Okay, grayhawk. Kayak retrieved, and two paddles purchased, for wife and one child. Will post the lengths the store clerk recommended later, to see if there’s consensus here.
Time now for that story of why my wife no longer sails. I will make this as short as possible, without leaving out too many of the sad but entertaining details.
She had begun her sailing life just a year before we had our first child, taking lessons and crewing with me in races on various Thistle class boats at our local club, and then took a year off from getting banged around on the race course when she was pregnant. The following spring and one healthy baby later, she was ready to go again, and I had signed us up to crew for a friend of mine on the old beater boat he used for local club events. It was late March or maybe the first weekend in April, when the air and water are still mighty cold in the northeast, but the weather and forecast had been good (50F+ and sunny) when I made the commitment.
In the few days leading up to the race, the forecast turned bad, and I knew there would be high winds, some rain, and temps in the low-40’s during our race. These are the fast and rough racing conditions I love best, but being aboard an over-powered racing dinghy in a gale isn’t for everyone, and I debated calling the skipper to say she shouldn’t come out with us.
But we had made a commitment to the skipper and I knew he would have trouble finding another crew on such short notice. He was very experienced skipper, nationally-ranked and our club champ at the time, so I felt comfortable everything would be fine. Cold, uncomfortable, and a bit difficult, but probably a good time, nonetheless.
So, we head out in the the old beater boat, and cleanly win the first two of the three races scheduled for that day. We were getting banged around pretty good, and hiking so hard our legs and stomachs ached, but it was all good. Air was 43F, and water was just a few degrees warmer, so we were in full foul-weather gear (shells over fleece over hi-tech long underwear).
In the third and final race, we were on the same tack as another boat, when we were hit by a header, where the wind swings around to a less favorable direction. The obvious response to a header would be to tack, taking advantage of the wind shift. So, when our skipper heard the neighboring boat’s sails luff, he had naturally assumed they had made this obvious choice, and he called a tack.
We had just finished a nice moderate roll tack (for the conditions), and hiked out on the opposite rail, when the skipper realized he had made a mistake. The other boat had not actually completed a tack, and we were only one or two boat lengths from T-boning them at speed in 18-20 knot winds. He did the only thing he could at that point, to avoid serious damage and possible injury to the opposing crew, and threw the tiller over hard, taking us back to the original tack to avoid a collision.
Being more experienced, I felt the rail of the boat dropping out from under me, and knew we were in a death roll. I dove into the center of the boat to grab the centerboard trunk, maybe even having a small chance to right the weight of the boat, and watched my surprised wife start to back-flip out of the boat as it went over. I grabbed the ankle of her foul weather gear as the boat quickly rolled toward us and she went under. I had a good grip on the leg of her pants but she hadn’t seen that I had caught her as she tumbled into the water.
She had heard too many cautionary tales of people getting caught in the copious amounts of loose rigging on these crowded little race boats, and if I recall correctly (this was many years ago), one person in our class had died or been seriously injured due to getting caught up in rigging and trapped under the mainsail in the year prior to this. So, when I had grabbed the ankle of her suit to pull her back in, she had panicked, thinking her leg was tangled in a halyard tailing, or something similar. Her head was under the sail, and she started kicking to free herself, as I was trying to pull her back into the free space where she could surface between the boom and the hull.
Meanwhile, the skipper who had seen she was kicking against me, and trying to swim the wrong direction (farther under the mainsail), dove under, grabbed her shoulders, surfaced, and told me it was okay to let go. He pulled her up, and by then the rescue boat was already approaching. We put her onto the rescue boat, a little shaken but fine, while we set about righting our boat.
That’s when a normal racing capsize, which was merely uncomfortable due to the cold conditions, turned bad. We righted the boat, but it was floating very low in the water, and it re-capsized before we could get it sufficiently bailed to become stable. It was blowing pretty good at this point, easily over 20 knots, and I suspect the well-meaning folks in the rescue boat who were trying to hold our righted boat against the wind were causing it to blow out of iron and re-capsize on us. We re-righted it a few more times, but each time it seemed it was floating lower in the water, until the transom was just staying under. The air was 43F, and my wife was in a panic over us in the cold water for what had probably been 20+ minutes, at that point. In truth, she was probably colder than us, as the water was 7 - 10 degrees warmer than the air that day, and blowing pretty good.
But I was starting to get real cold, and despite the exertion to right and bail the boat, I could feel hypothermia starting to set in. Our foul weather gear is more about splash and wind protection, than long-term submersion. Eventually, a second crash boat crew showed up, with two fresh guys ready to hop in the water and tend to the boat, while the first rescue boat pulled us out of the water and headed for shore.
The boat continued to slowly sink over the next 30 minutes as we were ferried to land to dry off and change, but the new swimmers were able to secure a line to it, and slowly tow it (now under water) back to the launch ramp where they beached it. Later inspection showed a leaking and flooded floatation tank in the stern, likely the result of water infiltration and freezing causing a crack in the tanks of this old beater boat, which sat outside in the winters. One of the hazards of keeping your old boat outdoors without sufficient cover, I won’t pretend it wasn’t neglected, but it wasn’t my boat.
A few weeks later, I tried to take her out on my own boat, a nicely restored woodie that was in restoration on the date of the prior event. The forecast was a nice steady 8 - 10 knots, which is perfect for this boat, but it ended up being a shifty day with gusts into the mid-teens. These boats are so over-powered that they can bang you around a good bit with shifty gusts in the mid-teens, our rules of racing actually prohibit any race to start in winds over 20, so it was heeling and popping around pretty good with each wind shift. It was fun, I suspect most would enjoy it, but the experience was too much for her on the heels of the prior event. It was the last time she sailed, and that was about 10 years ago, now.