Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Overcoming Fear: Kayaking Style

In my 100 facts about me post, I wrote "Overcoming a fear is one of the most satisfying and self-affirming things I can do." That really is true about me, and I'd like to share my tale of overcoming fear that really drove this point home.

During the spring semester of 2008, I decided to take a Whitewater Kayaking class at William and Mary. I had been flatwater kayaking many a time, and thought that doing whitewater would be really fun. But there was one part of the class for which I wasn't mentally prepared. That was the part where we learned various rescues. When you're just kayaking for fun the boat is not usually enclosed. However, for whitewater, you're in a smaller, more maneuverable boat and you close up the hole that you sit in with a spray skirt so the water doesn't get in and sink you. But, obviously, that means you're sort of shutting yourself in the boat. So one thing we had to practice was various ways to get out if your kayak gets overturned.

Up until this point, I hadn't really come to terms with the fact that I'm a little claustrophobic and a lot afraid of drowning. That's probably a lot of why the one time I went snorkeling ended with me freaking out and bailing. So of course when we started trapping ourselves underwater, stuck in a kayak, I was a little freaked out (this was in a pool, by the way). But I was also determined to get the stuff right. First we just practiced getting ourselves out of the boat. It's really easy, you just pull the loop for the spray skirt and push yourself out. So no, it's not like you're totally stuck or anything. However, if you're out in a river you don't want to bail like that if possible, because then you have to take a bunch of time to drain your boat and flip it and get back in, all taking lots of time away from your enjoyment of kayaking down rapids.

Luckily, there are a couple other options. One is called a bow rescue, and involves another boat coming perpendicular to yours. You grab the bow of their boat and use it to help flip yourself over. Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy. But imagine getting to that point - so you've flipped your kayak. You bang on the bottom of the boat and have to wait to feel the bow. Then of course, you're underwater and upside down, and if you're like me you're pretty disoriented by this point. Every time I tried it, I'd try to flip the wrong way and consequently get my head up a little then fall right back upside down. Of course, by that point I'd be panicking. I seriously wasn't getting it, and was stressing massively about it in and outside of class. My instructor, Randy, who was awesome by the way, offered an extra session for people who were having trouble. I came in along with a couple other people and we got one on one attention. At some point during this session, I finally got it. I could do it, and I could repeat it. Suddenly I felt a lot safer and more confident in my kayaking abilities.

Not long after that we learned how to do a self rescue called an Eskimo Roll. You roll in a similar manner, using a hip snap, but you do it all yourself, using your oar to help you. I was much more confident by this point, and I was able to get pretty good at doing an Eskimo Roll, doing it successfully more than half of the time. After a bunch of practice out on the lake we had our outing to the Appomattox River near Petersburg to raft some Class 2 and 3 rapids. The other parts of kayaking come fairly naturally to me - I assume it has something to do with my years of horseback riding (that sounds odd, I know, but I just have the feeling it's true). Anyway, the point is I didn't have to get rescued or self-rescue on the river, but I had that extra confidence boost from knowing that if I flipped out there, I'd be just fine.

And that's the sort of reason I love overcoming fears. Nothing can make you feel quite as good about yourself as mastering something you know you couldn't have done before. Plus the added adrenaline is pretty great.

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