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.