A narrow escape

It seemed like a good idea to take my parents out on the lake until the canoe capsized

There are two moments I keep replaying in my head.

The first is when we fell into the water, and the utter disbelief I felt at how one second I was sitting in the back of the canoe with my dad in the front and my mum in the middle - gripping the sides of the boat tightly - and the next we were tipping, tipping, tipping sideways into the cold lake.

The image is stuck in my head - the midday sun flashing off the water, the canoe turning over, the horror dawning on me that the unthinkable had happened.

Coming up to the surface I looked around wildly, afraid that someone would be trapped underneath, but they were bobbing in the water next to me, panicky but THERE.

We have to swim to shore, I said. It wasn't far away, maybe 18m, but our progress was painfully slow, weighed down as we were by our winter clothing and heavy shoes.

Thank heaven he put the life vests on them, I thought.

That's the other scene I think about constantly, shuddering, yet unable to help worrying it like a loose tooth. The three of us were already in the canoe and about to push off when my husband, who wasn't coming along, noticed no one was wearing a life vest.

Wait, he said, as he ran back up the dock for a couple of life preservers that he then strapped securely onto mum and dad. I don't need one, I said, impatient to get away and sure of our ability to keep afloat.

For what could go wrong on this alluringly calm lake, on such a beautiful winter's day? My friend, Andrea, had invited us to enjoy the sunshine on her dock and it seemed the most natural thing to be taking my family from Singapore for a leisurely paddle on the water as well.

You know, I think they did it more to please me than because they wanted to. As we paddled awkwardly towards the middle, they reminisced about how they had been in a canoe once before, at Pangkor Island in Malaysia, and had capsized.

Maybe I should have taken that as a sign.

Till today, we are not sure how it happened. We can joke about it now, blaming one another for putting on too much weight and throwing it around; for being novices in a canoe. If it had been summer, one of us would say, it would have been fine to capsize. The water would be warm and we would be in our swimsuits.

But the water was not warm and we were wearing too many clothes. I, the most lightly dressed of all, was being dragged down every second by my fleece sweater, pants and hiking shoes. My parents, arguably less hale than me, had on heavy winter coats as well.

The only thing keeping them from going under were those flotation devices. Afterwards, the prospect terrified me. What if I had stopped my husband from going back to get them? What if I'd said, don't bother?

For the 10 minutes or so that we were in the lake, the doubt crossed all our minds that we would make it. I looked back and saw my friend in her kayak coming for us from the opposite side and wondered if we could hold on that long.

If I had been thinking straight, I might have remembered those water safety classes I took as a child. You know the ones where they make you swim in your pyjamas? Did they tell us you had to strip off your clothes to swim unencumbered? I briefly considered it, but it seemed impossible to reach down to pull anything off. It was taking all my energy simply to stay afloat. In the end, I think I made it to shore because I couldn't bear the thought of drowning in this modest body of water I drove past nearly every day.

Eastwood Lake was created in the 1930s for stormwater management and is well used by residents for swimming and boating. I will not be the first person to come to grief in it, I said to myself, as I kicked a little harder. Not like this.

I held my mother's hand as we pulled forward doggedly. Help, we shouted. Help. It struck me how peaceful the lake was, with not even the sound of waves to break the silence. There were homes all along the shore, but not a soul in sight. No one was coming to jump in and pull us to safety.

It was later, too, that we realised how cold the water must have been. The air was under 10 deg C and who knows what the water temperature was?

Under normal circumstances, I would not have ventured even a toe in it, but the strange thing was we didn't feel the frigid water at all. Only after we had dragged ourselves ashore, when we were no longer numb with fright, did all the warmth drain from our bodies.

Amazingly within an hour of our mishap, we were home, in dry clothes, in front of a warm fire. Andrea had gone back for her car when she saw we had made it to dry land.

And just as I was pondering if we should go to hospital, the paramedics showed up. Someone on the lake had seen the upturned boat and called 911.

They took pulse rates and blood pressures and measured blood sugar levels. Everything was as it should be. They were solid and reassuring men. I felt like crying because I was safe at last. Amazingly, though we had come so close to death, and were badly shaken, we were completely unhurt.

In the days that followed, we gradually shed any traumatic after-effects that still clung to us.

But though I thought I would feel relief that all had ended well, joy even, at being alive, mostly I felt guilt for having put my parents in harm's way.

I told my mum-in-law, a wise woman, who reminded me I had simply wanted to do something fun for my loved ones.

"No good deed goes unpunished," she joked.

That restored my perspective and gave me some peace. And I had learnt a lesson, I hoped, about how quickly things can go south.

Have fun but be prepared. Listen to someone's gut instinct. And always wear a life jacket.

sharonl@sph.com.sg

The writer lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.