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Positive mind-set can help new kayakers allay fears

By American Canoe Association

Dealing with fear

Fear of whitewater is caused like any fear: Confusion and a lack of specific understanding allow your mind to manufacture anxiety, ill ease, and fear emotions. Specifically identifying the risks and choosing exactly where you paddle will go a long way toward harnessing your fears. Very few hazards are lurking in every rapid. Knowing when not to worry will undoubtedly make most of the sport more pleasant.

A common way to aggravate fears is by paddling with groups whose experience and thrill interests differ from yours. Choose your paddling companions carefully, and paddle with people of similar skills and interests. The purpose is to challenge yourself while having fun.

To deal with your river fears, remember that fear is a deeply ingrained protective mechanism. The horrible feelings you get are nothing more than extra energy for doing battle. Instead of thinking of yourself as nervous, think of having extra energy. Treat your mind to rerun images of making rapids successfully rather than dwelling on the worst that can happen.

Your vision patterns will match the water difficulty you paddle. Beginners tend to look only at the bow and slightly ahead. Intermediates tend to see eddies along the shore and look well down the rapid. Expert paddlers catch eddies while scanning downstream for hazards and upstream for other boaters. Developing your vision patterns will actually improve your skill level.


Preventable Risks in Whitewater Boating

Attitude plays a huge role in successful paddling. Kent Ford, ACA instructor trainer educator and world-champion paddler, recounts this story about the role of a paddler’s mind-set:

On the first day of a beginner course, I remember standing thigh deep in Lake Fontana, gazing off at the southern tip of the Smoky Mountains, waiting patiently for the last student in my kayak class to paddle over for rolling instruction. The extra time it took him to drift to me provided clues to his fears. And, as I had guessed, he panicked when he finally let his boat flip upside down. "How do you feel?" I queried. "Okay," he muttered. "What’s on your mind?" I asked. "Drowning," he admitted.

Gulp. As a professional instructor, I believe in insulating my students from unnecessary worry by teaching skills in a logical, reassuring progression. An outline of the day’s activities, closely supervised wet exits, and maintaining a high regard for safety precautions usually serves this purpose. Unfortunately, this whitewater-bound beginner had arrived with fearful misconceptions about safety in the sport. His well-meaning friends had sent him off with intimidating comments about his poor, ownerless dog starving. They had made teasing claims to his posthumous bank account. Then, after signing the purposefully graphic course waiver, my student’s insecurities had toppled.

"Are you afraid of drowning here on the lake?" I asked. "No," he swallowed. "On the river then?" I pursued. "Well . . . ," he paused. "How many of the 150,000 people who travel the Nantahala each year do you think drown?" I asked, imagining my student’s mind racing into the double digits. "Two drownings in 20 years," I explained. "Neither was a kayaker. One wasn’t wearing a life jacket."

Immediately following this incident I described to the whole class the five preventable causes of death that give whitewater sports a risky reputation.

"Number one, alcohol is a common cause of accidents. That is clearly not an issue for us today. Number two, not wearing a tight-fitting PFD. Our class has already discussed this topic. Number three, no prior education in the sport causes 95 percent of whitewater accidents. Here we are in class, avoiding that mistake. Number four, flooded rivers are a frequent killer. Sadly, we are in the midst of a five-year drought. Although we would welcome higher water, floods are certainly not a risk to us today. Number five, hypothermia. Clearly I am in the greatest danger, shivering slightly from three hours of roll instructing. You, however, are in no risk, basking in 90-degree Fahrenheit [32 degree Celsius] temperatures with a wet suit available."

I noticed everyone’s shoulders relax as I reviewed whitewater sports’ five unnecessary killers. The class closed with smiles on everyone’s face.


This is an excerpt from Kayaking.

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