This weekend I faced a life-long terror

Some of you might remember my post from a couple of years ago Saw a Seal, Didn’t Drown when I went in a kayak on the ocean for the first time, using the skirt thingy that traps you in the kayak and drowns you when you tip over. Or at least that was my life-long fear.

I was pretty proud of myself for going out on that totally calm day when I could have been in a pond for all that the water was threatening, and I’ve been out a few times since, now that I live beside the sea. But this past weekend I went for the truly terrifying: I took a certification course that included what they call a ‘wet exit’ – that is escaping the kayak (and the skirt trap) when you are indeed upside down in 12 degree celsius Atlantic water. Oh yeah, and big jellyfish occasionally swimming by.

kayak-twoYou might wonder why I would choose to do something that has been one of my greatest nightmare scenarios since forever. The answer is: for safety. It’s beautiful to be out on the water in a kayak and I have access right outside my front door, so I wanted to know how to do it in a way that’s not going to kill me. Getting over that fear therefore became the primary obstacle to enjoying what’s lying at my feet.

Interestingly, pretty much everybody in the course (7 of us) had the same fear, so it was really good not to feel alone about it. Just how did we manage to do it?

  1. Get a Mentor: Sarah and Scotty of Cape LaHave Adventures, my neighbours and the best ever teachers, were our guides through all this scary, challenging, and also fun stuff.
  2. What’s the worst that can happen? My favourite question when contemplating an adventure. Sarah assured me they have 100% survival rate for this course, which I found quite reassuring. Even with the wet exits.
  3. Use cheerleaders: most of us in the course were a little leery, and a couple of my friends also took it so we all cheered each other on, applauded every victory, and commiserated about failed attempts and capsize incidents.
  4. Bring your existing knowledge to the party: canoeing in the past, plus a lifetime of riding horses, has taught me how to keep my head above my moving body, which is really useful in a kayak and helped me believe I could handle this new sport.
  5. Have a good reason why: I look out over the ocean from my house, and the more I stare at it, the more I want to be out on it, investigating the many little islands and inlets. Kayaking is peaceful and gorgeous. Say ohm. I want it in my life without fretting about my safety.
  6. Be prepared: we were in wetsuits and of course pfds. The water is cold! And no-one dunked without someone there to do the rescue, which we’d already learned. Did I mention this was in deep water?
Erstwhile leader Scott, day two.

Erstwhile leader Scott, day two.

So, with all those things in place and after most of a day out on the water, it was time for the Big Dunk. The first time I did it, I hung on to Sarah’s bow and just dipped myself in, then hauled myself up again. That’s using baby steps to get to the big leap, another great adventure tool. Then I tipped myself over with my hand already firmly on the handle that releases the skirt. I was barely under before I was scrambling out, crawling back in my kayak, and celebrating my survival.

After a bit of recovery time, I decided it would be good to do it in a more realistic way, and plop over without being so fully prepared. That is to say, with my paddle in my hands and without the death-grip on the release handle. So over I went, filled with confidence from my first attempt.

Instructors will tell you that if you wriggle your knees the skirts generally come off and you pop right out. But, I discovered, skirts don’t always pop off when you do that. So when I wriggled and found myself still upside-down in the frigging Atlantic, I did the natural thing and panicked. Worst nightmare, happening for real! Red alert, death imminent! Then I remembered Sarah saying two things: take a moment to remind yourself you’re OK, and reach for the handle. I followed instructions and tah-dah, out I came. The survival instinct (and good instruction) is a marvellous thing.

There was more dunking and rescuing the following day and I can say that repetition doesn’t make it any more pleasant but does give a girl confidence. I have not graduated the course as a fearless person. I have possibly even more respect for the sea than I did before. But I did face a fear I’ve had my whole life, learned how to deal with it properly, and gained the ability to do exactly what I wanted to be able to do: get out on the water, when the conditions are good for me, and explore those other shores with reasonable safety.

I’d love to hear about fears you’ve overcome, and how you did it – so share in the comments section if you have a story to tell!

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