Surfskis and the Untethered Soul

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with Marc Singer’s The Untethered Soul. He writes about how we become confined by our fears, unwilling to extend beyond inferred boundaries and instead sitting in our comfort zone. What would a practice designed to extend us beyond that look like? It occurred to me that there is a clue in kayaking.

A few months ago I bought a surfski, a long, skinny and lightweight kayak designed to be surfed in the ocean or raced on flat water. I initially thought of it as fast, but realized it just turns more of one’s power into boat speed; no power, no speed. Power here is not so much a matter of strength as one of technique and efficiency. Accordingly, there are lots of drills one can use to build the necessary skills.

One of the things that reduces power is fear. A surfski is much tippier than a sea kayak, and staying upright comes from combining a high paddling cadence and plenty of power.  When one is afraid of capsizing, neither of those feels like the thing to do. Instead, paddle strokes become short and tepid as the arms come in and you generally close up, thinking balance can be maintained that way. The fact is you’re not only slow, but even more likely to end up wet.

You don’t have to be on the water to experience something like that, right? On the other hand, being in the water does have a way of making one more present to those kinds of feelings.


Among the drills for improving strength and technique are some for expanding your comfort zone, loosening yourself up so you can put your energy and attention into going fast as opposed to worrying about a capsize. There’s one that involves turning in a tight radius and leaning the boat over to find just where the tipping point really is; think about a dog locating the limits of the invisible electric fence. Another has you learning to move your arms and power precisely forward as opposed to side to side.

My favorite so far is this one, where he’s turning himself completely around while staying upright. I did it on the first try, but whereas he seems to do it in a few seconds my 360 probably took a few minutes. Now that the water is finally warming up I plan to do this one a lot.

As I experiment with these I find I am slowly getting more comfortable in the boat, and when I time trial my speed is coming up just a bit. The key seems to be letting go of the idea that more paddling makes you more experienced and hence better. Instead, I’m putting a little time into these kinds of drills; where I’m going and how fast is not the concern. That comes later thanks to a focus on one particular aspect at a time under conditions that are judgment-free.

This kind of thing is working for me! What drills – or practices – might help us extend beyond the confines of other comfort zones?