Editor’s note: This article is one Eric had sketched out for 2012.
“Over the years, I have learned that the biggest hidden threat is mental confusion caused by a combination of the ocean’s cosmic chaos and the mind’s inability to process it all. Symptoms include inability to communicate (listening and expressing) and perception distortion, coupled with either a numbing, debilitating fear that results in non-action when action is required and/or a bravado that results in foolhardy actions.” Eric Soares, Confessions of a Wave Warrior
In this post Eric wanted to discuss a couple of stories that exemplify freaking out. Freaking out can really screw you up whether you or someone else with you is freaking. These stories offer concrete examples of freaking out and what can be done about it.
The first incident Eric had slated for this article took place in 2000 when he and Jim were teaching a class on the Sonoma coast (see Confessions of a Wave Warrior, “Worst Class Ever”). A student drifted into the danger zone. Eric yelled at him but he didn’t respond. A big wave came in. Even though Eric, Jim, and all the other students were yelling at this guy to paddle out of the wave’s way he froze. And he got creamed. Amazingly, he ended up unharmed on top of a rock in the middle of the reef without boat or paddle. Shell-shocked, he wouldn’t budge even when Eric tried to coax him off the rock. Eric finally had to threaten to climb up and throw him off before the guy would leave his perch and swim in.
In this example, we see several symptoms of freaking out. First, the student allowed himself to drift into the danger zone. That itself indicates his senses were getting overloaded and consequently he was distracted, couldn’t listen or hold his position. Second, he wouldn’t exit the kill zone while he still had a chance even when everyone was urging him to move, an example of non-action when action is required. Third, having suffered the consequences of his failure to act he still refused to obey instructions designed to help him and actually had to be threatened before he acted. There was a clear inability to communicate. Fortunately he responded to threats, but that’s what it took to get him to move.
Another example is the time when my friend Denise and I were paddling the X-3 and got destroyed in the surf at Miramar. We lost the boat and during the swim to shore Denise kept telling me she didn’t think she could make it. She even did the classic cling-on routine by grabbing my arm with both hands. I came close to threatening her in order to make her let go. I talked her in to shore, but she was so shaken when we tried to go out again she couldn’t stay in the boat. She just kept falling out helplessly and we were done paddling for that day. Incidentally, inability to stay in the boat is a sign of freaking out.
Eric and I discussed this incident a lot. He and I were both surprised that Denise, a strong swimmer familiar with the ocean, freaked out. After the wipeout, Denise was physically fine. But she was shell-shocked and began going into freakout mode. After we lost the boat, she started swimming against the long shore current toward me, a very bad judgment call. It would have made more sense for her to swim straight in to shore – it was closer, and she would have crossed the current instead of having to swim against it. Because of her mental confusion she ended up swimming twice as far. Luckily she’s a strong swimmer.
Then there was Bad Day at Black Rock (see Extreme Sea Kayaking, Chapter 10). Briefly, Eric took Tim, his hotshot rock-climbing friend, out to Black Rock in a double. Tim, a novice paddler, went out with Eric because he wanted to “overcome his fear of the ocean”. Unfortunately Eric didn’t realize that Tim actually had a paralyzing phobia of the ocean. The surf at Black Rock was too much for him. He fell out of the boat repeatedly, quickly exhausted himself, and ended up having to be rescued and assisted back to the beach. Tim was in shock and hypothermic. He vomited, and after going home ended up in the hospital with kidney failure. All this after less than an hour on the water. Phobias should be taken seriously, and Eric said again and again this experience was a huge lesson for him.
So what do you do when someone you’re kayaking with freaks out? The way you handle the situation can make all the difference between a successful outcome and potential death. Here’s what Eric had to say: My way is to calmly take over. Be sure others are safe. If the guy bolts and you can’t follow him, well, he’s gone. C’est la vie.
When someone freaks out, one person has to take over. If that person isn’t you stand by and wait for instructions. Remain calm. Calm like panic is communicative, and before you deal with the freaker, you need to be sure everyone in the group not involved in the rescue is accounted for. Be sure others are safe and don’t jeopardize your own safety. Especially if you’re the leader you need to be sure everyone gets home in one piece.
Eric told me when I first started kayaking with him: “You’re on your own.” He made it clear that it was my job to look out for myself and self-rescue if necessary. It was a great lesson, and it made me cautious. Ultimately we alone bear the responsibility for our choices and the attendant consequences both on and off the water. C’est la vie.
It’s important to emphasize that sometimes you have to be forceful with someone who’s freaking out. In movies you sometimes see one character slapping another who is freaking. This does work. In the one example cited above, Eric had to threaten to throw his student off the rock and actually make moves toward that end before the student would finally act. Had he not acted, believe me Eric would have climbed up there and done the deed.
Of course, the best thing to do is to avoid freaking out in the first place. One of the easiest and best ways to practice being calm is to practice pranayama (see “Deep Breathing” on this website). Studies have shown that agitated breathing triggers agitation in the mind; conversely calm breathing calms the mind. I try to be mindful of my breathing on and off the water. Also, exposing yourself to bigger and bigger challenges gradually over time can really help. Familiarity breeds confidence. Just don’t let it breed contempt. We know that on the ocean conditions can change in an instant. Avoid complacency. Keep a weather eye out for danger at all times.
What experiences have you had with freaking out? What other ways are there to avoid freaking out, or to cope with it once it begins?
Please share your knowledge and experience with pranic or panic breathing in kayaking or any aspect of your life. Feel free to ask questions or add your thoughts by pressing the “comments” button below.