Sometimes in life, everything is perfect. The weather is fine, you’ve got the wind in your hair, and you’re sailing right along, enjoying the ride down the river of life. Then without warning, a wake comes along and tosses you right into the water.
This happened to me recently.
This isn’t a parable about how we have to rise to life’s biggest challenges—how our plans have been derailed by coronavirus, or how anyone’s life can change on a dime with unexpected tragedy.
No, this is about the time I literally fell out of a boat.
Two weeks ago, I was rowing my little heart out on a hot Wednesday night.
I’m used to rowing in a quad boat with three other more experienced rowers. But this summer, we’re all rowing in single shells to practice social distancing and keep each other safe.
Rowing a single is very different than a quad or even a double. The boat is very light and very small, and the trick is to keep it balanced. This is an endeavor that requires constant vigilance, and the use of the feet as well as the arms in keeping the oars balanced. One false move and you end up in the Allegheny River.
Which is where I found myself last Wednesday. It wasn’t entirely unexpected; flipping a single is a rite of passage for a rower.
Just before practice, I asked my coach what to do if I fell out of the boat.
“Get back in,” she called over her shoulder before zooming away in the safety launch.
Falling out of a shell is quite easy to do.
Getting back in? That’s another story.
So there I was bobbing in the middle of the Allegheny, my shell next to me. I’d lost my hat but not my glasses, so that was okay. My coach was nearby in the launch, so I wasn’t in any danger.
There are two main challenges when trying to get back into a racing shell. The first is that because you’re in the middle of the river, you have no leverage other than what you can work up with your upper body strength. You can’t push off the bottom with your legs and launch yourself into the air.
The second, and more precarious, are the oars. A racing shell is balanced by the oars, and the oars must stay in position. This is what makes a racing shell more difficult to get into versus say, a canoe. In a canoe you could throw the oars into the boat and climb over the side and in, knowing the canoe will stay balanced.
Not so in a rowing shell. You have to throw yourself in with one hand while holding the handles of both oars in the other.
I took a deep breath and heaved myself up. I had no sense of how to balance the oars, so I was back in the water almost immediately. On the third try, I launched myself up onto the boat like a wet seal. I had a death grip on the oars, and was scrabbling around on my belly to keep myself from tipping over.
Some people look quite graceful when getting back into a racing shell.
I am not one of those people.
I inched around like a blind worm until I got my feet into position. I had one final task—getting my butt on the seat. The seat sits on a track so that it can slide back and forth. I pushed with my legs—holding the oars steady the whole time, and plopped myself onto the seat.
My fellow rowers cheered my success from their own shells.
My coach threw me the bailer—a sawed off bottle of laundry detergent—which I used to bail the majority of the water out of my shell.
By now I was sweating and quite frankly exhausted. But I was exhilarated, too. I hadn’t given up. I had made it back in the boat, metaphorically as well as literally.
I was so proud and thrilled that I reared back to throw the bailer to my coach. And in that one instant, I forgot myself.
One second was all it took to pull defeat from the jaws of victory.
I forgot my vigilance, and I let my oars dip just the slightest fraction.
And found myself back underwater, my boat flipped over above my head.
At least I still had my glasses.