Home Education Magazine
March-April 1999 - Columns
Notes From a Homeschooling Dad - The Boots That Wouldn't Float
Rat Island is a child adventurer's dream come true. Though scarcely more than an oversized sandbar carpeted in tall grass, it nevertheless embodies all the elements that appeal to a young boy's quest for adventure on the high seas. Perhaps most importantly, it is a true deserted island - deserted, that is, of human inhabitants. It is rich, on the other hand, in coastal marine life including nesting western gulls and packs of harbor seals that come to sunbathe on its secluded southern shore. The fact that we can see Rat Island from our upstairs window does not detract from its romantic isolation. In fact, it only seems to add to its allure, since, standing at the water's edge in the clear moonlight, you can gaze dreamily at the twinkling, iridescent lights of Port Townsend across the bay.
Rat Island - and I do not know how the place comes by this name, for we could spy no sign of rats anywhere - rests adjacent to the sister islands, Marrowstone and Indian Island, in the north Puget Sound at the foot of the Quimper Peninsula. You can paddle there by either heading directly across Port Townsend Bay, braving ferry traffic and unpredictable currents, or you can take the more abbreviated and kid-friendly route from the northern tip of Marrowstone's Fort Flagler State Park. This route permits passage in the calm, protected waters of Kilisut Harbor. Myles, Josh and I chose the latter for our island pilgrimage.
Our journey to the island would be made in two kayaks, our large 21-foot double, aptly named the Queen Mary, and Myles' 12-foot single. Josh would team up with me while Myles would captain the single on his own, albeit tethered to my boat by a 50-foot nylon rope. Myles had become an able paddler that summer, but even in protected waters, currents can do funny things, so we would caravan over in this fashion.
Locomotion by means of a kayak is a thing of quiet simplicity. No sails, rigging, motor, fuel tanks or even oarlocks. Just a slender, lithe hull and a two-bladed paddle. Such craft have served the native peoples of the Northwest for thousands of years. Employed for use in both transportation and hunting, they are trustworthy, efficient devices. Even so, no venture out in the bone-chilling waters of the Puget Sound can be taken for granted. Always there is the risk of an unplanned exit into the frigid water. Safety and precaution are a part of any such expedition, no matter how brief.
During our first months of kayaking, I rehearsed open-water exits and re-entries. With practice it became possible to exit the shell cleanly enough to be able to leave a child securely on board while heading off, should the need arise, to retrieve another. Then last spring Myles practiced safe exits from his own kayak. Time after time I stood to stern with Myles poised apprehensively forward and swiftly overturned both boy and kayak in our local public pool. I observed carefully each time as Myles successfully exited the upturned boat and bobbed safely to the surface, sporting a confident grin. This was a pretty good start for a young kayaker and a good preparation for our adventure.
The afternoon of our island crossing met us with calm, clear skies. We put in at the harbor side of Fort Flagler. Myles was set to water first, followed by Josh and I. We hit a slack tide on our departure, so the 25-minute paddle along the spit which served as a path to Rat Island was quiet and uneventful. Josh had paddled heartily before me and Myles held his own for most of the journey. The nice thing about a tether is that young ones can rest at their ease as necessary and still make headway.
Once near the island, we made for shore as quietly as we could. We had hoped to come upon a pack of lounging harbor seals unnoticed. But we were none too successful in our bid for stealth. Within moments of making eye contact with us, the entire pack took to the water in a splashing huff. Fortunately seals are very curious by nature and there was still great pleasure to be taken at being surrounded by thirty silky, bobbing heads eyeing us as we made our way to land.
Once the boats had been hauled ashore, we quickly made camp. Our small two-man tent was set aright. After an early supper consisting largely of salami roll, hot cocoa and roasted marshmallows - moms, I have long since learned, rarely appreciate the food of real adventurers - our small band set forth on an island exploration.
With the rising of a new moon, all were ready to rest. That evening's reading was a chapter from Farley Mowat's The Boat Who Wouldn't Float. My boys loved this book and roared with laughter as I read aloud the riotous tales of the "Happy Adventurer" and its penchant for taking on water at the most inopportune times. Thereafter, throughout that summer I was given to hear one or both boys calling out in a heavy Nova Scotia lilt, "This bloody boat is sinking!"
We broke camp and were ready for our return voyage by mid-morning of the next day. Now, there are points of decision in our lives that become indelibly etched in our memories. Usually they come upon us completely unawares. This was just such a moment for me. "Dad, can I ride in Myles' boat on the way back." It was an impassioned plea from a young adventurer who had patiently watched his older brother paddle about in his very own boat all summer long. I weighed the implications over and over in my mind, though perhaps not as thoroughly as I might have had I gotten a more restful night's sleep. The great outdoors may be great for adventuring, but it is invariably lousy for sleeping. Well, I reasoned, if I tether up Josh right behind me and stay in the shallows, what harm is there? After all, this was Josh's second season on the water. So I consented.
The boats were packed. Josh scampered into the small kayak, life jacket cinched, paddle in hand and sat perched on shore until Myles and I put in. Then I tugged on Josh's tether until he broke free of the bottom and was afloat. I double-checked the tether's knot and kept us in no more than a few inches of water until I was confident that Josh felt stable. The boat he paddled was, in fact, designed expressly for young paddlers, having a wide, flat profile. Josh took to it right away. So we headed off for home.
It's a good thing the Kilisut Harbor, separating Indian Island from Marrowstone Island, is not a crowded waterway, because I was turning my head around every thirty seconds to take stock of Josh. Somehow I had misjudged the length of the tether and instead of his being less than ten feet behind me as was my intent, it was more like twenty-five feet. But Josh was doing so well that it seemed a shame to break stride and retie the knots. So we continued on, making good time. Along the way an occasional, "This bloody boat is sinking!" could be heard above the din of squawking gulls.
Suddenly I felt a dead weight on the tether where moments before there was no more than a feather-light pull on the line. I turned back to look at Josh and saw to my terror that his boat was now overturned. For the briefest of moments I couldn't see my son. It is a moment that I doubt will ever fade from my mind, but in that same instant, he bobbed to the surface just as Myles had done so many times in the pool that past spring. Simultaneously I began to hear Josh's forlorn cries. I can only imagine his fear at having never experienced overturning in a boat and the shock of the icy water.
There was now another decision to make: whether to stay with Myles in the boat and paddle back to retrieve Josh, or to leave Myles on his own and swim to the capsized boat. Although we had stayed fairly close to shore on the return trip, it was not close enough to wade to shore. And I had some concern that a steadily strengthening current could make the job of paddling to Josh less than expeditious. In the end, with Myles' boat left heading towards land, I exited the double and swam to Josh.
The waters of the Puget Sound average no more than 48 degrees even at the height of summer. That's cold by anybody's standard, cold enough to permit hypothermia to set in within fifteen minutes. But try as I might, to this day, I can not recall the feel of the frigid water against my skin. Nor can I recall how I exited the boat. Clearly I was able to extract myself leaving Myles safely upright and in control. But I don't know if I stood up, rolled forward or went feet first or head first into the water. My recollection continues only from the moment I reached Josh and turned to see the bow of Myles' boat safely touching shore. The intervening seconds or minutes remain a total blank. Perhaps in my mind there was no other reality during those few helpless moments except to be next to my frightened son, and so all else becomes irrelevant, non-reality.
With both boys soon safely on the beach, I waded back out to retrieve the remaining gear - Joshua's hat, boat and paddle along with my shoes, all of which bobbed idly on the water, like so much flotsam. I was able to recover everything but Joshua's boots. These had slipped to the ocean floor as he kicked to get ashore. Later that evening, in the warmth and safety of his own bed, Josh would dub his adventure, "The Boots That Wouldn't Float". We all laughed till we cried and I was at peace, for I took this as a welcome sign that the incident had not dampened his spirit. But for now, I dried Josh off and got him into a fresh change of clothes, doing my best at the same time to comfort a terrified five-year-old. We continued the journey back along the shoreline with Myles in the forward cockpit and Joshua snuggled in my lap.
By the end of our return paddle, Josh's sobs had subsided. And while his spirits quickly revived once back on shore, it would be several days before I was to learn the cause of his immersion. As it turned out, Josh had capsized by heeling too far to starboard to peer down into the water. This was something he and Myles did routinely in the safety of my control since I would automatically compensate for the boys' over-the-side, deep-sea investigations. It never occurred to me to tell him not to lean over.
In the days that followed, the story of "the boots that wouldn't float" was told again and again. And in each recounting the darkness of the trauma faded even as the glory of the adventure grew.
What is the difference between adventure and danger? Perhaps they are one and the same. Perhaps insulated as we are today from life-sustaining activities we no longer recognize life as an adventure, and consequently no longer recognize the dangers that lie ahead as well. Who would knowingly place their children in harm's way? But there is something to be said for allowing them to steep in the adventure of life, to learn not just formulas from books but also that which sustains us. Josh had learned that boys float, boots don't. I learned that danger lurks even close to shore. Together we both tasted life and were grateful.
© 1999, Jeff Kelety
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