September 18, 2012

Falling In: Confronting My Fear of Water. ~ Prana Xu

It happened quickly. Before I could even brace myself or think about falling, I was in the water.

Moments earlier, I was standing on the paddle board, legs slightly bent, anxiously eyeing the larger than usual waves cascading beneath my feet. Ahead of me, three other paddlers who left the beach at the same time were quickly widening the distance between us towards a wooden dock at the far end of the lake. The words of my instructor echoed in my head: “When a wave comes at you, meet it head on and you’ll sail over it. If you try to avoid it, you’ll crash.”

I could see that the waves were coming at me.

The more I struggled, digging in my paddle but being pushed back with each stroke, the more I seemed to shift parallel to the incoming current. Biting my lower lip, I tried to paddle faster on my left side in order to turn my board. One minute, I was turning. The next minute, I was in the water.

I had fallen in.

Ever since I saw the movie Jaws on TV, I have had a tenuous relationship with water. I’m fine swimming short laps in a pool as long as there are others around, but put me alone in a body of water bigger than a bathtub and I start to hear the Jaws theme song in my head. This makes it all the more remarkable that I woke up one morning over a month ago and signed up for a three month paddle membership featured on a daily deal site. To this day I still don’t know what compelled me to commit myself to weekly lessons out on the open water.

Once paddle season started, I faithfully made the 20-minute drive from my home out to the lake every Saturday morning at 8am. Slowly, I began to gain confidence, paddling in the cove right off the beach; always within sight of other people onshore and never more than a stone’s throw away from dry land. After a few lessons under my belt, I became braver and paddled past the wooden bridge that marked the end of the protected cove and the start of the lake.

Each week, I would glide a little bit farther into the open waters before turning back. For five weeks this easy routine continued and not once did I fall in. There was even one particularly taxing lesson on the lake when the winds started to pick up and I had my first encounter with not-so-calm waters.

For the first time since I started paddling, the nagging fear returned. This time, instead of gliding smoothly through the still water, I found myself struggling against an opposing current. Two steps forward, one step back. I had to double-time my paddle strokes to make any semblance of headway on the lake– but I arrived back safely and with a renewed confidence that it would take a lot to actually knock me off the board.

Fast forward to six weeks after my first paddle board lesson: I had fallen into the water.

I had fallen in.

In the process of trying to reposition my board to meet the wave head on, I had moved too slowly and was knocked off by a large incoming wave. It took me completely by surprise. There was no slow motion replay where I could see the wave approaching and feel myself being flung into the water. When I hit the water, I moved automatically, arms flailing and legs kicking as if on cue. In truth, I don’t think my body sunk in more than body length before the strength of the kick pushed me above the surface.

Two arm length strokes later and I was at the edge of my board, pulling myself up. Vaguely, I remembered screaming, a half-hearted grunt that, combined with my less than graceful entry into the water, was loud enough to alert my fellow paddlers ahead that someone had fallen in. I signaled for them to continue on without me and paddled back to shore.

Once past the bridge and safely within the confines of the cove, I began to ease up on my stroke. My heart was still beating quickly against my chest, but instead of fear, I felt exhilarated. True, I had fallen in and the water wasn’t terribly pleasant, but I had also pulled myself out as quickly as I went in. The fear that had remained with me for almost three decades culminated in an actual confrontation that lasted less than thirty seconds.

The next day, I got in my car and drove back to the lake at eight a.m. When I arrived, the beach was empty, save for the instructor. Soon I was out on the lake by myself, paddling steadily past the wooden bridge and to the spot where I fell in. This time, I dug the paddle into the left side and turned the board around a full 180 degrees before paddling back towards the opposite shoreline.

My fear of the water is still there, but with each passing week, I find myself slowly outgrowing it. When images of me bobbing in the water start to play in my mind, I hit stop and instead play the reel that shows me pulling myself out safely and paddling back to shore. That’s a far more interesting story and the one that helps me get back on the board week after week.


 Prana Xu writes about her travel experiences and the quirky life lessons learned along the way at www.TravelWhimsy.com.   You can follow her on Twitter at @Travelwhimsy.com or on Facebook at  www.facebook.com/travelwhimsy.


Editor: James Carpenter

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