Tips for Dealing with Fear on the Water

You hear the rumble of a rapid and catch a glimpse of the water foaming against the rock wall up ahead. Your heart rate rises, breathing quickens, and knuckles grip white around your paddle as you prepare to enter the rapid. As you hit the point of no return you have visions of getting sucked underwater in your Kevlar coffin. It takes all your focus and energy to paddle like mad and stay upright. You breathe a deep sigh of relief after you make it through unscathed. And then prepare for the next round.

We laugh and joke about it a lot, but it's not often we get down to the real meat and potatoes - why do we freak out about paddling on moving water?

I like to think I'm a rational thinker but sometimes just the mention of the Waimakariri Gorge gives me sweaty palms. We jest at putting on our big girl or boy pants, and tell ourselves to harden up. Anyone who relates to the paragraph above will know that it's much easier said than done. The fear comes from a different place for each of us, but we can probably use a few of the same strategies and mind tricks to help us have more fun on the water!

There are 2 elements to fear - the physical (injury, death) and the emotional (failure). Your body reacts to both in the same way. For the case of paddling the Waimakariri Gorge, it is likely a mix of both. Experience is the only way to get through the fear (besides maybe drugs or hypnosis). And getting the experience is scary!

It comes down to motivation - you have to want it more than you fear it. If you have the desire then in time you'll figure out the rest. The motivation could be that you have a time to beat, or you've got a wager with a mate, or you simply don't want to take a swim in the gorge. For me, my motivation is that I want to ENJOY the paddle leg of the Coast to Coast. I want to be looking forward to the paddle as I'm racing my way east, and I want to be super stoked to arrive at Mt White bridge to get on the water.

Why do we freak out? Here's a few ideas...

  1. Not knowing what is around the corner.

  2. Not being prepared.

  3. Taking the wrong lines.

  4. Falling in and the palava that follows...having to wet exit, struggle to the side, empty the boat, and get back in. Then finding the confidence to correct what went wrong.

  5. Being in an uncontrolled or unconfined environment (eg. a river or ocean as opposed to a swimming pool).

  6. Fear of the fall, or fear of failure.

  7. Fear of water - maybe resulting from a previous life experience or simply an irrational fear.

  8. Break an expensive kayak!

I think for me it's number 6, the fear of the fall. I tend to be anxious about what might go wrong, instead of believing in my own abilities and tackling it with confidence. "What's the worst that's going to happen Hannah?" I hear you say! The sound of rushing water as I approach a rapid does strange things to my brain. My sub-conscious likes to say "oh sh*t", my heart rate rises, and I default to the death grip on my paddle.

Addressing this anxiety is still a work in progress. But at least now I can make it down the last 15 km stretch of the Coast to Coast kayak course without the white knuckles and hyper-elevated heart rate. Recently I might have even caught myself actually enjoying the whole experience!

Competence & Confidence

I've given this plenty of thought - as an engineer I feel compelled to analyse almost every problem life throws at me. My theory is that we need BOTH competence and confidence to become Waimak-worthy paddlers. Some people ooze with confidence on the river - but their lack of competence might see them careening through the guts of a rapid and T-boning a rock bluff. Others, like me, are (generally) competent and technically skilled, but lack the confidence to successfully attack tricky features on the river.

The kayak guides and instructors have plenty of handy tips and are certainly worth paying careful attention to. They've got years of experience and, for the most part, they've seen it all before. But it's been a long time since they were taking their first wobbly paddle strokes. So here's a few thoughts from a fellow freaker-outer. This is no Lifehacker or Huff Post top 10 tips - ALL of these techniques I have actually used at some point during my short paddling "career".

To my Fellow Freaker-Outers

It's not about overcoming the fear - it's difficult to ignore. It's about showing up anyway despite the fear. Just acknowledge that it's there, then make the decision that it's not going to control you. Fear for the river isn't necessarily a bad thing - it means you respect the power of the river and the risk you take by getting on the water.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

  • Figure out where your fear is coming from. This can help you and others address the fear on and off the water.

  • What can I do? What can I control? I can't control the speed of the water, or the flow from different directions. But I CAN paddle hard and keep my cadence up. I CAN keep my head and eyes up looking where I want to go. I CAN edge, steer and control the direction of my boat. I CAN take deep breaths and do my best to relax into it.

  • I like to wonder what would happen if I let my boat go down the river on its own. For the most part it would probably be just fine. It's this crazy human panicking in the cockpit, rocking the boat (literally), that is going to upset its happy journey downstream.

  • Breathe - a few deep breaths of fresh air to help slow the heart rate and refocus on what you CAN do.

  • Paddle with people you trust, and with paddlers more experienced than you. This can help you feel safer on the water. They know what to do, and are actually able to help, if you get into trouble.

  • In reference to paddling for Coast to Coast - get yourself on a guided trip through the gorge. You'll be in very safe hands, and the guides will explain what's coming up, how to negotiate the features, and point out the landmarks you can use as reference points on race day.

  • Be as prepared as you can be. Do the long paddles, the intervals, the technique work, and the time on moving water. You might never feel completely ready but being prepared helps.

  • Laugh and celebrate. When we're scared or nervous we tense up and lose the connection with the boat and the water. So have a bit of a giggle, do a little "shake it off", and get back in the game. Also celebrate what you achieve, even the small wins!

  • If all else fails, PADDLE LIKE F#%K!!!

In Conclusion...

It's been a slow, frustrating process. But I've made improvements by taking every opportunity to spend time on moving water, and pushing the limits of my comfort zone one teeny tiny step at a time. So if you're a freaker-outer like me I encourage you to keep at it, identify your motivation, work on addressing the anxiety, and the rewards will come!

Further Reading

Here is a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and I think it captures our relationship with fear quite accurately. Just replace the word "creativity" with "kayaking".