I’ve had a long and chequered past with Physical Education, but I hit my nadir at Dartmouth. There were a couple phys ed requirements for graduation. First, every student had to pass a swimming test. On my first day on campus, I swam the required lap and promptly lost my contact lens in the pool. I fared no better at the second requirement, which was to take three P.E. classes.
The array of options was astounding. Sure, you could do something pedestrian like aerobics. But what kind of boob would choose to do something like that when you could do skiing, fencing, or water polo for P.E. credit?! My eyes lit up when I saw kayaking on the list of possible classes. Although I had never done any kayaking before, I was sure it couldn’t be difficult. In my mind, I envisioned myself peacefully floating down the Connecticut River, taking in the scenery as I gently rowed along, all while earning a P.E. credit with practically no effort on my part. It was the obvious choice for an out of shape, unathletic couch potato like myself.
I showed up at the docks on the first day of class wearing a wool sweater as I had been instructed. We got our kayaks into the water and the hour passed by just as I had imagined it. It was one of those perfect, crisp Fall days in New Hampshire. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be checking off a mandatory requirement in such a thoroughly pleasant way. As we rowed back to the river’s edge at the end of the class, I congratulated myself on having stayed upright in my kayak. I congratulated myself on so cleverly figuring out how to get P.E. credit without having to break a sweat.
And then one of the instructors announced that it was time to learn how to do a wet exit. I was horrified as I listened to him describe what this would entail and then watch as he actually demonstrated the technique himself. A wet exit meant that I would have to deliberately flip the kayak I had so proudly managed to keep upright for the whole class upside down. Hanging upside down in the water?! This was the stuff of my worst nightmares! I had to then pull open the spray skirt that had kept my bottom half nice and dry during my little jaunt down the river, and then swim out from the kayak into the icy cold river.
I managed to quell the panic attack induced by being upside down in water. (It’s also very possible that I was just stupefied by the freezing cold). When the instructor demonstrated the maneuver for us, he had swum out from his kayak like a sleek otter, his head serenely bobbing up out of the water. I pulled the spray skirt open and fell heavily onto the jagged rocks. I blindly scrabbled against the rocks with my eyes tightly shut (trying not to lose yet another contact lens) before finally getting my bearings. I made my way back to the surface, glugging, snorting, and choking in a most undignified manner. I staggered back to my dorm room trailing behind me: blood, river water, and my sorry, deflated delusions of an easy P.E. credit.
The wet exit had been traumatic, but I figured I could just about handle it. I’d done it once, I could do it again. The next class went by much as the first had, but this time the hour spent floating down the river was marred by the knowledge of what was to come. I braced myself as we rowed again to the river’s edge at the end of the class.
“Today we’re going to do C-rolls,” the instructor chirped. He proceeded to demonstrate how we would deliberately flip our kayaks sideways into the water and then right ourselves by using our torsos to propel ourselves out of the water. We did it multiple times on our left sides. And then to even things out, we did it multiple times on our right sides. Our instructor told us that we would work our way up to complete rolls in the water. When our torsos were completely soaked and numb, we finished the job on our lower halves by doing another wet exit.
I thought it could get no worse. I was wrong. On the third class the instructors informed us that we were going to learn how to do a rescue. They demonstrated this by having one of the instructors flip himself upside down in the water. He tapped with his hands against the hull of his boat to indicate that he needed help. The second instructor expertly maneuvered his kayak so that the front of it hit the upside down kayak close to the tapping hands. The upside down instructor placed his hands on the kayak and used it for leverage to right himself.
“Now it’s your turn,” the rescued instructor said. There were a dozen other people in that class, but he looked straight at me. “I’ll flip upside down again and when you see me tapping my hull, you’ll gently bump the front of your kayak as close to my hands as you can.”
Before I had a chance to demur, he flipped upside down in the water. He began tapping the side of his boat with his hands. I tried to maneuver my kayak to where he was. The tapping got faster. I still couldn’t manage to get my kayak to touch his. The tapping gained a distinctly frantic edge to it. I desperately tried, but failed again and again to get my kayak to touch his. Finally, the second instructor nosed his kayak into position and the upside down instructor righted himself. He no longer looked like a sleek, serene otter. He looked pretty pissed, in fact. He ended the class by grimly announcing that we would all be practicing rescues on each other next time.
I switched to aerobics that afternoon.