Reflections from the Cockpit

Over the years I have taught scuba diving, rock climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing and basic avalanche safety classes. In grad school I helped run the anatomy lab where I taught the under grads by using human cadavers. In my kayaking career I have taught ocean, whitewater and surf classes. I was also on the US Surf Kayaking team and have paddled in some very large waves. I mention this not for bragging purposes but to justify my credibility when I say I have seen more than my fair share of panic. The above activities can be terrifying to any normal human being. I have had students who went over the deep end believing they were going to die. I must admit the most incidents of panic were in the scuba classes. That feeling of being underwater and not believing you can breathe can send anyone over the edge.

In January’s Course of Action Scenario dealing with a panicked swimmer is the main focus. I thought I would expand on my experiences in dealing with panicked students because there never seems to be one perfect way to do so.

My dictionary defines panic as a sudden overpowering fright; a sudden widespread terror often accompanied by mass flight. Panic is anxiety and fear taken to its extreme. I have seen panic manifest itself in many different ways. Fight or flight seems to be the most common. Freezing in place is amazing to see. It is like the deer in the headlights. Going into a catatonic state is scary to witness. It is like the person is unconscious but their eyes are open. Screaming, shouting, uncontrolled weeping and bursts of hysteria can also occur.

I have learned that panic is not rational. It is not logical. People will do crazy, foolish, dangerous, harmful and sometimes very funny things when in panic mode. Sometimes they will do absolutely nothing when something needs to be done. I remember a very funny incident on a Boston Whaler (motor boat about 15 ft long) off of the island of Kauai. A group of us were scuba diving on a pinnacle that rose up out of the deep. As the large ocean swell came over this shallow area the swell would peak up and threaten to break over us but then fade into its original size. Just after a dive we were sitting on the boat (there were five of us plus one guide). All of a sudden there was this thunderous roar. We turned around to see this large swell (the biggest of the day) start to break. It looked like it was going to take us out. This boat became a panic laboratory. Each of us acted differently. The funniest was my former girlfriend who started to run from one side of this small boat to the other. There was no where to run because the whole boat was about to be consumed but she ran anyway. I grabbed my swim fins and was getting ready to dive under the wave but fell to my knees laughing when I saw this running display. One of the others stood frozen like the deer in the headlights. Another group member did jump overboard and I can’t remember what the last one did (I think he sat there and said oh #$%@). The guide just sat back relaxed as can be. The wave quickly dissipated before it hit the boat. The guide later explained they too jumped overboard the first time they experienced this place. However, experience did eliminate the guides panic.

A good thing about panic is it appears to be short lived. It is a sudden response. I have not seen it last very long. I think the longest episode was about 45 - 60 seconds. Then the panic reduced to a heightened level of fear. Dealing with fear is an art in itself but I feel it is easier than dealing with panic. See USK articles "Is the Kayak Afraid?", "Seaworthy" and "Is It Safe?" for more on the subject of fear. Keep in mind that the panicked person can suddenly get very strong. Self-survival is a strong instinct.

I wish I could tell you the sure-fire way to deal with a panic victim. For your own safety it is important to remember a person in panic mode is unpredictable and should be avoided until they calm down. Even if they are out of the original situation the panic can continue. If I have to get them out of panic mode for their own safety the most reliable method for me was doing something to divert their attention. I think a person in panic mode goes into their own world in their own head. You need to get them focused back in the real world. I don’t use the typical method seen in the movies, which is the slap in the face and shout "snap out of it." It appears hearing shuts down when panic sets in. I still think they hear but they are not conscious of it. I have used shouts; holding their shoulders and loudly saying look at me. I have splashed cold water on a face or two. This sudden shock treatment was to get their attention. Once I see them starting to focus on me I try to be calm, assured and directive. I once saw a whitewater instructor slap the side of a panicking student’s helmet with their paddle. I was shocked but it worked a charm. The student snapped right out of panic mode. I once slapped the front deck of my plastic kayak with my paddle when a panicking student was coming toward me. The loud noise and the sudden movement of my paddle got their attention. A couple of times I was able to just sit there and hug the individual until the panic went away. My one and only experience with the catatonic panic was being very gentle, non-threatening with a soothing voice. It worked. However, my one time does not make me an expert.

I can’t say I have ever panicked in my life. I have felt incredible fear but I don’t think it ever reached a true uncontrolled panic. As I said earlier I have had more than my fair share of panic victims. As a result I have tried to reduce the circumstances that seem to trigger panic. I have found education and simulating potential problems are two key ingredients in reducing incidents of panic. Panic usually occurs when experiencing a sudden unexpected surprise. If you build experiences and educate in what to expect then surprises are reduced. That is why I love experiential education. The more I can get my students to experience the better chance I have in helping them reduce their fears which I hope will keep them from panicking.

My recommendation to you is to get confident in your skills. This is done through repetitive practice. If you feel confident to handle the situations in which you place yourself then the chance of panic is minimized. So you don’t have to deal with others who panic try to keep inexperienced paddlers from getting nasty surprises.

Wayne Horodowich


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