Reflections from the Cockpit
"Is The Kayak Afraid?"

At a recent talk to a paddling club I discussed my thoughts about the advantages of being relaxed in your kayak. My personal experience has taught me the more relaxed the paddler, the less likely they are to capsize in challenging conditions. After the meeting we went out to eat a late dinner. While sharing stories over dinner, one of the participants, Doug, told me of a time when he was paddling with his young daughter Hillary. She was in the front seat of the double kayak they were paddling. When the wind picked up and the water became choppy Hillary asked her dad "Is the kayak afraid?" I thought the question was priceless. I asked Doug for permission to use the quote because it is a great lead in to the subject of the fear experienced by all of us when we are in uncomfortable conditions.

I often tell my students that in rough conditions an unoccupied kayak has a better chance of staying upright compared to a kayak that was occupied with a paddler who was tense. When I began paddling I think I had the normal fears experienced by other paddlers new to the sport. The more anxiety I felt the stiffer I was in the kayak. Whenever the kayak moved from side to side my upper body went with it. Unfortunately, side to side meant my balance point ended up beyond my capsize point. I was doing a lot of bracing and even more capsizing. Trying to be the eternal optimist, I would say it was great capsize recovery practice. I found the tension cycle is a vicious one. We feel tense because we don’t want to capsize. That tension makes us feel more prone to capsize which builds even more tension. The cycle just feeds on itself.

I remember when I began paddling in whitewater. My first whitewater rapid is a vivid memory of terror. The rapid (class II+ at best) was about a quarter mile long and the water was shallow so there was a lot of scraping and bouncing over rocks. Every time the kayak tilted I felt like I was going over. I was so tense that any movement of the kayak moved my upper body. The death grip I had on my paddle left indentations on the paddle shaft.

Two years later I was teaching my first whitewater class and I was taking my class down that same rapid. As I approached the bottom of the rapid I realized I did the entire rapid either backwards and/or sideways because I was watching my students. I was not thinking about my kayak bouncing over the rocks. I was completely relaxed and my body let the kayak do it’s thing and my upper body adjusted as needed without any conscious thought on my part. My upper body naturally remained over the kayak. I called this relaxed state "river hips." Later that evening as I reminisced about my first trip down that rapid as a beginner and today’s trip as a seasoned paddler, the message was clear. The kayak will move as needed if I remain relaxed.

The source of the fear makes no difference. It is usually facing new conditions, new surroundings or new situations. As we learn a new sport there are usually higher anxiety levels at the beginning stages. Over time the frequency of tension due to fear decreases. Repetitive successful experiences build our confidence and reduce our fears. However, there are times we will find ourselves in unfamiliar situations regardless of our skill level. In addition, there are some days when the anxiety is more of a result of a bad mental day rather than the external surroundings.

Regardless of the source of our fears I have to say, "all feelings are real." Our feelings can be reasonable or completely unreasonable, but if we feel them they are real to us. I find it on the verge of an insult when others try to help me by telling me to discount my feelings. "Don’t feel that way; there is nothing to fear; just think of something else" are just a few examples we have all heard and/or even said to others with the best of intentions. Instead, how about offering methods or techniques to reduce that anxiety while we are experiencing it.

Let’s give credit where it is due. Fear is nature’s way of telling us "this could be dangerous." I am not sure what they are but I recall we are born with certain fears. I think fear of falling and loud noises are two of them. Most of our fears are learned as we go through life. What is learned can theoretically be unlearned. I am not an expert on the subject of fear but I have experienced enough of it in my life to call it a close companion. As an instructor of numerous adventure activities (rock climbing, scuba diving, mountaineering, kayaking, etc.) I have observed plenty of anxiety in my students through their learning process. Through my observations I’ve noticed it is natural for the new students to feel fear due to the newness of the activity along with a host of other feelings (excitement, frustration, success, failure, fatigue, jubilation, etc.) As the students learn the necessary skills and repetitively experience success in the activity their anxiety levels decrease and they become more relaxed. However, this process takes time and does not help us right now when we need to relax. Reminding the student of how past fears have disappeared through experience can sometimes assure them that "this too will pass" but it is usually not enough.

If we look at how we usually deal with fear we can possibly find ways to reduce its affect on us while in the moment. Most of us bottle the fear inside. We don’t want to admit when we are experiencing it when it is happening. In fact we usually try to just bury it hoping it will go away. However, we often find it doesn’t go away and the anxiety keeps increasing. Fear manifests itself in different ways depending on the level of fear and how we each deal with that fear. Some of the typical reactions I have witnessed while teaching are stiff bodies, loss of focus, loss of hearing, partial to complete paralysis, over doing the activity or wanting to leave the activity (fight or flight).

This all sounds great on paper but how does it help us when we are on the water with our bodies tense due to anxiety about our situation? My approach to reducing anxiety at the moment includes a number of methods. Talking about it, admitting it, introducing humor, exaggerating the feeling, doing the activity feared, repetition and physical exertion are the main approaches I take with my students and myself when I get anxious. I have found "exaggerating the feeling" to be one of the best "at the moment" techniques for reducing tension. If the tension is a result of bottled up feelings, exaggerating the feeling builds it up even more. Soon you get to the point where you cannot keep it bottled up and the energy begins to release.

Here are examples of exaggeration exercises. If one feels tippy in their kayak I try to make the kayak even tippier. When the paddler returns to the previous level of tippiness they often find the once tippy kayak stable. To make a kayak feel tippier try sitting on the back deck or even standing in a kayak (see USK article). Of course you have a partner stabilize the kayak for you. Even with them stabilizing the kayak standing on your seat is more nerve racking than just sitting there. I often see the facial tension gone when the students sit back in their cockpits. In fact they cannot wait to get back into that previously tippy kayak. If there is no partner to be found (when paddling alone or not wanting to share this with someone else) aggressively (almost violently) shaking one’s hips from side to side while staying centered over the cockpit often works. Repetitive tensing and relaxing of my tense muscles eventually lessens the tension in those muscles.

The fear of capsize soon reduces after repetitive capsizes and recovery drills. Rolling before going through a rapid was a good relaxing technique for me and my whitewater paddling buddies. T-N-T ((Tuning N Timing) see USK article) which is playing in the water you will soon be paddling in is a great stress reducer. Physical calisthenics on shore or in your kayak (which is a bit more challenging) are a good way to reduce tension through fatigue. I have even found guttural yelling to be of benefit.

During some extreme moments I have tried substituting a stronger feeling for my fear. I would get myself really angry about something. The good thing about anger is it takes a lot of energy to stay angry. The anger exercise is short lived but I found my original fear to be gone after I let the anger go.

Sometimes a shot of hot chocolate from a thermos can do the trick. Which leads into the subject of keeping your blood sugar up and staying well hydrated. Dressing properly for the conditions is helpful. Anything that can affect you physically or mentally can have an impact on your fears.

These examples have worked for different people at different times. Since there are so many variables, different techniques or combinations of the techniques need to be tried. No one knows you better than yourself. If you explore some of the methods, you may find some ways to reduce that tension at the moment so you can have a more relaxing time on the water, which will improve your performance and most likely allow you to stay upright.

In all fairness to the subject, I need to include my experiences regarding that bad mental day I mentioned earlier. There have been those times where a bad experience on the water reduced my self-confidence to where I couldn’t recover mentally and I called it a day. There have been a couple of mentally low times when I got to the water and I knew I shouldn’t be there and didn’t go paddling. Sometimes I was able to improve my mental state with some of the techniques mentioned above and other times nothing worked. I remember a day when one of my whitewater partners had a bad experience at the base of a small waterfall (he got pummeled.) After he finally got to shore he announced his day on the water was over. I had so much respect for him to make his decision amongst the rest of us trying to encourage him to get back on the horse. In the world of male egos this guy had the guts to say, "I am too scared to get back on the river right now." There are times we need to let the horse go back to the barn without us. Our own desires, priorities and experience will usually tell us when to walk away.

My goal was to bring the subject of fear to the foreground and to send the message that fear is real and it should not be ignored. Being ashamed of fear only buries it deeper and helps the fear cycle. If you want to get past it, your fears need to be faced and dealt with in constructive manners. I am not saying, "don’t be afraid." I am saying try to recognize your fears and try to work through them if you want to continue doing the activity with a higher level of performance. So the next time you find yourself tense due to fear I encourage you to remember Hillary’s question, "Is the kayak afraid?" If you answer, "no, the kayak is not afraid but I am and I want to work through it" you will be on your way to doing so.


Wayne Horodowich


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