Panicking and freezing up on the water

-- Last Updated: May-13-07 4:12 PM EST --

Your doing fine, then all the sudden a tap opens and all your confidence drains right out your toes and you're terrified.

You freeze up as your boat bounces in the confused swell, afraid even to blink cause you know you'll go over if you so much as move you eyelids wrong (even though another part of you knows the worst thing you could possibly do is go stiff).

You pull stiffly on your paddle, using your arms only, and keep your eyes glued to the horizon, afraid to look away even for an instant.

You feel like a skyscrapper balancing on a dinner plate that's being tossed by the waves, and you aren't sure you can handle the killing-cold water if you go over, and execute that self-rescue you nailed in the pool sessions.

Anyone ever had that experience (or be willing to admit having had that experience, if you're a "tough" guy!)?

What's it about, the sudden and completely unexpected loss of confidence? How'd you pull through? Has it happened again?

Yes, certainly in the first few months.
At the point in time, the best thing to do is keep paddling. Keep a blade in the water. Go to a little higher cadence, and more vertical stroke to ensure your blade gets in the water, especially on beam waves (coming from the side.) The faster boat speed and paddle in the water should both give you more stability. Other than that, try to relax and let you’re body pivot at the hips.

Longer term, the problem goes away with experience, seat time. Bracing and rolling skills both help too.

In the first few months I would freeze up when paddling any 21.5" or narrower boat. Now after nine months, the 21" Nordkapp feels fine. For me, I believe that losing weight helped a lot too, 6’ 2", 290 --> 225 lb, heading to 200. I know my balance has improved dramatically.

Paul S.

Been there
in my first boat,about my 4th ride…high tide and and winds kicked up…water was 10 ft deeper than the previous day. The boat wanted to go into the wind, so I followed…but my truck was at a boat ramp in another direction. Couldn’t keep my eyes off the horizon like you said…kept doing the wrong thing and tensing up ( the waters weren’t very cold, but then I realized about 20 people could have been witnesses )

I’d made a to-do list before and will never forget handing the cashier at the grocery a $20 bill and my hands still shaking.

I’ve been tensed up and very scared …

– Last Updated: May-13-07 5:32 PM EST –

but if you want to push your limits you soon learn ... to keep breathing and keep dancing with the water .... and when that does not work... fight the waves to keep upright no matter what... and when that does not work ... try to right the boat and hang onto the paddle ... no matter what ... and if you exit ... try to hang onto your boat and paddle and use your boat to get to shore. Once you are alone and swimming in big waves, I'm mostly just trying to keep from getting hammered too much so I can still breath and body surf to shore.

I try to push my limits in small increments. Each month trying something a little more difficult. I'm not a world class paddler but I've got to the point where I can surf by myself in over head waves at my home break and be confident that I can get my self home again. I can surf at lots of spots I originally thought were very, very hairy. I like to visit new spots with groups of paddlers or board surfers ... there is always a moment or two when you realize you have bit off a lot more than you can chew, but you have to focus on applying the skills you have to get your self through. I think that is why alot of us take up surfkayaking and whitewater paddling. You scare yourself pretty bad sometimes, but learn to focus on controlling things in an almost uncontrollable environment. Several times in the middle of a bad experience I have thought ... never again ... but a few weeks later there I am again . The kayak is so seductive because it allows you to dance on the edge of destruction, feeling the awesom power of the ocean in a curling, roaring wave right next to your shoulder ... and you turn that power into amazing speed flying over the water, where you have no time to freeze up, it's what keeps me coming back.

thanks seadart
I live on one coast,you on the other. Swimming 100yds out into the ocean and going under is my favorite weekend pastime.

Yaking and paying for a deep sea fishing trip is when I expect to stay dry.Getting wet while trying to stay dry is a threshold I have to cross.

I work with a few surfers and always thought it was a childish sport…a used surfkayak is in the works.

A fine line…
I purposely paddle on the edge of fear/discomfort whenever I am able. Every time I do it makes me a better paddler. I leave myself with more than one option for self-recovery. Too much comfort leaves me feeling bored while challenge makes stronger. The important part is staying within one’s abilities.

If someone is worried about water temperature they are probably not dressed properly in the first place. If they are not comfortable swimming in the existing conditions, they should not be there. They should swim first then go out and and practice recoveries. If one looks around, there are good safe places to practice which can also provide challenging conditions with the right combination of wind and waves.

Waiting until one “has to” perform a self rescue is attune to not looking for the toilet paper until AFTER you have done your business.

It’s As Much Mental As It’s Physical…

– Last Updated: May-13-07 7:42 PM EST –

have definitely felt fear out there and took some bad trashin's. Never froze up mentally yet.

My motto is to go down swinging when faced with possible death. It's pretty ingrained. If one freezes, one is more likely to die. Of course, this is pure conjecture since one can't really ask those who didn't make it.


Hi learner
Try and find a club in your area. That will give you some folks to paddle with. If you need them, they will be there. You will learn and as you watch others smile and make the paddle look easy, you’ll find that you too will loosen up and make it look easy.

We’re all forever learning! The best paddlers I know are the most modest, kind and helpful. They are always willing to help, encourage and lend a hand.

We’ve all been there and it’s no big deal. Keep swinging and if you are going to paddle in rough areas that may be a stretch for you, find a club and join in!

Good Luck!


It’s a part of the learning
If you aren’t a little anxious from time to time you aren’t learning. If you hit moments of nearly uncontrollable anxiety, or panic, you are an aggressive learner. Somewhere between those two extremes is the place where the challenge becomes a useful learning experience, the only trick is finding the increments that work for you.

I don’t think there is a way to learn anything that has physical risks without occassionally pushing a bit too far and getting spooked.

I’ve felt seriously scared a few times, feeling that the situation I was in on the water was way past my safety margins. But you get used to that too and what you learn is how to get on with the business of paddling even when you are scared. It’s the same as in the rest of life, you can’t do a lot about a feeling. What you can change is how you handle it.

Damn! We’re neck and neck!

First you were 290, and I was 225. Then you were 250, and I was 225, now you’re 225, and I’m … (excused me, could you please pass the donuts over there … ?)

my irrational fear
involves depth. For some reason, water 300 feet deep scares me more than water 20 feet deep. As if it would make a difference! If I ever drown, it will probably be in the first 3 feet …

Your Fears
are just different than mine. 200 feet of water at the Fontana Dam(NC) made me feel safe while playing chicken after a late night party with john boats.

…Getting slammed on the water on the Ohio River while water skiing at 30 mph as a 13 yr old…same in Dale Hollow, Tenn…deep waters always made me feel safe as kid.

Remembering to breath…
I know what you mean. I’ll have to drill that into my head as well.

yes, the black, black depths…
I know what you mean. Man, i’m no fan of those shark-heads-coming-out-of-the-water-Jaws-style bouys yachters seem to like around here. Same thing, fear of the depth, a primal fear of the unkown…

Quote from jonh lull, Tsunami Ranger…
Read this passage tonight in his book, sea kayaking safety and rescue, page 13. Maybe others will find it useful. He’s an expert, and its obvious from what he writes and his advice that he’s been through this:

“high levels of fear usually lead to debilitating panic, poor decision making, or inaction. performance is hampered, the paddler may freeze up to the point of incapacitation. overwhelming fear usually results from getting caught in unfamiliar conditions that tax the paddler’s level of skill. if you find yourself in such a state, acknowledge the fear, try to relax, and assess the situation. then make the best decions you can and ACT.

by acting, you can usually reduce the fear and hopefully you will work your way out of the situation. If you’re dealing with another paddler in a state of panic, offer directions and encouragement in a calm manner. if the paddler is really incapacitated or can’t keep from capsizing, you’ll have ot use a rafted two (see chaper 9)”

its was a confused seas situation…
swell hitting the boat sideways from the left, than ricocheting of a seawall and hitting me sideways from the right. scary stuff.

Confused swell

– Last Updated: May-14-07 9:54 AM EST –

That's pretty unnerving until you get used to it. In regular swell you can tell where you are going to get hit from, you can usually see it coming at you, while in confused stuff like coming off a sea wall it is not hard to find your boat being lifted from the stern quarter. There's a critical turn on a large lake around here to get around a point that is often the worst part of the trip for newer paddlers - sea wall, docks and boat wakes from multiple directions. The hairy part of that at first, to me anyway, was that I couldn't see what was hitting me, just would feel it after it already had my stern in the air.

Just stay very loose-hipped - in that situation moderately aggressive paddling may work better than getting supre-aggressive.

The water depth thing isn't unusual. I have hit it in a lot of paddlers, and I have a similar thing in exactly the opposite direction. If I have to pick on depth of water alone, I prefer the deeper stuff. It just irrationally feels like my options are more open if I know that anything I can hit or the water can be impeded by is way under me. When I had to swim my boat out and get back in for a course last fall, I chose to swim out a bit further from the rocks than the others because of that. It wasn't just that I was enjoying the official excuse to take a swim (tho' that was a side benefit).

P.S. If you paddle long enough you will find yourself in a situation where the water is determined to use several more layers of skills than what you have in the tank right then. It's not if, it's when. So being able to manage your response is a huge thing.

Alone or with others?

– Last Updated: May-14-07 10:06 AM EST –

Having other paddlers around is definitely more reassuring than paddling along and getting caught in water that's very challenging.

Everyone has experienced what you have. You confidence will go up as your skills and experiences go up.

One tip: try to find a place where there is some rough water right on shore that you can play in and not be far off shore or feel in danger. As you develop confidence in a more fun atmosphere your skills will increase immensely. Play in an area like that with friends. Learning to roll will also boost your confidence tremendously.

Anyone who denies fear is a fool.

Try it in a whitewater boat …
Go back to the spot with friends on a smaller day. We have a fairly sheltered spot where there is a sea wall, on some days it gets swells from two directions , the area is L shaped so you get all kind of reflected, rebounding waves, that reinforce into haystacks. The waves look ferocious but they have no power, so it is fun to paddle through the area and practice keeping your hips loose and bouncing through the waves. It reminds me of skiing moguls without the killing pain in the knees. Try to find a sheltered spot but that will have some features in the waves. If you practice in easy spots close to shore with friends it will build your confidence that when you encounter those conditions again, it’s fun not scary.

I have learned to fight against that
When I know something bordering on bad is about to happen, I force myself to relax. I know doing that and trusting my boat have saved me more than once.

If you relax you give your body the ability to react to the situation. If you are tense, your muscles lock up and you can’t respond quickly.