Panicking and freezing up on the water

safe increments

– Last Updated: May-14-07 11:55 AM EST –

What's helped me is finding spots to practice that are challenging/scary, but where the result of a capsize isn't dangerous. For sea kayking, that'd be a place with a sand beach, onshore winds(& currents), and partial shelter. I remember one great day in a bay like that -- my wife & I kept going back & forth from the sheltered side out into the more exposed area, gradually working our way further out into the bigger stuff as our confidence grew.

I've done similar things in whitewater -- found a challenging feature just upstream of a safe quiet area, and paddling in knowing full well I'd probably get spat out upside-down. I'd roll up, paddle up the eddy, and try again. The first time is scary, the 20th time much less so. That's one of the great advantages of whitewater as a place to learn -- you can try the same wave over and over again until you get comfortable with it.

The other thing that's helped is mental rehearsal. Thinking through scenarios before they happen can help prevent panic.

Back off

– Last Updated: May-14-07 12:56 PM EST –

"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. "

Some people spring into action in crisis. Others freeze up. For thr former, purposely putting oneself on the line is a good way to learn. For the later, it's time to back off and learn the neccessary skill in peace before venturing out into the stormy water again.

The feeling of "skyscrapper on a dinner plate" is a sign of lacking balancing skill. Time to learn to lean the boat WAY over and FEEL the edge. Then next time, you don't feel it's so frightening when the boat tips a few degrees to the side.

"aren't sure you can execute that self-rescue you nailed in the pool sessions"? Time to pratice "rough water re-entry", with a buddy on the shallow on a day that's a bit rough. Once you've tried to re-entry in bouncy water, you'll feel more confident that you WILL get back in, even if it takes multiply attempts. Even more importantly, you don't panic if the first attempt didn't work, which happens in rough water.

"aren't sure you can handle the killing-cold water if you go over"? Need to dress for the water in this time of year. It may feel hot. But when the wave start tossing up left and right, you would feel more confident that EVEN IF you can't get back into the boat, you'll simply float for a while till you get picked up by a passing boat.

"What's it about, the sudden and completely unexpected loss of confidence? "

The fear is a realization that you don't have the neccessary skill to handle the situation.

"Has it happened again?"

So once you master the skill, you won't feel so fearful in the same condition. It will actually become "fun"!

Congratulation on surviving that terriflying incident. You've learn a lot from that experience. On reflection, it gives you a chance to realize what you lack and what to work on.

Whatever doesn't kill you make you stronger!

The Jaws Thing
I paddle the Great White Shark infested “Red Triangle” here in NORCAL by myself in a Sit On Top.

I have to admit I have had a few “God please let that fin belong to a Dolphin” moments. Followed by a rather tense paddle back to the beach. Sometimes it will start working on my nerves for no particular reason.

Whitey, or the Landlord, as we call him here, is a seasonal visitor to NORCAL. The paranoia kicks in around August, and abates with his departure in January.

I had very similar feelings
when I went paddling solo on the Great Egg Harbor Bay from Somers Point, NJ over to Ocean City, NJ and back. Here is an excerpt from my “trip report” that I wrote about a week ago.


For me, this by far was the scariest part of the entire trip. I had several factors to deal with that made me feel very uncomfortable but I really didn’t feel that there was a better, more viable option. It was too far to go back the way I had come and besides, it would have exposed me to long expanses of beam waves. That, plus I would then be paddling against the tide and against the ever increasing wind.

The good news was that I had rear quartering waves pushing me toward my destination so I was making good time, the bad news was that I had rear quartering waves causing me to brace repeatedly and stern-rudder on the right to prevent me from being broached.

I had Bryan Mitchell’s (ACA Open Water Instructor) words of wisdom echoing in my head on how to handle these type of conditions. I was very focused on reaching the Piper Motel on the far shore near JFK park. I knew that I still had to cross directly across the main (ICW?) waterway the powerboats use to get out to the Great Egg Harbor Inlet and out toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Fortunately, it was still before Memorial Day and so there were not too many pleasure boats going in and out. I did encounter two large ones while approaching the channel. The first one altered its course to cut me a break. They must have seen the “deer in the headlights” facial expression I was wearing. The second boat did not alter its course at all. Going over their respective wakes was the least of my worries. I don’t mind jumping wakes that are coming toward me, however, I DO have a skill-level deficiency problem for dealing with surfing rear-quartering waves that I can’t see coming from behind me. Talk about baptism under fire!!

I wanted to adjust my skeg but I never felt comfortable in taking one hand off the paddle to adjust it and so it remained fully deployed. It is funny what strange thoughts go through ones’ mind in times of extreme anxiety. I had to continually remind myself that the boat is a good one in that it is specifically designed to handle these conditions. “IT” knows what to do and my job is to not screw that up. I also had to remind myself time and time again to keep my hips loose and let the boat perform. Time and time again I would find my body stiffen and get more rigid (out of fear of capsizing) and literally had to consciously remind my body to push alternately on my legs (L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R) in order to relax my lower body and keep the hips loose.

As I type these words, it sounds so silly that I had to repeatedly mentally remind my body of the most elementary paddling mechanics during this stretch of the paddle. I also noticed that whenever I would get tense, I would change from high-angle paddling to low-angle, arm paddling. At times, I would be squeezing the paddle so hard that my right hand would go numb. I would LOVE to see a chart of my pulse rate during the paddle. I would bet that it was off the charts for at least a third of that total time!

I was finally across the bay and was now careening toward the sandy shoreline. The only problem was that I was still more than a quarter mile from home and still had to paddle along the bulkheads and piers to get back to the launch site. So close yet so far! So I made a sharp left turn just before prematurely beaching myself at the WRONG beach. I fought off the beam waves and slogged my way against the outgoing tide as I headed away from the beach and back into deeper waters.

Fortunately at the take-out, there was a young father and his son putting their sailboat together prior to launching it. I asked for his assistance in landing because I knew that my legs would be like rubber having been paddling two and half hours non-stop without a break to stretch them out.

I was never so happy to be back home safe and sound. Outwardly, I looked like hell but I felt an inner satisfaction that I had completed the circumnavigation without any mishaps. I had improved my boat-handling skills and my navigational skills and felt a real sense of accomplishment.

It was a good and very memorable day on the water!

Jeff Pringle

Been more terrified
on the water than ever on any climbs, and I had some close calls. Solo paddling on the NW side of Vancouver Island in huge seas and sideways rain…Cape Chacon…Camano Point, oh yeah…been terrified.

Even when you have years of paddling and reliable skills that have been tested, the sea has a way of humbling you. I’ve had many a scary,lonely passage. I tend to get hyper focused as the adrenaline builds. I have taken big risks and been lucky at times. I’m OK with that. Fear is a good thing. I have huge respect for the sea. That’s why I laugh at bombproof this or that.

Lean into your training.

– Last Updated: May-14-07 4:14 PM EST –

Every self-rescuer knows he two choices. He can freeze-up or he can automatically lean into his training. If you’re freezing-up you may need additional training or better training or different training. I had 7 rescues as professional lifeguard and never once thought about what I was going to do or how to do it. When you’re properly trained, the training just takes over.

Practice, practice, practice and have good equipment.

Can you swim?
Just wondering.

I’ve felt scared a bunch of times, one time enough so that I began thinking things like, “[my dogs] won’t understand why Mom never came back from her trip…” But never frozen up. In the case just described, I became very angry and determined NOT to die.

I have seen two people freeze up in calm conditions. They were both people who didn’t know how to swim. Coincidence or not, it’d be a good thing to learn if you don’t already know.

jeff, have you…
been back out?

can swim, yes…
certified life gaurd ages ago

Oh absolutely!
I love paddling too much to stop doing it now.

Panic is uncontrolled fear.

– Last Updated: May-15-07 6:18 PM EST –

Always, Always, Always be aware of the potentials and be mentally prepared for the less favorable alternatives. Panic causes death.
...and No, it has never happened to me.