In one moment, the team from the 201st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord was cruising along in the dragon boat at the seventh annual Gig Harbor Paddlers Cup April 22.
The next moment, the boat had capsized, and the soldiers were gasping for air in the near-freezing waters of the Puget Sound.
“It was just a chain of events, a cluster of things that happened,” said 1st Lt. Jarrod McClendon, with a laugh.
The dragon boat, running parallel to the Windermere Real Estate team boat, began to veer toward the other boat.
“The boat eventually collided with us, and it was a bit of a panic situation,” McClendon said. “To get away from the impact, everyone shifted to the left side of the boat. Everything from that point on, I could barely remember.”
The weight of everyone shifting to the left — a natural reaction, but the incorrect response — caused the boat to quickly capsize. Turns out, the waters of the Puget Sound aren’t quite comparable to say, Waikiki Beach.
“It was about 46 degrees, we were later told,” McClendon said. “Once you go in, everything locks up. It’s that immediate shock.”
Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing team coach Alan Anderson said a plunge into the water around here may have been surprising for a lot of the soldiers.
“These young people come from all over the country,” he said. “The water down south, and in other places, is pretty warm. Your first time in the Puget Sound, it’s almost heart stopping.”
Everyone was wearing life jackets, and were quickly and safely pulled out of the water by the many safety volunteers in attendance. Most hit the warm showers at the Gig Harbor Marina and volunteers supplied a change of warm clothes for those who didn’t bring an extra set.
Many participants on the team were ready to go home and call it day.
“We’re all on the dock — everyone is cold, wet, shaking,” McClendon said.
But JBLM was the defending champions from last year’s Paddlers Cup. The soldiers weren’t going to go down without a fight.
“We had another race, and we could still win this thing,” McClendon said. “When you’re in that mode, the adrenaline is pumping. I’m thinking, if I were in their shoes, what would I want to hear? What would I need to hear to not just go out there but to actually give it some energy and gusto?”
It came down to one phrase: Lean in to win.
“We’re not known as paddlers,” McClendon said. “But we had one thing figured out: We understand counting. We had our cadence down. It’s like churning butter. There was a way to help push the boat forward, not just by paddling, but by leaning forward and pushing the paddle back. Lean in to win.”
Less than an hour after capsizing, the team was back in the water. After advancing to the finals, JBLM beat Windermere in a photo finish to defend the title.
“Not only did we capsize, but we came back and won the whole thing,” McClendon said. “There’s a resiliency factor there. … This is what it’s like when you go a little harder than you thought you would’ve: you can probably make it through. That’s big for anyone. It’s about getting home and getting back safe. It’s a resiliency message.”