Do you know why you paddle? Go on, have a think...
Hard question to answer, that, isn't it? And it's different for all of us. For some it will be social: enjoying the company of friends; for others, the natural world; and for yet others, the feeling of moving, of performing, of getting better at something. And for many of us, a combination of all three with a host of other factors added into the mix.
If you're a coach, have you ever thought about why you do it? Perhaps it makes you feel good, or perhaps you've used coaching to help you improve your own paddling. Or maybe you simply do it because your club needs you to.
All of our motivations are equally valid, and none of them static. One thing I've learned over the course of my paddling & coaching life (and indeed, life in general!) is that motivations change.
In my early paddling life, my motivation centred around getting out as often as possible, by any means possible. It was all about time on the water. Growing in experience, I focused on expeditioning, wild camping from my sea kayak at every opportunity. Occasionally my motivation would switch, and for a while I would live for getting to a particular tide race, or on a particular river. Always, though, this was with friends, with people whose company I enjoyed and who made me feel good.
Over the last few years, my motivation has shifted and settled. I have become focused on learning, on improving as a paddler and coach, on performing in challenging environments, motivated by the rush of pushing my performance to new places, discovering what's possible for me. The smile I get inside from the feeling of Flow. Many people think of the British Canoeing Advanced Sea Kayak Leader award as being the 'top' of their aspirations as a paddler, but for me that was when the 'real' focus on learning and performing began, on achieving freedom from the confines of a syllabus, and the ability to widen my own horizons, open my eyes to what is possible, and begin to experiment with performance.
Adding and developing my understanding of performance in the gym gave me even more depth to play with, and scope to experiment with performance on the water. How could I use added strength & power in my boat?
As a coach, my focus and motivation has followed that of Zoe the paddler. If you do some coaching, whether as a profession or as a hobby, have you ever thought about why you do it? What do you enjoy? What really motivates you as a coach? Does that rub off on your learners?
The British Canoeing Educational Philosophy has this to say on the subject:
"British Canoeing Awarding Body believes in a participant-led approach when creating and enabling experience from which people will enjoy, learn and develop through paddlesport. These experiences will be delivered in an individualised way that also supports the inherent social aspects of the sport and fosters a sense of a paddling community.
Through this paddlers will achieve success, this success being focused on the journey and not the destination.
The experience will be safe, engaging and enjoyable, with the paddler at the heart of the process involving them in their own learning and development.
This will be delivered by a supportive and empowering approach to instil an active passion for the sport of canoeing, alongside developing understanding and respect for the environment in which it takes place."
I've italicised a few phrases that really stand out for me, in that statement. I love helping paddlers to become... better paddlers! So when that realisation dawned for me, it left me with a dilemma: do I focus on doing that, helping people to become better paddlers; or do I continue to work towards delivering syllabus-based awards courses?
Now, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Becoming a better leader or coach can help you become a better paddler. But that doesn't happen by accident: you have to understand how to learn, how to practice, how to help yourself get better. A coach can't do that for you, but they can help it to happen a lot faster. That's what I truly love about being a coach.
So, over the course of the last few months, after a lot of personal wrangling with motivation, philosophy, and staring at my own belly-button (metaphorically, you understand!), I've made a decision.
Most paddling coaches, organisations & providers offer a selection of syllabus-based courses. I'm going to go out on a limb and dare to be just a little bit different. For the time being, Zoe Newsam Coaching will not deliver Leadership or Coaching training or assessments. Never say never of course, like we said above, motivations change.
For now, though, I am going to focus my efforts on offering my clients a focus on improving their performance, on becoming better paddlers, fitter and more powerful people, and on achieving their personal performance goals, including the British Canoeing Personal Performance Awards. Focusing on being better, more in control, and more confident & independant in the environments and places they want to paddle, with the people they want to be on the water with.
How do I know that's the right thing to do? Well, I don't for sure. But it just feels good. How will you know when you've achieved success or made a good decision on the water, or given your all in the gym? Well, it just feels good... right?
So, what are you waiting for? Why not book onto a course this summer, and find out what it feels like when it just feels right?
I make a cafetière of coffee… and then, still half asleep, I pour cold water from a not-yet-boiled kettle on the coffee grounds. What a numpty… Let’s try that again.
The air outside feels cold, in spite of the blue sky & sun. My body tired from a full-on day on the water the previous day, I struggle with the motivation to get changed. The others are ready to go; it’s ok, I’ll be down shortly, I say.
I’m not really feeling it today, despite having great conditions and an awesome group of friends around me. I pushed myself hard yesterday, and both mentally and physically my reactions feel slow. No matter, I make myself get stuck in, and an early roll assures me it will be ok…
I’ve gone through a phase of lacking faith in my roll recently: with no other reason than a swim or two while I’ve been pushing myself in challenging environments. The human brain is a complex thing, and no matter how much I assure myself that ‘it’s ok, my roll works’, I couldn’t quite believe it hadn’t deserted me. Perhaps that self-imposed pressure is all the greater when the ability to roll ‘in anger’, so to speak, is part of your job description.
I’m at the Falls of Lora, a large volume tidal rapid on the west coast of Scotland. We’re on sizeable tides, the sun is shining and I’m with a group of friends I trust, who are not only superb boaters, but also super-supportive and great company. Feeling fresh yesterday, we all pushed ourselves to our respective limits; with successes-aplenty all round, having challenged one another to surf particular waves or make specific lines, we ended the day feeling shattered but satisfied. This morning, however, is different for me: I feel mentally & physically drained, and lacking in the energy to really commit to the move I'm aiming at.
I crack on… watching the others is inspiring, and I reflect on how fortunate I am to be here, in these conditions, with these people. I’m achieving moderate success, almost managing to surf the wave I’m aiming for, but something is missing from my usual power … I drop off the back, and hit the boils below… in a split second I’m upside down, and I wait for that magic moment when my hands hit air and I can instinctively roll up. It seems to take an age. The moment comes, and I try to roll, but there’s nothing there, no surface tension. I’m upside down again, and there’s no air to get my hands into. I can feel my bum being sucked out of my seat, and my paddle sucked out of my hands. I bail out after what feels like an age. I’m out of breath, out of my boat, and my shoe is being sucked off my foot. Not the most dignified of positions to find myself in!
After collecting myself, boat, paddle, shoe and composure, my pal turns up and offers me a rescue. Thanks Jonny! I’m grateful for his comforting presence, his smile and his encouraging words… ‘Come on, one more shot to get back on the horse’, he tells me. Wise words indeed.
I pull myself together and play some more, and as our energy is fading, Tony turns up, to tell us he caught it all on camera. After tea & cake, stories and photos are exchanged and on the drive home I’m able to begin to properly process the day's learning.
A day later, and I’m at home. A rest day, thankfully, as I’m feeling pretty fatigued. Time to process the ‘playtime’ and learning of the last two days, and to reflect.
In her article 'Learning in the Ugly Zone', Marianne Davies discusses the zone, just beyond our current ability, where we can try, fail, try, fail, learn, and eventually succeed, and so develop our skills through play, exploration and eventual understanding. Ultimately, if we never step outside of the bounds of our comfort zone, we never have the opportunity to problem-solve our way to the next level. Does that make that zone an easy place to play? It's a rewarding place, and mostly a fun place, but that doesn't always make it easy.
Intellectually I know we’re all between swims, but it doesn’t stop me questioning my skill level, doubting myself. I think there is often a stigma associated with failing, with swimming, with getting things wrong: in society as a whole, not just in paddlesports. But if we don't get it wrong, we never learn, right? Right. So how good do you have to be before you stop failing, stop swimming, stop falling, stop having to pick yourself up and try again? For me personally, if that ever happens it means I've stopped visiting the Ugly Zone... I've stopped trying.
My personal take-away? Every day’s a school day: if you’re learning, and pushing yourself, you will fail, and in paddling occasionally that results in a swim. Does that mean I'm not good enough? No, it doesn't. Does it mean I can still get better? Always.
With thanks to Tony Hammock of SeaFreedom Kayak for the use of his excellent photos, and Jonny, George, Sam, Laura & Jenny for their excellent company on the water.
Flow? What’s Flow? We do it for fun, surely? Whether you’re a competitive athlete or a weekend warrior, whether you paddle every day or once a year, paddlesports, by their very nature, must be fun to motivate us to take part in them. But what does that mean? What is it that makes it fun?
For me, it goes something like this...
The wave passes under my boat like molten glass, with no sound, no fury, just pure unadulterated beauty. Time stands still. My mind is empty of anything other than here and now. There is nothing, just me, my boat and this wave, working in harmony, as if they’re connected somehow. I turn my head, and in that moment my boat does as I ask, with no effort. It’s a feeling of pure ecstasy, ultimate control...
It can last mere seconds, or hours, but in those moments I have no worries, no fears, no space in my brain for anything other than the moment I am in. It feels like floating, or like effortless gliding, as though everything I’ve ever worked for has come together in that moment.
For me, that is the purest definition of fun. Does it happen every time I paddle? No, it most certainly doesn’t. Does it happen in other areas of my life? Yes, it certainly does!
So what is ‘flow’?
Psychologist Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, building on the studies of Abraham Maslow before him, researched the concept of flow following his own profound experiences in a second world war Italian prison camp. He had discovered that by learning to play chess, becoming obsessed with the game, nothing else could enter his thoughts. He was completely immersed: his dire situation forgotten, the presence of prison guards irrelevant. He was experiencing flow.
Csikszentmihalyi has become synonymous with the concept of flow, but the idea has been around for millennia. Whether it’s called ‘Zen’, ‘Rapture’, ‘The Zone’ or any other name, it is a phenomena that humans have sought and used throughout history. For good reason, too. It’s an elusive mistress, a drug that we can’t pin down. But a drug it most certainly is: flow releases a potent mixture of hormones including dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins, a group of neurotransmitters which between them make us feel good, respond to challenge or stress, and have a morphine-like effect. No wonder the result is such a high.
I remember being in a maths class at school, and being given a set of equations to solve. But instead of finding them difficult, I thrived on the problem: losing myself in the challenge, so that time disappeared. You might think a maths class a peculiar environment for this to happen, but flow is all around us; at work, in conversation… Ever lost a whole evening deep in conversation with a friend? That’s flow in action.
Not long after I started paddling, I remember watching Justine Curgenven’s film ‘This is the Sea 3’. It featured a few minutes filmed in Scottish Tide Races, and showed a group of paddlers at the Falls of Lora. Towards the end of the piece, a paddler crosses the powerful eddyline with power and grace, and surfs the glassy green wave with effortless precision… It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen: a paddler deep in the zone, absolutely immersed in the moment and totally in control, the challenge perfectly matched to the skill they’d worked so hard to achieve. Watching that moment remains with me to this day as a source of inspiration.
So how can we access Flow? If it feels so good, is it possible to make it happen more often? Well, yes it is. Accessing flow takes a very particular set of conditions. But the good news is that the more you paddle, the better you get, and the more likely you are to be able to find this elusive state – but only if you challenge yourself. I’ve paraphrased the conditions a little to make them relevant for paddlesports:
Is it possible for us, as friends, coaches or leaders, to help others achieve the state? Well, yes it is. And even better, it’s beneficial for learning, too. Learning is long-lasting when it’s achieved through feel – and being in flow is all about just that.
So how can you influence these factors, for yourself or others?
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and challenge yourself; match the challenge to your ability, and let the present melt away. If you are a coach or a leader, experiment with providing an environment where your learners can concentrate fully on the task in had, with no distractions or interruptions. For a coach this is the challenging part: that means silence.
This article is based on literature, but also on my own ponderings and experiences, on my own learning, paddling and coaching. Get out there and try it for yourself- and then, when our paths cross, tell me what you think… So what are you waiting for? Head out and Find Flow.
Article first published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Scottish Paddler, the Scottish Canoe Association magazine.
There was an old saying "Behind every great man there is a great woman".
I've been thinking a lot lately about the reverse of this: the men that have supported me through my paddling & working life.
Anyone that knows me is very aware that I am a passionate advocate of gender equality, and particularly in the case of women who want to advance in male-dominated environments. I've had three careers, personally, all very male-dominated. And of course, the support of other women is critical in those environments, and female role models help enormously in making progress when you are among the first - or one of very few- women to achieve something.
However, it is my belief - and some may find this a controversial view- that it's just as important, if not more so, to have supportive and forward-thinking men around you in these environments.
In planning the Women's Essential Sea Kayaking Weekend I've thought about this subject a lot, an event that is being organised by myself and two male sea kayak coaches who I admire and respect enormously- so I thought I might share, and celebrate, a few examples of the extraordinary men who have supported me in my kayaking career.
I'm very lucky these days: I'm surrounded by supportive, forward-thinking male role models. I've had more than my fair share of sexist experiences too however, in thirty years of working in three very different industries. In my view if we are to change the way our society works, these wonderful men, who support us when we need it and help us fight our corner in achieving gender equality and challenging unconscious bias both in actions and in words, are not celebrated enough.
Thanks guys, I couldn't do it without you.
Sometimes things that seem less than ideal at the time can lead to all sorts of good: and so it was for me, last summer. I ceased to work for a company I've been associated with for some time, which got me thinking about what I represent, both on the water and off.
Then, beginning the process of becoming a British Canoeing Coach Award Provider helped me to develop my thinking about my 'coaching philosophy': What do I stand for, and how do I deliver that to my clients?
The debate will probably go on for me throughout my coaching and business life. But the constant for me is two-fold:
That same discussion with myself also led me to develop my business, and to begin the process of qualifying as a Personal Trainer: more on that later in the year!
Going through this debate led me to the conclusion that the way I represented myself- my brand, to coin a marketing phrase- no longer really represented what I do, or what I stand for. So, where to begin? With visuals, and a new logo...
My previous logo was designed by the extraordinary Jamie Hageman, so it seemed appropriate to use the work of another artist for the new version. I approached someone whose work really resonates with me: Amy Dunis, of Adventurous Pencil, to produce a new logo for me.
Amy took a long look at what I do, and came up with what I think is a lovely representation of it in visual form.
The image uses two symbols intertwined: the wave, and the infinity symbol.
A wave, you might think is obvious. I'm a sea kayak coach. There's nothing I love more than surfing a wave, in all its forms. However, I'm also fascinated by all the forms waves can take, and what they represent; the way they propagate after formation; that they are simply a physical manifestation of energy travelling through water; that they keep going, no matter what: a symbol of determination and continuation. If you're a wave geek, like me, check out The Wavewatcher's Companion. The sea itself is ever-present, the tides moving constantly, ever-adapting to the land they meet along the way.
Infinity is of course a mathematical symbol: I started life with a love for maths & science. But infinity also represents a never-ending energy and courage, the infinite value of growth, independence, knowledge & understanding.
Lastly, the two combined are just a little like the Koru, the Maori fern, symbol of nurturing and positive change. I first experienced the joy of sea kayaking in New Zealand, so I'm delighted that just a hint of that country's culture appears in the design.
I hope you like it... Watch this space for more developments throughout 2019!
Since my last post, it's fair to say a lot has happened! I was a little nervous of posting it, not sure how it would be received: I needn't have worried. I've had countless messages of support and empathy, offers of ideas, and messages from others in the same situation.
So I thought I would share some of the developments I've made, and things I've learned in the last month.
Firstly, I've made a lot of progress with the way I run my business. The biggest step was simply admitting to myself that it is a business, and I'm not 'just self employed'. That has taken something of a mindset-shift, and a spoonful or two of confidence. I decided to work as though I was setting up from scratch, and that decision has paid off.
I have also decided to rebrand my business. For now, I will just leave the new logos and name here, and will talk more about that in a future post.
I've taken several steps to automate my business processes, such as adding a calendar to my website, and an automated booking form. Most importantly, I've signed up to two things that are helping a lot with automation: Quickbooks Self Employed, for accounts & finances, and Mailchimp, for marketing. Amazingly, Mailchimp can do what I need it to do, for free!
I approached several people for advice: a couple of experienced friends who run their own businesses, and a highly respected paddler & coach who has agreed to act as a mentor to me over this next stage of my career.
Most usefully of all, I made an appointment with a Business Advisor at Business Gateway. This fantastic service is open to anyone north of the border who is self employed or runs a small business, and they offer much more than just classroom courses. They can give advice, and they can set up arrangements with specialist advisers, free of charge, to help achieve what you need. We're very lucky to have access to the service in Scotland.
And for me, the biggest learning of the last month: I need to give myself a break, be good to myself. I care, very much, and I hope that all of these things will help me to give my clients a better service too. That may mean waiting a little for an email reply, while I take the dog for a walk, go for a run or a paddle, or drink coffee with a friend. These things are trying at the time, but I've come out fired up and more enthusiastic than ever: I look forward very much to seeing you on the water!
I care. I care that my clients get the best service possible from me, on the water, by email, phone or message, and in person. I care that I work hard, and that I do my best to keep developing, keep learning, and stay passionate. I care that, as a friend recently put it (thanks Nat...), I present the very best version of me that I possibly can.
And therein lies the rub.
As the vast majority of people who read this will know, I am a Sea Kayak Coach & Guide, and a trainee Personal Trainer. I'm self employed, and almost by accident I now run my own (very) small business; I'm a one-woman band.
Mental health and the pros & cons of self employment have occupied my thoughts a lot recently. I also care very deeply that I set an example, that I do as I would like to be done by, which is why, unusual as it may seem, I wanted to share some thoughts on the subject. Now, in no way are any of these thoughts a complaint. I'm not looking for sympathy, simply to gather my thoughts and perhaps make others think too. I love my job: I've had several different careers, and this is by far the most captivating and rewarding of all of them. Days on the water with clients who are learning and expanding their capabilities and confidence just can't be beaten; and as I'm now learning, helping people to improve their physical capability & confidence both in the gym, and in life as a result... Well, that's a special experience.
It's Friday afternoon, and I should be preparing for work tomorrow, packing my kit, printing maps & paperwork, communicating the plan, putting together all the gear & decisions I need for a weekend on the water with clients. Instead, I'm sitting at the kitchen table, tears rolling down my face.
"...I'm so tired..."
Mark, my long suffering and ever-patient partner, is doing his best to deal with a me that is rather less than the best version.
It's Sunday now, and I've taken the weekend off, (luckily I have a fantastically understanding close colleague who was ok with me pulling out) and perhaps I'm a little under the weather physically, as well as mentally. A walk on the beach with the dog, time away from emails, and a large hot chocolate have gone just a little way to making me feel better about the world. It's also given me a little time to begin to reflect on how I can make some changes.
In these days of 24-hour-tech, rolling news & newsfeeds, same-day delivery and instant responses, we want everything now. We don't want to wait, or be patient. Emails sent warrant an instant response, and when we don't get one we go elsewhere. But what of the respondent? That person who has a pile of emails already in their inbox, work to do, family to spend time with, a dog to walk, and their own health to take care of? It means they are glued to their phone or laptop, always connected, never able to switch off. I'm as guilty as anyone else - I've done just that, gone to one 'company' because they responded faster than another. But that company may well have been a sole trader, a single person... who lost out because of my impatience.
Winter is a tough time of year for me. I struggle with the short days up here in the north of Scotland, feeling significantly lower and more vulnerable than in the longer days of summer. Financially it can be a challenge, with far less money coming in, and coaching days are challenging in cold conditions. It can also be a time of year to rest & recharge though, to prepare for the year ahead. Unless you're me, and take on far too much, keep pushing yourself to improve fitness & move on your own learning, plan too much into that short few months. Mmm, perhaps next winter should be different...
In order to be the best I can be at my job, it has to be a passion. And this is the disadvantage of turning your passion into your job: you want to do it all the time. But for me, that doesn't just mean paddling. That means training in the gym so that I can be as strong and resilient as I need to be to paddle well, to carry boats, to travel, to remain injury-free. It means reading and watching others, keeping up with developments- these days often via social media. It means eating well (though often at a slight calorie deficit) to maintain or reduce my weight and feel fit. It is all-pervading, from the moment I wake up in the morning, to the moment I fall asleep at night.
So how is this all related to my mental health? Well, the less I manage to keep up with that 'to do list', the emails unanswered, the gym sessions not completed, the repair jobs not yet done, the more I feel like I'm failing. The more I feel like I'm failing, the less productive I am. And so the spiral continues. My confidence - never exactly rock solid to begin with - suffers, and I doubt myself more and more. The result: exhaustion, tears, and a disproportionate feeling of inadequacy.
So I guess that brings me to what I'm going to do about all of this? Well, I'm not entirely sure, yet. What I do know, is that things need to change. I need to set up systems that mean I can put down my phone or laptop some evenings, have some days off- from training, from tech, from everything. My 'business' has evolved from simply freelancing for other people after taking voluntary redundancy just 5 years ago, into one that now provides over 60% of my meagre income, but the fight to keep up with the 'to do list' means I have never taken the time to set it up so that it works efficiently. Perhaps now is the time.
More than anything, I need to learn to be kind to myself.
Final thoughts? I can't be alone in this. More and more people are becoming self-employed, whether through entrepreneurial spirit, or through necessity. It's awesome, but it's also tough. If you have any thoughts, ideas or reflections you'd like to share with me - perhaps you have some ideas I could use- please do get in touch.
“Red’s looking... red’s up and riding...”
"Change of direction from blue... and he's off”
“Nice speed from red... change of direction... nice linked manoeuvres... good flow... won’t score that exit though as it wasn’t completed”
“I reckon that was red’s best wave of the round so far”.
I’m in Pembrokeshire. At the Welsh Open Whitesands Classic Surf Kayak competition, and oddly, I’m in a judging seat. I’ve never done this before, but I have Tom Iggleden, the competition organiser, standing over my shoulder helping me understand what to look for, and work out how to allocate scores.
I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours in a kayak in my life, and yet in this setting, surrounded by surf kayakers, I am a novice again, and it’s a strange feeling; one that I am slowly getting to grips with and thoroughly enjoying at the same time. I'm a sea kayaker by trade, and by experience, used to moving around long boats with smooth, rounded edges; Now I’m getting used to moving around a short boat with sharp rails. On a wave. Moving along it, not down it. The more I learn, little by little, the more I realise there is to learn and the more I realise I don’t yet know, and can't yet do. But there's the point... "yet".
I am also a recreational paddler by instinct, unused to the peculiarities of competition, or to performing ‘on demand’. Of course I do have to perform on demand in my working life- but moving a sea kayak around in front of coaching clients feels very different to this, competing against other paddlers in front of a panel of judges.
So why am I doing this? Stepping so far outside my comfort zone, into a connected and yet so, so different discipline? Well, because of that word... "yet". Because I love waves, I love the sea and I love the feeling of surfing a wave. Harnessing the energy of a wave to move a boat around with your body just feels so darned GOOD! Setting bum in a surf kayak seemed like a natural progression for me, a means by which I can learn more about how to harness that energy; only until now I’ve just dabbled. Not any more though... Someone recently commented that surf kayaking had moved from being a hobby to being an obsession for me- and they’re absolutely right.
I’m a learning junkie- if I can make progress, I’m happy. I know I will fail, and fail again, and by my own standards I'll be a bit rubbish for a while; but with purposeful practice I will get better, little by little. Competition looks initially like a tough way to learn. But where else can I spend time watching those better than me, to learn from them? And maybe, if they're feeling generous, I might just be able to pick up a few tips. It's a new world, I'm learning a new language and meeting paddlers and models of boat I hadn't heard of until a few short months ago; but slowly, slowly, it's becoming my own world- and it feels like a good fit so far.
To a competition novice, pitting myself against others has given me an insight into my own motivation: am I intrinsically motivated, by performing better than I did last time, last session, or on that last wave? Or extrinsically - by the will to be better than my competitors? Well, it turns out that yes, there is a tiny bit of extrinsic motivation: I expect there is in all of us. But mostly, I just want to get better. Everyone likes a medal, of course, but I just want that feeling: of surfing, flying, gliding, of being in control in an uncontrollable environment; and most of all, of learning, improving, succeeding.
Why share my experiences? Because becoming a novice again is a great way to get better as a paddler; Crossing disciplines means we have to adapt, to apply familiar principles in an unfamiliar environment or craft. And because... well, because it just excites me. It's new, I'm learning stuff, and it involves lots of waves. What more could a girl want?!
It’s November 21st 2009, around tea time. I’m in Morocco, and I’ve just missed a call on my phone. It’s from a friend who knows I’m away... Why on earth? A mistake, surely? But it’s the weekend: is something wrong? I send a text asking if he called me by mistake and the phone rings instantly. It’s Andy. Is everything ok? ‘It’s Chris’ the voice on the other end of the phone tells me. ‘He’s dead.’
Photo credit: unknown.
I have no memory of the rest of that phone call. I remember Andy’s voice sounding shaky and tearful, but can’t take in what he’s trying to tell me. In a guest house in Imlil, I collapse to the floor in tears and am physically picked up, rescued if you like, by Ben and Rachid, our guides on my ‘holiday’.
The six months leading up to that call had been rough, to say the least. My long term partner and I had separated, in difficult circumstances, and the following weeks & months saw many of the circle of friends I relied upon, for friendship and adventure buddies, desert me in favour of his new pairing. I felt alone, left without partner, home, friends, living in a place to which I now felt no connection. I had lived for paddling- both sea and white water, driving tens of thousands of miles a year for adventures all over the UK- and now I had no-one to go on those adventures with.
I didn’t hang around though, I found new adventure buddies, did new things. This trip to Morocco was an attempt to return to my adventurous self.
And now this... I couldn’t grasp the reality of it. Chris Wheeler had been a friend, a role model- and a mentor of sorts. We were vastly different in background and outlook, but in his quiet, measured way he had provided me with the ‘I want to paddle like that’ role model, with encouragement to try new things, to venture into playboating at Hurley, something he cherished- and with a gentle, honest and faithful friend through the last, tough months.
And now? He was gone. Drowned on our ‘home run’, a river he had paddled hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. For goodness sake it was a river even I’d run… How could I still be here, and he- invincible in my eyes- be gone?
Over the coming months I re-examined my relationship with risk; I asked questions of why, and how, and came to a conclusion. I sold my white water kayak and kit; decided I simply couldn’t face the idea of getting back on a river. The risks outweighed the benefits for me. I threw myself into hillwalking and sea kayaking: grasped every opportunity, made the most of every moment- but walked away from rivers.
Fast forward eight years... to late October 2017. I’m on the Findhorn Gorge, a classic section of Scottish white water, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. It’s a beautiful autumn day, the trees are dripping in red and gold, and showering leaf confetti down upon us. I’m here with Matt Haydock, a close friend, superb paddler and coach who’s been instrumental in getting me to this point; I’m paddling reasonably well- though this is a step up from recent rivers I’ve run- and I could hardly be happier.
So how did that happen? How did I get from vowing never to get on a river again, and being terrified and emotional at just the idea- to grinning my way down a Scottish grade 3/4 classic? It’s been quite a journey- and I wanted to write this to document a little of that journey, in the hope that it might help others suffering from a crisis of confidence to understand that its possible to overcome that hurdle, no matter how high the barrier might feel. It also, I must admit, has been cathartic to say the least.
Life has changed beyond recognition since the day of that phone call in 2009: I moved to my spiritual home in the Scottish Highlands, took voluntary redundancy from my office-based job, and turned myself into a full-time sea kayak coach and professional paddler. I’m paddling at the top of my game, doing a job I love, and living in a stunningly beautiful place with a partner who loves and understands me, and is impressively tolerant of my constant need to push for the next goal.
Around the time I decided to leave my previous job and move north, I started as a long term student for a coach going through the old BCU Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach process: it was rewarding, and fun, and I learnt an enormous amount. My kayaking took off and I developed a passion for coaching. Nick knew my story, and was aware that I’d wondered about overcoming my white water block. Towards the end of the Level 5 process, he asked if I’d be interested in running a river again. I didn’t need long to decide… 5 years had gone by, and the wounds were healing. With a borrowed boat and paddle, we ran the Middle Findhorn at a good medium level. It was tough, but I loved it. I cried and cried, both before and after: it felt like a massive step, but I’d broken the spell.
So a couple of years later when my friend Matt was looking for students to go through his UKCC Level 3 White Water, I jumped at the chance. I’d only been on a river a couple of times since that day with Nick, and although I was keen, I was still very, very nervous. My emotions were always close to the surface at even the idea of paddling white water - and the thought of doing it with anyone who didn’t understand my story- and I hadn’t developed trust for- wouldn’t even cross my mind.
Matt started slowly with me. We got on easy white water- where he was very confident I would cope- to build up technical skills, and begin rebuilding my confidence. There were occasional tears, with which he coped admirably, and he began to give me the tools to deal with anxiety in the white water environment. Breathing exercises helped; as did having the opportunity just to talk about why it was hard to put myself through this. We also looked at warming up- both physically and psychologically – and I began to construct the building blocks for the future.
It was really important that I was allowed to progress at my own pace: I’d realised that, in previous years, I had spent a lot more time being scared than enjoying myself. I didn’t want to do that now. Since Chris’s death, that line where fear begins has come into very sharp focus for me- and consequences are very much more real. Whereas before 2009 a more ‘hardline’ approach from a coach might have worked with me- now I needed a softer, subtler method of coaching where I could back away from the challenge if I needed to.
Relatively early in the process Matt surprised me by taking us to the Etive. My reaction when he told us where we would be going was very instinctive and fairly dramatic- he spotted straight away that I was panicking at even the idea. However, just the suggestion of it confronted me with a challenge: consider it, or walk away. It was a very low water day, with little in the way of other options – and we headed there to consider the use of key strokes in a site-specific session. I didn’t get on the water that day, but I did surprise myself: I took away the idea that I might, eventually, consider running this type/grade of river again, having written it off for myself previously.
We then went back to looking at technical and tactical choices- and later headed to the Spean Gorge. It was quite a step up for me both technically and psychologically- and I struggled whilst being led by another student, feeling under-confident and not in control. The day crossed my metaphorical line further into ‘fear’ than ‘fun’- but it did allow me to challenge myself and realise that whilst it needed to be a slow and gentle foray into higher grades, I did in fact want to push myself and my paddling.
I began to venture out with other friends, away from the safe environment of coached sessions. The first time was tough: I was two hours late because I was so nervous I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. My partner held me while I cried and cried- but in the end I knew I had to go. We had chosen our river carefully; I told my story to my adventure buddy for the day, and we had a chilled out, sunny and fun day on the river.
Towards the end of the coaching process we started to work in real independence: removing my ‘safety blanket’ to help me get on the river with confidence in myself, rather than relying on others. And I started getting excited about paddling with other people again; getting out on the amazing rivers that I now live so close to, with friends.
And since then? I’ve managed a couple of trips, with friends I trust implicitly, and on beautiful days. I’m being careful but adventurous. I’ve learned to objectivise my fears, and each rapid that I come to; to rationalise the river if you like. I’m learning to ask myself where the actual danger is, and whether I can honestly make the move required to avoid it; to assess my own performance honestly rather than allowing lack of confidence to hold onto me. And if the answer is no? Well, I portage. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
So is that it? No, it’s not. Chris’s story and the memory of him will come with me on every river I paddle. It’s just that these days he’s back to his old self: quietly willing me on.
At Chris’s funeral, his bereaved partner chose to have one of his favourite songs played: Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. That song has become an anthem for me... “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year will keep me right...”. And oh my, how right those words are.
Still smiling at the end of the Findhorn Gorge.
Photo: Matt Haydock.
With huge thanks to Matt Haydock, Gill Berrow, Dave Rossetter and Nick March for sharing and helping me through the journey, and to Mark Brown for simply being himself.
There are so many elements to planning a sea kayaking trip, it's amazing we ever get anything done. Weather, tides, swell, time off, the right partner... the list goes on. The more challenging the trip, the rarer the opportunity.
Just occasionally though, it all falls into place, and dreams are realised. And so it was for me this week.
The island of Hoy is an advanced sea kayaker's dream. Within the Orkney Islands archipelago it is an oddity: mountainous and remote, with little of the low-lying land to be found elsewhere in those islands. It specialises in drama: the highest vertical sea cliffs in the UK at St John's Head, exposure to Atlantic swell and the fast, committing and complex tides of the Pentland Firth, no-landing zones of over 10km, the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, and to top it all, one of the most iconic rock formations on the planet: the Old Man of Hoy.
Friend and colleague, Matt Haydock (Rapid Development Coaching) and I set off on Monday, planning a two day circumnavigation to beat the incoming South-East gales forecast for Wednesday. Paddling out into a glowering, mizzly Sound of Hoy I felt apprehensive: had we made the right call, choosing this trip? Was the weather on it's way in early? I doubted myself and the forecast... With the right paddling buddy though, teamwork and decision-making come easily: we would carry on with the plan. Was it really apprehension, or simply butterflies at the prospect of achieving a long-held dream?
Round - or should I say through- the Kame of Hoy and it's two large tunnels, and round the corner to our first view of St John's Head wearing a hat of cloud, and the Old Man. The sheer scale of the place is hard to comprehend, impossible to put into words. I try to photograph them, with disappointing results: they create a feeling images can't convey. A picture of Matt though, when I look at it later, reveals a smug grin. My thoughts exactly!
We camp at the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, above a white sand beach and a steep bank of storm-worn, sea-tossed boulders, molded into stripey dinosaur eggs by the huge waves that crash here in the winter months. What little wind there is drops, and we both retire to our tents early, chased in by the notorious Hoy Midge.
We're up early next morning. Neither of us really do mornings, and the midges are fierce, so it's a handful of peanuts, some water and a snack bar for the buoyancy aid pocket for me, then midge net and drysuit on for the boat carrying & packing mission. Not many words are needed. We need to be on our way by 7am to catch the tide round the crux point of our trip: Tor Ness.
The entry in the Admiralty Pilot warns of death and destruction lurking beneath the waves at Tor Ness during the West-going tidal stream. We were choosing to travel anti-clockwise, so using the East-going flow- but could find no information on what we might find when we got there. Huge breaking waves? We didn't know: but we were confident that the plan would work, and we could deal with whatever the Pentland Firth decided to throw our way.
Onwards, past more enormous, vertical and impossibly smooth cliffs. We really are on our own down here: nowhere to escape should anything go wrong, and little chance of communication through VHF or mobile phone. An awe-inspiring sense of remoteness and commitment. We feel movement in the water- but is it doing what we expect? A kick to the west suggests a peculiar pattern, but we're shifting along... Looks like we've got it right.
Round Tor Ness, and... well, not a lot! A few breaking waves, with flow in a variety of directions: but all very satisfyingly within both of our comfort zones. Time for coffee!
Onwards... but now we're finding the tide flowing against us. That shouldn't be happening...? Do we stay close inshore and fight the tide through the eddies forming all along this stretch, or do we head out deeper into the Pentland Firth, where we might be pushed away from our objective and towards the mainland? We decided to go for the harder work, but safer option: stay inshore and knuckle down for a slower few miles.
The cliffs are lower lying now, but still impressive, and we're working out what we can see in the Firth around us. We both know the area a little having paddled, and been trained and assessed for various qualifications here. Memories are shared, stories told. Have I told you about the time when...?
Round Cantick Head, and we're heading north at last. We're both in need of a rest and food after our early start- then on towards Scapa Flow. Weaving a path through the islands, we pass evidence of the strategic importance of the place: the Martello Towers guarding the entrance the Long Hope, gun emplacements and lookout stations on the many headlands. Scapa Flow itself looms large, like a small sea enclosed by history. It's a busy place still, and as we cover the final few miles we cross paths with a ferry, fishing boats, pleasure boats and a yacht or two making the most of the light winds before tomorrow's forecast storm.
Tired but satisfied, we pull into the Bay of Houton... So what will the next adventure be?