the rope, so that I could free myself. She would not relax her grip initially. Within the first minute I was shouting at the top of my lungs for help, but I quickly realized that everybody was indoors by this time and there are few homes in the área. I continued shouting for a while anyway and continued to encourage Susan to be calm and that we would be ok. What I had resolved myself to was that I was going to try to swim, pulling her knowing very well that we might not survive, but I would die trying to save her if I had to. I had no choice.
I was not in a panic, but realized things were not looking good. Susan was shaking with the cold and the fear when in the distance, we saw somebody pulling our rowboat to the shore in front of our cabin. It was far away, but we could barely make it out.
I communicated with Wanda and Harold today, about 13 years later and they reminded me of what was happening on shore. Apparently kids were on the beach and Wanda and Harold were on the deck. They heard something and thought it was birds, which makes sense. Lots of sea gulls. When it continued, Harold looked out and darted to the beach. He had the kids push him into the water and point towards the overturned canoe, as his back was to the canoe. Big team effort by the kids. Harold said he was exhausted by half-way, possibly due to currents or waves.
Once closer, we realized it was Harold. He was rowing frantically. Afterwards we talked about the sequence of these events in depth. He was probably going into oxygen deprivation because he was working so hard.
Even with him on the way it was not looking good. Darkness was setting in and Susan and I were freezing. Harold eventually arrived, but how were we to get in the boat?He pulled up close enough for Susan to grab the back of the row boat. I was in the wáter and went underneath her and grabbed her forcefully with my hand and pushed as hard as I could to get her over the edge of the boat. She was in! We laughed about this a lot later about how I had grabbed her, but it had to be done. Harold recalled me being tangled in the rope. Then…how was I to get in? I was frozen, She was frozen and I weigh close to 200 pounds. Somehow I got in over the back and actually dragged the canoe behind us.
When we arrived on the shore everybody was waiting for us. My son, my daughter, her friend, my wife, Wanda, Debbie, and Wanda´s two boys and their friend. Wanda said that they had warmed up the shower to prepare it for us. There was tremendous nervousness, relief and emotions in the air.
When we got out of the boat with help, Susan was tended to by people and I stood there unable to move. My hands were not functioning from the cold. Susan was taken up to the shower and others made sure I was OK. My wife did not seem overly concerned. I think she just had a lot of confidence in me, but this truly was a near death thing for me. I was so relieved to be alive. I remember my daughter´s friend having to help me unbutton the shirt I had on because my fingers simply couldn’t do it. We discussed this and replayed it many times that night. “shots” were consumed to warm everybody up and we celebrated being alive.
Many lessons in this story. Of course, wear a life preserver. Always have a back up plan. Never think that it can’t happen to you. We are so fortunate that Harold just happened to be out on the deck at that moment and heard our cry. I would not be typing today if it weren’t for him and the luck of timing. Great team building exercise but I don’t recommend it.