Fear to Focus: Solo Paddling Psychology
Paddling on your own can be scary. There is no one to help you solve problems if something goes wrong or if the weather suddenly changes. There is no one there to make you laugh with when you get lonely and no one to help you carry your boat up long beaches – no one but you.
Solo paddling can feel heroic and life affirming, but my intention to paddle alone did not stem from a desire to be bold or to do something no one had ever done. I wanted to see what kind of decisions I might make, how I would cope with the lonely days on my own. I wanted to crawl out of my comfort zone and use it as a time for reflection. I have been on the coast of North Wales for much of this winter and while spending time on the water alone, I have run into highly changeable weather, encountered fears I didn’t know ran as deep as they do and learned to find courage within, when I need it most.
I needn’t go into too much of the nitty gritty detail of the whole trip because it all gets lost in the in-betweens of calm days and rough seas, irrelevant distance measures and finding places to sleep. What is worthy of discussion is my thinking processes and the struggles to remain present in each moment.
I am always meticulous with checking weather reports, wind directions and tidal movement, but alone, I felt my need to know these things was even greater as I set out knowing I was the only one who could help myself if conditions got tough. It is one thing to intentionally go out in bad weather with friends, looking for waves and surf, but an entirely different beast when headed down an unknown coastline on your own. The other challenge I faced was forcing myself to get on with it, even when things looked less than perfect. It is a fine balance between making the decision to stay because of bad weather and pushing forward even when the outcome is uncertain. It is so tempting to stay in bed when you are only accountable to yourself.
I remember one day in particular that turned out to be a challenging one. My first task was to set a goal. I would paddle 40 nautical miles to make up for the short day I had previously due to high winds. I find that goal setting is essential in order to get out of my tent. The early 5 AM start felt like a success as I paddled off with the sunrise behind me. The billowing white clouds on the horizon were brilliantly lit. They were, however, sitting on top of a dark grey layer like merengue piled on top of a cake. This should have been my first clue that the weather was subject to change that day, but conditions were calm and I knew I had a few bail out points along the way.
I paddled in calm waters for a few hours, feeling meditative as each paddle stroke passed me by. The terns were soaring around me and diving like torpedoes into the water to catch their breakfast. I felt lucky as the sun shone down on me as though I had an invisible weather shield around me, while dark masses of clouds and rain passed me by on both sides. As the coastline turned from long sandy dune beaches to folded layers of rock rising out of the briny deep, the sea state began to change from glassy to corrugated. I often enjoy paddling with a bit of texture to the water, as it keeps me focused and makes things more interesting, but what happened next turned out to be a bit more than just exciting.
All morning I had been chased by dark squalls, surrounded by rainbows that signaled incoming rain, but had so far managed to be avoided by the masses of unsettled weather. When I reached a spot on the coast that made landing nearly impossible and I was fully committed to making it to the next town 6 miles away, the sky darkened, the seas started to heave and the rains began. I zipped up the hood of my Kokatat Gore-tex Passage Anorak just before the hail began its attack, hitting hard on my hood and stinging as it pounded my nose.
Normally the sea conditions would not have caused me to worry, but as the front closed in, the seas got bigger and bigger, the wind stronger and more powerful. It became a mind game of convincing myself that it wouldn’t get any worse – that I could make it safely to harbour – and I began talking to myself. The unknown elements began to creep into my thoughts like how long the squall might last, where I might be able to land safely when I got towards the nearest town and what I might do if the worst were to happen and my boat got smashed into the rocks. It’s probably not the best plan to think of all the negative possibilities, but in my mind I was preparing myself for the worst and hoping for the best.
Just as I had my first glimpse of the distant headland that heralded safe harbour, the seas picked up even more and a wave formed, big enough to crest and surf my boat sideways towards the rocky shores. This is what we train for – the unexpected. I braced into the wave, gave out a hoot and dug in harder. There are always options in life and the options here were, 1. Get scared, overwhelmed and give up (no good outcomes promised here) or, 2. Get inspired by the power of the seas and find my own power to match it.
I put my fear in a box, thanked it for keeping me safe, and tucked it away in my mind to make room for focus. All my senses were heightened and instinct told me to paddle offshore. At least there, I would have time to solve any problems that I might encounter before getting blown dangerously close to land. The conversation with myself (yes, out loud) became positive, hopeful and even jocular as I turned my body into a powerful machine, moving through the water towards town, now coming into view.
This process I found myself engaging in is something I have practiced, though not always consciously. This is why I practice rescues in uncomfortable places, why I head out to surf waves on a beach that give me butterflies in my stomach. It is all training for the moment when you need it most, which is rarely planned, possibly overwhelming and often terrifying. The mind is a powerful tool which needs to be exercised and trained as much as the body.
I navigated my way safely into the walls of the harbour, not before a few more big decisions through and around rocky reefs and rebounding waves with the power to smash my tiny boat to pieces. I felt lucky, but in the end, it was not luck that had moved me through the water and kept me upright in blowing wind, crashing waves and pounding hail – it was my whole being. It was good preparation, the ability to turn fear into focus and being willing to be hopeful, even hilarious, throughout the ordeal.
It is easy to stay on shore, play it safe and avoid the unknowns of the ocean. But in making the decision to go, there is opportunity to learn more about your own inner will and courage than you ever thought existed. It is here that I find myself learning about when to be in control and when to let go – it is here that I am reminded and I learn to feel truly alive.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” – Vivian Greene