Paddle school

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

I find myself upside down in shockingly cold water, doing my best to rush to the surface as fast as my limbs could get me there. 


Fear is a funny one. It stopped me from doing a lot of things when I was younger, things that for most weren't a big deal but for me they were massive. There has always been something irrational inside of me that freaks out. Over the past few years I've been working on this response, pushing it above its limits and relishing in its small victories. It happens in situations where I'm not fully in control, but also in places humans shouldn't be - super high in the sky or under water.

So as another week in Wilderness guide school begins so does yet another skill; Paddling. Now I've had some awesome days out in Kayaks, and compared to a lot of the group I had a fair bit of experience. But there has always been one thing that scares the shit out of me - capsizing. On previous trips I have always opted for sit-on kayaks, or I've not taken the spray skirt simply because I do not want to capsize.

As part of our training we had 3 days on the water, learning to use both Kayaks and Canoes. It was great to finally learn the efficient way to paddle and different techniques to use. In the spring we go on a week long paddle trip so these skills will be put to good use. However looming over my head was the final part of our water training...the wet day. 

Day one

We spent the morning learning how to load the trailer up with all the boats, and how to pack and store all the gear required. Like most things there's a surprising amount of gear needed, especially once you times it by 16. So we had; buoyancy aids, double paddles, single paddles, sponges and scoops, helmets, spray decks, neoprene covers, and finally 7 kayaks and 6 canoes. 


We got split into groups with most people heading in the Canoes with Henkka and I went with 3 others in the kayaks with Mikko. As us 4 had some previous experience we were getting the shorter lesson that day. It felt good to be back on the water, the last trip was in the summer with my family round the south coast of Dorset sea kayaking. The lake seemed so much calmer than the choppy sea I'd paddled in last time. We learnt some good basics about the position of the paddle and were taught how to use our torsos rather than our arms to get the power. 

Day Two

The second day was spent in the canoes, a new experience for me and quite a frustrating one. The heavens had opened and we had what Mikko called 'educational weather' for most of the morning, in just a couple of hours the rain had gone through my so called waterproof trousers. So having gone from being fairly competent in the kayak I spent the first few hours spinning in circles. In a canoe the person at the back does all the steering; the front guy is just pure power, everything else is up to the driver. You both paddle on opposite sides and in order to keep the boat going straight we were taught the J-turn, which for some reason happens to be the most awkward un-natural turn imaginable. You twist your wrist the way it shouldn't be bent and push the water out to act as a rudder. Unfortunately for my poor partner in crime It took me a while to get it so we pirouetted our way around the lake for a few hours with a mix of swearing and apologies. 

Day three

It was time to get wet. Our misery was held off just for a few hours in the morning where I got to jump back in the Kayak and learn a few more skills. We messed around a bit and practised a few of the techniques we'd learnt so far, the sun was shinning and I was actually feeling okay about my impending doom. 

Enna and I had been worrying about this part all week, her worry was about the cold water. I wasn't as bothered by that. My fear came from the idea of being sat upside down in my kayak unable to get out. What if I couldn't find the cord of my spray deck to pull it off?! All these silly scenarios running through my head of all the horrible things that could happen. 

Mikko and Henkka did a panto style demonstration of the rescues and moves we had to perform in order to pass the basics course. Henkka avoided ever getting in the water whilst poor Mikko looked more and more distraught in the cold lake every time he had to reluctantly dunk himself in. As they went through the manoeuvre I was dreading most he then revealed an extra one. The eskimo roll...

Now I knew about this move, but never thought we'd need to do it. But Mikko demonstrated how it could come in handy. So the idea is that you capsize, but instead of pulling your spray skirt off you tap your hands on the side of your kayak to get someone's attention. Then as your lying face down in the water, your buddy places the hull of their kayak by your hands so you can use it to roll yourself back over.

Fuck that. 


Anyway it was our turn. I decided to get the kayak moves over and done with so I chucked on a life vest and spray skirt then headed for the water. 

I watched Sirpa and Niels do there's first and the reassuring thumbs up from Sirpa after her capsize made me feel a bit better about it. It didn't look so bad. I had Niall as my partner, he used to be part of a Kayak club back in Ireland so it was reassuring to have him to help me out. I decided to go first, one deep breath and flung myself down.

It was over in seconds, I barely had time to think about anything before I shot out of the kayak and to the surface of the water. I had done it, all the worry for nothing. It was fine, actually it was easy. 

Then the cold hit, and as Niall and I wrestled with the kayak to empty it I ungracefully got myself back in the kayak. The sense of achievement couldn't quite arise as the thought of the eskimo roll was now on my mind. Maybe I could do it?

With our capsizes done it was time for Sirpa and Niels to do their eskimo roll. Sirpa, like me was anxious about doing it and let Niels go first. As with most things he's like a big Dutch puppy. He was so enthusiastic he did the eskimo roll so well he went back over again. He (unlike me) kept his cool and just flipped the boat again till he was upright. It took a few seconds to get over the cold/shock from the water but he had done it...and with style!

I on the other hand knew that I wouldn't of dealt with that in the same way. The panic would overcome me and I wouldn't think straight. It's never the physical act that scares me, technically I knew I could do the move. It was more the mental side of it. I couldn't get my head around acting cool under the water whilst just waiting for help. Seconds underwater feels like hours. That terrified me. 


I sat for a while gearing myself up to do it, talking my head into letting go of that fear. Thinking 'Its only a few seconds! Whats the worse that could happen'. At this point it can usually go either way, sometimes I grit my teeth and go for it - other times the fear consumes me and I give up. 

This time fear won. I gave in to it. And I'm not embarrassed or ashamed, I know I can and I know I will do it. But I'm going to do it when I know I will succeed. I need to feel happier under water, I need to know that my reaction won't be to panic, but to act. And for me that will take a bit longer but thats fine because I'm willing to do that. 

Eskimo roll. I'll be back.