Waving, not drowning

As the weather turned positively summer-like last week, Alan and I took the opportunity to bunk off work and go practice not-drowning (aka self/assisted rescues) in Loch Eck one afternoon. The conditions, of course, didn’t exactly match those that one might predict would necessitate a real-life rescue situation, but we have to start somewhere. We commenced with self rescues and my most immediate issue was, as before, a complete inability to lift and twist the capsized kayak to get at least some of the water out. So I end up working with a kayak that’s full of water and incredibly tippy. I managed to re-enter by hauling myself in from the stern, but it was like walking a tightrope in my attempt not to tip over. All the while, the usual thoughts reverberate around my head: this would be such a non-starter in rough conditions and I am therefore doomed. Not very encouraging. The same thoughts accompanied my efforts to use a paddle float which were ultimately successful, but am I really going to be faffing about inflating a float, attaching the paddle to deck lines, having it fall out, re-attaching, still trying not to tip etc etc in an emergency situation? My gut feel all along has been that I simply need to learn a quick way to get the water out (or as much as possible) and get in, period. If I can’t learn this, then the future of my sea kayaking activities is in doubt.

I became convinced that the cause of my inadequacy in lifting the kayak was the simple fact that I am a (8 st 3 lbs) weakling trying to heft a 50 lb (min) kayak whilst swimming (and battling my buoyancy aid to boot). This led to the obvious question – how do other weaklings manage? I made this very enquiry (in not so many words) of a seemingly well-attended online sea kayaking forum and received quite a variety of answers ranging from: don’t bother trying it’s hopeless, to why are you worried about self-rescue when you’re not kayaking alone, to try a cockpit sock, to don’t lift but push down etc. All very confusing. But a still, small voice of truth emerged with which I immediately connected and it said, you’re doing it wrong. Darn. Yet – good! Now I know there’s hope. This kindly coach informed me that he has 13 year-olds happily emptying their kayaks and offered to show me how. It turns out he’s across in Ayrshire, and so – one thing has led to another – Alan and I are off tonight to join Garnock Canoe Club members on Kilbirnie Loch to do some more not-drowning practice, this time with professionals on hand.

Alan and I have satisfied ourselves with our ability to do assisted rescues, especially as we’ve already done one real-life one (when Alan’s edging went a degree too far), although we probably do need to try it in choppier conditions. But I live in fear of us somehow becoming separated, or Alan injuring himself, or suchlike and it all coming down to me. I think I am motivated more by the dread of Alan’s safety potentially depending on me, than even just having to worry about my own safety. In other words, I have to be able to help myself in order to help him. The consequences of not being able to do so are unthinkable.

Through all of this, there is of course, lots of opportunity for self-doubt to sneak in, but it falls broadly into the category of what-if and what-will-people-think. So, what if life’s too short for what-ifs? What if I stay safely at home, within my comfort zone, and no-one can ever judge me? They will anyway, and it’ll make for a very dissatisfying life. I am also reminded of our cat, Amy, who constantly runs away from us even although we have posed no threat to her (quite the opposite!) for 9 years now. I often think she would get so much more out of life if she were to lose her irrational fears and stop worrying about others’ activities and intentions.

A couple of things come immediately to mind by way of motivation to get out there and learn. First, I’m reading “Life and Limb” by Jamie Andrew. It’s the story of a Scottish climber who endures a hellish few days trapped by a winter storm in the French Alps. His friend dies and he is rescued but loses his hands and feet to frostbite, becoming a quadruple amputee. His determination to forge ahead with a new life for himself despite his disability, withstanding a fair bit of pointing and staring, is truly inspiring. He’s now back to climbing and running marathons with the best of them. Also, I recall upon leaving California, a good friend asked what we’d remember most about our time living there. Of course, it wasn’t the endless hours spent at the cube farm, or watching TV, or stuck in traffic jams, or shopping. Shining above all that, in another realm, are the memories of our time spent in the back country of the Sierras. I know that sea kayaking offers the same potential and I am therefore determined to acquire the necessary skills (despite any imaginary odds) in order to make it as safe as possible.

So it’s time to cast aside the voice of doubt and to engage a little Zen wisdom:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shunryu Suzuki

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