The sun felt good as we tacked and jibbed, learning about close hauling and broad reaching.
Then the sun hid and the chill grew, and the wind pushed us hard over on the high, mud-red river. An outboard boat from the marina swung close to us and warned us to come in fast.
Francesco, Joe and I put on our life jackets as our instructor headed toward the Virginia shore, bow as close to the wind as possible.
We were about a third of a mile from shore when a brutal gust hit us full broadside. At first we seemed to be standing up on the water; then slowly, as if deliberately, we rolled over into the Potomac. The 50-degree water took our breath away.
Immediately our instructor began repeating calmly, "Everything is okay, just hang onto the boat. It may right itself."
It did not, settling instead on its side, balanced by the mass of the keel on one side and the mast and sail on the other. We climbed into the open hull -- at least, about half way in. No one said much, but there was a sense of communion. My hands and feet had lost all feeling and my concern grew that all of us were threatened by hypothermia -- loss of body heat accompanied by loss of muscle control and mental competence.
The hull was rocking in the rising swells and the wind spun us around. Another fierce gust hit, flinging the boat upright and then over onto its other side, a 180-degree flip that threw me well away from the boat and under water.
When I came up, I grabbed for the sail boom and missed as the boat spun away. Instead of the safety of the open hull, I faced the bottom of the boat. Waves burst over my head and the boat was being blown away. I knew that if I couldn't get back to the open side and out of the water, my chances of surviving were poor. For one instant, my mind flashed "This is going to be it." I thought about my children, mostly adults now.
Then some switch clicked in my brain and I realized there was a tug on my left hand. It was the rope to the main sail. Though I do not know how or when I grabbed it, I knew I could use it to pull myself back to the open side of the boat.
With that, the rest of my brain engaged, and I twisted so that my back was to the breaking waves and began to pull myself along the rope as our instructor came to help. Finally, back inside the hull, I collapsed, numb all over and incredibly tired.
The best guess is that we had been capsized for 10 or 15 minutes when we saw a small outboard boat fighting toward us through the swells. Tossed like flotsam by the four-foot waves, it took several tries to come alongside.
Because I had been in the water so much, I was sent aboard first. Our instructor had been in the water nearly as long, but she jumped in again to help our rescuers, Rick and Bobbi Gearhardt, push and haul me to safety. If I helped, I don't remember.
I do remember huddling, numb and immobile, on the bottom of the boat, wondering how all that blood got on my right hand. (It was a minor cut.)
We were drifting away from the sailboat, but Julie, our instructor, was still in the water. Rick had rushed back to the helm to steady the boat and Bobbi could not pull her aboard alone. If I'd been asked, I would have said I could not move, but some surge of adrenalin kicked me forward enough to grab Julie's jacket, providing just enough leverage to get her in the boat.
By then, another small motorboat had appeared and was standing by. As we drifted away, they moved in toward the sailboat. The last time we saw Joe and Francesco between the swells they were still clinging to the inside of the hull, smiling at us. I felt a stab of sorrow and guilt.
It seemed to take an eternity for the small boat to struggle to the shore, but we were met there by a couple who provided shelter, warm liquids, dy clothes and a telephone through which we learned that Joe and Francesco were safe.
On my way home, I combed through the memories, plucking out moments, turning them over and over.
I remembered reading somewhere that a small percentage of people will always panic in a crisis and jeopardize others; no one I saw on that river Sunday panicked.
I thought about Bobbi and Rick. Afterward, they could admit how scared they were, but they put themselves at risk to come for us.
I thought about Julie, and about Joe and Franceso and the three people in the boat that rescued them -- ordinary people who reached out with courage to help others.
And I thought about me: Why hadn't I been wearing a wet suit instead of cotton jeans and shirt? If I'd been in my canoe I would have worn a wet suit. In fact, at this time of year with its cold water and fickle weather, I'll hardly even paddle with someone who doesn't wear one. I believe in them. So why the hell wasn't I in one?
More, why hadn't I been consciously scared? Except for that instant when I saw the boat blowing away, I hadn't really been frightened; I'd felt detached, emotionally and physically numb.
And then, driving home along the parkway in my warm car, I began to cry..