What Nearly Drowning Taught Me About Myself

Feb 10, 2023

I want to share what I learned about myself from a kayak accident when I was a leader during a Duke of Edinburgh expedition.

It’s around 1995 and I’m about 16 years old in the Air Cadets, working towards my gold Duke of Edinburgh award.

I was leading a kayaking expedition down a river with the senior guide bringing up the rear. There are about 6 junior cadets with us, going camping overnight, navigating our way from one destination to another.

It's a lovely summer's day by Scottish standards, I'm in my lime green Kayak (cleverly nicknamed Kermit) and with my left-handed paddle, we’re drifting downstream with some light rapids, enjoying the chirp of the birds and the rare sun on our backs.

I’m ‘in charge’ for the entire weekend, from setting up camps and navigation to organising the food and cooking rosters – the whole lot. After cleaning up breakfast and packing down our gear from our first night's stay, we’d been on the River Don, since sunrise. All is well, on track and my mind (or rather my tummy) was on the next stop… lunch.

There are perhaps 150-200 meters between myself and the adult bring up the rear when we come around a bend seeing a fork in the river ahead around a small island, more of an obstacle really.

It turns out, it wasn’t big enough to be on the map, obviously, I needed to pick a direction and there wasn’t enough time to debate so I let the river decide for me and drift on with the current to the right.

Just as I’ve fully committed, I heard the guide at the back calling ‘Go Left!’ Unfortunately, it was too late to course correct, shouting back "It’s Ok. I’ll see you on the other side."

Urging those behind me to go left, I started paddling furiously with the adult encouraging me to stay in the middle of the channel. As the current picked up speed, I'm starting to feel a little anxious!

I realised - again too late - that I wasn't in control and was sucked towards the island with no time to straighten up. Rather than be head-on to go through the water, I pushed around and capsized, ending up lodged against the river bed – upside down.

With the island on my back and the river shoving my front I couldn't pull the rip cord of my splash deck. I’m completely pinned down.


The challenge was to get out from a sitting position but I couldn’t even use my paddle to push me off the embankment to create space to get out. And of course, then I lost my paddle with the force of the water.

I remember thinking THIS IS IT.

I can't get out and the others can't get to me as they turned off the other safer side of the island. They probably don’t even know I’m in trouble!

The feeling of having zero control over the outcome was pretty strong, the fear of drowning right there was becoming a reality for this young, adventurous teen.

Then I stopped panicking and remembered mine capsize training. Relax and hold your breath – even though I don’t think I had any left!

Just as I'm relaxing and simultaneously hyperventilating in my head, I feel my arms tugging at me.

But my right leg is stuck, and the force of getting me out was going to break my leg with the angle of the boat and the force of the river pushed against me. Getting my head above the surface I remember screaming my leg is going to break!

I don't really remember much after that, except being at the lunch landing spot time, later.

I do remember, however, the flies and midgies buzzing and landing on the long gash down my shredded leg.

And I start to re-remember the decision that I would be willing to break my leg in order to stop drowning versus gulping down air and changing my mind. Anything to stop the pain.

That split-second conflicting decision between survival and pain – which ultimately was at the mercy of my rescuer.

To this day I don’t remember how he got me out, or what happened to my kayak, perhaps it washed downstream and was recovered or maybe a spare was with the land support crew.

Anyway, we had a brick of a mobile phone and I was asked what I wanted to do, did I want to carry on or go home ending the expedition for us all?

Now this adventure for my award was months in the planning. It would be weeks, months, or even an entire season before we could make another attempt, and I didn’t want my situation to impact the others' goals. This was when I had a moment of clarity.

I don't need my leg to continue!! Although it hurt like all monkeys, we bandaged me up (somebody else was able to get certified in their first aid from their efforts) which stopped the drying, salty water from stinging the shredding skin down my shin bone.

We agreed as a group and after the painkillers took effect, we decided the show must go on.

I wasn't letting this opportunity pass, no way was I going to quit!

Continuing downstream - now in the middle of the pack, I allowed the others to surround me with their boats to ensure I didn't capsize again. Because truthfully, I was scared of falling in again, of not being able to control myself after the shock and fright of my ordeal.

But I recognised, this was 1 of the first times in my life, that I HAD to truly surrender to the protection of the pack.

It was time to rely on others. You see most of my young life, I'd been a lone wolf, with abuse a home, and bullied at school I grew up independent, strong-minded, and to a certain extent, fearless – until today.

Feeling safe and supported I was able to complete the expedition and qualified for my award. In fact, later that year I was also proudly recognised as Cadet of the Year from all of the UK for my leadership and courage. I think it was my tenacity and resilience to 'just keep going'.

As I look back now, I realised that sometimes no matter how independent or strong we think we are – there will always be times when we need help – not as dramatically as drowning, but perhaps from emotional overwhelm.

The deeper insight is understanding the flow of energy around us. This river scene provided me with a metaphor to explain that we can stand unwavering like the island, with the river current pushing against it.

The island doesn't take the barrage of water flow as a distraction, both are just doing their thing.

If we recognised that energy is always going to be flowing around us, it can get faster and heavier and can even overflow, it’s the power of thinking about it that matters.

We can be our own island with our own ecosystem of energy, thoughts, and behaviours.

Universal and life will eddy and drift around you, and the energies will flow around you, it’s up to you whether you give it the power to shape you or influence, but it doesn’t have to impact you.

People, situations, and energies will all come and go, nothing is permanent. Consider people like kayaks that happen upon us, some will be faster perhaps creating turbulence with their drama around our jagged edges and others will calmly drift on by just outside our sphere of awareness.

We get to choose how we interact with the energy around us – whether we ensnare and draw it in or have a beautiful exchange like a waltzing dance.

We can let our triggers juts out, snagging and creating eddies and rapids or we can let it slowly with certainty and calmness pass on by in the knowledge that eventually everything, all energy, flows continuously by us.

We also get to choose whether it robs us of our personal power by fighting against it – paddling upstream as some describe it – or to use its force for our own momentum to go after our ambitions.

Sharing this story came through supporting a client. Rather than just sharing my advice with that 1 person, I sat down and wrote this story to help explain to others like yourself. If you found this useful, please share it with anybody you think would benefit.

I also prepared a new list of questions that can help with discovering our resiliency or causes of energy disruption. You can get my latest guide here, there is nothing else to do than tell the system which email to send the guide to.