The Epistle of Q — Chapter Seventy-Nine

What is gratitude and how do we know when we truly have experienced something worthy of sharing it? Well guess what, I found out today.

{But first let me explain why I have been silent so long. We had a major meltdown of the Editorialog section of our website. Just when I had all kinds of interesting things to discuss, the world went south. Everything seems to be once again operating as it should and over the next few weeks I shall try to get caught up on my spring/summer teaching gigs, some music festival activities, and a few other interesting questions to ponder…}

Now, let’s get back to our central question: what really is gratitude?

For those who know me fairly well, know that I am not a big water person. I enjoy driving speedboats (or at least I did as a teenager and then occasionally when I would rent one for a day) and now in the Okanagan I occasionally will rent a pontoon boat (which are really floating living rooms) to go out with family and/or friends to cruise the waters of Lake Okanagan. But that is about it. I don’t really enjoy swimming, in part because I never became any good at it — I prefer not to drown as a way to cross over the Jordan. My preference is biking and skiing and perhaps even walking — keeping close to the ground (if I can’t be flying somewhere in a jet plane!!).

However, when I returned to the Okanagan almost five [5] years ago to take up permanent residence (once again) in this part of paradise, I was convinced to try dragon-boating… For the uninitiated this is not a sport for the faint of heart — the boats are heavy and narrow — twenty paddlers, needing to be in serious syncronicity, following the lead of a drummer at the front (not always with a drum but always with a voice) and the commands of the steers-person at the stern. Most races are 500 metres: 2 minutes 30 seconds is a good time… Participants are overwhelmingly women, following the lead of the Survivorship movement (women recovering from breast cancer discovered that the physical requirements of dragon-boating helped break down the scar-tissue and thus in some degree helped restore their bodies). People of all ages dragon-boat but I am going to concentrate on the group I became connected to/with.

They are the Penticton Golden Dragons and I would have said in past years that they are a motley crew; however at the BC Seniors Games last September they won a Gold medal in their category and have this year become much more competitive. In fact at the Vernon Festival this past weekend they scored three second place finishes and were only two [2] seconds from winning their final race. So let me say that these 55+ adults (and most have long since seen their fifty-sixth birthday) are a force to be reckoned with… But how does that all relate to my question?

Well, as you will recall, one of the persons on each boat is the steers-person and every boat needs one. Sometimes you can go with fewer than twenty [20] paddlers and often at practice the group may have only thirty members or so present and so two boats are needed — thus there needs to be at least one back-up steers-person. Moreover, I don’t like to paddle — I’m not a great team person any more. I did that all my consulting life and my introspective personality feels more comfortable doing solitary or at least singular activities (i.e. biking, skiing, etc.). So in an effort to at least contribute to this sport and this team of neat people, I was persuaded to try to learn to be a back-up steers-person…and I have been trying…

And that brings us to today. It was my third time out. My teacher/mentor was in the other boat this time and I was going solo for the first time. The drummer person is like an Assistant Coach and she was at the front of the boat again (she was there for my second day out — without a drum but with an excellent voice). Now before I describe my day, I have to say that the club has the most awesome Head Coach. He is no shrinking violet, but he is no taskmaster either. He knows how to teach, how to motivate, how to inspire and most of all, how to run a good practice, especially for older folks. And he is very good at preparing people for all kinds of eventualities. Today, he was in the other boat too…

It was hot and sunny and Skaha Lake was relatively calm. The start was delayed a bit while the master steers-person instructed me on how to back these long vessels out of the storing-dock where they are parked overnight) and over to the boarding-dock. That in itself might have been a sign that I still had a great deal to learn; but everyone overlooked that and we eventually got the boats filled and headed down lake for our practice session. And it went quite well. I seemed to be actually getting the hang of steering such that there were perhaps only two or three occasions where the Assistant Coach had to tell me to correct my efforts.

As we were nearing the half-way point in our 90 minute practice we noticed the lake was getting a bit rougher — the wind had come up and there was even the occasional whitecap. At that point the Head Coach instructed the two steers-persons to turn and head back. I was cautioned to make the turn steady and relatively tight so as to get through the growing waves. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to accomplish it in a fashion that earned me a compliment from my drummer (the Assistant Coach). We started back down the lake and everything seemed fine…but perhaps it wasn’t…

Something shifted in the boat and suddenly I realized that I did not have myself adequately balanced. Then an event happened that we had been told for 4+ years might happen but never had…person overboard!! Yepp, my foot slipped and as I tried to correct, I realized that my upper body was no longer aligned with my lower body. Instinctively I let go of the oar as I knew that if I held on I might tip the boat. I fell backwards out of the boat and hit the water with a real smack — but my feet were firmly stuck in the special slot for the steers-person’s feet. I managed to bounce back out of the water enough to grab the railing of the boat and hang on while the Coaches got both boats stopped.

But the fun was only starting. No one near me in my boat had the strength to pull me back into the boat — while I’m down to 100 kgs that still is a substantive load, especially soaking wet!! And there was a chance that I might actually pull someone else into the water if they tried.  While another person was prepared to get my feet out of the slot, I realized that then I would completely go under the water and I was concerned that if I did I might come up under the boat and severely hit my head, so that option was set aside as well. And then an amazing thing began to unfold. No one panicked. No one yelled. No one acted out of scope. Everyone came together as a team — taking direction from the Head Coach who remained unflappable. He was like an orchestra conductor, and included me in his instructions. Since I was able for the moment to hold on to the railing (I guess my mini-workouts have had some benefit), it meant that I was semi-floating on the water. So while my fellow boaters made sure all paddles and the oar were out of the way, the other boat quickly backed up and moved over until it pushed against my back. Then I was able to use that boat, held steady by all its paddlers, to lift myself up enough to take the pressure off my hands and feet. Then the second boat moved even closer to my boat, thus pushing me gently back into my boat. And then I got up…

When asked if anything was hurt, I replied only my pride to which another (who shall remain nameless) simply said and she thought it could do with a little retreat!! I was going to resume steering again but then I realized that my head was hurting a bit and some thought I was a bit unsteady on my feet. So my dear friend Sandy (who is already a competent steers-person and a very knowledgeable sailor) took over and I took his place as a paddler. We then finished the practice; I went home and got some of my super headache pills. By 1:30 p.m. I was ready for my afternoon meeting re Strata business.

So where’s the gratitude in all this? I am immensely thankful for all the members of the Golden Dragons who were in the boats today. No one panicked or even got that excited. Moreover, they followed all the directions/instructions by Brad (our Head Coach) and carried out the rescue operation as if they had practiced it a hundred times. The end result was not only a successful rescue; but other than the first tumble when I suddenly went under water before bouncing back up, I never went under again throughout the entire ordeal. I didn’t even have to take a deep breath in anticipation of going under. And through it all the demeanor of the group was such that there was truly a sense of calm which in turn kept me from worrying. And when it was all over, even though the initial mistake was mine, no one pointed fingers.

I don’t recommend this kind of event just to find out if your team-mates are capable of a rescue. I don’t even recommend this kind of activity as a practice moment. But let me say that should it ever happen again, I have complete confidence in my team-mates that they will perform at the highest of levels and that they will listen appropriately to their Coach who will walk everyone through their respective tasks to ensure that the rescue happens quickly, carefully and successfully.

So, if you ever meet a Penticton Golden Dragon, thank them — not so much for saving me, but for being excellent, well-coached team-mates who in times of trouble or distress can get the job done. They certainly have my gratitude…