Safety First!

ADF capsize drill in a nice warm pool

The biggest danger in dragon boat racing is capsizing. And the most likely occasion for a capsize is during a race when six boats are racing side-by-side in relatively narrow lanes and at risk of colliding.

Many of the Alameda DragonFlyers know about capsizing first hand as their boat flipped over in a race in Long Beach, CA a few years ago. So the DragonFlyers are serious about safety. PFD’s are a must, and not the inflatable kind most stand-up paddleboarders wear; every practice begins with a safety tip from the steersperson; and all paddlers are encouraged to take the California Dragon Boaters Association safety class at the team’s expense.

In June the need for safety was driven home, both literally and figuratively, when a dragon boat ran aground in our own estuary stranding 16 paddlers who had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. (Ironically, they ran aground just a few feet from Coast Guard Island because they failed to observe a channel marker.)

Many dragon boat teams (particularly those in warmer climes) will perform capsize drills where they intentionally tip the boat – after informing the authorities of their intentions. But the estuary is a busy waterway, and the water temperature in our neck of the woods hovers between the mid-50s to the low-60s. So tipping the boat in the estuary might be problematic.

After news of the boat that ran aground, the ADF board discussed options for a capsize drill. Some were in favor of doing it in the estuary, since that is the most realistic scenario, but others worried about the water temperature.

A compromise was finally struck: we would use a pool as a proxy for the estuary. A nice warm, salt water pool that belongs to a friend of the team.

I was excited about the opportunity to test the PDF. I’m a relatively strong swimmer, but that’s in a swimsuit at the beach. I had been wondering how the PDF would help or hinder my ability to swim. I also had heard that during the capsize in Long Beach one of our paddlers lost his glasses. So I wanted to see if my glasses had any chance of staying in place.

On the appointed afternoon, we all gathered at the pool in our typical paddling gear. The exercise was to be followed by a barbeque, so a change of clothes was also part of the program.

The plan was to check the adjustments on the PFDs so they fit correctly. Then to jump in the pool and get a feel for the PFD in the water. Then we were going to do drills that included helping an incapacitated paddler to the shore, pulling a paddler out of the water, and (the one I worried about) emerging from underneath a capsized boat.

The floating was fun, and it didn’t feel nearly as strange as I thought it would to be in the pool in something that resembled street clothes. Thankfully, my glasses stayed put. Swimming was slow going in the PFD, but the plan is to stay with the boat and be rescued, NOT to swim to the shore. Ferrying disabled paddlers to the edge of the pool was also harder than I expected, but doable.

Then we moved on to the emerging from under the capsized boat – a large plastic storage tub taking the place of the boat. That went fine too. It helped that the storage tub was transparent. I think if it were a real, non-transparent, boat a bit of claustrophobia might set in.

Finally, it was time to help paddlers out of the water from the shore. This seemed straight forward, use the paddler’s buoyancy to give you a head start, and then quickly yank them up and out.

It was not that easy. First of all, it was recommended that the ‘rescuer’ kneel at the side of the pool. Due to an old injury, my knees do not like it when I put weight on them. I tried, but failed miserably. Someone produced a garden kneeler which helped with the knees, but I couldn’t pull even our smallest paddlers out of the water. Not at all.

With the drills done, we went on to change and enjoy the barbeque. And had learned I should not go rushing to the aid of anyone who goes into the water.

As it happened, within a week or so we had a chance to practice our new lifesaving skills when one of our paddlers fell of the dock while we were walking to our boat. Our dock is pretty rickety and has been undergoing repairs. So there was a lot of building material stacked on the dock. The unfortunate paddler had turned to talk to the person behind her and tripped over some of the lumber.

Everyone, except me, rushed to her aid. Given the condition of the dock, that was probably not a good idea. Some of the big guys, who were not nearby, rushed to where she fell in. In fact, two of the coaches had everything in hand, and she was out of the water in no time.

So we all got another lesson or two. Don’t chat a dock that is in disrepair. If someone has a rescue in hand, don’t rush in. Follow the direction of your steersperson and coaches. And, sadly, don’t count on me to get you out of the water if you fall in the drink.