Fears and Worries, How We Learn, Sharing Our Stories

Laurie’s epic journey to conquer her fear of the water

I don’t know why I’m terrified of water.

It’s not as though I have memories of any tragic or traumatic moment in my life, such as I’ve heard others tell when detailing their fear of the deep.

In fact, I remember a few family outings as a child to Terracina or Sabaudia or even San Felice (Italy) – beautiful warm water – like soup actually – and beaches that stretched for miles on the Mediterranean side of Italy (just south of Rome, where I come from) that were filled with laughter and a lot of splashing.

Of course great food was always a requirement for these outings, making us totally stuffed and horribly heavy as we waddled back into the soup after lunch.

I remember the beaches seemed very long and wide, a bit of a walk to arrive at the shoreline, and the sandbars seemed to go out for miles before the deep water.

My father swam well and enjoyed swimming – so why was I so frightened?

Well, let’s do what all analysts do

…let’s break it down into small sections.

Dad swam, Mom did not, my sister didn’t when small and only does so on occasion as an adult, my brother…not sure actually. I don’t swim and my son is now terrified of water and doesn’t swim (not proud of this legacy).

A friend once commented that Romans bathe, they don’t swim.

The fact that it takes a long time in order to get to deep water on the Med side of the ‘peninsula’, means that most people frolic in the surf near to shore and just sort of get wet enough for a lovely tanning session (I know – NOT politically correct these days – but if you’ve been to the region, if you are now sitting on that beautiful shore or planning on being there, you have to admit that Italians are like beached smoked fish on the particular beaches I’ve mentioned.)

But I’m still not convinced that genealogy or geography has anything to do with this unexplainable fear of the deep blue sea.

When living in Toronto with my family, any lake that we visited was deep, dark and filled with weeds that made it difficult to see anything, let alone the bottom.

That particular environment wasn’t welcoming, but still I don’t think this is enough to instill the kind of fear of the water that lies deep within me.

Let me explain.

I’ve been taking lessons for years.

I was always in a school that had a pool and throughout high school, swimming or some type of aquatic activity was a requirement for gym.

So why was every single person who took lessons able to get over their fear and learn to swim, except me? I’ve been asking this question for years.

I was on the varsity diving team for goodness sakes!

I swear. An explanation is in order:

I was in gymnastics for a very long time, and could tumble like the lightest weed in an arid desert.

On the diving team, I could get up to the tallest tower (no fear of heights), and perform the most amazing and fun tumbles (no fear of broken bones).

When I would enter the water…..wait for it….my coach would extend the ‘hook’ over the side of the pool so I could grapple onto it to lift myself out of the pool – like a flailing smoked fish! Needless to say, no perfect scores.

OK, so let’s break it down a little more.

Mom was scared of the water.

She would warn:

“Don’t go out in the water after you’ve eaten or you’ll drown”

or, “Don’t go out past the surf or you’ll get towed under”

or “Don’t go out too far because I can’t save you”.

Well ok – I might be getting somewhere now….but still not enough to cause this insane fear (I think).

Let’s look at my own personality.

I’m a control freak. Triple A is too low a category for me.

I have to know everything about everything I’m doing at all times as well as control it ALL and be the BEST ever at everything. And when I’m in the water, no way can I let go and just relax enough to let the buoyancy of the water help me along. NO WAY.

I took more swimming lessons than you care to know about or that I can even recall.

Here are some facts that I have learned about swimming over the years of endless lessons:

These are facts I’ve experienced and don’t enjoy and yet, apparently, many others have overcome. Why not me?

In fact, I actually took up sailing to get over this damnable fear

That’s right. I figure if you have to get over something it’s best to do it head on. So in 2004 I embarked on what I now term my “IN THE EYE OF THE STORM” period of my life.

It was quite figurative actually as I was also going through a horrible divorce and storms were brewing everywhere.

I paid my ‘lots of thousands of dollars’, took the Colgate Offshore Sailing School courses – this one was held in the BVI’s, (both beginner and intermediate courses – because why go at all if you can’t do it all at once?) (Did I mention I was > Triple A?), and lo and behold I was down in the playground of the sailing world and learning to conquer my fear of the big bad blue.

As luck would have it (I’m not that lucky) there was a horrible northerly that came down and for the first time in years, temps dropped to less than 60°F and the winds and seas were well over 20 knots – swear to ‘whatever you believe in’.

I was petrified.

I remember studying like a fiend to pass the course – did I mention I was >Triple A? I had to get A’s (which I did) but when it came to getting on the boat I did so only through sheer force of will, and I immediately:

  1. Came down with bronchitis
  2. Lost my voice
  3. Got my period (which I had scheduled to NOT start during this timeframe)

I have to admit, though, that even with the rough weather and complete terror I felt when the boat heeled slightly, the Colgate School of Sailing (BVI location) was an amazing learning center.

The instructors and fellow students were wonderful.

The instructors were kind, with excellent credentials and, in fact, the instructor I had for the intermediate leg of the instruction was Mr. Julian Putley, solo world circumnavigator, writer, humorist and instructor extraordinaire, who was coincidentally the man that commissioned the design of a particular center cockpit cutter by Dudley Dix, that my husband and I eventually deemed the only boat worthy of our custom aluminum dream boat project.

So, here I am, in the playland of the ubersailing world and I’m sick as a dog, scared to death, dealing with my period and NOT enjoying this at all.

However, there was a moment when things did change.

We sailed to Anegada Island (BVI’s)…  and it was stunning and beautiful and the weather calmed down and the sun was brilliant. The air became warm and the water sparkled like jewels and …ok, so you get the picture.

The sailing started to feel amazing I became hooked… it didn’t hurt that we had a wonderful beach party that night filled with wine and champagne, making the life experience all the richer.

I passed both the beginner and intermediate levels.

When I returned to Canada, I was able to finally get my divorce ($90K for lawyers: he got the house, the cottage, the cars and the money – I got my life back and, looking back, would have paid a hell of a lot more if I had to…but that’s another story completely).

The storm abated, I moved to Vancouver and decided to take my advanced levels.

Of course, the CYA doesn’t play nice with the US Sailing Association, so they didn’t recognize my credentials from the earlier courses I took. So I challenged the exams and took both the beginner and intermediate CYA and passed.

Now I was ready to take the advanced levels – off to Coopers Sailing School on Granville Island I did go, and signed up for the advanced/offshore certification course.

Another salty dog entered my life by the name of Jim Lavers. What a great instructor and a very, very, very patient man. I was the only woman on the boat, with 4 men taking the course. I was not expected, and dare I say, not really wanted.

I “hot bunked” (Now I know what this means) with the captain (of course!) and off I went circumnavigating Vancouver Island.

Please remember, I’m still afraid of water, but what I was learning by doing all of this is that I can CONTROL my fear if needed.

Yes, control is a big thing for me, so if I can learn enough about sailing and how water can be viewed as a positive element of the sport, then I can control how I deal with water as a manageable quantity rather than the behemoth-deep, unexplainable, unmanageable, unfriendly, uninviting, mass of wetness (cold, dark and clammy!) that terrorized me.

Guess what? I circumnavigated Vancouver Island!

We had some hairy times, and some wonderful days; saw amazing coastline and sea life. But for me, it was the people along my journey that became the winning prize at the end of the adventure. I sat my exams at UBCO as I could not muster the strength or courage to sit them during the trip. Did I mention I’m Triple A? Of course, another A.

Now that I’ve become enamored of sailing and the wonders it can bring to one’s life, and have a beautiful boat to live on (yes ON THE WATER, at Spruce Harbour Marina in one of the most beautiful cities in the world – Vancouver), I absolutely have to get on with overcoming my inability to stay submersed in the water for any length of time.

It’s also a matter of safety. I should absolutely be able to at least swim to get into a life raft if ever our boat starts sinking – which I think about a lot!

I’d also like to show my son that his mother overcame her insane fear, and provide (maybe) an example that no matter how old one is, if a person desires something badly enough, they can get it.

I truly want to be able to swim and get over my fear of being in water.

My husband – a wonderful and supportive man who understands my need to overcome the problem – started investigating swimming lessons given by instructors who devote their time to persons who are truly afraid of water, and not just new to the sport.

In other words, a real shift in thought on how to approach a person’s fear and to help them along in their swimming goals, rather than the old fashioned method of teaching through drilling the student with pure rote skills and insanely practicing those skills- that never can be acquired successfully because the student is not responding to that style of instruction because they can’t get into the water and stay there and be comfortable in it.

My husband was able to find a gem of an instructor called Peter.

He himself did not learn to swim until adulthood and still hates water up his nose. However, when he goes into the water, it’s a joy to behold the way he moves with it. He’s incredible to watch – such beauty in motion and such delicate and relaxed movements. He makes it look so graceful and effortless….don’t you hate people like that?!

The first thing that Peter managed to teach me was to find what he called my ‘safe position’.

He asked if I could swim at all. I told him the extent of my skills.

  1. I’m able to float on my back,
  2. I’m able to do a dead man’s float (hopefully this will never happen for real)
  3. I’m able to do a sort of crude back stroke

He was impressed. He said, and I quote, “I thought you said you couldn’t swim?

Ok – so now I’m thinking he’s not that great an instructor and this is another lesson in futility and more money down the drain. However, he went on to prove to me that if I could float on my back, then I could use that particular skill as the position to go to when I needed to feel ‘safe’.

If I was able to get to the back float position in a somewhat relaxed state, then my body could use this position as the place to return to when other moments or positions became too frightening or overwhelming for me. It’s kind of funny to learn that after all these years my skill in the water was “laying on my back”!

However, that simple truth must have held some type of honest relief for me, because now when I become overwhelmed in the water, (you know the feeling….panic, then loss of breath, then more panic, then gasping for air, then sheer terror, then spluttering, then coughing) I immediately turn onto my back …NOT gracefully like Super Instructor Peter…but in my own flustered way.

And voilá, I am safe.

The point? I am able to stay in the water now. What a brilliant idea he had and so dead simple.

One could argue that our species is not meant to swim.

And in fact, I can attest to this statement.

Swimming is totally counter intuitive and in my case, not at all graceful.

Swimming requires that we keep our head in the water and then turn it sideways until our nose surfaces above the water (not a natural motion) in order to breathe. Think about that for half a second.

Whales breathe out through their nose, WHICH IS ON TOP OF THEIR HEADS, and have a device built into their bodies (genetics is a wonderful thing) that can clamp their noses shut so that water doesn’t go up it.

Same for porpoises. Hence they swim well and can stay in the water forever.

Last I looked, I’m neither a whale nor a porpoise.

I don’t know what happened

However, on Sunday, January 31, 2010, I went into the pool at the YWCA in downtown Vancouver, as ordered by the doctor, for thrice weekly physio exercises to help heal from an accident sustained in 2009. I don’t know what happened.

I don’t know if  it was because I was so tired from the earlier exercises and therefore didn’t care so much, I don’t know if I just stopped thinking for a moment or if it was just the time for it to happen, but … I put some swim fins on, got into the pool and SWAM TO THE DEEP END AND BACK.

Apparently, the grin on my face was so big that people wondered what was up, and starting asking me about it.

So I told them. “This is the first time in my life that I swam into the deep end on my own.

So now I will continue down this path and keep working on my skills.

Knowing me, I will take the hardest route. Knowing me, it will not come easy. Knowing me, I will have setbacks before another milestone is reached. Knowing me, I won’t give up until I accomplish my goal.

So what should I say to anyone that has true fear of deep dark blue water?
  1. It’s valid
  2. You can overcome it
  3. You are not a whale nor a porpoise and therefore must understand that this is counterintuitive
  4. Find classes (private or otherwise) with instructors who teach about overcoming the fear of water
  5. Keep trying
  6. Keep trying
  7. Don’t give up
  8. Be bloody minded
  9. Stop listening to people that say, “What? It’s easy. Why can’t you swim?”
  10. Have a great sense of humour….I do. You should see me in the water! It’s a riot.

I’m going for a glass of wine tonight, but tomorrow, its swimming lesson time again. Only this time, I know I will live through it and I won’t be as frightened as usual. I might not look great doing it, but I feel incredible knowing how much I have overcome.

And maybe that’s the best lesson of all.

Laurie M. Clark, Tadpole
Vancouver, BC, Canada

About Laurie Clark

Laurie and her husband Ian, live aboard NAMO for the most part in Vancouver at Spruce Harbour Marina in the fabulous South False Creek area, but also enjoy spending time with their great kids in their home in Kelowna, in the Okanagan Valley.

Laurie Clark is a respected banking and investment sector specialist. She is the owner and founder of GITTI Inc. (www.gitti.ca) a Corporate Development Strategies firm.

She and her husband, Ian, along with all their children spend their time sailing in their beautiful custom offshore cutter around the beautiful and scenic Vancouver and Gulf Islands whenever they can.

Laurie’s goal this year is to finish the year by swimming one lap around NAMO. The family’s goal is to leave the West one day soon for adventures unknown across the many and great seas.

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What have you learned lately? Let us know. Email kathy@forcruisers.com or leave a comment below.

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4 comments to Laurie’s epic journey to conquer her fear of the water

  • Lisa Chambers

    Wow, I didn’t know that about you Laurie! I am so impressed and amazed at your strength and courage and determination to go deeper and get past that feer. Truly an inspiration to so many.
    Bless your heart for sharing your story with all of us women out there. :o)
    It’s nice to know my neighbor more. I feel blessed.
    Thank you Laurie.

  • Andrée Ouellet

    Hi Laurie,

    I never realized you were such a good story teller. I’m afraid of water too and I know the feeling.

    Au plaisir!

  • Hi Laurie…Looks great…You never told me you were scared??
    Will run into you on the water I’m sure.
    I will be off the west coast for much of the summer.
    ‘Alls well on board’…..Jim

  • Laurie you are an inspiration. Its a great story and I loved the advice of finding your “safe position”. I believe you will make that goal of one lap around Namo and I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.
    You go girl!

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