While I was in rehab I was asked if I would like to compete in a canoe race across Lake Ontario for charity the following summer. The race had been run several years prior to this but this would be the first year with a mostly disabled crew.
The canoe would be a north canoe and would have six crew members. It had no keel so the canoe was very susceptible to flipping. The canoe was built with custom seats for us that would allow us to paddle and use our upper bodies without losing our balance. We would also need to switch sides every minute of the race and would be averaging about 70 strokes a minute for the duration of the race. The seats were designed by a company in Toronto that devised a system that would allow our seats to slide from side to side and lock into position and continue to race. Our switches had to be perfectly timed or we would have too much weight on one side thus causing the canoe to flip. Along with two able bodied guys and four paraplegics we began to train for the race in February.
We started training in a pool at Variety Village and the first night was mostly spent trying to stay upright in the canoe without flipping. Needless to say we spent a lot of time in the water. As soon as the weather started to warm up we moved outside and started practicing at a yacht club on Lake Ontario 2-3 times a week in the evenings and also on the weekends; each practice consisting of a 2-4 mile paddle. I don’t think we had one full practice without flipping the canoe.
Our first pre-race was on May 24th weekend. We raced against five other canoes that would be competing in the Great Lakes race. We made it about a ¼ of the way thru the race and flipped and then having to be fished out of the frigid waters by a local boat. It wasn’t a pleasant experience because one of the crew members got trapped under the boat when it flipped and had to be helped out by our support crew. We had a long way to go to be able to complete the 30 mile race across Lake Ontario. We kept practicing and continued getting better with our switches and flipping less frequently.
Race time came at 6 am on July 1st 1996, Canada day. We were all nervous but determined to see this through. We started the race at the sound of a cannon being fired off over the lake and we headed out and kept our canoe aimed for the CN Tower which was half visible from our starting point at Niagara on The Lake. The first 3 hours we were facing 3-4 foot waves and were taking in quite a bit of water but one of our able bodied crew had a foot pump and was continually pumping as we all paddled and switched. After the first 3 hours we had about an hour and half of flat water to paddle. We were switching every minute and averaging about 70 strokes a minute and each person only stopping for about 20 seconds every half an hour to eat an energy bar or fruit supplied by our support crew. We were doing amazing! We were about 5 hours in and hadn’t flipped. Only problem was we all thought the complete race would be about 4 hours!
The last two hours of the race we had a major tail wind and this didn’t make the paddling any easier because we would lose our balance easier as we seemed like we were surfing on top of the waves. I could only focus on the one minute ahead and make sure I was in sync for my next switch. My muscles were aching and screaming but there was no way I was going to let my crew down and each stroke was getting us closer to the finish line. We took the turn into Ontario place and were heading for the finish line. The crowd was cheering and we had about two switches left when while we were switching for the second to last time we almost flipped. Our timing was off but we some how managed to keep the canoe upright and continued on. It was almost like a dream when someone yelled out “one last switch”. We did the switched and crossed the finish line in second place 7 hours 10 minutes and 1 second from the time we left. I always keep the one second there because I know how hard each second was in the second half of the race.
Exhausted, blistered, sunburned but also thrilled because we had just become the first disabled crew to ever cross the 30 mile expanse of Lake Ontario!
The Crew of One Step Beyond