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Kayaking for a non swimmer; Overcoming a fear of water

My journey as someone who wanted to learn kayaking was slightly different from most. I couldn’t swim and I had never partaken in any watersports whatsoever, and I had a fear of water, particularly of going under. Yet despite this I had always wanted to try kayaking. As a kid I used to watch a BBC programme called Paddles Up, which was a slalom based competition. It always looked so much fun.

It was always a frustration for me that most of my friends could happily be around water without fear, but I had never been able to focus myself on getting over it. So it was that it took me until my thirties to take action. In 2008 I decided to do something that was way out of my comfort zone. I gathered a group of mates and entered the Commando Challenge. This is a charity event based around a Royal Marines fitness course. One of the obstacles is a totally submerged drainage pipe that you have to be pushed/pulled through.

Understandably this wasn’t the most comfortable of prospects! For the weeks leading up to the event I had tried to force myself to learn to hold my breath underwater in the bath, with mixed results, leaving me wondering how on earth I was going to get through that pipe!

The long and short of it is that I managed to do the event, and I went through the drainage pipe without issue. Hurdle number one was overcome and I realised that it wasn’t such a big deal. Part of increasing your confidence is about doing things outside of your comfort zone and discovering that you are more capable than you first thought. The Commando Challenge was an eye opener for me, not only because it proved that I wasn’t abnormal and could go underwater like everyone else, but that many of the people I knew who were strong swimmers also had a fear of going underwater!

Despite the success of this event it still took me until 2010 to revisit my water issues. I decided that I wanted to try kayaking, and that if I didn’t try it that year I probably never would. So I made a pact with myself to learn to swim, and not only to learn to go underwater, but to become totally comfortable with it.

There may be people reading this who also have a fear of water, but who would like to be able to enjoy it like many of the people that they know. The key is to be determined, and to take things one step at a time. You also need to change your mindset.

Instead of thinking about the dire consequences you need to start asking yourself what can really happen? In the grand scheme of things, not much.

At first I got a couple of friends to teach me some rudiments of swimming. This included propelling myself forward with my face in the water using only my feet. For a non swimmer the face in the water part sounds terrifying, but it is not bad at all, as long as you do some work to begin with.

You absolutely must get comfortable with your face being wet. I cannot stress this enough. Use your bath, splash your face and get used to the feel of the water on it. Do not wipe the water away. You must train yourself, which for some people will require a fair amount of will power, to let the water drip away. I didn’t suffer particularly from this issue, but I know that a high number of people really cannot stand the feeling of water on their face. You must retrain yourself and do this over a number of days, every day.

The next stage is to learn to be comfortable with your face and head underwater. Again, using the bath take a relaxed breath and dip your face in the water. Be on your front, NOT on your back, when you do this. Not unless you want water up your nose! If you go on your front and hold your breath the water will not go up your nose. Keep your mouth relaxed and blow very gently out of it.

When you dip your head into the water do not do it half arsed. If you only gently put your face on the surface the water may feel weird and tickly and put you off the idea. Dunk your head! Even if it is for a second. Do this a few times and get used to the sensation of ducking your head. Then gradually, over days and weeks, increase the amount of time you hold your head there.

This helped me greatly when it came to learning to swim. It meant that I could concentrate on learning the propulsion aspects of swimming instead of worrying about getting my head wet.

My friends couldn’t help me with my swimming all the time though, so I went as often as I could on my own to the local swimming pool. This is a big step for a non swimmer, especially in my case. I am self employed so I can often go to the pool during the day when most people are at work. This meant that often I was the only person there, with only a life guard as an audience. This made me a lot more self conscious than I would have been otherwise since I could barely move myself forward!

I had to teach myself the breast stroke from watching YouTube videos. Getting the coordination at first was quite hard, but I had to force myself to keep trying. I am still a poor swimmer, but the important thing is that I have water confidence, and that was mainly what I needed to start kayaking.

3 comments on “Kayaking for a non swimmer; Overcoming a fear of water

  1. Juan says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiene. As a non swimmer kayaker I also am much concerned (fear kicks in) when my head meets the water. Your article is full of helpful ideas to get over this and ultimately regain focus which in turns allows to progress with kayaking underwater or wimming skills.

  2. Leo says:

    Good article, same thing here, I can’t swim but I really want to try kayaking, I feel comfortable in the water if wearing a life vest but hopefully I’ll learn to swim at some point.

    1. Debbie says:

      I want to give kayaking a try but I have a fear of the water and never learned to swim. I am considering a pedal kayak as my first kayak. I am going to try some of things you did and see if it helps. Any suggestions on a life jacket.

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