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Albany Surf Club Paddle Challenge : Be Fearless

It's been a while since I have felt the urge to write about one of movement adventures, and the event in Albany last weekend packed a serious punch for my personal growth. Please indulge me whilst I unpack it, to sift out the lessons, to dissect the key takeaways, to determine the areas for improvement. Writing always brings me clarity.

The kayak race is approx a 13 km course from Albany Harbour to Middleton Beach, via a shipwreck. Looking at the course a few days before the weekend, the wind seemed ideal. The direction lined up with the first 4 km to make for a direct line to the shipwreck, "downwind" which equates to faster, "funner" paddling. The idea is that you sprint to a wave ( also known as a run), get on it, ride it and then sprint to the next run. Linking the run/ waves requires skills I am yet to really grasp. The experts make it look effortless. The course then required a left hand turn around the Shipwreck, a 2 km "side wind, side wave" slog, before turning into the channel, with less wind and reasonably flat water paddling towards Middleton beach to finish.

Seemed straight forward enough ? What could go wrong ?

I was prepared to be cold, to be rained on in the Albany squalls, and to encounter some low grade waves. I was excited pre- race as it was a chance to kayak in a new territory, to see new sights, to catch up with friends, to see how my energy held up, etc I was aware that I had zero care factor about results leading into this race. Which was interesting in itself. I was simply showing up for the experience and the adventure, which felt GREAT to not be attached to any outcome. There was such a freedom in that, and I was curious as to the shift within myself and where it had come from ? As always with curious internal exploration, there are often no answers, no responses.

The Wind direction shifted before the race, so that rather than it being a pure downwind start, it was a crosswind over my right shoulder. I mentally registered the wind direction shift, but I didn't really think through what that meant for the course. I set off in the mass start line up, in the usual chaos and turmoil of water and boats, happy to hang back and let it play out. My plan was to simply follow the pack, trusting they were locals and knew the course. Good in theory.

So we all set off, great wind behind us, great runs to find. I had fitted a new rudder the night before ( less weed prone) which proved to behave differently on the waves. This took some figuring out in the first few kms and was holding most of my attention. A few people fell in around me and offering help along the way was hard because of the wind and them even hearing the offer to help. I trusted there was plenty of safety crew on the water to help with remounts and kept chasing those runs. It's hard to describe the FOCUS that goes into linking runs. I seem to lose all ability to notice anything else around me, apart from the wave directions blending at different angles, and trying to fathom where to go. So it was no surprise when I sighted the ship wreck all of a sudden, way off to my right hand side. Which was a problem, as it was meant to be on my left !

Many others in front of me had erroneously judged the wind direction also, and I had followed them like a lamb. By the time they realised their error, they would have had to do a near 140 degree turn back into the wind to move around to the correct side of the shipwreck. Most of them decided it was too hard, it didn't really matter, it was too late to correct, and they simply altered their course, shaving off several km's and much time to enter the channel and complete the race. No judgement on this, as everyone is at different levels of ease and competency on the water and this may have been the safest, smartest option for them.

Given that I noticed what was happening and still had time to avert, I paddled at a hard 90 degree, side wind to the correct side of the wreck. Side waves and Side wind when kayaking is worse than upwind. The side stability in the boat is less than the front stability, so it was a challenge to say the least and I was counting down the meter's to get around that wreck. First mission completed and now I knew I had more pain ahead with the 2 km slog again, sideways to the channel.

This section held so many lessons for me. At one point, I actually thought I was going nowhere ? The waves were at me from the left, they were bigger because the water was shallower, and they were slowly pushing me towards the coast. I realised I had to point the boat higher up into the waves and wind to avoid the coast, which increased the wind resistance. The combination of wind and waves was strong and I really thought I was like a rat on a treadmill, paddling hard and going nowhere. There was a very interesting conversation going on in my head. " What happens if I am actually going backwards ?" " What do I do then ? " I knew there were rescue boats on the water, so worst case scenario would have been to paddle towards the coast and park myself in shallow water and wait for help. My energy felt good, so instead I kept going and found my body discovering new techniques.

I learned to anticipate the waves and lean into them and away from them appropriately to keep upright. I learned to paddle one sided, over and over to keep the boat pointing in the upwind direction. I learned to lean on the paddle with my body weight to try and generate more catch.

I realised in the midst of it that there was no fear. Intense Concentration - YES, but fear ? None.

A year ago, a course like this would have terrified me. I would have opted for the safe channel, knowing my skill level was simply not up to the challenge. However in this 2km section I found so much to love, and eventually had the biggest smile on my face as I realised I was here, I was doing it, I wasn't scared, and I was LOVING the mental and physical challenge. I was going to make it to the more protected channel rain, hail or shine, and I did.

To feel the boat start to move without resistance is a sensation of joy. Every stroke makes the boat move forward, a feeling not to be de-valued after 30 mins of the opposite. I settled into a half decent paddle stroke again, trying to remember all the technique requirements ; leg drive, high arms, look up, sit tall, etc. Steadily I made my way towards the finish and became competitive towards the end as there were two ladies in front of me whom I fancied the idea of over taking. Hilariously, they simply motored even further away, and I laughed. Thankfully they were ahead because the finish line I had in mind, turned out to be the finish line for the surf boats, and I was grateful they led me to the correct finish line. Possibly a minor detail I should have been more aware of pre-race. It's always good to know where the finish line is !

As I reflected on this race I could not help but consider the parallels with life in general. The first part feels like a downwind sprint, early 20's, and 30's is fast paced and the direction is fairly straight forward. Finish high school, go to university, get a career, get a job, get married, have kids. Somewhere into your 40's you possibly realise you are WAY off course. There is an inner awareness that perhaps you were mean't to be on the right side of the ship wreck, not the left. There is that moment where you must decide, to choose a safe, easier course towards shore, or to head upwind and slog into uncertainty, purely relying on your sense of intuition that rounding on the right side of the shipwreck is "correct" for you. So you decide to get yourself back on track, only to discover that it is HARD, the hardest path ever. There are moments when you regret your decision. To play safe, to seek security, seems like it would have been a way smarter option. It feels lonely at times, because most have opted for the safer, secure path.

And then, in the midst of the slog, you have that moment where you realise that despite "how hard it is " it is shaping new skills within you, you are becoming resilient, you are becoming the person you were hoping to become. You are also becoming FEARLESS because you are backing yourself, your journey, your choices. The skills you have been honing in all of the "shit times" are now "fruiting" and life is becoming the FUN, CRAZY, EXHILARATING ride you were hoping for. Even better, you look up and realise those around you are like you. They have made tough, courageous choices to also become their authentic selves, so you can laugh your way to the finish line together, in harmony. Wherever that finish line maybe ? Often it isn't where you think it is.

The deeper reflection was the dance between LOVE and FEAR.

I now consider them two ends of the same stick.

When we are in FEAR we cannot be LOVING.

When we transcend FEAR ( in my case with paddling, through practice, repetition, and constantly placing myself in races and experiences that have frightened me) we find LOVE.

To sit in that boat, in that WILD Wind, rain, and wave action and realise I was LOVING the experience was a milestone in my life. I had a rare opportunity to embody FEARLESSNESS, which I realised feels the same as LOVE.

What a lesson ? When I least expected it ? That, my friends, in the JOY of movement challenges. You really get to know parts of yourself, that do not surface in everyday life.

Pre- race Pic - Clearly I did not know what I was about to encounter - I was looking way too happy.

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