Family Kayaking, aka Screaming “What” Into The Wind

The ocean waves crashed noisily around me. The wind was buzzing in my ears and whistling in my hearing aids. The sun was shining and the birds were flying overhead, occasionally squawking before plunging into the sea to catch a fish. I was seated in the back of a two person kayak — and I couldn’t hear a thing. My son was in front of me, my husband and daughter in a second kayak. We spent most of the trip yelling “What?” into the wind. It was a perfect storm of frustration and hearing loss.

Living With Hearing Loss | A Hearing Loss Blog

Conditions were not good for communication, even with perfect hearing, but the rest of my family seemed to manage much better than I did. I felt badly for my son as we tried repeatedly to match our paddling to the same rhythm with limited success. It only worked when I matched my strokes to his since I could see him ahead of me. That is what I did, except when I needed to steer us in a new direction. This would annoy him terribly and he would yell out of frustration, and maybe fear.

We were perfectly safe — relatively close to shore, wearing life jackets — and we can all swim. But the unfamiliar experience of being in the ocean with the bouncing waves and the whistling wind added an element of self-preservation and adrenalin to the proceedings. While I understand that it was frustrating for everyone that I couldn’t hear, I had hoped for a bit more understanding, especially under those conditions.

Maybe they had just had enough. Whatever the reason, I vowed never to kayak with them again and told them as much. Clearly, this was an overreaction on my part, but our inability as a family to laugh at the circumstances and all pitch in to help left me feeling sad and alone. I count on them when I cannot hear and I felt abandoned. What if we really had been in danger?

This experience bothered me so much that I have spent time thinking about how I could have handled things differently.

Perhaps my own fear of capsizing into the water — I was wearing my water resistant in-the-ear hearing aids — was the problem. If I had left my hearing aids on shore, the stakes would have been lower making the communication foibles funny rather than potentially catastrophic. Leaving my hearing aids behind would also have lowered everyone’s expectations for my ability to hear, which might have prevented some of the frustration.

A different seating plan might have helped. Expecting a child to partner with me in an unfamiliar setting was probably unfair. Next time (if there is one!), I would share a kayak with my husband who could handle the kayak alone if the need arose.

Discussing the possible pitfalls ahead of time would also have been a good idea. With hindsight, it is easy to see all the ways my hearing loss would complicate this experience. A little forward planning would have avoided the element of surprise.

Readers, have you had a similar experience with your family?

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22 thoughts on “Family Kayaking, aka Screaming “What” Into The Wind

  1. OMG….you poor thing.

    You are so brave to have even attempted such a feat.

    I don’t have water proof hearing aids, so, I would never atttempt what you did.

    Your plan of action, for future, possible trips, sounds reasonable.

    If I were you, I just would not try this again.

    Stay safe.

    Ronnie

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  2. It’s hard and sad when we have the experience of not being able to do activities that “normal“ hearing
    people seem to do so easily. Recently in a restaurant that had become very noisy as it got busier, my husband leaned across the booth table and said “I can’t hear what you’re saying“ and I replied “that’s EXACTLY what my hearing loss feels like all the time… “ He had a moment of sharing my experience but cannot be expected to remember all the time that I cannot hear him as well as I used to, anymore than I can remember his hands don’t work as well as they used to do his severe arthritis.

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  3. Yes, years ago – in a kayak in the Florida Keys – we had a guide who sat behind me in my kayak, as I was the most vulnerable without hearing aids. On a whitewater rafting trip, I sat in the second row and just followed what the person in front of me was doing, with a guide in the rear of the raft – and again no hearing aids. I guess this is a reality check that hearing loss does tend to impact everything, but problem-solving it can still allow for these “adventures,” and safety as well.

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  4. You are indeed a brave soul. Your concerns were with your son and in a situation like that its so difficult. I no longer try certain activities that requires good hearing and it makes me sad. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. Having experienced my own family kayak drama, which also bothered me and inspired me to action, I was eager to read about yours.

    We were out with a guide and group of friends when the weather turned. The sky darkened, wind picked up and the waves got choppy. My husband was in a different boat with a strong female paddler in the back. Lucky for him. I was in the front of a boat with my older daughter who is a very strong swimmer in the back. Neither of us had kayak experience. We couldn’t keep up to get back to shore. The guide left us and took the rest of the group in. An experienced paddler friend stayed with us. At one point, my daughter said: “Just stop paddling Mom; you aren’t helping any.” Our inability to make progress didn’t have much to do with our lack of communication, but rather, everything to do with skill, stamina and coordination.

    After that experience I bought a book on kayaking. I learned kayaking requires physical effort, skill, coordination and communication; any family activity requiring even one of these traits is going to be a challenge no matter what. Add in volatile weather conditions, along with fear for whatever reason, kayaking sets the stage for a comedy of errors, revealing the deepest of emotions.

    I seldom take the back seat in a kayak as I am rarely the one with the greater strength. Yet, as the back paddler controls position, it’s their responsibility to first signal to the front before taking action. This is a learned skill whether you use your voice or some other signal. It’s our instinct to just take action first without stating our intent. Now, my husband uses the paddle to alert me he’s changing course. I am always glancing backward to keep to coordinate our paddling. Timing is the single skill my husband has yet to master!

    I love the feeling of being on the water, thus, even with my communication and hearing aid issues, I look for ways to overcome these challenges.

    Here’s my tips:

    I wear a light weight hooded windbreaker or gore Tex rain jacket with the hood fastened securely. A beanie or exercise headband works on the ferry or where you aren’t worried about getting wet. I don’t care how I look as long as I can hear.

    I use a floatable waterproof container to store my aids while swimming or snorkeling.

    I have special aids for water use. I can NOT have a conversation without them. I replace aids often due to my progressive loss. Older aids work for boating. I do have refurbished analog waterproof aids that I use for paddle boarding and white water.

    Experienced boaters do use hand signals to communicate. Learn to use them.

    Use guides or go with folks who are really comfortable in the water. Their expertise and know-how can really diffuse a difficult situation. And watch the weather! Now I only go out in fairest of skies and in the calmest of waters.

    Waterproof technology would greatly enhance our experience. We need to let manufacturers know this is a priority.

    Great topic! Thanks !

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  6. Oh yes, I’ve had similar experiences and it’s why I will never canoe with my husband again in the same water craft. Tandem anything is not going to be a good experience unless you work out some way to communicate beforehand and you give up control. That’s why I have my own kayak, no tandem for me. Even when paddling with others, I’m in control of my own self and success doesn’t depend on anyone but me. Know you capabilities and choose where, and how, to apply them

    It never feels good when you attempt something new with your family and there are problems that your inability to hear compounds. Those times are when we are most vulnerable… and when everyone else is also inexperienced, and focused on what they are doing themselves, they’re not going to be the usual safe place with regard to your hearing loss. Your inability to communicate effectively adds to their own anxiety. It’s a perfect storm. Now you know, and you can plan better.

    One good thing about not wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants is that I’m never worried in relation to the welfare of my device. I don’t wear one, I’m totally a lipreader, and the only way I’m going to damage my tool for communication is if I get flustered and my skill goes out the window. I think you’re right when you say that you should have left your hearing aids out of this equation, as they probably didn’t help anyway. ~Michele

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  7. I have not kayaked (and after reading of your experience will do so only with a lot of planning), but I have had similar experiences on group snorkeling expeditions. Besides having a moderate to severe hearing loss, I am also extremely nearsighted. Without my glasses and hearing aids I am deaf and blind in the water. Several years ago, I tried snorkeling off the coast of Mexico. Although I could see the fish somewhat, due to the magnifying effect of the goggles in the water, I lost our group because I couldn’t see above the water and couldn’t hear anything without my hearing aides. Fortunately, I just followed the general flow of the large crowd in the water, made it back to shore and found my group on land. In the future, I will make sure to partner with someone in my group and also rent prescription goggles.

    More recently, we booked a snorkeling boat tour for just our group of six. I chose to stay on the boat with my husband who doesn’t swim well. We had a great view of the fish and I didn’t have to worry about being able to see and hear in the water.

    You are right, Shari, that when those of us with hearing loss (or any type of disability for that matter) want to participate in these types of activities, we can’t just do things on the spur of the moment. Planning ahead makes for a more successful adventure!

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  8. I went white water rafting a couple of times – each time I was afraid of damaging or losing my hearing aids, so I took them out and stored them in a case that was the stowed within a waterproof sack, but still on the raft with us. Even with that, I was worried about them getting damaged or lost the whole time. I also was unable to hear instructions and so just followed along concerning which way to paddle (I was in the front). My children were with me the second time and I was unable to participate in any conversation or comments. While I am glad I did it, it was stressful, I felt a little sad, and I probably won’t do it again.

    I have also been snorkeling twice. The first time I removed my hearing aids and left them behind, so I was pretty much disconnected from the moment I took them out, throughout the time I was in the water and shortly afterwards until I could get them back. I was unable to communicate when we would raise our heads out of the water, and this was difficult and frustrating for me. It was also a little scary as we encountered some very large barracuda and the person I was with was trying to tell me maybe we should head back. I also felt a bit of anxiety about leaving my expensive and necessary HA’s on shore.

    I just snorkeled for the second time two weeks ago after not doing it for years since that last experience. I took off my HA’s and left them on the boat. While I was out there in the beautiful turquoise water, I was thinking how lovely it was to be watching all the colorful sea life and that the silence around me while I had my face in the water seemed to make no difference in that silent world. However, I did not hear anyone calling me when it was time to get back to the boat. By the time I noticed, everyone else was gone from the water and people were waving at me to return – they had been waiting for me for a while and were not to happy about it….. :-/

    Having explored my parameters, I think there are just some things I am not going to be comfortably able to do – and am trying to learn to accept that. It saddens me, but least I tried and had the experience.
    I applaud you for going out and kayaking. Even if you don’t do it again, you can at least say you tried.

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    • I think I may try again, just with better planning next time. For snorkeling, I always try to have a buddy with me for exactly those reasons — they make sure I know when to head back to the boat. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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  9. The best thing I can offer Shari is to enroll your family in a paddling course. There are things you just don’t know instinctively about the kayak paddle stroke. You will be taught how to get out of a overturned boat and self rescue. These things build confidence and can take a measure of fear out of the experience. You will cover the hydraulics moving water including that of wave action.

    Many years ago after nearly destroying a new canoe on it’s first outing in some quick water I enrolled in a 3 day course that was the best money I ever invested in recreation. All that was before HAs.

    I have tried removing my HAs and nearly got run down in my kayak by a cabin cruiser. There is a water proof container for my CI but the exigencies of old age have sharply cut into my paddling. With your water resistant HAs you are all set to get some confidence building instruction and begin to have some fun.

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  10. I had no idea there even WERE waterproof hearing aids!! What a grave oversight on my part. I should have asked! I usually leave my aids on dry land and try to manage with limited hearing….thanks for this post.

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