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The Trickle - Splashdown in a racing canoe

July 31, 2012 - Brian Ferry
I'd heard racing canoes are tippy. I didn't really know how tippy until a few weeks ago. These boats are long and sleek, designed for speed more than stability or comfort. Even experienced racers end up swimming in the Allegheny River near the Flare Rapids. I, about as far from an experienced paddler as one can get, ended up in the drink twice during my first time out. Not bad, right? Considering how far I went, yeah, it was pretty bad. When the Allegheny River Competitive Paddlers (ARCP) asked me to join them in training that Tuesday evening, I very hesitantly jumped at the chance. Why would I want to paddle 9 to 15 miles down the river — from the tailwaters of Kinzua Dam to Betts Park or Irvine? To get in paddling shape, of course. You see, I will be participating in the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Association (USCA) National Championships in the orienteering with my friend and experienced paddler, Gareth Stevens. Stevens encouraged me to get some practice in before mid-August. He knows I don't know which end of a canoe to point downstream. At least some of the members of the ARCP did not... until Tuesday. Nor did they know that my physique is not typical of the paddling set until they met me below Kinzua Dam. Lisa Bainey, who is from Cameron County, generously offered to share a canoe with me. She brought her Savage River JD Pro tandem racing canoe with her, assuming that I wasn't clueless. She introduced herself, we unloaded the canoe, and she drove off to the shuttle point. With canoeing, you start and end in different places, so you can't park your car where you're going to finish unless you can get a ride to where you'll start. And, since I don't have a canoe rack on my car, I couldn't meet her at the finish line and carpool to the start. She would still need a way to get her canoe to her car. While Bainey was gone, some of the other paddlers offered me their wisdom. I got an introductory lesson on paddling. I knew what they'd say when I told them I'd learned what I know of paddling from the internet. I told them anyway. They weren't impressed. Leaning forward a little is Ok. Leaning to the side is not. The stroke should not ride the side of the canoe, but go straight back - directly opposite the direction I want to go. I learned that I can turn the head of the paddle a little to change which way the canoe goes, but i don't remember which way to twist to go which way. Pulling is best done by big muscle groups. Arms do not contain those big muscle groups. The J-stroke is more for the person in the back of the boat. I don't get to sit at the back of the boat because that's where 1. the smaller person generally sits, and 2. the more experienced person generally sits. I also got some information about how not to end up in the water. 'Loose hips' was something I heard many times. I was expected to keep my center of gravity and head still while my hips adjusted to the sideways motion of the canoe. That didn't sound so hard. With everything I'd heard about tippy canoes, I assumed I'd be in the water at least once, so no alarms went off as several different people told me the water was warm and it was a good day for a swim. My partner hadn't come back and some of the other paddlers were about ready to go. Randy Bailey offered to help me get some practice in the water. We hoisted the canoe — it's graphite and weighs about 30 pounds — carried it down to the water and marched right in. I'm pretty sure the part of me I was trying to fit into the seat was wider than the canoe where I was expected to sit. With Bailey holding the boat steady, I sat down. I asked what I was supposed to do with my legs. "Parallel to the gunwales," Bailey said. I knew what gunwales were so I tried. The space in front of me, where I expected to put my feet, was barely wide enough for one foot. I mentioned that. Bailey said I'd probably have to tuck the other one underneath me. I'm not all that flexible. Eventually, I got close. Next, Bailey explained what I now consider to be the most important use for a paddle. He showed me how to slap in on the water and push it down to help me restore my balance. I practiced that a lot. We were staying in the same spot, a few feet from the boat launch. Bailey repeatedly encouraged me to lean too far out and rescue myself with the paddle. I thought I was doing pretty well. We'd been in the water for about four minutes when I ended up leaning more than my paddle could correct. I was much cooler after that. Bailey looked like he kept his head above water. I didn't go under again for maybe another five minutes. When Bainey got back, she had no idea how things had been going. She was still willing to try to paddle with me after she was told I'd been swimming twice without going anywhere. She replaced Bailey at the back of the boat. I had a major weight advantage on Bailey and he struggled to keep me counteracted. When Bainey took over, I was almost two-thirds of the weight in the canoe. I heard her paddle slapping water every few seconds. We stayed close to shore and I actually paddled — using lats (latissimus dorsi) instead of arms to generate most of the force. We didn't tip, but it couldn't have been pretty. After going upstream about 30 feet, she had figured out the situation. I wasn't going to make it. I knew it, too, but I didn't want to be the one to give up and make Bainey drive back home to Cameron County. She waved the other paddlers on — they were already off to a late start. We toted the canoe back up the hill and strapped it to her car. It turned out to be fortunate that she never hooked up with the shuttle. We said our goodbyes — she didn't hold my incompetence against me — and drove our separate ways. I've been told that I should have a chunkier canoe next time. That sounds good to me.


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