Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Paddle Boat Escapade

Sorry this is long, but it was a scary, life-changing event that MUST be documented.

This post was co-written by my sister, Laurel (as written in italics). Alana's version is in this "normal" print.

A few weekends ago DH and I took Emma to a local kiddie water park. (Think sprinklers and cooling off, NOT giant slides and/or inner tubes.) Walking from the parking lot to the water park we passed a building located on the bank of a large lake. The building had signs stating you could rent kayaks, paddle boats, canoes, etc. by the hour. Emma was intrigued and asked if we could go. I promised I would take her boating this summer. Later en route from the water park back to the car, we saw a family docking a paddle boat. Em was adamant that we MUST paddle boat (versus the other types). Somehow it was decided that when my sister Laurel came to visit, we'd take her paddle boating with us.

Later that night Laurel received a phone call, in which Alana tipped her off that her dear, sweet niece might just want her to go paddle boating. Shortly after that Emma got on the phone. She asked in her sweetest voice (and with what Laurel assumed was the puppy dog of all puppy dog looks, complete with begging eyes, on her face; though Laurel couldn't actually see her), "Auntie Laurel, have YOU ever been paddle boating? Don't YOU want to go paddle boating with ME??? We could go when you're here this summer!!" Laurel assured her that they would do that together.

Flash forward almost one month, and Laurel is now visiting Florida from Ohio...

Picture a beautiful, sunny, 93 degree-ish (that's right, not 90ish, but 93ish!) bright-blue-sky kind of day. Picture 1 extremely excited 6 year old... today was finally THE day for paddle boating. Laurel, Em and I dressed in swimsuits under our shorts and t-shirts thinking we'd go to the beach or water park after paddle boating. We lathered up with sunscreen and headed to rent a boat. (If only Laurel knew then that we had probably just spent more time or at least equal time lathering up with 50 SPF than we would actually get to spend on the paddle boat...)

We paid the fee, signed the waiver (you know those things you always sign assuming you'll never really have to use it, doh!), donned life vests (luckily Auntie Laurel made extra sure that Emma's was on just right, even with the strap that went from her back through her legs and snapped at her stomach) and walked to the docking area waiting for the worker (who at that point seemed much more interested in speaking on the phone in Spanish than giving us much help or instruction) to bring a paddle boat around for us. As we waited for our boat, a family of 4 paddled up in another boat. We overheard them as they informed the boat worker that they had spotted 2 small alligators while they were boating (by "we", she means her sister Laurel understood more than Emma or Alana, as the family was mainly speaking in Spanish, but Laurel provided any needed translation.) When the worker Laurel asked in Spanish how large the gators were, the father laughed and said they were both "smaller than the boat."

First of all, we thought we were getting a nice big 4 person paddle boat, so that Emma could also share in the fun of paddling (her preference, not necessarily the adults' preference). Somehow we ended up on the smaller 2 person paddle boat, where Emma would have to sit in a seat in the back, which did not have extra feet peddles, much to her chagrin.

We got into our boat. As we boarded, we noted that there was some water on the floor of the boat, more on Alana's side than Laurel's. However, there wasn't so much water that we had any real concern. We were paddling in an area that was clearly marked no swimming, due to the filthiness of the water, probably as well as the neighboring alligators. (Signs warning park visitors NOT to feed the alligators, cats, raccoons, and/or opossums were posted in several places.) We started paddling and got just past the natural plant barrier, which blocked the rental building's view of our paddle boat. Emma asked if she could trade seats with Alana, which we said wasn't possible. However, we told her that she could turn around and sit with her feet and legs between us, just above the steering handle.

Alana noted a couple more times how her side was getting more water than Laurel's and wasn't sure why or how it was coming in the boat. Laurel didn't really bother to look at how much water we were taking on, thinking it was of no great concern. I believe her exact thoughts were something along the lines of, "So? Boats take on a little water in the bottom, it happens. What's the big deal?..." She was smart enough to keep her mouth shut and not voice those thoughts.

As we got farther and farther from the rental building and dock, and as we got into deeper water (we later learned it was about 12 feet), Alana continued to note that her side was starting to fill up much faster with water. Finally Laurel looked over and realized that we were taking on a great deal of water, and quite rapidly. Apparently at this point, Alana had a brief reprieve where she wanted to laugh herself silly at the finally shocked look on Laurel's face. However, there was no time for laughing! Water was now pulling the front of the paddle boat down into the water, so that water could rush directly over the front onto both sides of the paddle boat. It was evident that this boat was sinking, and fast.

Initially we thought the boat was going to continue to sink directly below us, and we'd float to the top of the water. Fortunately, very quickly, we realized this was not, in fact, the case. Laurel realized the front was going down faster, and it was actually pulling the back end up, tipping the boat forward, and possibly on top of all of us. So Laurel grabbed the small, movable overhead canopy cover, and pushed it to back of the boat, so as to not trap all of us between the canopy and the boat. Laurel then jumped and pushed herself forward off and away from the boat, just as the back of the boat was flipping over everyone's heads. She grabbed the back corner of the boat before it could completely fall into the water. Once she realized that Emma did not follow her out of the boat, she kept pushing the corner of the boat up out of the water, trying to find Emma underneath. Later Emma told us, she was scared to jump from the boat and didn't know what to do, so she held on to the handle that steered the boat. Apparently, she found a little air pocket to breathe while trapped under the boat screaming for help, "Mommy! Mommy!! Mommy!!!"

Laurel couldn't see Alana at this point because Alana was heading out the other side of the boat. Fortunately, Laurel then saw Emma's pink hat in the middle of the boat and realized it was still on Emma's head. So she continued to hold up the corner of the boat while pushing herself towards Emma at the same time. Emma's head popped above water, terrified and gasping for air, but still breathing and moving. Laurel kept calling to Emma to reach out and grab her free arm. Emma finally was able to move and reached out to grab Laurel's free hand. Once Laurel had Emma, she pushed them away from the boat and let the boat fall back in the water. Luckily both of their life vests kept them afloat so that Laurel had been able to hold up part of the boat out of the water, not trapping and pulling Emma underneath it. Laurel was silently praying prayers of thanks, as she had briefly feared the worst that her niece could have been pulled under the boat and been taking in water herself. Em helped break the tension by briefly smiling as she handed Laurel her sunglasses, which she'd managed not to lose but was still holding tightly to.

When I noted that the boat was definitely going under, my first thought was to take care of Emma. My left arm went out to grab her life vest as the boat was tipping, but we were torn apart. I had one of the worst scares of my life... after the boat tipped, my life jacket was somehow on top of my head. After getting it off and coming up for air, I found that I was in an air pocket under the overturned boat. I immediately panicked, as a greater scare set in---I couldn't see Emma or Laurel anywhere. I was treading water while kicking and grasping under water, yelling for Emma....but couldn't feel anything, nor see much other than murky water. I feared that if I left from under the boat I wouldn't have the arm strength to lift it if Emma and/or Laurel were still under it. Thus, I spent what seemed like a few minutes treading water and continuing to grasp for them and yell for them in the darkness. I finally decided I had better get out from under the boat (I remembered a quick "Titanic" image and freaked out that the boat would sink instead of continuing it's upside-down float.) I held my breath, swam under water and popped up on the other side of the boat. As I came up for air, I could hear Laurel telling Emma to grab her arm. THANK GOODNESS! They must both be okay!

Laurel turned to see that Alana was also out of the boat, which was now completely flipped and nearly completely submersed, except for part of the bottom and the paddles, which were floating at the top of the water. Prayers of thanksgiving that we were all safe were being silently offered. Alana started praying aloud for God to continue to keep us safe, which reminded Laurel that we'd just been told there were alligators in the area. Emma was holding tight to Laurel, as Laurel started to swim towards the rental building and dock, all while trying to keep Emma calm and keep an eye out for alligators. Emma was in tears but joined in Alana's prayers, "Please, God, help us. Keep us safe..." Laurel then kept thinking, let's get to the center of the water, away from any reeds and plants, and let's keep moving towards the dock.

At this point Alana started screaming, "HELP! HELP!! WE NEED HELP!!" Two men on a different dock just stood and looked at us, doing nothing but continuing to fish. We're not sure if they spoke any English; regardless, they just watched us capsize and didn't make any effort to move or assist us. Finally another man on the far shore opposite the rental building heard us and yelled back asking if we needed help. Alana asked him to run get the boat rental people to help, which he did.

We continued swimming slowly... fully dressed, Emma hanging onto Laurel, leaving Emma's hat and shoes who knows where. Alana had also left one of her shoes floating in the water and had lost her hat and sunglasses. At that point, we didn't care about much other than getting safely to the shore. Ultimately we saw the man from the boat rentals quickly paddling towards us in a large canoe. He was able to pull Emma into the boat with him, while Alana and Laurel hung on to the back of the canoe until we could get to a spot where we could also maneuver ourselves into the canoe. He kindly took us back to the paddle boat, where we were able to retrieve Alana's shoe and Emma's hat. There was no sign of Emma's shoes, Alana's hat, or sunglasses. So we turned and headed back to shore in the canoe.

The man continued to try to calm Emma as he paddled us to the dock. He encouraged her to consider boating again sometime, telling the story of how he had been thrown from a horse but finally rode again, although somewhat tentatively. Emma wanted nothing of it, and burst into tears again the moment we were on land.

The man and his wife (owners of the boat company) were extremely apologetic. They ensured us that the boat was "brand new--a 2011" and that the maximum weight capacity was WAY over the combined weight totals for Em, Laurel, and I. They were insistent on giving us a full refund and telling us if we ever come back, they'll give us a free ride on any boat of our choosing. (Yeah....I don't think that's going to happen again for a LONG while.) It was apparent that they felt badly about the entire situation, especially with regards to Emma. (And Laurel and DH think that, perhaps, they did their best also to avoid any lawsuits.)

After dropping us at shore, the man did go back out to retrieve Emma's shoes and the boat, which he got flipped back over the right way. Regarding her shoes, he told Emma, "They were right there under the boat like they were just waiting for a little girl to wear them again..." He was unable to find Alana's sunglasses or hat. He continued to help try to make Emma calm down and feel better by giving her Gatorade and a small package of cookies. Then she got to practice her Spanish with him, "Hola. Mucho gusto. AdiĆ³s." Em did calm down and play on the nearby playground for a few minutes but had no interest in going to the beach this afternoon or in a boat again anytime soon ("maybe when I'm 10 or something..."). She doesn't seem completely afraid of water though, as tomorrow she's at least interested in trying to swim at the swimming pool sans any boating equipment.

Before the conclusion, here are tid-bits from Emma--
It wasn't that bad of a deal... it was very scary when I was under the boat... I just kept grabbing the handle (the steering handle) and was going up and down and up and down under the water, but then when Auntie Laurel pulled me out I was freaking out, but thought I would be all right, but then not really... 'cuz I thought I'd be attacked by an alligator.

Despite the fear of the day, there were some hidden blessings, many of which seem so small and minor on their own. Laurel realized she forgot to bring (from Ohio) shoes/sandals that would stay on her feet if she got flipped out of the boat, and Alana (who has smaller feet) had one pair that fit for Laurel to borrow. Ironically, she's the only one who didn't lose them in the water. Luckily, Emma's real prescription glasses had gotten sunscreen smeared on them, so we left them in the car and gave her a pair of plastic sunglasses to wear instead. More importantly, at the swimming pool in the last couple of weeks, Alana had been practicing with Emma how to tread water, so Emma knew to keep kicking and trying to move her arms when holding on under the boat and trying to reach out to Laurel. Fortunately, from her time as a 4-H camp counselor taking kids canoeing and from her time boating on Lake Erie with one her her exes, Laurel felt comfortable in knowing how to respond and help Emma get to shore. Luckily all pop-up thunderstorms held off until at least an hour after we were safely out of the water. Even when I face challenges, such as this, I know I am blessed and taken care of. What's that quote?... "Something about you don't have to be so afraid when you know your Savior walks on water?"

Whew. So there you have it... our paddle boat escapade. My new sunglasses---lost. Cute new sun hat---will never be seen again. Right contact lens---somehow got washed into Hanna Park Lake... but none of these "losses" compares to the loss that might have been. Today I had a scary, terrifying 20 minutes that reminded me of the importance of family. I love them so.


Gareth said...

Very nice post...

Nice to read this...

Marie W said...

Oh my goodness Alana! My heart was in my chest reading this. I am glad you, precious Emma and Laurel are all safe. I can only imagine the terror you must have felt when you could not spot Emma. I would have also been pissed off as well at the worker at the dock "gabbng"on the phone. Hugs to all of you and I am glad this scary event turned out well. Now stay away from paddle boats - thats an order!

Anonymous said...

HOLY COW! How scary girl. I can't even imagine how scared you were and Emma, poor girl. But way to go for her knowing what to do and for you too. Yikes! So glad to hear everything turned out fine. I can't imagine she will ever want to get on a paddle boat again, I sure don't think I could!

Carrie27 said...

Oh my!!!! I had goosebumps for you. I, too, would be like Emma and have absolutely no interest in boating any time soon.

You all should have found those guys on the dock watching you struggle and slapped them around.

Mrs. Gamgee said...

Oy vey! I had been meaning to get over and read this and YIKES!!! What an experience! So glad that everyone is okay...

Can you imagine how impressive Emma's "what I did this summer" story is going to be when she gets back to school?

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness! Thank goodness you are all okay and that Em wasn't completely traumatized! I hope it doesn't diminish her love for the water and that she goes out in a paddle boat again someday.

Kim said...

I had no idea all of this happened!!! So glad to hear that you and your sister along with Emma for that matter, thought so quickly on your feet. I love your quote of not being afraid when you have a Savior who walks on water.

Teena in Toronto said...

Happy blogoversary :)

Mini Fridges. said...

That was really an awesome post...
I skipped my heart beats few times.

Good one... I like it.