I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
But you give me something
I can feel! U2
Every so often someone new to kayaking faces water vertigo. They just can’t fall out of their kayak without inducing panic. Yeah, they can swim. They can hold their breath. Sometimes they are even divers. It just happens. They just stare at the water and start hyperventilating at the idea of falling over. Wet exits can induce sheer terror. I call it water vertigo. It’s not rational fear, it’s something hard wired and beyond your control. Sometimes that’s enough to make someone give up paddling all together. Sometimes people are so determined to enter the sport, that they’ll do just about anything to overcome it. I love working with these folks. Once they get through it, it’s a beautiful victory.
Recently I had a student who had this problem. It surprised her just as much as anybody. She was a fish in the water, so there was no reason for such seemingly irrational fear of falling in and dealing with wet exits. In a formal class, during the wet exit, she panicked. After the class I invited her to come up to my local lake and work with me personally. Maybe there is something in here that you can put in your bag of tricks…
I asked her to bring her swim goggles, being a diver I knew she’d have a few around. When she got to the lake, she was already nervous with anticipation. I sent her out to swim. I just sat on the shoreline and let her commune with the water. I asked that she use her goggles and spend a good amount of time swimming under water and exploring the lake bottom, something I knew she’d enjoy and that would help her through the mornings exercises.
After about 20 minutes she was ready to get to work. I filled her kayak cockpit with water, and had her get into the boat and then slowly fall right and swim out of the kayak, then we’d do it again going left. Having the boat full of water helped get rid of that “falling in” sensation that comes with tipping over your kayak. I asked her to pay attention to how she was bringing her legs out of the boat, nothing specific mind you, I simply wanted her to start feeling how she moved out of the kayak. With repetition, time and observation, we realized that she was twisting to face the surface as soon as the kayak went over. That twist would tangle her legs, or at least give her the sensation of her legs getting tangled up in the kayak. I had her put on her dive mask, then when the boat went over, stay face down and swim away from the boat.
Without twisting to face the surface she stared sliding out of the kayak easily. It was feeling better for her. At this point, we emptied the kayak and continued the process. By now she had fallen out and climbed back in so many times, that she was beginning to be more concerned with her back band getting in the way on recovery, than the act of falling in. Then I asked her to close her eyes and repeat the process. On we went. After a few solid successes here, we took a break and let her soak in the fact that she was doing well.
The next step in the progression was to ask her to hold on to her combing when she went over, then let go when she felt the need. (I should note, that she was still wearing her dive mask.) The act of holding the combing, allowed the kayak to over turn further before she slipped out. The side effect is that she came out of the kayak holding onto her kayak! Another side-effect was that she found that holding onto the combing better oriented her to the surface. Again we stared with her using her mask to see the surface, then going to closed eyes once she was feeling good. It was time to get inverted!
Next I asked her to flip while holding her combing and count 3 full seconds before letting go of the combing and getting out of the kayak. On the first go she made a fast 2 count, but again with time she was getting to 3, then 5 seconds before getting out of the kayak. By now she was closing her eyes almost every time. Next I ramped it up, by tipping her over myself. She knew it was coming, but not exactly when. At this point however, she had a system that elevated the panic. She’d go over unexpectedly, but get centered by using her count once upside down. This gave her time to regain her focus, then get out of the kayak. At the last, she was holding 10 seconds or more before coming out! Fantastic.
The whole process took a couple of hours, but by then she had let go of that “falling out” and dangling upside down fear. It was time to call it day. Always leave on a success.
Of course, we’re not done. Next time we’ll do it again, and work up to using the skirt. I think she’ll do fine in round two, but we have to work at her pace and maybe it will take a bit longer. The trick is always to move at the student’s speed of course. If you’re an impatient coach this method may feel like it takes too much time, but if you’ve ever suffered vertigo you’ll know it’s a necessary process. That’s why not everyone can work with people who suffer fears of falling out & entrapment.
I love working with people just getting into the sport. Especially those who are facing fears to reach their goals. I feel like these first days are most important part of their whole kayaking experience. If you screw this up, they may never do it again. If you do it right, you’ll open a door to a lifetime’s enjoyment. What a responsibility!! And really, what an honor.