Monday, March 28, 2011

In Which I Capsize in a Lake Full of Hippos, and Run with the Wildebeests

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was surprised to learn that hippos were dangerous. I won't tell you where she learned this, but it was The Bachelor  not the Nature Channel.  I commented that hadn't I told her about the time I was afraid for my life having capsized a sailboat in a lake full of hippos? Actually, the hippo part was not the most frightening aspect of my misadventure, which involved Brian, a friend visiting from London. But anyway. No, I hadn't told my friend that story, nor the other friends commenting on The Bachelor hippos, and I've been meaning to tell this tale of adventure from my time in Africa, so here is a transcribed entry from my Kenya journal, June 1997:

...we arrived at Lake Naivasha around 4:00 and set up tents near the surprisingly nice Naivasha Yacht Club "lodge" on a grassy knoll overlooking the notch of the lake where the yachties sail their Lasers. Suzanne and I went on a short run near some water buck down by the road. Later, we had a pizza appetizer by the fire, a spaghetti dinner, and an early to bed, as we were all exhausted.

We got up early the next morning to scrub my friends' neglected Laser 2. We shoddily rigged it and Randy and I went for a virgin sail. I sat ashore while he sailed with Suzanne; then he came in and "handed me the helm" to take Brian out, which I did, skeptically, as my most recent sailing experience was years prior--a season on my college sailing team, as crew, never skipper. Jokes were made about Brian losing his money (which--foreshadowing alert--was in his wallet in his pocket, but also LUCKILY attached to his belt).

We had a nice sail, but I was a bit nervous and too harried to effectively tell Brian how to assist. I became REALLY nervous when I realized a boat race was starting and we were poised to be in the middle of it. In a moment of gusty wind near the shore, too much attention to the helm and not to the sail, or vice versa, I capsized the boat. I saw it coming, failed to warn my friend, and sort of stepped out onto the sail and then into the water. Without a life jacket.

I think I started laughing then. Poor Brian. He had a hat, sunglasses, Tevas, and poor swimming skills to contend with, along with the shock of being dumped into the water.

The boat turtled soon thereafter. I was momentarily clueless about what to do, and then a passenger in the first boat which passed us reminded me to stand on the centerboard to right it. I stood on the edge of the boat and pulled on that centerboard with all my strength. Brian helped. The boat finally came over, and then came all the way over again, in a scary tumble of sail and mast and finally boat coming right at us. I believe this sequence of events happened twice, as Brian struggled to keep his sandals on. But the thought of hippos below us, nipping at our heels, encouraged our efforts to get ourselves back on the boat.

The following time I attempted to right the boat, I relaxed myself, and realized I was trembling all over from fear, adrenaline, and exhaustion, and that I had swallowed a whole lot of (hippo pee) lake water. I also realized how capable people drown in these circumstances, and why people wear life jackets. Pulling that centerboard had done a number on my arms and quadriceps. Finally, a passing sailor asked if we wanted the rescue boat and Brian and I, lacking any remaining pride, adamantly affirmed we did.

The rescue boat appeared with Suzanne and Randy in it, as well as Brian's and my cameras. They circled us like shark photographers, and we couldn't help laughing as we begged for assistance. With proper coaching, Brian and I successfully righted the boat. By that time I was not only tired, but feeling embarrassed and sorry that I had overturned my friends' vessel. I knew I did not want to sail it to the dock. Randy took over and I joined the rescue boat and "recovered."

Back on shore, I ate the remaining cold spaghetti and took a hot shower. We made a short trip to town to Elementaita Weavers, where I bought a handwoven blanket and pillow, and returned to the Yacht Club veranda with apples and our books for a lazy afternoon.

Just after I had stretched and expressed the desire to Go Take a Nap, an interesting young man I had met earlier--Mark, a Peace Corps volunteer--came up and asked, "You can sail, right?" I looked sidelong at Suzanne and laughed. I thought he was joking.

"My crew is leaving before the next race. Do you want to sail with me?"

I told him he might really regret his choice (although I was vindicated by seven other sailors who capsized that morning), but Mark seemed determined.

I was put in a harness, a new experience for me, and we practiced flying the spinnaker once; the next thing I knew we were racing. I will admit that I had no idea where we were on the lake or the race course the entire time we sailed. I was simply concentrating on doing the right thing at the right moment. And hiking out, along with tacking and trimming the jib, required more strength, grace, and agility than I appeared to have remaining.

Nevertheless, Mark was great to sail with, and an odd skipper: he didn't give orders, nor get frantic and shout, and was just as interested in talking to me as he was in sailing. I was enjoying myself. Then we capsized. But before I could panic or become hippo fare, we were back in the boat.

Next, "we" somehow screwed up the spinnaker, and as I was attempting to fetch it out of the water, I fell out of the boat so that I was dangling  backside down by the rubber band attached to my harness, laughing and yelling, "I'm gone...I'm out...I'm Not In The Boat!"  To which my calm skipper replied, "Yet strangely still with us," as I was dragged alongside the racing boat. He made a deft turn which boomeranged me back aboard, and Mark admitted to me it was the first time he'd lost his crew without capsizing.

Being outside the boat over the water in a harness (the right way), virtually flying, was exhilarating and probably the best of any sailing experience I'd had. When I thought my thighs could take no more, the races were over.

Just in time for confirmation that the crowd on shore had witnessed my sidecar excursion, and for a promised run with Suzanne.  We headed over to Crescent Island, taking off our running shoes to wade across the gully. We ran down the airstrip with an amazing view of Mount Longonot. It was not long before we saw herds of zebra, water buck, Thompson's gazelles and finally, wildebeest, in the fields ahead. We had to negotiate where to run without unwittingly causing a stampede.

The run was spectacular: fever trees along the lake, a gorgeous sunset, zillions of pelicans set to flight by our thoughtless feet, and plovers dive-bombing us as we headed out, perceived threats to their nests. We ran for over an hour, I on the fumes of adrenaline from earlier adventures, and returned to camp for lentils and drinks with Randy, Brian, and Mark.

I slept soundly that night with bruised legs, beers in my belly, and a deep sense of self satisfaction and relief that it wouldn't be death by drowning, or by hippo, today in Kenya. 

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