Remember that song, "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen?" Well, I do because the song was crazy popular in the year I finished middle school (now you know how old/young I am).
I'd like to make an amendment.
Wear a life jacket.
I grew up on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. I took swimming lessons from a very young age. I'm comfortable on boats of all kinds. I was once insulted that a tour operator made me wear a life jacket while snorkelling.
My attitude changed the day I went rafting on the River Suarez in Colombia.
I first tried white water rafting in Costa Rica a few months ago. Husband had done it while travelling in India and Nepal. He really enjoyed it, so he suggested we try it together. I knew that you had to wear a helmet and life jacket, but honestly I never considered rafting to be particularly dangerous. I guess that stems from my coastal dwelling arrogant non-fear of water. I figured if you followed the directions of the guide, you'd be ok.
River Pacuare in Costa Rica presented no incident. The rapids were levels 2-4 (6 being the highest and only possible in kayak, not raft). We had a great time, so we decided to tackle the more extreme River Suarez in Colombia (levels 3-5).
It was definitely more exciting than Pacuare. The rapids were intense, with waves coming up over our heads at times. We successfully made it through about two hours of rapids. The other raft flipped over once, spilling everyone into the river after a level 3. Don't worry; everyone was fine. Level 3 is no big deal. Finally we reached the final rapid of the course, a level 5.5 appropriately named "Surprise."
Our guide instructed us to listen for his commands and "tie our feet" (shove them under the seat of the raft). We entered the rapid, basically a huge hole of rushing water. Our guide shouted "get down" so we all jumped into the middle of the raft while water crashed in all around us. The entire raft filled with water. I felt myself being lifting out of the raft. Apparently my feet were not adequately "tied."
Luckily (?) I was holding the safety line, so even though I ended up outside of the boat, I was still at least attached to it. I thought about the safety course we took before starting. Ok, I just needed to hold onto the line and someone would lift me back into the raft. Unfortunately the rapid was about 500m long, so the rest of the team was still navigating the rapid and unable to rescue me immediately.
I felt my legs getting sucked under the raft. We were approaching another huge hole of water, so I let go of the safety line and decided to detach from the boat rather than get crushed and possibly drown. Obviously I was in mental and physical shock. I went though about 150m of rapids in just a life jacket, thinking that the raft could still save me if I just stuck it out. Apparently Husband was having a panic attack in the raft from looking at my terrified face bobbing in and out of the water, desperately sucking for air and spitting out water as I went through the rapids.
Then I finally remembered I could swim (thanks to my mother who forced me to go to swimming lessons at the local Y since as early as I can remember). I swam with all my little heart through that rapid to the shore. I found a rock, climbed on top of it, and decided I was not leaving that little rock... EVER. Even when the other raft came by and tried to save me. I would not leave that rock.
An eternity later (maybe 10 minutes), our guide, after parking the raft beyond the rapid and hiking back along the rocky shore of the river, came to rescue me. I am embarrassed to say that he had to hold my hand as I half-walked-half-crawled along the shore to where the raft was waiting. I am proud to say I did not cry (if you know me, you know I'm a crier).
Since "Surprise" was the last rapid on the course, after my rescue everyone was free to jump out of the raft and float down the last 500m of the river. I opted to stay inside, explaining "I've drunk enough river for one day."
So am I now afraid of water, never to raft again? No, actually having survived a class 5 rapid, I feel pretty comfortable I can handle most situations in the water.
But I will never scoff at the noble life jacket again.
PS: If you are a friend or family member who I lied to/omitted details about this incident when it happened, it was only because I didn't want you to worry about me. I'm safe. I'm alive. No worries.