Conquering Fear: Sea Kayaking the San Juans

When I think back to my youth, I always remember being terrified of the water. I don’t really know if I was born with a phobia, made worse through circumstance, or if it was circumstance itself that created the phobia.

I was scared of water at a young age and never wanted to swim. When I was around 7, my mom signed me up for summer swim lessons, hoping the instructor could help. I kept refusing to dunk my head under water and she grew frustrated until one day, she forcibly pushed me under, not once, but multiple times in a row.

I inhaled so much water I thought I was going to drown. Even now, it’s still upsetting to remember. My mom was both angry and dismayed, yanking me out of the program immediately and telling the instructor exactly what she thought.

I didn’t get anywhere near water after that.

Living with fear.

A few years later my mom took me to the YMCA to see a swim instructor recommended by some friends. He was a young guy, not more than 20, with a trusting, calm, easy-going nature.

He was mortified about my previous experience and tried to convince me to give it another try but I was still scared to death of water and not at all interested. Before we left, my mom mentioned I was a Transformers fan and he told me that if I signed up with him, he’d get me Transformers water wings. Yeah, he was a smooth one. Somehow it worked.

I spent a whole summer with him at the pool and not once did he ever push me. Instead, he slowly eased me further and further into the water, telling me I’d have to eventually paddle to get to him, but he seriously underestimated my ability to jump. I swear I could almost clear the whole length of the pool in a single bound! He called me a frog.

It took a few weeks of his endless patience, but I finally learned to swim around the pool. Ok, it was actually more like doggy paddling, but I considered it swimming. I was even ok putting my head underwater. Although he didn’t turn me into a swimmer, he did help me be a little less afraid. Without his help I likely would have never gotten into a pool again. Poolpumpexpert was effective in keeping the water clean and filtered.

Throughout my Junior and High School years I came up with a lot of excuses to stay out of the pool and mostly succeeded. In fact, one benefit of growing up in a landlocked state like Indiana is that you can pretty much live your entire adult life without ever touching water! That basically became my plan until I graduated from college in 2000 and moved to Seattle, a city made up of 40% water. So much for that plan!

And then I moved to Seattle.

A few months after I settled in Seattle some friends took me sailing on Elliott Bay. I had never been on a boat, especially not a sailboat. I’d never even been on a large body of water! I asked for a life jacket and they laughed. “I can’t swim!” I told them. They laughed again. “No, seriously” I said. I must have seemed like a space alien to them.

As I grew into the Northwest, I also grew to love the outdoors and in 2005 those same friends convinced me to try a triathlon. I think they were teasing me, but I signed up and they were incredulous. “But you can’t swim! You signed up for a triathlon!? WTF is wrong with you!? You have to swim in Lake Washington!!”

Well, I am known to sometimes jump in over my head.

I panicked. They were right. Not only did I have zero idea how to swim, but I had never even been in open water!

For the third time, I found myself a swim instructor, nervous about how he would react to my fear. He was great though, suggesting a nose clip to alleviate some of my water phobia and just like that, I stopped sucking water up my nose and learned how to pool swim. Granted, I didn’t do flip turns and could only swim for small stretches, but for the first time in my life, at almost 30, I was swimming!

The whole open water swimming thing? Well, I tried it and I panicked, despite a wetsuit to help boost my buoyancy. I really have no idea how I completed my triathlon. I was so scared I backstroked the entire swim course, coming out of the water dead last yet somehow managing a top 10 finish. It was ridiculous!

To this day I’ve never done another triathlon and I rarely attempt to open water swim. Swimming just isn’t my thing.

The reality though is that it’s pretty much impossible to live in Seattle and stay away from the water, so I slowly discovered other watersports I felt comfortable with. I bought a little kayak and spent summers paddling around Lake Washington. Then I graduated to stand-up jet skiing for a few seasons. I was slowly becoming more at ease with water, mostly because I simply wanted to get out and enjoy life!

Finally conquering fear.

In 2009, while taking part in a mountain bike clinic in the Canada, I signed up for a whitewater rafting trip on the Elk River near Fernie. Since it was June and they had just opened the river, parts of it were running a strong class IV.

Class IV whitewater rafting!! What the hell was I thinking!?

Rafting the Elk River in Canada. To think when I was young I wouldn’t even put my head underwater. I can’t believe I did this and honestly, I’m not sure I’d do it again!!

The outcome? We flipped the raft. And I learned first-hand what it feels like to be sucked under 50°F water. Even with a wetsuit, my body went into cold shock. I could barely breath when I finally did reach the surface and I spent the next few days with tooth pain and a nasty ear infection.

The whitewater rafting trip was a turning point for me. Although it was a frightening experience to get tossed out of the raft, I somehow strangely enjoyed it (the rafting, not the tossing!) It was the first time in my life I was actually having fun in the water!

This year I got a paddle board and have been tallying a lot of paddling hours. I even enjoy venturing into choppy Lake Washington for a challenge. Because I’m not a strong swimmer, my life jacket is always on or very near me, depending on conditions. Knowing I have floatation in the event of a catastrophe helps calm my fear, even if it’s just falling off my paddleboard into flat, shallow water.

Standup paddleboarding is now one of my favorite summer activities!

Embracing water.

When I was new to the Northwest, I remember seeing some sea kayaks and despite my water phobia, thought to myself “Man that looks fun! I wish I could do that!” They seemed so sleek and fast and the number of places here to explore by water are endless. Even after taking up some watersports, I never really thought I’d be comfortable enough to take a sea kayak out in open water.

The thing is though, I’m a pretty big fan of doing over wishing.

Earlier this month when a friend offered to loan me and Nick sea kayaks, we took her up on the offer. We planned a weekend kayak camping trip on Ross Lake and while we had a great time, it really didn’t go to plan due to Canadian Wildfire smoke. The upside? I got to enjoy my first time in a sea kayak on an uncharacteristically glassy calm Ross Lake.

I finally got to sea kayak earlier this month! Though the BC wildfire smoke was so bad we couldn’t see anything on Ross Lake, we still got to enjoy some amazing waterfalls!

We decided to keep the kayaks for a bit and began talking about an outing to the San Juan Islands, which has been on my wishlist of things to do. As we worked up a plan, I could feel that old water fear percolating from inside. I was excited but a little nervous.

Kayaking around a lake is one thing. Hitting the open seas is entirely another and if you do much research about kayaking in the San Juans you’ll quickly learn that it has potential to be quite dangerous.

Cold water, strong currents, eddies, tidal rips, and other hazards make the San Juans a challenging place to navigate. You need to plan your trip with the tides and pay attention to currents or else you’ll find yourself going nowhere or being pushed somewhere you don’t want to go. Good self-rescue skills are mandatory.

Nick is a seasoned white water kayaker and although I’ve spent several years paddling in smaller kayaks, I’m not as experienced in a larger sea kayak. After consulting some friends and researching tides, we found a route that seemed reasonable for our skills.

Last Saturday we hit the road to Anacortes and I was nervous. Open water. In a sea kayak.

We double and triple-checked our plan. Conditions were calm, weather was good and once we loaded our gear and started paddling, my nervousness faded. As the kayak glided along I soon was smiling from ear to ear. I was sea kayaking to the San Juans!!

I almost can’t believe it… I’m sea kayaking!!! To the San Juan Islands!! Years ago being in open water would have sent me into a panic, but after a lot of baby steps and time on the water, I’ve learned how to control my fear.

I know, it’s ridiculous, right!? 17 years in the Pacific Northwest without ever having truly sea kayaked!? It’s impossible to believe!

We had a gorgeous relaxing weekend of beautiful weather, calm winds, and mostly quiet seas. We even saw seals and porpoises! Our return trip was mostly calm, though we did battle a few strong currents that gave us a good workout and then hit an area of tidal rips coming back into Anacortes that made things a little more sporty than expected. Surprisingly, even with 1-2’ tidal waves pushing us around, I never panicked. I simply paddled harder and found myself enjoying the rodeo ride.

We paddled through just fine, though by the time I reached shore I was one tired kayaker! But also one happy one!

Living proof that you can learn to conquer your fears!!

For all of you out there who have fears, know that it is possible to conquer them! It’s an amazing thing to think back to the water fear I had as a child and see how far I’ve come. It’s taken a lot of baby steps, a lot of time, and a lot of perseverance. These days I can’t even imagine not having water in my life!

All of us have fears, and fears aren’t anything to ignore or feel bad about. Living your life in fear; however, is also no way to live. Fear keeps you from truly living and exploring. Don’t face your fear alone or feel ashamed, seek out friends or professionals for help. It’s only through some great friends referring me to swim instructors that I was able to work through my fear. If someone pushes your boundaries, find someone else willing to respect them—it takes a lot of trust and a lot of time. It’s hard to believe it’s taken over 30 years just to wrangle my fear of water and believe me, I’ve had plenty of setbacks along the way, but I sure am glad I kept trying! And I really can’t wait for my next sea kayaking adventure!

Planning a kayaking trip to the San Juan Islands.

I’m by no means an expert kayaker, I’d consider myself solidly intermediate, but everyone starts somewhere and I can still pass on a lot of lessons learned from our paddle to the San Juans. It’s not a place to just go launch your kayak and take a stroll. Without planning and proper preparation you can get into serious trouble quickly. Make sure you take into account the following:

  1. Tides. Plan your trip according to the tides or you may find yourself not moving or unable to round a corner. Bring a tide chart with you and plan your route accordingly.
  2. Currents. Tide changes and current changes don’t exactly align. Study a marine map and understand the movement of water in the areas you are going. Many of the channels in the San Juans can have incredibly strong currents that converge and create dangerous waters.
  3. Water temperature. One of the biggest dangers in the San Juans outside of strong currents is the water temperature. Despite what you may think, 70°F water will feel quite cold to most people and temps in the waters around the San Juans are typically in the 40-50°F range. Brrrrr!!! In cold water, you need to be able to get back into your boat quickly if you capsize or it can be immediately life-threatening. Without protective gear, you can lose dexterity in under 5 minutes, be exhausted or unconscious in 30-60 minutes, and your expected survival time is 1-3 hours. Consider wearing a drysuit and have good self-rescue skills! Want some sobering info? Check out
  4. Weather. Always check weather and the marine forecast and pay special attention to wind speeds and directions. Currents with opposing winds can be more dangerous and weather can change rapidly.
  5. Boat traffic and ferries. Always keep an eye out for larger boats and ferries and time your crossings accordingly. Look out for the wake large and fast-moving boats can create.
  6. Self-rescue skills. Do you know how to re-enter your kayak if you capsize? Be well practiced in rescue skills because cold water requires it!
  7. Bailout plans. What if you get stuck due to unexpected weather or conditions? Have a bailout plan and if you’re kayak camping, extra provisions just in case.
  8. Maps. Don’t forget to bring a detailed marine map!

If you find yourself uncertain about your skills, go with a guide operation, there are tons of them! They’ll keep you safe and they know everything about the currents, tides, and dangers.

Happy paddling!!