I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
But you give me something
I can feel! U2
Every so often someone new to kayaking faces water vertigo. They just can’t fall out of their kayak without inducing panic. Yeah, they can swim. They can hold their breath. Sometimes they are even divers. It just happens. They just stare at the water and start hyperventilating at the idea of falling over. Wet exits can induce sheer terror. I call it water vertigo. It’s not rational fear, it’s something hard wired and beyond your control. Sometimes that’s enough to make someone give up paddling all together. Sometimes people are so determined to enter the sport, that they’ll do just about anything to overcome it. I love working with these folks. Once they get through it, it’s a beautiful victory. Continue reading
“In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape, broken branches trip me as I speak. .” Radiohead
I’m no expert, but I know what I’m afraid of. .
It’s ok to be afraid. Rational fear keeps us safe. It’s a good thing. I’ve read many articles about fear, but most times they seem to address a sort of second level of fear. The fear that experienced kayakers, climbers, etc., feel when faced with new and unusual situations. But often they seem to go past those initial fears we have when first starting out with a sport like kayaking. I’ve met plenty of recreational kayakers who would like to move on to bigger waters but are held back by fear. Often the fear is directly related to going up-side down in a boat and being trapped. I think many times if you could avoid that whole subject people would move along much faster in the sport. Today I want to talk a bit about that.
One of the first things new students often face in kayaking is the dreaded “Wet Exit”. We’ve all been there. I’ve seen people come into a class with that wet exit just lingering there in their minds. They have had everyday since they signed up for the class to think about being trapped upside-down in a tight kayak. You can almost see the new worry-lines developing under their eyes! Sometimes that new student will start asking about the wet-exit before they even tell you their name. And that’s ok. It’s a rational fear. It’s bloody ok!
I’ve worked with a few folks that were very afraid of water. Really tough people on dry land can suddenly turn to jelly when they think about deep water. The thought of a wet exit is just compounding that fear. For others the fear is not exactly the wet exit but something related to it but less obvious like fear of falling, or lack of control when you can’t touch the bottom. So I try to think about that when I first talk to students who seem apprehensive. Sometimes a wet exit is just not in the cards for the day. For others the way there may start with a spash.
Often in a formal class a new student sits in the grass and goes through the motions of a wet-exit a couple times before they get on the water to try it for real. I’ve watched this closely and come away wondering if it’s always a good idea for everyone. That’s a lot of time to just enhance a students fear. “Ok, close your eyes and imagine your upside down hanging in your boat” does not really seem too encouraging. For those “Where angels fear to tread” types this sounds like a blast, but for the less certain you have just given them another thing to ratchet up their fear.
Ok, so assuming we have the boat fitting properly and not too tight in general the student is most likely going to just fall out of their boat if they flop it over without a skirt. So I like to take advantage of this. I may have a student go through the wet exit on the beach right away, but then I’ll have them get the skirt back off so we can go play a bit. (important tip: Later we will be in the boat and I don’t want the back of the skirt to catch the combing, so I want to just leave it off and avoid the issue)
You see the first thing I want to deal with is that tension. We get into kayaking for enjoyment, but often we can be too immersed in the “learning mind” to remember the fun we’re here trying to have. Especially when our mind has had time to anticipate the class and build up fears of the unknown. So what I want to do is have a splash and play session with the end goal being to just fall out of the boat. This is’nt really my idea, but one I picked up from USK when talking about surf. Getting in and playing first can really tone down the tension. I think it can apply just as much to a wet exit as it does to surf zone. I’ve found this to be a great time. We can just take our boats out into the water a little less than waist high and climb all over it. Try to sit on the back deck and hand paddle, try to climb up on it from the water etc., How about ducking under your boat and coming up the other side? When I started kayaking my boat was my beach toy. In fact it still is. I try to encourage this idea by teaching folks to play with their boat. Hey, this is fun!
Now when we are good and wet, let’s pull the boat back into the beach and climb in. We still don’t need the paddle or the skirt. I’m going to pull the student out until the water is about waist deep and then stand either at bow of the boat or within reach depending on the person. Now I want them to try to fall out of the boat. Just fall right over. Very easily. I may challenge them NOT to get their hair wet. I know someone who can fall out of a kayak and never get a strand of hair wet, so it can be done! This whole falling out of the boat business can be a real eye opener. Sometimes we may spend a good amount of time right here and call it a day, saving the wet-exit until later. The fear of falling over may be THE big issue in of itself or at the least part of the bigger fear. But when dealing with fear of the wet-exit I think this little falling out exercise will tell me how far a student is really ready to go.
NOTE: In truth some people will just tense up and hold themselves in the boat by tightening up their legs in the cockpit. Hopefully if we’ve been playing awhile this is less appt to be an issue, but I’m going to still keep an eye on them. But remember the real point of this exercise is to relax and have fun.
If everything is going well and we’re still laughing it’s time to play the opposite game and try to stay IN the boat. We can talk a bit more about contact points etc., but again we are just addressing fears here so I’m not going to confuse the moment too much. Now is a good time for the nose plugs! Most of the time the student is going to have a hard time staying in. Great! That’s actually demonstrates the point to the irrational mind. There is no better statement against fear a physical demonstration. In working with a friend who had a strong fear of water we actually worked on this maneuver for a few days in a row before she was comfortable. In the end she was just frustrated she could not STAY IN! So now we ask the question, “Are you ready to move on and try the real thing?”
At this point we may move back to the grass to work on the “real” wet exit. Then we can put on our skirt and go back out. However, I still don’t want the skirt attached to the combing. Now we can work though the process of a wet-exit. At this point it’s usually one run without and the next with it on. But I’m still really watching. Putting the skirt on can put that monkey right back on your shoulder. It’s touchy and personal. In the end the student has to make the choice. But if they can do it once, I like to have them do it right away again. Then for fun let’s do it one more time!! Great!
I’m sure a lot of folks would find this to be a long drawn out process and it is certainly not always necessary. But I don’t want to push aside fear either. There are plenty of skilled kayakers with some fear of water. They all had to find their way through it or a way to live with it. As we go out and teach others I want to think that we can recognize this fear in new students without belittling the issue. I want to find ways to address the fear yet keep it light and fun. I know smiles open the mind. I know of all the things you can teach or give to others, helping them over come fear is probably one of the most impactful things you can do. They will take that will them into the rest of life. Beat one fear and the others are on notice! If you can have a part in that what more can you ask for?? Cool!