I was inspired by the story of a kayak friend of mine, he had been struggling with confidence and even though a capable boater, he was about to give it up, it just wasn’t fun anymore, the fear had become too uncomfortable.

I was guiding him for a few days on the Nile, he had done the easier rapids and had done well but did take one swim and it bothered him, he wasn’t trusting his roll and therefore being upside down was no fun.

We were heading down the Silverback section of the Nile were some of the bigger rapids were) for his first time and I could tell he was nervous. Half way down the first flat pool he was ready to pull out, I knew he really needed to do this. If he pulled out now his kayaking would be over. The consequences of giving in to the fear would have been far more unpleasant to face than anything down stream, and he knew it. It only took a few words to remind him of that, rationally he knew it, but fear was working on the unconscious level

I respect courage and there is no courage greater than when it is in the face of a full on irrational fear assault. It is easy for the 18 year old to huck his kayak of a 20m waterfall, if he had little fear to begin with.

The greater the fear the greater the courage needed to overcome it.

He went over in the first rapid and hit rock, I thought he would bail out, he didn’t. He made it through the next one upright and let out a rebel yell of delight.

He proceeded to take a swim in the next rapid. He got himself in his boat and kept going. In the last rapid he did several combat rolls and finally made it up.

He had battled and had won. It wasn’t pretty but he had survived. For some people this might have been enough. However he still didn’t know for sure that he could, if we had stopped there, doubt would have been able to remain and he knew it. So he came back in the afternoon and did it all again. This time he was more relaxed and paddled more to his capabilities and styled it.

I have seen few things make a person as happy as when they have fought their demons and beaten them, it is an inner satisfaction, that suddenly makes everything seem better and more hopeful. It leaves you feeling more powerful and makes the other challenges in your life seem possible.

It was inspirational, he had turned fear into courage, and potential defeat into victory. It all could have been so different if he had pulled out on that flat stretch.

In my lifestyle I have had to deal with fear often, my own and other’s.
Here are some of my thoughts on the demon.

Fear has many forms, and some of them very healthy, with a life preservation function. There is however a few forms that are nothing but bad news and none more so than irrational fear.

Overcoming irrational fear is not an easy path but as the Buddhist say, it’s only when you realize that life is hard that life becomes easy.

Sport psychology has infiltrated everyday culture and we have all heard the world’s top athletes and coaches say it time and again. “Winning is a habit.” And so is giving up, and so is giving into your fear. Every time your irrational fear gets the better of you, you become weaker, with every victory you have over your fear, you become stronger.

Fear will stop you from becoming all you can be, whether its fear of failure of fear of the unknown, fear will ruin your life if you let it, it can be debilitating and without you knowing it, it will spread into other areas of your life, polluting your dreams and hopes.

It’s a battle that you will never win completely, irrational fear will keep popping its ugly head up but if you constantly keep knocking it down it will never grow strong enough to threaten you, you will end up fighting the battles in your conscious mind on the plains of actual risk where they should be fought, not in the shadows of your unconscious were irrational fear rules. Fear is not fought once and beaten it is fought everyday and weakened.

Fear should be looked at as your tennis partner, you will play your weekly games, some you will win, some you will loose. You will know it by its real name and will see it for what it really is. Good and bad. Nothing but an instinctual, mental reaction to a situation.

Realizing that fear is by it self just an emotion and nothing more is hardly groundbreaking news, the real question is how does one start winning this fight that is essential you fighting yourself.

There is no quick fix. But as I will explain below it is precisely because it is hard that it is so rewarding.

Irrational fear disguises itself so that you will not recognize it. It’s favorite disguise is that of a warning system, it makes you think that it is acting in your own best interest. It knows that your safety warning is a system that you will not easily override.

How do you distinguish between irrational and rational fear? Here are a few of my own give always. You might have your own disguises for irrational fear.

Irrational fear
1. The aversion is immediate and does not want any discussion. If it is rational it will not mind being examined.
2. An emotional reaction occurs that is out of proportion to the situation or actual danger.
3. The best excuse you can come up with is. “I just don’t want to”

Desensitization is one theory for over coming your fears, simply put, it is loosing your fear by slowly over a period of time being in contact with the object or activity and so slowly realizing that it is actually not so bad.

By ingesting small amounts at a time your system gradually becomes accustomed to it. Nothing new here, but lets look at the underlying mechanism in this theory.

I believe it is that it is not fear you get used to but the fight. Fear will always be uncomfortable but the more you fight it the better fighter you become and the bigger fights you can take on.

You start to realize that the feeling cannot kill you, cannot hurt you and is in fact nothing but your imagination. You can beat it. It is just a psychological construct that your own mind has made up.

What I propose is to be just a little scared everyday, of something. Identify some irrational fears in your life and start to terrorize yourself about them. You will become stronger and happier for it.

The complete conquering of fear might not be everyone’s life goal, but we can all profit from not being slaves to our unconscious fears. There can be many battle grounds but what better place to start fighting the demon than in your kayaking?

Kayak is one of the great head games, when things go wrong you have to deal with oxygen starvation, the brain’s most precious resource, and boy, the brain gets worried when it’s not getting it. And it will let you know about it through the panic response.

Fear leads to panic, and panic and kayaking don’t mix. When boating at the edge of your ability, you will be scared, no way around that, it’s the way it should be. The trick is to keep that fear from becoming panic. And to be able to control fear you have to practice being scared.

The biggest mistake beginners and intermediates make is to try and avoid going upside down. Most people hate the feeling, of course you do, you can’t breathe, your are upside down, trap and underwater. But it is irrational fear, the roll is not a magic trick, it’s a simple procedure that will work, if done calmly and correctly.

Even the best kayakers go upside down, there is no avoiding it, so if you are scared of being upside down, don’t try to stay upright, try to stay upside down as much as possible. In a very short time you will enjoy your kayaking more.

If you are uncomfortable under water, then spend more time underwater, see how long you can hold out before rolling up and try to extend this period. The alarm bell starts to go off as soon as you go over in the early stages of kayaking, then after a bit of practice and a couple of hundred rolls to show the brain that there is hope it will give you more and more time before it demands to breath.

Training to be upside down will also force you to practice your roll. The more confidence you have in your roll the more time you can spend upside down.

Find a feature that isn’t lethal but that scares you a little and paddle into it on purpose. Have your safety setup and just go in there and try to relax. Take the beat down, or the swim and you will see that it isn’t so bad, walk upstream and do it again, and again until you are comfortable

The first few weeks will be hard but result will come amazingly quickly.

Remember that its not supposed to be easy, other wise the rewards would not be so great.

On this journey you will feel like quitting, its par for the course but if you persevere, you will come out stronger, able to enjoy more, do more and to fear-less.

Story dedicated to Becky Lar the bravest kayaker I know.


Words by: Hendri Coetzee.




Thank you very much Hendri for this thought provoking article. I’m sure it will be enjoyed by all that read it. For those that don’t know Fluid Kayaks paddler Hendri Coetzee, (click HERE) he is one hell of a paddler who led the first ever source to sea expedition of the Nile River in 2004. His other feats of big water boating include paddling the Karuma bridge to Murchison Falls an impressive four times, once on his own. This 80km section on the White Nile has only been run successfully five times and boasts the highest concentration of hippos on earth. When not running crazy big water Hendri spends much of his time in Norway, paddling the steeps. I’m sure he knows the true meaning of fear… - Adrian.