You’ve heard the story again and again – “my boyfriend taught me how to kayak and he just flipped me over and told me to get out! I got stuck and just freaked out! I thought I’d never ever try kayaking again.”

Every one of us has some level of apprehension to the most basic skill in whitewater kayaking – the Wet Exit. As such, it is given relatively little attention. Most people in a beginner class would boot the whole Wet Exit thing if given the opportunity. It is, by its nature, an unpleasant experience for many.

The value of an easy introduction to whitewater extends beyond the obvious. New kayakers are the bread and butter of our industry. Without them we would fast stagnate as a recreational pastime. How many boats and how much equipment will a kayaker buy during his or her career? Surely there are numbers to be found, but simply put, the more people there are, safely and happily kayaking, the more our cool sport flourishes.

In an era of increasing expertise in playboating moves, advances in boat outfitting, etc., we mustn’t forget that beginner. Preserving their enthusiasm, addiction, and safety is critical to me as an instructor and instructor trainer. So let’s get back to basics, shall we?

How many brain stems among us relish the thought of being trapped in something, inverted, submerged, and robbed of air? Not a whole lot – try this method of Wet Exit training on all of your students – not just the fearful ones, and you’ll see a major difference in their awareness and recuperative powers after an accidental flip.

We call it Hand to Hand Downtime, and every single one of our students goes through it. The goal? They hang inverted, and relaxed, for 10-15 seconds, all the while holding the hands of their trusted instructor standing next to them.

In this tightly-controlled setting, your new kayaker can learn to manage that innate fear we all have. A step-by-step approach, rather than the convenient “OK – everybody flip” approach, builds confidence as fast as it reduces anxiety. And almost everyone has fun doing it.

A great benefit is that instructors now have felt, through their hands, the level of calm that each student has within them. As we all know, most people can learn to manage their innate fears, if trained by an empathetic instructor. We find that we can really tune in to the worries of each new student.

We provide noseclips, attached to every helmet, and strongly encourage everyone to wear them. Water entering inverted sinuses makes anyone hurry more. Put noseclips on, and the cool become cooler, and the panic-prone panic a lot less.

• Hold the hands of your student, explain that you’ll shake their hands or tickle their palms if you feel tension in their hands. A relaxed student is one that can comfortably absorb information.
• Explain that they will flip over, all the while holding hands with their instructor. When they are ready to come up, three even squeezes on the count of “one one thousand, two one thousand, etc.” will get them lifted upright after the third squeeze. The idea of three methodical squeezes starts them thinking sequentially, teaching themselves how to manage that innate fear inside of every brain. This way of thinking helps later during Eskimo Roll practice!
• Try to get them to the point of 12-15 seconds of downtime – triple the duration of a casual Wet Exit – again building confidence in their ability to calmly exit their boat after an accidental crash.
• After we establish a certain level of cool (evident because you are holding the hands of your student) move on to the Wet Exit itself, which is much easier for the student to perform correctly after the investment they made in their comfort underwater.

So give Hand to Hand Downtime a try. We’ve found that it takes a little more time, but that it virtually eliminates those moments when an accidental flip causes panic.