Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Holy Hypothermia Aquaman!


sailing card
Originally uploaded by Decay, Rattle and Hum.
This past Saturday was my last sailing class through the City of Long Beach's Leeway Sailing Center. On the agenda was a written test covering the parts of the boat and sails, a rigging test and a sailing skills test where each student had to demonstrate tacking, jibing, close hauling and a beam reach back into the dock.

My friend Susie (who e-mailed me recently that most of the US Olympic small craft women's sailing team is in their 40s so, I could still be an Olympian) would have been so proud of my performance. Even the weight disparity between my sailing partner and I, made worse by his slow response time on the jib sheets when I shouted "tack", didn't manage to ruin my run of the course. In fact, the instructor gave me kudos for how I compensated for my partner blowing my first try at the beam reach into the dock when he slowed the boat too much by not switching the jib to the port side on my last planned tack.

All tests completed, there was one final activity that each student needed to participate in to pass the class and be awarded their sailing certificate... the dreaded capsize! Which viciously and strategically, was not mentioned in the course description nor alluded to by the instruction until just the week before. Now, I've unintentionally capsized and righted Sun Fish so, it wasn't that I was afraid of the capsize itself. Although, Rod & Marianne Semrad's past admonishments to not swim in marinas (the actual sailing portion took place in a "bay" area created by a concentration of close-shore islands and peninsulas that is also home to a couple marinas and private docks) due to possible presence of effluent crossed my mind but I'd already scoped out where the fresh water hoses were so, onward... The catch (beside earthquakes and mudslides) about sunny Southern California is that the Pacific never warms to summer East Coast Atlantic or Midwest Great Lake norms.

When Friday's weather report predicted cool temps and rain for Saturday, I even called the sailing center in hopes of hearing that the capsize drill would be postponed due to weather to the following weekend when I was counting on a heat wave. No such luck, the instructor told me that we were sailing unless there was a "torrential downpour." I asked for his advice on wearing a wet suit but he assured me that I'd be in and out of the water so quickly that the suit would be liability not asset. Desperate and only somewhat kidding, I actually told a coworker, who happens to be married to the City Manager and is a former manager in the city's recreation dept., about this ludicrous hypothermia-tempting exercise. She offered to do a rain dance to ensure copious precipitation but alas, she wouldn't have her hubby cancel the class.

OK, enough digressing... back to the scene. On the day of the planned capsizing, the air temp was in the low 60s and the water temp was in the low 50s. The drill called for the two-person teams to each take a turn playing "captain" - whose role would be to quickly swim to the centerboard and use their weight to leverage the capsized boat back into an upright position and "crew" - whose role would be to hang onto the hiking strap in the bottom of the cockpit as the boat was being righted (called the "scoop method") thereby positioning them back onboard so, they could then help the "captain" climb aboard at the stern. As I mentioned above, there was a bit of weight difference between my partner and I. Specifically, I'm five foot four inches tall and around one hundred and fifteen pounds and he was over six feet and likely over two-hundred and fifty pounds. A bit self-conscious about being the only one to show up in neoprene from neck to ankle plus concerned about overheating leading up to the capsize, I passed on wearing my full wet suit but had brought along my shorty to later change into. In the end, because my shorty is only a 2/1 thickness and the current fit is too loose in the legs, I ended up never putting it on.

Other than a few classmates briefly panicking when the capsize landed them under the sails, one getting knocked on the head by the mast and everyone bitching about the water being cold, every other team's capsizing passed fairly uneventfully. The only other female of my size in the class took longer and strained more than any of my other classmates but eventually, she too was able to right the boat and "scoop" up her partner, who was only slightly taller and heavier than herself.

My partner and I were the last team. I decided that I would play "captain" first. My logic was that if I couldn't right the boat due to the weight disparity (the instructor could not be cruel enough to make me attempt it indefinitely), he and I could just trade places in the water and he could get the boat righted (I had no clue how I was going to pull him into the boat but I really wasn't thinking that far ahead). So, we capsized the boat without any problems and after the word "f*ck" loudly escaped escaped my lips instantly upon contact with the frigid water, I quickly swam around to the center board. Once there, I signaled my "crew" that I was ready to go and started propelling myself in and out of the water pressing down on the centerboard in an attempt to rock the boat back upright. And then, I did it some more... Then, my instructor shouted from the dock to try hoisting my full body weight up on the centerboard. Yeah, that didn't quite work either... By this time, I'm shivering uncontrollably, my limbs feel like they are made of Silly Putty, I'm breathing way too rapidly and my heart is racing (thanks to the internet, I now know that these are symptoms of hypothermia) . I pour everything that I have left into a combo of the two above described techniques. Finally, I can feel it starting to work. The instructor and other classmates are on the dock cheering me on. Yes! The boat was finally back upright again.

I can't tell you how long it took. It could have been five minutes; it could have been over fifteen. I swam to the back of the boat with barely functioning limbs and racing breath and heartbeat, ready to be assisted aboard by my "crew." But, who should I meet at the stern, still in the water, but my "crew." Turns out, I was able to right the boat only after he released the hiking straps and his weight was no longer counteracting my attempts to right the boat.

There was literally no way that I could have pulled myself abroad; that's how weak my arms and legs were by then. Then my partner announces that he's recovering from hernia surgery and wouldn't have been able to help me aboard anyway. Aarghh! Not sure if the instructor finally noticed my rapid breathing or had just become concerned over the eye-catching blue shade my lips had turned but he then thought to ask if I was OK. To this I emphatically replied, "Not really!" and he directed me to swim to the dock, which luckily, was only about twenty feet away.

Even wearing a life jacket, it was the longest twenty feet of my life attempting to swim in spite of the cramping and weakness in all my limbs. The instructor hauled me up on deck, made the appropriate cooing noises over my hard-earned success and then, in spite of my indigo lips and near hyperventilating, actually asked if I wanted to go back out for my partner's turn at playing "captain!" To this I wheezed "No!", the volume of my reply barely audible over the chattering of my teeth. I shakily headed to the classroom, toweled off, bundled up in some warm, dry clothes and then headed into the bathroom where I took a moment to admire the groovy blue tint still visible on my lips.

I couldn't shake the chill and stood around shivering while I waited for the instructor to finish filling out my certificate. I then wobbled and weaved to my car, where I had to rest and warm up for the next ten minutes until the shivering subsided enough for me to drive. At home, I immediately hopped into a hot shower. It didn't work... I was still shivering under a stream of scalding water so, I let the tub fill and submerged myself up to my neck. In total, I spent one and one-half hours in a state of teeth-chattering, bone-jarring shivering. After a cup of hot tea, I crawled under a down comforter and took a long nap. Waking up, I finally felt toasty but within the hour, I was shivering again and running myself another hot bath.

During my second bath, I noticed the ugliest bruises that I've ever seen along my upper arms, knees, thighs and calves where my body had obviously been connecting with the centerboard. My upper arms were (and still are) the funky purple color of the dye used by the USDA to stamp inspected beef (photos to follow once I finish this roll of film and have it developed). In the past, I've commented about how I, at times, have looked like a "battered wife" due to how easily I bruise. But, never, never has my skin turned hues like these. The bruises are so dark and purple that they look like side-effects radiation poisoning. Evidently, at some point, I also hit my chin on something but thank god, though it does hurt, it did not bruise.

So, sorry Susie... I'm passing the Olympic dream baton back to you. The intermediate class also has a capsize requirement and unlike my Open Water diving certification, where I was allowed to do my "check-out" dives in warmer, friendlier waters, with sailing, I'm stuck with the glacial Pacific, where even in summer, water temps only barely reach the mid-sixties.

To be fair, I must acknowledge that I was the only member of the class to have such an extreme reaction to the cold water, which leaves me terribly curious as to how SoCal residents, who claim to be freezing in air temperatures under seventy degrees, are somehow hardy enough to cope just fine with water temperatures low enough to chill beer!

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