I took a canoe day trip last spring that ended in a swim -- not an epic one, but the biggest that I've experienced, and the first for my son.
I manned the stern of my Adirondack St. Regis, a 17-foot Kevlar cruiser; my son Max, then 10, manned the bow. Friend Tim was in the stern of his canoe, an Old Town Penobscot 16, with his son, Paul, also 10, in bow. The previous year, this same team had done a 6-day trip on the St. Croix River, between Maine and New Brunswick. This time, we were on the St. George River in midcoast Maine. It was our first trip of the year -- kind of a warmup for a weeklong trip on the Allagash planned for later in the year.
We put in at Seventrees Pond in Union, and the first nine tenths of the trip was flatwater: first the pond, then the river. Several hundred yards above the planned takeout at Payson Park in Warren, the river goes over a steep shelf, which we portaged. Thereafter, it was a very bony Class II. Lots of pushing against the bottom, half getting out of the boat and scooting along with one leg still in the boat, banging rocks. Although my St. Regis is a nice Kevlar boat, it isn't really made for this kind of work, but I long ago got over the pain of scratches and dings.
At a point where there was more than enough water to float the boat and plenty of current, we got sideways to a rock and in an instant we capsized upstream. I think I could blame Max for leaning the wrong way, but in fact it happened too quickly for me to really know. The boat then swung with the current and freed itself from the rock. Max was gasping and upset; somehow he was downstream of the boat, and I told him to get upstream of it, then reminded him of the "noses and toes" approach to swimming in current (keep the nose and the toes facing up, with feet pointing downstream) and he took the position. (Max and Paul had practiced this on the St. Croix and had much fun doing it.) I grabbed the boat and tried to maneuver it, but soon the current became too strong, too fast, and I had to let go of it and my paddle and just watch out for myself.
This was Max's first capsize; he was scared and shouting frequently but following the drill. Somehow, he quickly ended up on the opposite side of the river and there was no way that I could assist him in any way -- the strong current was dragging me, too, over shallow rocks and through holes down my side of the river. I was terribly scared for Max, but all I could do was keep my eye on him and confirm that he continued to head downriver with the current, apparently OK. If he had somehow gotten into real trouble, I could have done nothing. I did look back and note that Tim and Paul continued to follow us in their boat, which was some comfort.
There were a few painful bumps on the tailbone and several dunkings, but the noses-and-toes approach worked as advertised, and I used my feet to fend myself off the worst of the rocks. Even attempting to move to the bank was out of the question -- the current was just too strong to do anything but flow with it.
Eventually the current slackened, just in front of the planned takeout at Payson Park. Max came to rest on a little sandy island, and TIm and Paul quickly picked him up and deposited him on the bank. I found my footing and managed to walk to the bank. A woman who was with her children at the park took Max in hand, put him in her van and cranked up the heat and got him into dry clothing.
Tim and I grabbed my boat and carried it up the bank -- it was terribly bashed up; gunwales separated from the hull, dents, cracks all the way through the layup, one flotation chamber partially torn out. We found two of the three paddles -- the missing one was a lovely Shaw & Tenney model that I'd used only a couple times.
I was somewhat shaken up, and Max more than somewhat -- not enough, I'm glad to report, to interfere with the Allagash trip later that year. We were both wearing good PFDs (of course), and it's hard to imagine the stupidity of anyone who would put himself into that kind of situation without them -- it would have been immensely more difficult and scarier without flotation. It had been a drizzly day, so we were wearing raingear, which might have provided just a hint of thermal protection -- certainly not much. The water was a bit chilly, and we felt it, but wetsuits probably would have been overkill. Maybe I'm kidding himself here. Had this swim occurred away from civilization and been just a few hundred yards longer, hypothermia might have been a possibility.
It was a revelation how much damage a few hundred yards of shallow Class II could do to a Kevlar boat. I took it to a fiberglass pro whose repair estimate was about the same as the cost of a new boat. I kept looking, however, and found a fiberglass worker who does some work on the side. He did a nice job on the structural matters and added a minimum of additional weight -- I haven't weighed it, but my guess is less than 5 pounds.
The gelcoat is another story. Normally, gelcoat is sprayed into a polished female mold before the layup begins on the inside of the gelcoat, so a nice smooth surface results. In this case, the gelcoat was sprayed with a gun onto the boat's exterior laminate surface, leaving a very slightly pebbled finish. A racer couldn't tolerate it this surface texture, but it's fairly fine-grained and I doubt it will seriously affect the boat's efficiency. I did take the opportunity to change the boat's color, from green to white and it looks very nice if you don't get too close and notice the pebbles. For a total bill of $500, it was a reasonable way to rescue a pretty nice boat. I now realize it's not at all suited to whitewater, however, so I've got my eyes open for a plastic tub.