This is a drill. Repeat. This is a drill.

‘I can write you a note,’ my mother said when we spoke on the phone the day before capsize drill with my dragon boat team. I pointed out she’d never written me a note to excuse me from school, homework, or sport and this maybe wasn’t the time to start. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘But text me as soon as you’re done.’

I joined WaveWalkers, a dragon boat team for people affected by cancer, after going along to an open day. I was about 18 months in remission and still trying to reconnect (with myself and others) after the onslaught of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. I’d looked at some of the support groups available and realised I didn’t want to be part of a group that focussed on what had happened in the past. I wanted to be part of a group that accepted the past and focussed on the future.

Trace delivers the safety talk
Trace delivers the safety talk

And I found it. With a group of people I met for the first time at the London’s Regatta Centre, doing a sport I’d never thought about trying, on a breezy day in September 2014.

WaveWalkers held a second open day this year and, as a result, the team’s had a surge in new paddlers. Which has meant our helm Eddy and coach Ciara have been training up new helms so two boats can go out during a training session.

As part of the training, the new helms had to take part in a capsize drill and Ciara asked for volunteer paddlers to also take part. Which is how I came to have the conversation with my mother.

Capsize crew leaves the pontoon
Capsize crew leaves the pontoon

It sounded quite simple when trainee helm Trace gave the safety talk before the capsize drill: ‘Two people stand up, that’s Eddy and Freya. And that’ll be enough to tip the boat over. Once you surface, swim back to the boat, hold the gunnel, and we’ll number off to make sure everyone’s accounted for. If you surface inside the hull of the boat, take a deep breath and bob down to come out outside the boat. And keep numbering off.’

Trace at the helm
Trace at the helm

Trace had one last piece of advice: ‘The water’s cold so the body’s natural inclination is to gasp when you hit the water. If that happens you could end up with a mouthful of water. So if you want to avoid swallowing swan shit, keep your mouth shut.’

Watched by the rest of the WaveWalkers paddlers and staff from Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre we paddled off and turned back so the boat was parallel with the pontoon. Trace called for the capsize and I saw Eddy stand up. I started to stand up and before I knew what was happening the boat had tipped over. I remembered Ciara telling me she’d jumped away from the boat when she capsized so I tried to do the same thing.

Watch video of capsize drill

The water was cold but not as bad as I’d expected. Somehow I’d not opened my mouth! No swan shit!

I turned towards the boat and realised I was furthest from the boat. I swam towards it and could only see Eddy and Trace at opposite ends. Chao suddenly bobbed up beside me and it dawned on me he’d been under the hull.

Trace called for us to number off, and Eddy (used to being at the helm) momentarily forgot he was number one. I didn’t hear Karen call ‘two’ so carried on the count with ‘three’, Chao called ‘four’, and Trace ‘five’. We realised Karen was under the hull and Eddy dived down to help her out.

After a few seconds Eddy was back, followed by Karen.

We numbered off again and swam to the pontoon. With our backs to the pontoon, we were lifted up and out by our buoyancy aids. I was surprised how easily my bodyweight was lifted.

Capsize crew: Karen, Chao, Freya, Eddy, Trace
Capsize crew: Karen, Chao, Freya, Eddy, Trace

Back on dry land we turned the boat back over to bail it out and some of the team paddled it into the dock. After posing for a few photos, the capsize crew headed for warm showers, dry clothes, and well-earned dim sum.

Eddy helps bail out the boat
Eddy helps bail out the boat

 

Team turn the boat
Team turn the boat

 

Capsize drill. 22 November 2015

Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre

Cost: My dignity