Rob Coffey, paddler, psychotherapist, and author of the recently published article In the Eye of the Storm, sits down with French extreme kayaker Nouria Newman to discuss his article, the risks and rewards of paddling, and trends in the sport.
Newman: In the introduction to your article, you mentioned that you had been trying to write this piece for nearly two years. What inspired you to finally put pen to paper?
Coffey: I wasn't ready to say what I wanted to say [until now]. I found it very difficult to be that open about things that were very personal to me. Also the timing just felt right. There have been a lot of tragedies recently…
Is it fair to say that while death is unfortunately an inherent part of extreme sports, there are always lessons to be learned from loss?
Yes. Death can be the greatest, and most painful, teacher. In Tibetan Buddhism they talk about samsara and escaping suffering through non-attachment. Easier said than done!
Everyone deals with loss differently, but one cannot move forward if it goes unaddressed. From your own experiences with losing friends on the river and your training as a psychotherapist, is there anything you would recommend for someone to do to help deal with the tragic loss of a friend or loved one?
Talk about what happened, spend time in nature, share the pain you are going through and allow the grieving process to happen. That means allowing yourself to feel 'negative' emotions without trying to suppress them (especially with alcohol).
If you are dealing with deep trauma, it can be stuck in the physical body as the 'frozen present': unprocessed emotions that are locked away in your body. Psychotherapy, bodywork, yoga and other methods are all useful but the most powerful techniques allow for catharsis to happen, a physical energetic release of emotional pain. Most kayakers have a strong connection with nature so Indigenous shamanic healing techniques may call to some people. Sweat lodges, vision quests or in particular plant medicine ceremonies are very powerful. Just be prepared to come out a different person than you went in.
You made an interesting point regarding the evolution sport. Paddlers are pushing the boundaries by going more and more extreme. Do you think this shift has had any impact on the way paddlers assess risk and consequence?
I don't know as I am not kayaking anywhere near that level these days. From what I've seen on social media, in places there seems to be a careless attitude towards life, a macho perception towards risk taking and a glorification of risk-taking above all else.
The truth is the elite kayakers I knew who had longevity were all calculated risk takers, with no time for carelessness or bravado. That said, my great friend Dave Carroll used to have a saying: "To be old and wise, you first have to have been young and stupid." There is an element of truth in this. There is no substitute for making your own mistakes.
Do you think that more experienced kayakers have a responsibility to the paddling community at large when it comes to sharing their experiences or being good role models?
It's hard to say. Personally I am no longer really part of the kayak scene so that gave me the freedom to say things that I would have not been able to say ten years ago.
My intention was not to criticise any particular individuals–more to ask what I feel to be important questions. I don't claim to have all the answers but I do feel the wider kayaking community needs to address some of these issues, and at least start the conversation around around some difficult questions.
I shared my personal experiences and perspectives. From the messages of support I got it seemed to resonate with very many people around the world. Of course my story is personal to me, and won't resonate with everyone, and that's ok. I tried at least to be as honest as I could be.
As for role models, there are so many inspirational people in the kayaking community. I would like to hear the perspectives of people like Scott Lindgren, Tyler Bradt, Mariann Saether, Rush Sturges and Ben Stookesberry who have been taking calculated risks at an elite level for a very long time. They and others like them have have much wisdom and insight to share.
Should the more experienced in the community call out reckless or self-destructive behavior? I don't know. The surfing community for example has its own way of containing reckless behavior. Try paddling out at Pipeline or Teahupoo without the necessary skills and see what happens. But one of the things I always loved about the kayaking community is its openness and acceptance, which I much prefer over the surfing scene. It’s a thin line between intervening in reckless behavior and allowing people the freedom to make their own mistakes.
Today, it seems like many paddlers learn to respect the river the hard way through close calls, scary experiences, and sometimes even when losing friends. If you are teaching a group of kids to kayak, how do you go about teaching them to stay humble and respect the river?
I try to teach them to beware of ego-based decision making. When I first started teaching kayaking, it was all about striving for my students to be the best kayakers they could be. Now I don't care how good they are, it’s more about being able to have a fun day on the river and to grow as people. I'm more interested in a person's character than in their skill level. When you think about it, it’s a little absurd to place such value on a person's willingness to take risks.
You said you had made some bad decisions when you were younger. Do you know why and do you have any advice for you (and not so young) paddlers to avoid making those same mistakes?
Well the reasons were complex. [Looking back at] my early 20s, it’s clear to me that I had a lot of unprocessed emotional issues from which I found solice from on the river. The river was my therapy in those years you could say.
Most of my decision making came from a good place: a love for the river, a desire to challenge myself and an adventurous free spirited nature.
There were times though, especially when my identity and self worth became tied up in being a kayaker, that my decision making became unhealthy. When I made decisions from an ego-based place, trying to prove myself, or being competitive with others, or because I wanted the photo, that’s when things went wrong.
So my advice to younger paddlers is always check your motivations for doing something. Are you really doing it for yourself or are you doing it for how other people see you, to prove yourself in the eyes of others? For reputation? Be wary of ego-based decision making.
And in ten years time nobody will really care how good a kayaker you were, or what drops you have run. You will be remembered by the quality of your relationships with other people.
In your article, you mentioned that you've had your fair share of bad experiences and losses on the river. How has this affected you personally and your approach to paddling?
From a philosophical perspective these losses have helped me understand much more the cyclical nature of life. Everything in nature turns in cycles, not in a linear way. Everything had a summer and a winter, yin and yang, light and dark. What goes up must come down. By this I mean that peak life experiences will be followed by a trough. This is an irrefutable law of nature. I have learned to see even the most challenging experiences as every bit as valuable as the peak experiences. It was all part of the journey. (Joseph Campbell's writing on the hero’s journey is an excellent representation of this for anyone interested in delving deeper.)
I'm reminded of Alan Watts telling of the parable of the Chinese farmer: "The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it's really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune. Or you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune."
From a paddling perspective these days I just love to be out in nature with friends or on my own. I no longer care what people think or have anything to prove. I often just go out into nature and listen. The river is a most powerful teacher, the sea too.
With so much information now available because of the internet and social media, it feels like there have been more accidents on the river in recent years than in the past. Do you agree?
I don't know the statistics. There was a spate of fatalities around 1998 too before people stopped creeking in playboats. But yes it does seem like there are more fatalities and near misses than ever before.
Do you think point-of-view cameras and social media have a direct relationship to risk-taking behaviors?
Yes, I do. I think POV cameras and social media incentivizes young men (and it is mostly young men I'm talking about, women seem to make better decisions although this is not always the case) to take risks that they may not otherwise taken have due to the opportunity to be the hero, and to have this heroism projected all over social media.
Also people on social media see exceptionally talented athletes with many years of experience and dedicated training like Aniol Serrasolses, Benny Marr or yourself, Nouria, doing incredible things in a kayak, and think they can do the same things, when clearly they don't have the skill level, ability or experience to do so.
This is not meant as a criticism of any individuals more just an assessment of what I see as someone removed from the kayak scene but with a fair understanding of the psychology involved.
Do you think that there is more ego involved in the kayaking world today compared to 10-15 years ago? (Teenagers, peer approval, affirmation of manhood, status, recognition, ego, etc.)
No. Human nature hasn't changed in the past decade. But social media has definitely had a major impact and one we are only now coming to terms with. Sometimes it seems a more competitive element has crept in. Young guys will always be competitive with each other but social media takes this to new levels. There is a level of one-upmanship that comes from constantly trying to run rivers at the highest recorded flows that does not seem entirely healthy to me.
On a positive note though, it's great to see kayakers taking ecological leadership in protecting rivers and the natural world. We have been gifted passage through some of the most pristine environments on earth. As a community we have a responsibility to pay back for all the gifts we have been given. We are at a unique point in human history, an evolution in consciousness. It's time for us all to lead in whatever way we can.
When it comes to risk-taking, what would be your recommendations for assessing risk?
Always, always trust your gut. Listen to your intuition, it has a much deeper wisdom.
Ask yourself: for what? Always question your motivations and ask is it worth it?
And if the answer is yes, commit with everything that you have to give.
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