Fear and Sea Kayaking

by Barbara Kossy. Published in Bay Currents, November 1997.

When I first started sea kayaking I was scared a lot. I signed up for a BASK trip to Angel Island. I had never paddled there before, and had never paddled the open bay. For a week before the trip I constantly worried about my skills, my strength, my health, capsizing, and weather. Would I be so slow that I’d be left behind in the middle of the Bay? Would I have fun or would it be horrible? The night before I had trouble sleeping and I felt nauseous that morning. (The trip was a success. I made it through the bumpy water at Yellow Bluff and made new friends.)

Eight years later I still get scared. But it’s unusual now, and kayaking is a lot more fun. It’s just short of amazing that I continued to kayak because I was scared a lot. Obviously, everyone is different and has their own demons. What scares you may not move me, and what scares me, you might ignore.

There are three types of fear: phobia, anxiety, and true fear.

A phobia is an irrational fear focused on something specific. Some common phobias are fears of high places, social situations, and the dark. When you have a phobia you avoid a phobic situation. It sometimes takes a lot of work to avoid a phobia. For example, someone with a phobia of bridges would drive miles out of their way to avoid the Bay Bridge. But avoidance keeps the phobia active. How can you learn a bridge is safe if you’re never on one to find out?

By dealing with a phobia directly you can overcome it and actually gain competence in other areas of your life. Insight does not help reduce phobia. To overcome a phobia you must:

  • Be willing to experience your fear in the presence of others and to talk about it with others.
  • Use systematic relaxation when you begin to get anxious. Try creative visualization and deep breathing.

Phobias can lead to counter phobias. People who are counter phobics do things that are more dangerous than reasonable. They deny realistic fear and can be dare devils (like Evil Knevil). They can be sadistic and do unto others what was done to them. You may know one. Typically it’s the person who encourages a novice to try a black diamond run or to surf the South Tower waves before the paddler has a good forward stroke. If you know you’re not ready for big surf but your pal says you are, and tries to push you out there, be cautious. Assess your own skill level and act on your best judgment.

Anxiety or unrealistic fear is characterized by a feeling of vague, unspecified harm. Like fear, it can cause a state of physical disturbance; unlike fear, it is characterized by the absence of an apparent cause-the circumstance that precipitates anxiety is hidden and unknown. Anxiety has many symptoms, including pounding heartbeat, breathlessness, shaking, sweating, dry mouth, dizziness, weakness, nausea, insomnia, fatigue, headache, and loss of appetite, tunnel vision, dry mouth, sweaty palms, nonstop talking, and staying with an irrational thought.

You’re anxious if you know your ability, but fear incapacitates you. For example, you and your friends go out to play in the waves at Yellow Bluff, but even though you know nothing bad could happen (you have a wet suit on, you know your re-entries, you could eddy out any time) you’re still scared, so scared that you just sit in the eddy and watch everyone else play, or you’re in the middle of something gnarly and you get stiff and weak and scared and just can’t paddle effectively.

I’ve seen anxious paddlers who paddle fast out in front of the group, never looking back, possibly unaware that they’re scared, and afraid to even turn around. For some people it’s hard to admit that they’re scared. If you see a scared looking paddler, (and can catch up) you may just ask them how things are going. If you’re relaxed, just that simple question can help an anxious paddler relax. Or maybe that paddler just needs a little tip on how to deal with a following sea, or whatever. In many cases a bit of information can help a lot (e.g. It’s easier to turn on top of a wave than in the trough.)

You can overcome anxiety by relaxing, and examining the cause of the anxiety. To reduce anxiety build your skill level gradually. Learn more about weather, waves, and local conditions. Build your kayaking skills. Start with your comfort level, push it bit by bit.

Everyone does this at a different level. It took me seven years to let myself flop over in my kayak to practice bracing, and I’m still working on it. If you want to work on a particular skill that scares you, bracing in choppy water, for example, find a skilled teacher, either commercially or through BASK, and tell that person exactly what’s going on. Set up your ideal learning situation. Maybe you need two teachers in gentle chop, maybe you need to set a specific goal for a session, like just poking your nose around the point to flirt with the chop for 5 minutes before you head back to the protected cove. Take the time to set up what’s right for you.

Fear is the appropriate response to what it truly threatening. When you are in a threatening situation, realistically appraise your skills vs. the demands of the environment. Maybe you don’t need to go there. By paddling in environments that gradually challenge your skills, you give yourself the training you need to assess your ability to take care of yourself and others.

To function while afraid you can use these techniques:

  • Remember when you successfully did something like this before
  • Imagine doing it successfully
  • Enact it before hand
  • Train in advance
  • Pay attention to doing it well.
  • Develop a ritual to remind you of doing it well (I say to my kayak, “You were built to do this stuff. Go for it.”)

Are you still afraid? Is what you want to do realistic? Can you make the fear go away? It’s OK to admit something is scary. Do you have the capacity to go on? Can you stop and talk about it? (Shelter behind a point etc.). Can you get out of the water? Can you just go back? Remember you don’t have to do everything that scares you. There is no shame.

The most important thing is to acknowledge when you get scared, and figure out what it is that’ s scaring you. As sea kayakers we need to examine and manage our fear because fear can incapacitate us and it gets in the way of having fun. Being thrilled is fun, but being actually scared, is not. Fear is physical and can impede skills and judgment. Learn to help others and yourself deal with fear and your paddling trips will be more fun. The awareness of fear will help you experience the pleasure of sea kayaking and of just being alive.

Fear is in fact the fear of death, and when we become aware of our eventual death we take an important step towards being a whole person. The more conscious of it we are, the fewer anxieties we will have. (I ask myself, “Can I die here? Not likely, likely, etc.”) Death is a very hard concept for us humans to grasp. Because of the power of our minds, we feel immortal. When we become aware of our bodies, we become aware of our mortality. Kayaking is a great way to come to terms with our mortality and engage in that terrific human activity, play. How lucky we are to be able to play on the bay, the estuary, and ocean. To play in the heart of the mystery of life. This mystery is more than we can understand, yet it adds greatly to the pleasure of life.

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