Reflections From The Cockpit March 2009
"Uh Oh Moments" In Kayaking
As I wrote last month's "Skill of the Month" article for the USK web site I used the phrase "Uh Oh Moment". I was referring to that moment, that realization, when you know your brace will no longer support you. The concept of the "Uh Oh Moment" is not specifically for bracing or any other skill. I define an "Uh Oh Moment" as that exact moment of suprise when you know something bad is going to happen. Everyone has their own phrase for that moment. In my personal adventure experiences (not when teaching) I have often referred to it as an Oh #$%&! moment. Since I like to keep the USK web site rated "G" I will use "Uh Oh Moment" as the official designation.
How do we get to "Uh Oh Moments"? These moments can occur due to any of the following reasons: poor planning, ignorance, inexperience, unpredictability of nature, being unprepared, not thinking, stupidity, unawareness, miscalculation, poor judgment, etc. My list of reasons is only a partial list. Regardless of how one gets there, I have to say, "I love Uh Oh Moments", because they are learning moments and I love learning moments. I am not even suggesting I love the consequences of "Uh Oh Moments". Those who have read my previous reflections know I am a strong believer of people being responsible for their personal actions and accepting the consequences of those actions, whether the consequences are good or bad.
Rather than focus on the consequences, I want to examine that exact moment when your brain goes "Uh Oh", because you are now aware of the impending doom. Sometimes there is nothing else that can be done and the consequence will happen. However, there are many times that something can be done to deflect or change the consequence. My physical and psychological response to most of my "Uh Oh Moments" were the same. My heart rate was up, my senses we heightened, my adrenaline was just being released and my brain was working on all thrusters. If I didn't gasp, I did take in a deep breath and held it for a bit. I usually let it out once I made my instantaneous decision as what to do next. I freely admit that MY feeling of being alive is so intense at those moments where I know serious consequences are pending and I need to make a decision.
I want to make a fine distinction between calculated risk taking and "Uh OH Moments." If I plan to do something risky I also look at the anticipated consequences if my calculations are wrong. If one of those anticipated things does go wrong I already have a plan. I do NOT consider that an "Uh Oh Moment". Here is an example. When I was still competing in kayak surf competitions I had an exciting visit to a place called the "Room of Doom." It is one of the caves along the cliff at Steamer's Lane in Santa Cruz, California. The surf competitions are held there. The judges and spectators stand on the cliffs above and watch us ride the waves below the cliffs. When the tide is high, the waves on the inside break crash into the cliff face. Many paddlers have misjudged a wave and ended up being smashed against the cliffs. Some chosen few have also been carried into the "Room of Doom". It is not a place you want to visit because of the potential dangers. During one heat I was riding an outside wave that was heading for the cliffs. Instead of getting off of the wave, as most competitors do, I decided to hang on the wave longer than usual. I thought I would be able to get off of the wave before it broke. My decision was based upon my wave riding experience and the shape of the wave. I knew if I was wrong I would be going against the cliff or into the cave. It was a known possibility, not a surprise. As I tried to get off of the wave a reflecting wave from the cliff hit my wave and changed the wave face. This change was not expected, but it still left me with the same possibilities. If I don't get off of the wave I am heading for the cliffs. That moment when I knew I couldn't get off of the wave was NOT an "Uh Oh Moment". At the time I probably said $%&*, but the consequence was not a surprise. It was part of that calculated risk. What would have been an "Uh Oh Moment" would be if the cliff face suddenly collapsed and falling towards me. That would not have been a consideration in my risk assessment plan. If that cliff did come down I would have said, "Uh Oh what do I do now?" Then I would have to react.
For the curious ones here is what happened. For the non-curious, skip to the next paragraph. I side surfed the wave into the cave and the kayak abruptly stopped when it hit the back wall. I was wearing my brand new Gortex dry top and felt it rip along the barnacle covered wall when my elbow smashed into the wall. At the time I remember being very angry when I thought I tore my new dry top. I was pinned against the back wall for a few incoming waves. The kayak was actually wedged into the irregular rock face of the back of the cave. There was a lot of breath holding and self protective positions assumed as waves kept pounding me. My goal was to stay in my kayak as long as possible, because I believed paddling out of the cave would be better than a wet exit and swimming out. Plus, I didn't want to leave my boat in there (spoken like a true gear-hound). The clock was still running in the heat and I wanted to get out there and ride more waves. The tops finishers in this competition were going to be on the US Surf Kayak team for the World Championships in Scotland 1991. I finally turned my Dancer XT in the cave so I was pointing out. I timed my exit so I could ride the wave out after it slammed me and my kayak into the back wall again. I was able to make it out to finish the heat. When I was cleaning my gear in the parking lot my friend Steve asked as he looked at my kayak, "Where did those creases come from?" I didn't even realize it, but my plastic kayak folded behind the seat when it hit the wall when I first went into the cave. As for Scotland, it was a great trip, I won some medals and all of us on the team had a chance to chat with Prince Charles at and informal meeting between competition days.
One of my best "Uh Oh Moments" was before I got into kayaking. I would have been in 1978. I was playing in the surf off of the UC Santa Barbara campus. The head of the outdoor program, Bill, invited a few of us to the beach to play in the surf with the program canoes. My buddy Lee and I jumped in one of the canoes and proceeded to get pummeled in the surf. It was a great day. When it was time to leave we had to empty the water out of the canoes before we carried them up the beach. In my infinite wisdom of the time, I decided to get on the beach side of the canoe. The canoe was parallel to the oncoming wave, which was not even in my radar. I was so proud of the fact that I knew I could empty water from a canoe by just rolling the canoe and letting the water slip out. I was positioned about a third of the way along the length of this 16ft canoe. As the water was flowing out of the canoe I looked up and saw this whitewater wave quickly approaching me. I then looked at the open part of the canoe facing the incoming wave. I also realized I was in thigh deep water and my feet were securely planted in the sand under the water. Then it all came together when the wave was a couple of feet from the canoe. The "Uh Oh Moment" was, this wave is going to hit the canoe. I am behind the canoe and the force of the water hitting the canoe is going to smash the canoe into my firmly planted legs and break both of my legs. I actually envisioned both of my knees being forced backwards. This "Uh Oh Moment" was a result of not thinking and not keeping aware of my environment. Thankfully, I didn't freeze and I decided to drop the canoe and dive over the canoe toward the wave. As I did so, my body made it over the canoe, but the canoe did hit my shins as I dove over. Luckily I unplanted my feet from the bottom in time. I just ended up with bruises on my shin.
I am laughing as I write this, because I still see that light bulb going on when I realized I was in the wrong place. I also remember it as an incredible learning moment. I learned that jumping over an obstacle in the surf is an alternative. More importantly, I learned that one should not be on the downstream side of any moveable object, especially big ones that can crush you.
I think there is a lot to learn by reviewing "Uh Oh Moments" aside from knowing we are not alone in our pursuit of the Darwin Awards. I love to hear stories of others when their brain said, "Uh Oh." Therefore I have decided to start a page and section of the USK web site for "Uh Oh Moments", where I hope others will e-mail me at their own stories and collectively we may be able to learn from them. As I have quoted in the past, "Good judgment is learned from experience. Experience is gained from bad judgment." Please e-mail your own "Uh Oh Moments" to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This could be a fun, sharing and educational opportunity. See The "Uh Oh Moments" main page for more details and moments shared.
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